The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 6: 1 – 8

Psalm 138

1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11

Luke 5: 1 – 11

In today’s readings we are offered three quite different, varied and rich stories of people being called by God. Each is worthy of a little exploration and thought before saying something more general about being called by God.

The vision of Isaiah is one of my favourite passages from this book. It is so rich in vivid imagery. Isaiah, possibly a priest serving in the temple, is caught up in a visionary trance. He imagines God’s presence completely filling the whole temple. The sense of awe engendered by this picture is enhanced by the presence of seraphs, angelic attendants on God – fluttering wings adding to the sense of otherness and their song of praise like that of the ancient praise singers who went before the king. Not only are the words of the seraphs the opening words of our first hymn this morning, but they are repeated every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Every treble in the Choir has to learn some Latin – most likely the first word being ‘sanctus’ – holy. As we say or sing the Sanctus week by week, we are invited to join the heavenly host in its praise of God. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The presence of God is further signaled in our passage by the reference to the pivots shaking and the house being filled with smoke. We experience that in a small way when the organist plays some of those magnificent rumbling low notes and the thurifer stokes up the incense.

But then it changes. Immersed in God’s presence Isaiah becomes intensely aware of his utter unworthiness. How can he, a sinful person and one who lives among sinners, possibly come into God’s presence. Rightly he falls to his knees in the supplicant position. To him is given, through the touching of his lips with a live coal, forgiveness and redemption. He is cleansed in this case by the burning coal. In the case of Christians we are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb – Jesus Christ. Incidentally, the placing of the Confession and the Gloria in our contemporary liturgies, are flexible. In this cathedral we tend to confess our sins and then, forgiven, stand to sing the Gloria. But there is something to be said for first singing the Gloria – bringing ourselves into God’s glorious and holy presence. Once there we become aware of our need for God’s cleansing and forgiveness.

And then the great cry and question from the Lord: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah’s response has been the touchstone for many a fervent person. This passage is, understandably, much loved at ordinations and confirmations. It is about being called by God, and responding to God’s call to go out into the world with the message of God. That’s all well and good; but we seldom read on into the next few verses and chapters. If we did we might not be quite so enthusiastic in our embrace of this passage. For Isaiah is sent to speak to a people, his own people, who utterly refuse to hear the word of God. This is the common lot of the prophet. Called by God, the task set is often lonely, difficult and intensely unpopular. Think back to those early “Green” politicians – the so-called tree-huggers and the loony left. Few today seriously question global warming and the dangers of a plastic polluted world. But it was not always thus.

In the midst of the temple, caught up in this amazing experience of worship, Isaiah hears, and responds, to God’s call.

The Gospel reading is another story of call – this time of the first disciples focused on Simon Peter. Luke sets the scene for Peter’s call on the lake – as do Mark and Matthew. But whereas the earlier Gospel stories seem to have the call come in relative isolation and with Jesus apparently wandering randomly along the shore, in Luke it comes following a hard night’s fishing for Simon and his mates, and some intense teaching of the crowds by Jesus. The initial suggestion by Jesus to go out deeper and drop their nets is rebuffed. What’s the point? We’ve worked all night and got nothing. Jesus persists; they obey and are utterly overwhelmed by the catch. It’s this abundance of God’s goodness, symbolized by nets full to bursting, that gets through to Simon.

Peter’s reaction to the obvious presence of God is similar to that of Isaiah. Go away from me. I am a sinful man. That is a surprisingly common reaction to God’s call, perhaps not unexpectedly. Who am I to be worthy of doing God’s work? How can I presume to think that God might want me? And yet, time and again, as with Mary for example, it is precisely the people who think they are not worthy, whom God does indeed call and use.

The proposition is laid out before the fishermen – stop catching fish, come and catch people. St Mark adds the word “Immediately’ to their response. There was no messing around, weighing up the pros and cons. Jesus called. They responded – leaving their boats, their nets, all that they had – they followed Jesus.

My own story of calling and vocation to be a priest is intimately tied up with this call of the fishermen, and I have told it many times, but I’d love to hear your stories of call, and how you have responded to the persistence of Jesus.

And so to St Paul and 1 Corinthians 15. Last week we considered that magnificent chapter on love (ch 13). Today Paul takes us back to the beginning of the Gospel – and how he came to proclaim the Good News to the people of Corinth. In remarkably few words he paints the picture of the first Easter Day and the implications of the resurrection of Jesus. What is the Good News? In a nutshell he spells it out in verse 3. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Jesus Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. There it is. And if you don’t believe this go and ask others who were there – some 500 of them – some of whom are still alive. Paul claims the eye-witness account of Jesus death, burial and resurrection as the foundation of the Gospel. This is the starting point for him. He is compelled to preach the same.

And it is no different today. Can we prove the resurrection? No. Can we believe the resurrection? Yes, indeed – based on the countless generations of people, stretching back to Peter and the first disciples, who both believed and changed their lives because of that belief. It really is a waste of time to try and ‘prove’ to people the resurrection; to argue with convinced atheists, sceptics. The ‘proof’ of the resurrection is in the changed lives – of the Corinthians, of Paul (and what a change he underwent), of those who have gone before us – who brought us to church, into the presence of the holiness of God, who taught us the great hymns of faith, to read the bible, pray our prayers, reach out in love to our neighbour.

Are there any common ingredients to these three call stories? Certainly. In some way or another, each includes the sense of mystery, otherness, holiness. The robe of the Lord filling the temple, seraphs singing, smoke and shaking; that amazing catch of fish after a futile night’s fishing; the unbelievable story of a person coming to life again after being crucified and buried, and the equally unbelievable change in people like Paul – hunter of Christians to the greatest pro-pounder of Christianity ever.

But there’s more. For each of the stories has someone willing to say ‘Yes’ to God, ‘Yes’ to Jesus. Without that ‘Yes’ the story would end.

The same is true today. The call continues. Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Let go of your nets – come and catch people, not fish. Believe that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried and rose again.

How will you respond today? Whether this is the first, or the umpteenth time, how will you respond to God’s call on your life? The invitation is before us.