Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 4, 2007.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The second half of the eighth century B.C.E was a time of grave uncertainty, terror, and fear for the people of Judah. The conquering power of the Assyrians was on the march. Their neighbors, Syria, and their kin, Israel, were conspiring to get Judah involved in an effort to stop Assyrian hegemony, even if it meant installing a new king. Into these events the Word of God enters through the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah's commission to speak to these events comes to us in familiar form. Like the burning bush of Moses and the angel of Gideon, Isaiah is confronted by God through an epiphany of wondrous dimension. As a priest, the place of Isaiah's vision is expected--the immense, awe-inspiring, mighty temple of Solomon. The hem of God's robe fills the huge temple; the voice of God shakes the unshakable hinges of the mighty doors. While Isaiah may have felt fairly secure and even righteous in the temple, this vision undoes all pretenses, and the ceremonially clean priest confesses his true status as "unclean." Through both a word pronounced and action taken (v. 7) Isaiah is made clean. His response is to offer himself as the one who will speak for the heavenly court, even though Isaiah does not know what he will say. The word he is to speak is one of judgment. The Assyrians will not be the only means of God's wrath. When they are done, another wave of judgment will fall. In the end, hope rests in a stump, a small remnant. The content of this message is played out in the chapters to come as Isaiah pronounces God's cleansing judgment upon Judah and the whole world.
The characteristics of Isaiah's epiphany are also present in the other two readings appointed for this day. In 1 Cor 15:1-11, Paul looks back upon his own commissioning as an apostle. The events of the encounter on the Damascus road are accessed in verse 9. That story contains the dazzling encounter and divine speech of Isaiah's experience. Like Isaiah, Paul confesses his status as "unfit" or unworthy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) because of his persecution of the church. While this is different than Isaiah's language of being unclean ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Peter's declaration of his sin in the gospel reading ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the meaning in all three phrases engenders the same experience. Each of the three called is undone in the presence of the Lord. Additionally, Paul's message is not of his own imagination; it is "handed on" (v. 3). Here the tradition of the apostles supplies the message.
The reading from Luke centers on Simon as the object of the epiphanic commissioning. Unlike the previous experiences of Isaiah and Paul, this epiphany has no bright lights or earth-shattering, heavenly voices. It has fish--lots of fish. After a long night of catching nothing, the professional fisherman is instructed by a carpenter to let down nets in the heat of the day. Simon explains the seeming futility but then obeys. Simon is undone by the presence of so many fish that the boats are swamped. While the scene is much more this-worldly, much more in-carnational, the impact is the same. Peter's pretensions are stripped away, and he ends up leaving everything--including a huge pile of fish--to do as Jesus commands.
In the end, while these three readings are about Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter, the main character is God, a God who confronts us, undoes our pretensions, gives us divine work to do, and then accompanies us into a world with a message that may or may not be welcome but is nevertheless a means of announcing God's reign.
The stories of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter as they are encountered by God may provide some of the best material for preaching this week. In each case we see people undone by the presence of God. In each case we see people somehow cleansed, somehow made worthy, somehow selected to be God's messengers. The disparity in the stories provides a means of speaking this word to a variety of people.
Isaiah is a priest, a cleric, a man comfortable and at ease in the presence of holy things. Isaiah is a character that we preachers may be able to understand just a little. Even if Isaiah is the most reverent, pious priest who ever lived, we know the struggles of the office. There are days we can be "holier than thou." There is a sense in which we get so used to texts, stories, sacraments, and the like that they sometimes seem ordinary. Let's be honest: while we may always be sure that we live among people of unclean lips, we at least sometimes feel ours are a bit more germ-free. Isaiah's vision undoes all that kind of pretense and reduces the priest to lying on the floor in the fetal position. He speaks the truth of himself, and God's angels cleanse him, making Isaiah now worthy for the work he may have thought he was doing before.
Saul/Paul's story is well documented. Like all the zealous persecutors of the world (we perhaps know more about this than even Paul), Saul is bent on being right, being righteous. Saul is sure of his claim on truth as he proceeds up the road to Damascus. Like Isaiah, Saul finds himself on the ground, faced with his newly revealed falsehoods and the real truth found in Christ. Like Isaiah, he now is sent to proclaim a word that not everyone welcomes but that gives life.
Simon Peter's story is more subtle. The only possible pretense he brings to the story is as a fisherman good enough to own his own boat. Having labored all night, he knows that fish are not happening that day. Bad news at the dinner table, I suppose. When a carpenter commands him to try again, I imagine Simon rolling his eyes. Out of respect, social pressure, or faith, he obeys. The catch of fish leaves him on the ground, questioning everything he ever knew but sure of one thing: He has met the Messiah, and he is unworthy. The radical impact of the meeting makes a fisherman leave a pile of fish on the beach and change careers. Simon Peter, who tradition says will pass on what he has received until it gets him hung upside down on a cross, will bear God's Word to a world that needs it so badly.
There is something familiar about the plot line of these three stories. It happens every week. People full of pretense, full of themselves, gather together. In the hearing of the Word of God, if we dare to listen, we are undone, confronted by the Word and thrown to the ground. That Word then raises us up and tells us not to fear. As we open our hands, we receive the sacrament and, once again, are proclaimed worthy. Then, we too are sent to proclaim, in season and out. TVO
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Olson, Timothy V.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
|Previous Article:||The purposes of preaching.|
|Next Article:||Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 11, 2007.|