Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, February 10th 2019
Mind the gap!
Mind the gap between who and what you are and what God chooses to make of you today.
How do you view people in general? Are we generally ok, even though we all have some failings? Alternatively, do you think we are a bad lot, perhaps exhibiting some redeeming features? I once attended a regular meeting for preachers. In conversation we discovered that we lived life on the basis that people are generally good. When it came to sermons, however, we planned and preached on the basis that people are generally bad, the odd sliver of goodness notwithstanding.
And how you view everyone else is related to how you view yourself. Do I see myself as just like the others? If so, it’s important how I regard the others. If the others are generally good, then so am I. If the others are a bad lot, then …
I might believe that I am better than those others, though if I think people in general are terrible, then I might not have a high view of myself. On the other hand, if I believe, or if I have been told, again and again, that others are better than me, then there’s no limit to the potential depths of self-loathing that might be instigated by such unhelpful criticism.
Well, today we encounter three people who see themselves as being at least as bad as others, if not worse. This doesn’t make them sound like positive role models, for our general outlook on life, for our good mental health or in maintaining reasonable levels of self-esteem. Let’s mind the gap, however, between who and what we think we are and what God might choose to make of us today.
Isaiah, Simon (also known as Peter) and Paul: none of them speak highly of themselves here. ‘Woe is me,’ says Isaiah, in this account of a vision received whilst part of a worshipping congregation. ‘I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’ At least Isaiah doesn’t see himself as a cut above the others, though he is hardly flattering, either to himself or to the people of Israel.
‘Go away from me Lord,’ says Simon to Jesus at his fisherman’s work place, ‘for I am a sinful man!’ How Peter compares himself to his fellow workers is not recorded.
‘I am the least of the apostles,’ writes Paul to Christians with whom he is at odds over questions relating to resurrection; ‘unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’
For all three – for Isaiah, Simon and Paul – there is a gap between the people they are supposed to be and the reality of who and what they really are. Many of us will know that feeling and that reality. Importantly though, all three of them know the gap exists or existed. More importantly still, and most importantly of all, each one of them encounters God. And this encounter with God closes the gap between who and what they think they are and what God chooses to make of each of them.
For Isaiah, the encounter with God comes in the context of worship – yes, people really can have an encounter with God in worship! Isaiah’s is a vision of the holiness and glory of God, possibly expressed here in words sung in the temple of his time: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And God’s glory confronts Isaiah with his lack of holiness: ‘I am a man of unclean lips.’ God’s grace, however, closes the gap. As the vision continues, God’s seraph acts, with a cleansing touch of the prophet’s lips, and now Isaiah’s ‘guilt has departed’ and his ‘sin is blotted out’.
Simon must have longed for a divine seraph to turn up and blot out his sin when he was confronted with Jesus and an overwhelming catch of fish: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ As was the case with Isaiah, we don’t know why Peter regarded himself as a sinner. Did he recall with shame some specific actions of his own? Alternatively, was it just a general sense of not being the person he was supposed to be? Whatever the case, once again God reaches out. This time the divine touch comes not via a vision of a seraph but in the form of the flesh and blood Jesus, sitting in Simon’s own boat. And just like Isaiah, Simon is called to action. The prophet Isaiah is instructed to speak to the people; the newly recruited disciple, Simon, to go fishing for them.
Paul would sympathise with Isaiah. He might even sympathise with Peter (this time anyway). Paul’s life-changing encounter with God, his road-to-Damascus experience, resonates with what happened to the temple-worshiper and to the Galilean fisherman. Like Isaiah, Paul experiences God reaching out to him in a visionary blaze of glory. Like Peter, Paul’s encounter with the God of the whole earth, the whole universe, the whole of creation, comes through a meeting with Jesus Christ. Yet Paul’s experience was also different to that of the others.
Yes, like Peter in the boat, Paul’s meeting is with Jesus, but it is with the risen Jesus Christ. (Peter also had a meeting with the risen Christ, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians, but that’s another story.) And yes, like Isaiah, Paul’s divine encounter comes in the form of a vision, but in a “we-can’t-quite-put-our finger-upon-it” sort of way, it differs from other visions. Yet for all the other similarities and differences, what really matters is that once again God has reached across the gap between who we are and what God chooses to make of us.
Now I don’t see myself – or any of you – as an improved version of Isaiah, a perfect Peter, or the latest twenty-first century version of the apostle Paul. Reflecting upon myself, observing others, and reading the historical record of humankind suggests to me that you and I are rather average. Like all God’s people we are capable of good but frequently and inevitably fall short of what we should be As Brian Wren puts it so well in one of his hymns, ‘Your living likeness still we bear, though marred, dishonoured, disobeyed.’ 1
Ultimately, our hope lies not in attempts at self-improvement, though there’s nothing wrong with some of that. Our hope, as Isaiah, Peter and Paul would all attest lies in God reaching out to us, closing the gap between who we are and who God intends us to be. God blots out sin. God sends us off fishing for people. God makes us messengers of good news – apostles.
Perhaps Saint Paul was overegging it a bit, for the purposes of winning an argument, when he said, ‘I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church’: others have done as bad and possibly worse, Paul. But he got this right, as I am sure Isaiah and Peter would have agreed: ‘But by the grace of God [who chooses to close the gap] I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.’
So, may God continue to close the gap between who we are and what God intends us to be. And may God give us the ability to respond positively, as Isaiah, Peter and Paul once did. Amen.
1 Brian Wren. Great God Your Love Has Called us Here. © 1975, 1995, Stainer and Bell Ltd.