What does it mean to be called by God? During the last couple of weeks we have read several “call stories” and there are many others in the scriptures as well. I would like to look at a few of them in depth and see what they have to say to us.
Our Old Testament reading this morning was about the call of the prophet Isaiah.
We know very little about the early life of Isaiah. There has been much speculation. Was he from a priestly family, from the aristocracy? We have no proof of either, but we do know that Isaiah was well educated. He was very much aware of the political situation of his time. He was aware of the life style of the rich and famous as well as the poor and downtrodden. He had access to kings which was common for prophets, but just how he came to be recognized by them as a prophet we do not know.
Isaiah tells us that he had his vision, his sense of call in the year King Uzziah died. This would have been in the year 742 BCE. Just three years before this Tiglath-Pileser III took the throne in Assyria. The kingdom he took over was in a period of decline, but Tiglath-Pileser III turned that around and made Assyria one of the most powerful and aggressive nations at that time.
Israel (the ten northern tribes) and Judah had split after the reign of Solomon roughly 800 years earlier and each had been ruled by a succession of kings some not so bad, many not so good, and a few down right wicked.
On this day, Isaiah is in the Temple praying and he has a vision of the heavenly throne room. Jewish belief at this time was that God’s literal throne room was located directly above the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Initially it was believed that the Ark of the Covenant was God’s Footstool (1 Cor: 28:2) which meant wherever Israel wandered God went with them. Once the Temple was built, God’s footstool quit moving and God took up permanent residence above Jerusalem with his feet resting in the Temple (Psalm 132:7; Eze 43:7) Isaiah sees God on his throne above the temple and he sees his robe flowing down and filling the very space where he is praying.
Isaiah sees Seraphim, heavenly beings that were probably rather terrifying to look at, attending God. The word Seraph in Hebrew denotes both burning and serpent. In Isaiah’s vision they have 3 set of wings: one used for modesty, one for covering their face, perhaps because one could not look upon the glory of God and live, and the third set to fly. They sing about the three-fold holiness of God. The building is shaking, and incense is billowing all around him. Isaiah is in a state of panic. He realizes that he is a sinner and he lives in a nation full of sinners and he has just looked upon the glory of God. He thinks he is about to die. One of the seraphim takes a live coal off the altar where burned offerings are offered and places it against Isaiah’s lips, cleansing him of his sins so that he might converse with God. Once Isaiah has been cleansed his immediate response to God is “Here I am, send me.”
The task that God sets before him seems impossible. God tells him to tell his people to “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.” In other words, Isaiah is being told to go warn his people about the consequences of their behavior, but don’t expect them to respond. Poor Isaiah asks God, “How long?”
While we still cling to our earthly passions and selfish desires we are unable to hear God or respond to God, but once we have allowed God to cleanse us of our sins our hearts desire is only to please God. The tasks that God may set before us might seem unsurmountable. When Isaiah asked God how long? God’s response is “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
Despite the certainty of failure by human standards, (Israel did fall and was completely destroyed or deported), Isaiah spread his message of warning, mixed with a message of hope, and wrote it down believing that someone sometime would benefit from the words God had given him.
Jeremiah, who followed about 100 years after Isaiah, was tasked with a similar message to the southern kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah was only a young boy when God called him. We do know about Jeremiah’s background. He was from a priestly family and lived in a small town outside of Jerusalem. The political scene had changed since Isaiah’s time. Assyria was no longer a powerful nation, but Babylon and Egypt were. When God called Jeremiah he told him that he had been chosen before his birth by God for this important task. Jeremiah tries to protest, and who can blame him. He declares he is but a boy and God tells him not to fear that God will be with him. Moses had complained before the burning bush that he was slow of speech, but in all three cases Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God put God’s words in their mouths so that they might speak for God.
Jump ahead to today’s Gospel we have another story of a call. Once again this group of men were going about the normal everyday life. They were fishermen and at least today, not very successful ones. Peter had finished fishing for the day and was cleaning his nets. Jesus gets into his boat, probably because the crowd was encroaching upon him, and he needed a safe place from which to address them. When he gets through preaching, he tells Peter to put out to deep water and drop his nets. Peter tells him the fish are not biting right now, but does as he is told. He brings up so many fish that he has to signal to James and John in the next boat to help him. Once they get the fish in the boat, they are so heavy the boats begin to sink. Peter is suddenly aware that he is in the presence of someone extraordinary and says “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Just like with Isaiah, the presence of God, either the Father or the Son, awakens us to the realization that we are broken people. One of the interesting things about this story is that that after having the best fishing day of their life, Jesus tells them “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.” And the minute they touched the shore, they walked away from that fabulous catch and followed Jesus.
Being in the presence of God puts things in their right perspective for us. God is not concerned with our lack of skill sets or our past sins. God is only concerned that we are willing to say “Here I am Lord” and God will use us to further the kingdom of heaven. It is not a promise of riches and easy living. In fact it is guaranteed to be difficult. Moses got frustrated with the people and God on many occasions. Isaiah spent his whole life preaching to kings who completely ignored him, and he watched all the dreadful things he told them would happen, did happen. Jeremiah lived through the three-year siege of Jerusalem, wrote a book of laments as well as his book of prophesy, and ending up walking to Egypt with the few survivors the Babylonians did not want. Peter, James and John lived through the crucifixion of Jesus – but also saw the Resurrection, and two of them were executed and one exiled because of their message to the world.
Being a Christian is hard. Being called by God is hard, but it is also the most rewarding, joyful thing you will ever experience in this life with the promise of even more joy in the life to come.