Weekly Preaching: February 10, 2019

February 4th, 2019

Three great texts this week! Isaiah certainly, and probably 1 Corinthians also, are well worth the preacher exploring devotionally, apart from sermon preparations; both speak deeply to the clergy!

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Isaiah 6:1-13 is intriguing in so many ways. An unusually precise date and political context are provided, reminding us that Isaiah’s words aren’t the fruit of rumination, reflection or study. God spoke to him. And clearly he speaks to the political and social turmoil of his day, just as we preachers must (however delicately, however boldly we try to be courageous yet nonpartisan). Nobody called Isaiah nonpartisan…

Isaiah 6 might challenge or heighten how we think about worship. He’s in the sanctuary, which is splendidly appointed. The room, its iconography and décor all come to life — but apparently no one else noticed. The prophet sees what others don’t see; the preacher must see what others don’t see or can’t see, at least not yet. Did God come his way (as I’ve assumed)? Or was he what Walter Brueggemann called “an earthly intruder into the heavenly scene”?

Might worship be as holy, as “hot” as it was for Isaiah? I remind my people periodically of what Amos Wilder wrote so they might catch the vision: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.” Or Annie Dillard: “I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning...For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Isaiah’s response to God’s immense holiness? He is awestruck (do we get awestruck, as church people or even as pastors?), and as a reflex of that can only mutter “Woe is me.” Isaiah is no doubt a pretty good person, maybe even quite holy, but in the searing holiness of God’s presence he realizes his woeful inadequacy. He is “reduced to nothing” (John Calvin). Maybe we miss out on God because we get too chummy with God. Maybe talk of calling (here or in our Gospel) only begins when we are struck dumb by the holy God. Why, after all, did those fishermen traipse off after a guy they'd just met?

The called are awed—and then saddened. We hear God, and then hear what God hears; we "let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God" (World Vision founder Bob Pierce). Sunday, I heard the best sermon I've heard in a very long time by my colleague Uiyeon Kim who spoke of "becoming like children." When grownups are dissed or wounded by someone, we get mad, we want to get even or flee. Children, though, get sad and still want to love. Isaiah is asked to exit the temple and re-enter a world that will make his heart, one with God's, sad. The awe will help...

But he’s not shattered; being reduced to nothing and realizing our meekness is the opening for grace. Brueggemann again charts a move in this text “from the vision of splendor to the awareness of inadequacy to readiness for dispatch.” “Here Am I, send me” — and we Methodists will sing #593.

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Any response to a call from God, large or small, lifelong or just for Sunday afternoon, requires new habits, a new discipline. Listeners shrink back, as this sounds like taking medicine or something unpleasant. What stuns me, and might be a great help for all of us, is that God frankly informs Isaiah his ministry, which he must engage in, will fail. We fret over failure; we worry about exhaustion. Otto Kaiser captured the hidden message in Isa. 6: “The preacher of the gospel, who faces the apparent failure of his ministry, and who is therefore tempted to despair, may recognize from the example of Isaiah that he is required to be wholly on the side of God in his heart, to let him be used by him as a tool, in whatever way God pleases” which yields “a peace and a freedom independent of outward success or failure.”

For clergy and for your laity who feel they are failing, who are surely exhausted by the frustrating labor that is striving for God’s kingdom here on earth, I would urgently commend Marianne Williamson’s flat out brilliant podcast episode. I’ve listened to it four times, and will again. It gives me courage and good sense. Of course, Isaiah’s words are sealed up, and they do have an afterlife beyond his own life. A sermon may have zero impact today or tonight or this week. But years later? After you and I are dead and gone? Who knows?

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1 Corinthians 15:1-11 strikes me as a neglected but hugely important text. It’s like the creed used by the earliest Christians with its poetic cadence. What a lavish claim: people saw Jesus; not just a handful of biased guys with a vested interest, but to more than five hundred. It’s like a dare; go ask them! It's hard to fool five hundred about something like a resurrection. Clearly, the resurrection in question was no myth or spiritual insight. It’s physical, a real body, albeit a “spiritual,” transformed body. It was sufficiently awe-inspiring (like Isaiah’s flying seraphim and cherubim!) to incite fishermen to risk life and limb preaching the Gospel all over creation.

Paul adds his own personal testimony. I suspect in our culture, so bogged down and confused by novels/movies like The DaVinci Code for the preacher to be able to say I know the questions, the speculations, the critics; but I, as a guy, not officially your preacher but as a person, I really do believe Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve staked my life on it. And it’s not just a belief qua belief. It is “the good news” “in which we stand.” We stand; we don’t sit, we don’t observe. We stand up. As I have standing in, I stand up for.

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And then Luke 5:1-11. Archaeologists, in one of the most amazing excavations in history, found a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee dating to the time of Jesus. I wish it said S.S. Simon Peter on the prow! This is a boat Jesus most certainly saw; he might have stepped into it. It's a real boat, nothing mythic or spiritual. Jesus’ calling to these fishermen, for me, takes on a reality. 

The story about the huge catch of fish is doubly interesting. Jesus does his miracle thing, but probably more importantly, their fishing business has never been better! David Lyle Jeffrey (Brazos/Luke) writes: “At the absolute peak of their success as literal Genessaret fishermen, they forsook all and followed him.” Real guys with a business that’s booming, finally, and they abandoned all that to trek off to… well, they had no idea where, or what would happen, or how it would turn out.
Of course, the church fathers made a big deal that a sanctuary might just look like a ship that’s upside down. The Latin word for boat, navis? Like the “nave” of the sanctuary. We are a boat — the Jesus boat, cast out onto the waters of the world, fishing for people, saving lives, bringing them safely to shore. Corny? Yeah… and holy.

What can we say February 10? 5th after Epiphany originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.
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