A sermon by Doug MacNeill February 10th, 2019
“Oh, my God!” “Oh, NO! My God?” “Oh! Yes, my God.”
The Revised Common Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany in Year C--the third year of the three-year cycle of Bible readings used by many denominations--prescribes Isaiah 6: 1-9 as the Old Testament reading, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 as the Epistle reading, and Luke 5: 1-11 as the Gospel reading. During my preparations to present this sermon, I was thunderstruck to find that these three readings share a common theme, a theme that can best be expressed in three short sentences. The first sentence is “Oh, my God!” The second is “Oh, NO! My God?” The third, and last, is “Oh! Yes, my God.” This sermon will introduce us to each of these sentences in its turn, and conclude with something for us to take away from these readings and apply to our own lives. Let’s begin, then, with “Oh, my God!”
Isaiah’s first encounter with God, the moment when he says the words “Oh, my God”, is recorded in Isaiah 6, verse 1: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” In the epistle for today, Paul tells the Church in Corinth about his own encounter with God. After reminding the Church at Corinth of all the other apostles and disciples to whom the risen Jesus had appeared, Paul says these words in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 8: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Finally, Jesus had just finished addressing crowds who came to see him from a boat on the Sea of Galilee; the Gospel passage continues, starting at Luke 5, verse 4: “When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ ” (Luke 5: 4-5) The next thing Simon knows, he has to frantically wave for help to his partners’ fishing boat to help them land the catch; only then does he begin to recognize that his friend Jesus is...to put it mildly...a little more than he appears to be. Well he might say then, “Oh, my God!”
But the passage from Luke tells us that Peter does not say, “Oh, my God!” Rather, Luke 5, verse 8, tells us “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, for I am a sinful man!’ ” Peter has progressed in his journey from “Oh, my God!”, to, in effect, “Oh, NO! My God?” He has come to recognize who and what he himself was on the one hand, and whose presence he was in on the other hand. Likewise, Isaiah progresses in his journey from “Oh, my God!” to “Oh, NO! My God?” As Isaiah himself says in Isaiah 6,verse 5: “And I said, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Paul, too, can only look back in horror at what his encounter with God has shown him about himself; Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 9: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” In so doing, Paul acknowledges his own moment of “Oh, NO! My God?”
Let’s recapitulate this far: Our Old Testament reading, our epistle reading, and our Gospel reading each begin with an encounter with God, an “Oh! My God” moment for Isaiah, for Paul, and for Simon Peter. But it does not end there: Each one of Simon Peter, Isaiah, and Paul continues the journey to a recognition of who God is and of what they are compared to God. This recognition is encapsulated in the phrase “Oh, NO! My God.” Paul, Isaiah, and Simon Peter: For each of these persons, the encounter with God and the journey toward recognition of their separate plights leads to recognition of their call to serve God and their people, a recognition that expresses itself as “Oh! Yes, my God.”
Paul’s call to serve God is best stated by the Source and Origin of that call in Acts 9, verses 15 and 16: “But the Lord said to [Ananias of Damascus], ‘Go, for [Saul of Tarsus] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ “
Ananias obeyed these words, and laid his hands on the eyes of Saul of Tarsus; the passage continues: “And immediately, something like fish sales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days [Saul] was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in their synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ “ (Acts 9: 18-20) Paul has recognized at last that no one less than the Almighty, in the person of Jesus the Christ, showed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus as Described in Acts 9, verse 1 to 9. Peter too, in our Gospel reading, experiences the call to serve God and his people: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When [Peter, James, and John] had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5: 10b-11) Likewise, the seraph has touched Isaiah with a coal from the altar as a sign that God has cleansed him of sin and guilt; the passage from Isaiah continues: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for [my angels and me]?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ “ (Isaiah 6: 8-9)
Good storytelling technique advises the storyteller to present the character in action to show that character’s traits instead of telling the audience what traits the character possesses. For that reason, the passages show Paul proclaiming Christ in the synagogues of Damasus; they show Isaiah volunteering to present God’s message to the people of Judah; they show Simon and the sons of Zebedee leaving everything from their time as fishermen behind in order to become fishers of men.
Once more, let’s recap our story. First, “Oh, my God!” Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter, each after his own fashion, have encountered the Almighty. Second, “Oh, NO! My God?” Simon Peter, Isaiah, and Paul each recognize who they are and what they are in comparison to the Almighty. And thirdly, “Oh! Yes, my God.” Paul, Simon Peter, and Isaiah recognized and accepted that their separate calls came from the Almighty.
“Oh, my God!” “Oh, NO! My God?” “Oh! Yes, my God.” Now, where and how do we take it from here? How do we recognize that when we are in the presence of the people whom we meet, we are in the presence of the Almighty Godself? How do we recognize that we have fallen short of God’s hopes and dreams for us so often, and in so many ways, that we can only look on ourselves with remorse and disappointment? And finally, how do we recognize that God has called us--us, as unworthy as we are and in spite of ourselves--to serve Him and his people in this world where we live? We can answer by leaving everything behind and following our Lord. We can answer by saying “Here am I, Lord; send me!” We can answer by proclaiming Jesus in word and deed across all our daily activities. Very well, Lord; we’ll take it from here!