5th Sunday after the Epiphany
- Epiphany 5.22 “Give Up and Go” Luke 5:1-11
The dilemma from our Gospel reading last week is intensified this week in both the OT and the Gospel readings (which are two of my special favorites).
It’s the “moth to the flame” problem, or (borrowing from John Mayer’s popular song) the “burn up in your atmosphere” problem. Like a moth drawn to the flame which will vaporize him, the singer in that (rather lovely) song doesn’t think he’s going to go to LA anymore, where the beautiful girl who dumped him (because she’s way too good for him) lives. Because, he figures: “I’d just die if I saw you/ I’d die if I didn’t see you there”. So, to preserve his (somewhat miserable) life, he’s going to stay away from LA, lest he burn up in her atmosphere.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah experiences the “burn up in your atmosphere” dilemma in a way that is at once more elevated and spirituel yet, also much less metaphorical, more literal, at the same time. But it should not surprise us the Holy Scriptures tell an even better and more compelling story than popular songwriters, right? You really should try reading it every day. Zion is way better than LA, and you can go every day.
Anyway, Isaiah has been a prophet of the LORD for a while and clearly he is smitten. YHWH is everything you could ever want in a god. He’s Good, True, Beautiful, all-powerful, eternal, all-knowing—Love incarnate. The only problem in this beautiful friendship is that Isaiah is none of those things. He is marred by sin, a little fake, not very pretty, not powerful, short-lived, rather ignorant of the great mysteries of life, and not very good at the whole unconditional love thing. In short, Isaiah is just like us, only more so.
He seems embarrassed to say how exactly he ended up in the LORD’s presence, seeing him in his unveiled glory in his temple, high and lifted up, surrounded by thousands upon ten thousands of the heavenly host, angels, saints, cherubim, seraphim. A delightfully crowded house. And it was smoking, shaking, rocking, with the sound of an assembly that would make a Stones or Led Zep concert from the mid 70’s look lame. The foundations of the temple thresholds were shaking with the sound of the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. This does make me want to get a giant sanctuary incense ball and a chancel fire-pit; but (like fast-motion gardening 🙂 I think you’re just not ready for it, yet.
Anyway, I think Isaiah had secretly (or not so secretly/) longed, like Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and the rest to see God in his glory, even if it killed him. What a way to go! Burn up in your atmosphere!
But, “be careful what you wish for!” may be the theme of this reading? In the year that King Uzziah died (maybe he was with Isaiah in the temple, too, and it was the end of him, like the Flood apparently swept away Methuselah when he was out gathering one last bunch of berries for the trip and missed the boat). Isaiah prefers not to say how he ended up seeing the LORD high and lifted up, sitting on his throne, with the train of his robe filling the temple and the heavenly host shouting his glory, and the whole temple shaken magnificently to the foundations, and filled with smoke (If the house is rockin’, don’t bother knockin’)?!
Anyway, it’s too late! Isaiah is in there—in the beating heart of the party. And he says, “Woe is me! For I am (literally in Hebrew) unmade—something much more serious than merely being “lost”; it seems whatever process made him is being rapidly reversed—which does not sound pleasant at all, does it? It does not!
So, be careful what you wish for! Isaiah secretly or not so secretly, wanted to see God in all his glory and—like a moth to the flame—he’s burning up in that atmosphere. He’d die if he saw God, he’d die if he didn’t see God, there. But God is gracious and merciful. He sends a flying seraphim (that usually scared the beejeebers out of the few other humans that saw one) with a burning coal in his hand he’d taken with tongs from the altar (“this will hurt you more than me!” Wouldn’t a fire pit for our altar be amazing? Seriously!).
So, the seraphim goes: “Open your mouth and say: ‘Ah’…” and jams the burning coal in the prophet’s mouth. Which had to hurt. Had to leave a mark. Isaiah’s difficult day is just getting tougher! And then God says “I have a little errand back on earth to run? Anyone want to make an earth run for me?” And Isaiah, undone, scorched, burned-up, goes, “Oooh! Oooh! Here am I! Send me, send me!” Not, in context, quite as emotional a scene as the hymns make it out, now is it? Sorry to ruin it for you (but it makes it better, for me 😉
Isaiah opts for dying without seeing God there. And he gets that wish too, being sawn in half, traditionally.
Peter, in our Gospel, is faced with a similar situation. Jesus asks Simon to let him sit in his boat and push out from the shore to teach from the boat. And Simon says: “Sure”. After Jesus finishes the teaching, he says: “Let’s go fishing! You’ve done me a solid, let me do you a favor, too.” Peter is like “Oh, that’s OK, Jesus. There’re no fish out there. I don’t want to waste your time, but if you like fishing, hey, why not? At your word, I will let down the nets.” And the fish are just jumping into the nets like they can’t wait to be caught and eaten! Andrew and John come and help and both boats are sinking. It’s the “burn up in your atmosphere” thing, but with water and drowning, instead of fire and burning. Still, it’s the same dilemma as Isaiah’s. God’s largesse and glory will sink your boat and end you. It’s too much.
So, Peter falls down at Jesus’ feet and goes, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O LORD!” The burn up in your atmosphere problem, revisited…
But Jesus will not give Peter the out that he granted Isaiah. Yes, they’ll die if they see him, but they’d die if they didn’t see him, there. So Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on we’re catching man, the most dangerous game.” And then: one of the best lines in all the Scriptures: “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Did they live happily ever-after, following Jesus? No! They all burned up in his atmosphere!—all martyrs, the 12. But… “I’d die if I saw you, I’d die if I didn’t see you there!” Bare survival is not an option, once you’ve seen Jesus. To gaze upon his glory is like staring at the sun: it will blind and burn you up. But not to see him anymore, once you’ve had just a glimpse, a taste? Ah, that’ll kill ya, too!
And dying without Jesus is worse than dying with. So, what is our takeaway? That it’s too late for us, as well! We’ve seen too much, tasted too much for Christ’s going away not to kill us as surely as his Presence will. So, might as well go out with a bang, not a whimper, hoping only that, like a meteor, we’ll leave a spectacular trail of fire shooting across the sky as we die. 😉
The apostolic trick is to “leave everything”—they gave up all hope of survival; and in that leap of faith, dying with Jesus, is their eternal life, glory, delight—ours as well, when we… give up and go. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.