The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r172.htm
s172o04 Lockleys Epiphany 5 8/2/2004
"Your sin is blotted out". Isaiah 6.6
The vision and commission of the prophet Isaiah has traditionally been the meditation for the great feast of the Holy Trinity. The unspeakable majesty of God is there described and the perceived wretchedness and uselessness of humanity is expressed. However as I have said previously, for all the prophet perceives his own sinfulness and uselessness, God immediately gets rid of his sins and gives him a job to do. God is not interested in our expressions of sinfulness, unworthiness or uselessness. God lifts us to our feet and gives us a job to do. It is not an insignificant observation that religion often involves expressions of sinfulness, unworthiness and usefulness. Faith in a loving God involves freedom from such negativity and a purposeful life.
We find the same themes in the story of the great catch of fish. Peter expresses his sinfulness. This is countered with the oft-repeated reassurance: "Do not be afraid" and he is told he will catch people.
The commission that God gives to Isaiah is strange indeed. Isaiah is told to say to the people: "Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand." Everything seems predetermined. The prophet was not to change people, but to say how things were.
Again we need to be careful, for in Jesus' life - it was those who refused to see that God loved people other than themselves, who could not and cannot comprehend who God was and what God was doing. All that Jesus did was entirely blasphemous to them and they had him killed for it. The same message is still relevant, for how many people continue to think that God loves only a particular subset of society?
As I was reading again the curse at the end of our reading, I thought the dispersion which was seen as God's judgement on the unfaithfulness of the ancient people of God - could also be viewed as God's sending out of God's people into the world which God also loved.
The peace and security of building up a land for themselves was entirely not what God had in mind for the ancient people of God, and neither is it for us. It is Hebrews 13.14 which tells us: "Here we have no abiding city".
Sometimes we think of the church as a bit like cotton wool, a safe place where we can retreat and be protected from harm. Yet the world is where we are supposed to be. And we know that this is true. The wonder of birth is that it marks the end of that time in the protection and confinement of the womb and entry into the real world with all its joys and sorrows. We particularly lament the death of someone young precisely because they haven't experienced life.
When we look at baptism we often think of it in terms of being "born again". Nicodemus conceives of being "born from above" as re-entering a mother's womb. To return to the warmth and protection - the cotton wool - of a mother's womb &endash; as if that is where we will find God.
When we are born from above, we are born into the real world which consists of a multitude of people, whom we are bidden to love. We are not bidden to divide the world into those with whom we agree and those with whom we don't, those who worship in our fashion and those who don't, or any other arbitrary division.
So often when we read the story Jesus told about the lost sheep, we blithely assume that it is us who are in the 99 and the one is the person who doesn't come to church. The real message is that Jesus was more likely saying that the religious people of his time were the one who was lost and needed to be brought back to the 99 real people from whom they had separated themselves. No wonder they thought he was blaspheming and no wonder he was killed. :-) Yet, as I say, how often do we think in precisely the same terms as they?
I find it instructive to think more about that pre-determinedness of the failure of some people to see the good news. God knows how stiff-necked people who do not want to loose their positions of power can be. It is not that God predetermines who will accept the good news and who won't. People in positions of power and authority over others will always refuse to participate in anything which will diminish or negate their power and authority over others. The gospel and the actions of God from the beginning of time have always diminished human authority over other people. God has always been the God of the poor and oppressed, because the rich and the oppressive don't want anything to do with such a God.
I have mentioned before that I am reading a book about spiritual experiences, and one section is on Yoga. Sometimes I have thought of the desire for spiritual experiences as something about our own standing and stature in comparison to others. So I was pleased to read the words of the Buddha: "I call him alone a Brahman, that is, a spiritually awakened person,... from whom lust, anger, pride, and envy have dropped off like a mustard seed from the point of a needle." This surely means not just lust after those of a different gender, but also the lust for spiritual power. Pride means not just in our personal appearance, but also in our stature in other people's estimation. Envy means not just of someone else's apparent success, but also of their apparent spiritual superiority. Anger surely includes not just times when things go wrong, but also anger and frustration at our own selves and perceived lack of accomplishments.
If we are on a quest for power - to retain our positions of authority over others - then I suspect that God is not actually all that interested.
I was pleased to have been given two articles by Bryan Patterson recently. For those who don't know, as I didn't, he regularly writes an article in the "Sunday Mail" entitled "Faithworks". I count it as significant that two different people gave me two different articles for me to read. Obviously Bryan has his readership - though I am unclear if those who gave these articles to me to read actually believe what he writes. The one that I wanted to comment on was entitled "'Discovery' can't hide painful truth". The words that intrigued me were "He (Jesus) was in fact a friend of outcasts, those with "unclean" diseases, the sexually promiscuous, and those engaged in "unclean" trades such as tax collecting. Yet strangely, he never condemned, but always called them to change the way they lived." But Jesus was crucified by the religious authorities because he called them to accept the painful truth that God loved other people as much as them. The "traditional doctrine" Bryan purports to expound bears much resemblance to the teachings of many religions including Christianity to this day, but I don't think it has any good news for anyone. Indeed the faith for Bryan, encapsulated in the title of his article and the final words, is the unalterable "painful truth" - but of course - for others.
If we are to take the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the Cross and resurrection is all about doing away with the sin of the whole world. Like Peter, we are to get on with catching people, not dwelling on what they have done or even what they may be continuing to do.
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