The scheduled readings for 5th Sunday after Epiphany included Isaiah 6:1-13 and Luke 5:1-11. What follows below is a sermon written in 2007 for that day:
February 4, 2007 at Zion/St. John’s Lutheran Churches – Dexter/Casey, IA
When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken. Then Jesus said to Simon: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Witnessing the power, glory, and majesty of the divine is a frightening experience. Or at least, that is what our readings for today illustrate. Many descriptions of humans encountering the power of the Lord God are given to us within the Scriptures. This morning, we were presented with two of the most well-known: Isaiah before the throne of the Lord God; the miraculous catch of fish in the
At each time, the reaction of the human to divine power is fear. They are frightened, and rightly so; for there is a poor fate for mere mortals who come face-to-face with God Himself. The words of both Isaiah and Simon Peter point out why this poor fate awaits humans who encounter divine glory. Isaiah says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Simon Peter says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
What Isaiah and Simon Peter both recognize is their sinfulness. Isaiah focuses on his lips, the uncleanness of what he speaks. Peter just plain calls his whole self full of sin. There is a proverb telling us: “Know thyself.” And clearly, Isaiah and Peter possessed such knowledge. Faced with the Lord God’s glory, majesty, and perfection, there is no match for mere mortals. Even the seraphim, the heavenly angels that Isaiah witnessed, covered themselves in the sight of God. And if they do so, humans must as well.
When the glory of God confronts us, there is no where to hide, no way to conceal just how sinful and imperfect we are in comparison. That divine perfection stares us right in the face. It shines a light upon us that leaves no shadow into which to creep. It speaks in a voice that must be heard: “You are a sinner. You are condemned. You have no standing before Me.” And as much as we might want to cover our ears or put a gag in His mouth, there is no way to keep that divine indictment from being spoken against us.
Like Isaiah and Peter, we react with fear, guilt, and shame when the perfection of God is laid against our sin and sinfulness. We wish it to go away. We come to grips with our impending doom, realizing there is no way for us to avoid it. No matter what we might want to do to placate the Lord God, to alleviate His wrath, it is an unachievable task. There is nothing in realm of possibility for us to carry out.
And yet, we see something amazing in both of these episodes involving Isaiah and Simon Peter. We do not see the Hammer of God come crashing down upon either of them. We do not see thunderbolts from heaven strike down either of them. And there is no wicked, maniacal laughter emanating from God’s belly.
Instead, there is a positive action made on behalf of both mortal men. One receives absolution, the other receives benediction. The sin of Isaiah’s lips is purged away, cauterized by a coal from heaven’s altar: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Simon Peter receives assurance and welcome from Christ Himself: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
In each case, the impediment of sin is removed, erased by divine action, not by the work of man. Human weakness is overcome by the glory, power, and perfection of God. No more must Isaiah and Peter await a destructive fate. But just the opposite, they are given fellowship with God Himself, granted His goodness to remove their guilt. This is what we would call pure Gospel—the work of God Himself to accomplish salvation within sinful humanity.
It is not earned by either of these men. Neither makes himself perfect. Neither atones for his guilt. Neither convinces God that they are not, in fact, sinful. But rather, their salvation comes to them. Where nothing but depravity and failure exists, the goodness and perfection of God enters. Sin is forgiven. Guilt is removed. The verdict of condemnation is vacated. That is what Isaiah and Peter experience. And it is our experience as well.
What both Isaiah and Peter say about their own guilt and sinfulness is what we confess about ourselves. But as much as we admit our guilt and unworthiness before the presence of the Lord, we receive the Lord God’s salvation. In truth, the salvation of the Lord exceeds our sinfulness and guilt, covering all of it. And like Isaiah and Peter, we receive this divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in us, but solely out of the Lord God’s voluntary, gracious actions.
Because of that, our encounter with the Lord God is no longer something that we fear, but something that we treasure. It is no longer the source of our doom, but the source of our salvation. For when we now are brought into Christ’s presence, it is to receive the benefits of His death and resurrection on our behalf. It is to be a joyous experience, not one of fear and fright. And it isn’t that we just happen to wander around and accidentally end up beholding God, but that He purposefully makes His presence among us.
That is what we encounter every time that we are gathered together by the Holy Spirit to hear the Word of God and be participants in His Sacraments. True enough, we do so deliberately, with reverence and awe. But this reverence and awe is not doom and fright. We intentionally come to where Christ is to be found, so that we can encounter Him and His holiness, perfection, and glory. We do so, in order that these can be used in us for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.
So we come to this place where Christ is found. We do not say: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Instead, we plea to Christ: “Be present among us, Lord, for we are sinful and we need your grace and mercy and forgiveness.” We desire Christ to be present to drown our old, sinful natures and renew them in Holy Baptism. We want Christ to be present to say: “Do not be afraid, your sins are forgiven.” We need to have Christ present with us at our altar, so that we may partake of His Holy Body and Precious Blood and hear Him say: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Those are the encounters with Christ necessary for us and for our salvation. It is not what we do that saves us, but rather what Christ does for us in our midst to bring us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Such encounters are gracious things, wonderful events, even miraculous actions. And because our Lord is willing to be found among us sinners, we are most thankful. Grateful for what Christ has done for us, we are also desirous for the Lord to have the same presence with others for their salvation.
That is why Isaiah and Peter are sent out to the world, to go for God, to catch men. Likewise, we have the same calling. It is what we pray the Lord to strengthen us to do after we commune with Him. It is what He sends us out into our society to accomplish. So that wherever we may wander, the blessings of what Christ has done for us may be shared and brought to others who have yet to experience them. They, too, may encounter Christ, not in fear or fright, but in peace and joy.
So it was for all of you who were first brought into Christ’s presence by other disciples. May you also go out and do likewise. For what all of you bear is not a message of doom, but of salvation. What Christ has given to you is meant for all who encounter the Lord God as Redeemer, so that they too may bear His Name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In that Name may all of you go and confess what the Lord God has graciously accomplished for you.