~ Isaiah 6:1-13/Luke 5:1-11 ~
The Bible – misunderstood, misapplied, and abused more than any other book in the history of the world. A word, a phrase, a verse can be pulled completely out of context to justify almost anything. As someone has said: “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.” A couple of examples:
In Genesis 1 there is the word ‘dominion’. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion …” There are those who claim that ‘dominion’ means having the right, indeed, the obligation to use and exploit the earth’s resources for however ‘man’ sees fit. Not only that, they believe that ‘dominion’ means that Christians should rule the nation, absolutely. Only Christians should be allowed to run the government. Only Christian judges; only Christian decision-makers. This ideology is called “Dominionism” and is fully embraced by our Vice President.
A while back, the Attorney General quoted the bible to defend his department’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border from Mexico, suggesting that God supports the government in separating immigrant parents from their children. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” he said. It seemed lost on him that this was the same line of defense used to justify slavery 150 years earlier.
Likewise there are government officials who quote 2 Thessalonians (“if a man will not work, he shall not eat”) to justify more stringent food stamps requirements.
One of the more common misuses of the bible is to take a particular event in a biblical character’s life and universalize it. Whether it be Moses or Abraham or Paul, their responses to God’s call are the formula for how we are to respond to God. Hence, our two scripture readings today. Two calls to discipleship that we, somehow, are supposed to emulate.
But these calls are not simply just-follow-Jesus calls. These are really tough calls. These are not simply just-be-a-good-Christian calls. These are put-your-life-on-the-line calls. Tough calls. As people who desire to follow Jesus, what are we supposed to do with these stories?
Isaiah is having an ecstatic, out-of-body experience, standing before God’s throne, with angels flying all around. In what is often referenced as what worship of God is supposed to be like, Isaiah is truly undone before such overwhelming majesty. He cries out in repentance and is duly forgiven, albeit in very dramatic fashion. I mean, what’s with the live coals being placed on this mouth. Ouch! Suddenly, God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And, without hesitation, Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” Thus, the lesson is that the truly devote Christian will also respond to God’s call without hesitation, “Here I am; send me!”
In my tradition that meant going into full-time Christian ministry. No, even more, being a missionary, a foreign missionary. This is the kind of thinking that leads people like John Allen Chau to go the Sentinelese tribe and get himself killed in the name of Jesus. I was one who took this story of Isaiah to heart. I did go into full-time Christian service; I did become a missionary. Albeit, I didn’t become a foreign missionary. I was a home missionary, inner-city. Thus, it could be said, my dedication was not quite up to the highest standards. But the important thing was – I answered the call!
What I and my cohorts didn’t really consider was what God tells Isaiah to do. We always just stopped right there at verse 8, and then filled in the “here am I, send me” with whatever definition we wanted. But God’s called to Isaiah meant doing a very difficult thing, a very specific thing. Isaiah’s call, it turns out, was a tough call. More about that a bit later.
Then we have Jesus’ call to the fishermen. The scene is also quite dramatic. Jesus is so popular that the crowds are pressing in on him, virtually pushing him into the lake. So, he commandeers a boat, Peter’s boat it so happens, and pushes away from the shore to continue his preaching. When he’s done and the service is over, he tells the fishermen to put out into the deep water to catch some fish, to let down their nets. Peter responds, maybe a bit snarkily, but also maybe out of respect for what they have just heard. “We fished all night and caught nothing, but if you say so we’ll try again.” Thus, we have the famous miraculous catch of fishes. To which Peter genuflects before Jesus with the same kind of response we saw from Isaiah – a cry of unworthiness, and by inference, so did his fishing partners, James and John.
A pattern can be detected – often referred to as the ‘conversion pattern’. Peter hears the message, is convicted of sin, receives forgiveness, is “saved” by Jesus and is commissioned to get more people saved. In Evangelical circles this formula is reiterated over and over. I’m not disparaging this, really. But it is another example of how an event that pertains to particular people, in this case three fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, is applied universally to all wanna-be believers and disciples.
But is it? The reason I ask is the very last sentence in this dramatic ‘call story’ – “they left everything and followed him.” They left everything? Everything! Now, it is true that this appeal is often made to new converts, to true believers, to the ardently devout. The appeal? Give your all to Jesus. Don’t withhold anything. If you really want to be a sincere follower of Jesus, you will drop everything in your life and follow him.
The problem is that while there are a handful of exceptions, virtually nobody does that – leave everything! Despite the sentiment to “give your all,” preachers have to hit the subject over and over and over again, extolling and cajoling their listeners to do more, submit more, believe more. You are never devout enough. Ever found wanting. Is there a room in the house of heart that you haven’t given over fully to God? Are you trying to hide secrets from God? Foolish man! Foolish woman! God sees everything. So, you must confess your sins every day, indeed, every moment of the day, in order to stay in fellowship with God. If you hold back, you cannot be said to be giving ‘everything’. Absolute surrender. It is a heavy burden to ‘leave everything’ and follow him. Indeed, in my experience most believers, except for the few, the very few ardently devout, in time give up the idea and just settle into a moderate level of discipleship or, as the preacher might say, a mediocre discipleship.
But such is the danger of taking a discrete event in the bible that happened to particular people and forcing it to be applied to everyone, universally. For when we look a bit closer at what it meant for Peter, James and John to leave everything and follow Jesus, we can appreciate more fully what they did, even if it is not what we necessarily are to do.
For Peter, James and John, fishing was not a sport. Fishing was the family business, a serious business. Their livelihood depended on their fishing skills. In this cultural context, the whole social fabric of the family was bound to this fishing business. So, when it says they left everything are we to think that they left their families in the lurch, bereft of any way to feed themselves? We actually don’t know. But they did.
Some back story is needed: In the Old Testament fishing was a metaphor for God’s judgment against those people in power who lead the nation into idolatry and injustice. Taking this mandate of judgment for his own, Jesus invites Peter, James and John to join him in his struggle against the powers of the world in ways they never expected and, in fact, barely understood. Indeed, little did they know, their journey will take them to Jerusalem and the cross. This was their call to discipleship.
Judgment! Not what we want to deal with in considering the call of discipleship. Yet that is what we encounter when we return to Isaiah’s call. “Here am I; send me!” he says enthusiastically. But what does God tell Isaiah to do? Here is your mission, Isaiah – this is what I want you to say to the people, as The Message version renders it:
‘Listen hard, but you aren’t going to get it; look hard, but you won’t catch on.’ Make these people blockheads, with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, so they won’t see a thing, won’t hear a word, so they won’t have a clue about what’s going on and, yes, so they won’t turn around and be made whole.
Isaiah is astonished! “How long do I keep delivering this message?” And God says, “until there is nothing left; utter desolation.” A harsh word of judgment, indeed!
The idea that God would intentionally not want the people to comprehend God’s desires is, well, incomprehensible. To make the minds of the people dull, to stop their ears, to shut their eyes? So that they’ll remain in a place of brokenness and pain; so they won’t turn and be healed?
Well, if I could dare speak for God, I think God is being ironic. What I think is going on here is that the people really don’t want to hear and see and comprehend. Whatever message of healing and reconciliation and restoration and forgiveness that Isaiah could bring from God will be ignored, because the people are willfully obstinate and obtuse. The end result will be their own judgment because they refuse to listen, to learn, to comprehend. In the end they will reap their own reward – desolation.
As I found myself ruminating on these words this week, it hit me that things haven’t really changed much, have they? People still seem to be willfully obstinate and obtuse. People still will only see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and comprehend only what they want to comprehend. It’s called ‘confirmation bias’. And it is a powerful phenomenon. It is amazing how they – we? – can filter out anything and everything that doesn’t already fit their preconceived idea or ideology. Seeing only the truth that they have decided is true even if it is false. And, it seems, no amount of evidence, argumentation – dialogue, will change their minds. They will remain stuck in their world, refusing to see, refusing to hear, refusing to comprehend.
I am sure, as we sit here today, that we are thinking of all those others for whom this description fits. Yet, might we also be prone to feed our own confirmation biases? My hope and prayer is that we be a people who are open to new ideas, who question our own assumptions, who, indeed, listen to the Spirit and keep our eyes and ears open.
Now, you might be saying to yourself at this point in the sermon, if Isaiah and Peter and James and John aren’t necessarily the formulas for our calls to discipleship, what is? And I would answer you with this: We individually and collectively work it out day by day. We keep paying attention, daily to God’s work, to God’s agenda. We keep moving toward grace and forgiveness and love. We keep on keeping on in the march of life. That’s what it means to answer the call of discipleship.
It is quite rare that an Alice Cooper quote could make it into one of my sermons. But here it is. It is actually quite profound: “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call; that’s real rebellion.”
We follow Jesus. That is our calling. It can be a tough call. But it is also a gracious call. As the song we are about to sing says: “Jesus, you have looked into my eyes, kindly smiling, you’ve called out my name. On the sand I have abandoned my small boat; now with you I will seek other seas.” Amen.