Fr. Andrew Armond – The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 6, 2022
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The last time I heard Isaiah 6 was just a few weeks ago. I was able to head over to Tyler on a Friday night to participate in the ordination of one of my colleagues from Curate Cohort, a group of eight new priests in the Diocese of Texas who gather once a month for fellowship and learning.
The sermon that night was *great*, and I wish I could just steal it and preach it again, but I’m not going to do that. Nevertheless, I am grateful that the wise words of Rev. Newton of St. Matthew’s in Austin were still ringing in my ears as I re-read Isaiah 6 this week.
The reason that this chapter is appointed for ordinations is that it describes the “ordination,” as it were, of the prophet Isaiah himself. While the word “ordination” technically refers to someone joining “orders,” that is, “Holy Orders,” it really means a formal, public recognition of someone’s calling. And so, we celebrate and attend the “ordinations” of deacons, priests, and bishops in our church to recognize the calling of God in their lives.
What a calling story Isaiah has: one of the most beautiful and terrifying callings in Scripture. “In the year that King Uzziah died” is widely considered by biblical scholars to signify the loss of stability and certainty that Uzziah’s lengthy reign of 52 years had provided for the Kingdom of Judah. Today, that would be like losing someone who had been ruling since 1970.
And when Uzziah died, the spectre of the powerful and cruel Assyrian army was lingering over the entire nation. Within 20 years they would sweep across the Holy Land, bringing chaos, destruction, and terror with them.
But in that year: in *that* year, Isaiah receives his calling. I am reminded in Isaiah’s calling of our Gospel passage as well, in which Peter has been casting his nets all night without catching a thing, and Jesus tells him to let down his nets again.
Isaiah, no doubt, was *anxious* about a future without Uzziah’s stable rule. Peter, no doubt, was *tired* after a long and fruitless night of fishing. In both cases, the calling of God calls these two out of the anxiety and frustration of their circumstances and into the unknown future, and into the beauty of God’s holiness.
Isaiah is terrified, of course, because the Scriptures have told him: No one can see God’s face and live. Perhaps he thinks this is the end for him: a vision of God on the throne signals his death and judgment. In any event, to encounter the pure light of God causes him to despair. All he can do is to realize his unworthiness for this calling, and all God can do is continue to choose him despite that unworthiness.
Peter feels the same unworthiness upon seeing Jesus, who fills the boat with such abundance that it nearly sinks. Like Isaiah, Peter is overwhelmed at this sign of God’s presence. Just as Isaiah was bowled over by catching just a glimpse of the hem of God’s garment, Peter is amazed by the way Jesus exercises power over the natural order. And finally, Paul, in our Epistle this morning, calls himself “the least of the apostles,” the least of those who have been sent, who have been called, who are on a mission from God.
God, these encounters remind us, is always bigger, larger, more wonderful and more abundant than we imagine. Or to use another image, God’s presence fills the entire universe. And so even a glimpse of God’s glory is enough to sustain us for an entire lifetime.
I promise you that Isaiah, and Peter, and Paul are not claiming false humility. They are not being coy or playacting: they really and truly felt that they were not worthy to take up the mantle of being apostles, of being prophets, of allowing God’s holiness to flow from their lives and their mouths. As one commentator puts it, they “becom[e] aware of [their] unworthiness and diminutive stature in the presence of the Divine.” Like any of us who have ever taken the time to watch the night sky, or stood on the precipice of a huge canyon or cliff, or marvelled at a mountain vista or the open sea, we recognize our smallness, our insignificance, our powerlessness in such moments.
And yet, God chooses to give our lives significance. God chooses us as the vessels of God’s work in the world! And by “us,” I want to remind you, I don’t merely mean those of us who get to stand up here and wear the fancy clothes. The catechism of the Book of Common Prayer answers the question “who are the ministers of the Church?” by stating “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.”
Notice who comes first, even before the bishops! Every baptized Christian is a minister of Christ’s Gospel. Every Christian has an ordination at their baptism. Every baptized Christian is called, like Isaiah was called, like Paul was called, like Peter was called, on a pilgrimage of faith. Every baptized Christian is given the glory of God, the same glory of which Isaiah saw just a fragment–the hem of God’s garment; the same glory that knocked Paul off of his horse; the same glory that almost sank Peter’s boat with an abundant catch of fish.
The glory of God’s calling rests on each of us. And the charge to each of us is laid out in the Prayer Book as well: it says that “the ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”
Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic priest and has written on what it means for us to be baptized members of Christ’s body. He, too, notes that every Christian is “ordained”–he uses the word “consecrated,” meaning basically the same thing. For Rolheiser, our “consecration” as Christians means that we are “set aside,” “displac[ed] from ordinary usage,” “derail[ed] from normalcy.”
What that means, essentially, is that the life that we would have lived had we not encountered Jesus–that life is derailed. In our baptism, we have agreed to give up the freedom of knowing what comes next. We have agreed to follow Jesus.
Paul, Rolheiser says, “got up off the ground” after his dramatic conversion “and walked into [the] future ‘with his eyes wide open, seeing nothing.’” And this, he says, is “a marvelous description of basically all of us on the day when we made our commitments in marriage, parenthood, priesthood, religious life, [teaching], or any other deep vocation; we stared ahead into the future with our eyes wide open, seeing nothing, and walked, probably with some enthusiasm, into that future. How blind we were–and yet, usually, how lucky we were too. The conscriptive demands of that baptism is, to the extent that we have any, what has given us maturity and grace.”
The conscriptive demands of our baptism–a wonderful turn of phrase that suggests that we give up our personal liberty in following Jesus. We recognize that Jesus will call us to places we would not have otherwise gone.
We recognize that Jesus will make demands of us, that because we are Christians, we cannot and will not participate in the ways of this world as others do. Indeed, when Jesus tells Peter that he will now “fish for people,” the Greek word really means “ensnare” or “capture alive.”
The wonderful mystery of our faith has ensnared us! It has captured us. We are now free enough to be the servants of God! We are now free enough to be called by God, each one of us, to get a glimpse of God’s holiness and awesome power. We are now free enough to leave everything behind and follow Jesus!