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Wowed by God

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Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11

I am not a particularly observant person. I am not likely to notice a new haircut or hair color.  I won’t notice if you start to work out.  You’d probably have to lose 20% of your body weight before I would notice.  The good news is, I won’t notice if you gain weight, either.  When I was a teenager, my mother rearranged the furniture in the family room one day.  I came in, plopped down on the sofa, and turned on the TV.  I didn’t notice that the couch—from which I was watching TV—had been moved to the opposite side of the room until I got up and tripped on the coffee table.

I am not an observant person. At least not visually.  I’m more likely to notice smells and sounds than I am visual clues.  When I’m in conversation with someone, and focused on them, I tend to notice emotional things more than physical things—a forced smile, a nervous laugh, a fleeting sign of pain.  I don’t always notice these subtle signals—I can be really clueless sometimes—but I will see them before I notice a new haircut.  Perhaps I notice what is important to me, what matters to me, and appearances just aren’t as important.

But still, I wish I were more visually observant. I would be a terrible eye witness.  Isaiah would be an excellent one.  Isaiah gives a full and vivid description of his vision, involving all of the senses.  He hears the seraphs call to one another.  He feels the earth shake.  He smells the smoke.  He tastes the coal on his mouth.

And most of all, he sees. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, God’s robe filling the temple.

Isaiah sees the seraphs in attendance. Isaiah notices that the seraphs have six wings—two to fly, two covering their face, and two covering their “feet.”  (This is a euphemism, by the way.  They are covering their nakedness.)  He sees and reports in such vivid detail.  I wonder how I would have described it—the visual part, that is. Well, there was God and a big robe and there were these flying things. . . .

Isaiah’s detailed vision is of a God who is far bigger than we are, far more glorious than we can imagine, far more holy than we can fathom. This God is beyond description, so far beyond human expression that it takes six-winged creatures to praise the Lord.  This God is awesome and far too big to be domesticated.

This is not a popular view these days. Formed by scientific models of thinking and algebraic formulas, we don’t know what to do with the belief in a God who is invisible and unprovable and “out there.”  And so we hold onto Immanuel, God With Us, as if we were holding onto all that God is or ever will be.  Wanting to resist hierarchy and lordship in all its forms, we resist a God who is “up there,” above us, Lord over us.  And so, knowing that we were created in the image of God, we promptly return the favor, creating God in our image so we might believe there’s no difference between us and God.

But when we fail to acknowledge the difference between us and God, then we have nothing bigger than ourselves to believe in. And in times of great turmoil and change, this is not enough!  Yes, we were created in the image of God and we share the likeness of God.  And yes, God is with us and within us.  And God is more.  And when we forget this, we miss the glory.

Experiences of glory are hard to come by these days. We long to be astounded and awed by the glory of something . . . anything.  We live in a world of special effects and computer-generated “realities,” of super-sized extra value meals and sales of the century.  We are bombarded every day with news that in previous generations would have shaken us to the core, and now it’s just a Wednesday.  We are not easy to shock.  And if we are so difficult to shock, what does it take to “wow” us?

I once saw a show where two art lovers were discussing their favorite artists. Bette, the younger of the two women, spoke of her love for a particular photographer whose work haunted and moved her.  This artist took photographs of the same woman for twelve years.  The young admirer said, “Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you imagine that act of looking?  And looking and seeing and re-seeing.”  The collection was a testament to time, to knowing, to love.                  But the artist had destroyed her own negatives so all Bette had ever seen were copies of copies.  “Which is your favorite piece?” the older woman asked. After great thought, Bette responded with the title, “Last Time You and I.”  The older woman walked over to the wall where a large frame was leaning with its back to the room.  She turned the frame around, and there was the very piece Bette had long admired—But it was not a copy.  It was the original photograph.  At that point the camera zooms in on Bette as a look of shock crosses her face.  Her eyes widen and her jaw drops.  Her eyes travel over the photograph, taking in every detail . . . every shadow, every hair, every imperfection in the woman’s aging body, so seen and loved by the photographer.  Bette’s look of shock is slowly replaced by a glorious expression of awe.  And then her eyes begin filling with tears.  It is so beautiful it literally takes her breath away.  And then her eyes lose focus, and she sways.  She is so overwhelmed by the beauty and glory of the art that she actually faints.  When she comes around, the first thing the older woman says to her is,  “Do you know how jealous I am of you right now?”[1]

I think many of us long for experiences like this. We long to be moved, to be stirred, to experience something that makes us stop in awe.  Both Isaiah and Simon get such an encounter.  Isaiah got a vision of the Holy One.  Simon Peter gets an encounter.

In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus uses Simon’s boat as a floating podium. After teaching the people, Jesus instructs Simon to put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Now, Simon is a commercial fisherman, and Jesus is a carpenter and traveling evangelist.  Jesus telling Simon how to fish makes about as much sense as me telling Peggy Murray how to cook or Robin Mead how to parent or Scott Berry how to care.  But there must have been something in Jesus’ words to the crowd that made Simon want to believe, for he does what he is told.  It is definitely worth the effort.  He catches so many fish that he has to call his partners in the other boat to come and help him.

And what is Simon’s response? Not “How’d you do that?”  or “Wow, Jesus, thanks!”  or even “Holy Mackerel, that’s a lot of carp!”  Instead he falls on his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am sinful.”   This is just like Isaiah’s response, who says in response to the divine encounter, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Basically, Isaiah and Simon have the same response: guilt.  Maybe even shame.  The two are different, but I can’t tell for sure which is being presented in these stories.

And now I’m a little mad because I wanted such an encounter—I said we long for an experience of the Holy that stops us in our tracks, that overwhelms us with awe. But the response we’re shown is guilt? shame? an awareness of how small they are?  Never mind, God!  I changed my mind!  I spent too many years being ashamed of who I was.  And I’m usually pretty aware of my failures.  I replay them in my mind enough, berating myself for the way I handled a situation, or what I should have said instead of what I did.  Do I really want a powerful, vivid encounter with God, an awe-inducing moment, if the response is to feel shameful and small?

Well, to be honest, the small part isn’t bad. Sometimes maybe we need to feel a little small, like when we stand on the rocks at Two Lights and watch the crashing of the waves and know that the ocean has crashed there for millennia, and our life span is but a wave on the ocean of humanity.  Sometimes maybe we need to feel a little small, like when we look at images of the stars and realize that the entire earth is but a speck in a solar system that is a speck in a galaxy that is a speck in a universe.  Sometimes maybe we need to feel a little small simply to remind ourselves that we are not all-knowing and we are not all-powerful and we cannot change someone no matter how much we love them  and we cannot carry the weight of the earth, much less the universe, on our shoulders.  It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that we are connected and dependent upon one another.

But the other part—the guilt, the shame, the “woe is me” and “I am sinful” part? I think maybe that’s descriptive rather than prescriptive.  It is how these two individuals responded, but is not intended to be instructions for us to follow.  I think this because look at what happened in response.  Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips,” so what did God do?  God said, “Okay fine, here’s something to purify your lips.  We okay now?  You ready to do what I ask now?”  I met you where you are so can we go together now?”  And look at Simon.  Simon said, “Go away from me, for I am sinful,” and Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.  Come and follow me instead.” Don’t be afraid of who you are, for you are who God created you to be.  Don’t be afraid to follow me because you’re in for the trip of a lifetime.  Follow me because others need to be told, “Do not be afraid.”

Don’t you see? The cure for feeling guilt or shame in God’s presence is not to move away.  The cure is to come closer.

It’s a bit like looking into the eyes of someone who loves you—a partner, a parent, a child—and you see so much love there, so much love that it makes you feel guilty because you know you don’t deserve that kind of love.  You have failed that person.  You have been unfaithful or you have not lived up to their expectations or you simply have been short-tempered and irritable.  But you see how very much they love you, and in that moment you feel unworthy of that love.  The cure isn’t to move away.  The cure is to move closer, to immerse yourself in that love so that it changes you, so that you can become the person they see.

God meets us where we are, in all our imperfections and all our fears and all our sense of unworthiness, and God says, “Don’t be afraid. Follow me.  Give up your fears of inadequacy.  Leave behind your boat of self-sufficiency.  Come, let’s go together.”

 

[1] The L Word. Season 1, Episode 3.

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