What if God shows up?

Isaiah is having a bad time of it.  His king—King Uzziah of Judah—has died.  Political uncertainty at home couldn’t have come at a worse time.  Israel, the kingdom just to the north, has formed an alliance with Syria, and sabers are rattling.  Isaiah reacts by going to church—think of our similar reaction on September 11, 2001, when churches were filled.  Isaiah goes to the temple to offer his prayers to God, but I wonder if the desperation of his tiny nation’s circumstances renders his petitions hollow.  In other words, he likely doesn’t kneel in prayer expecting much of a response other than the echo of his own voice off the temple walls.  When we’re honest, do any of us?

          Simon is having a bad time of it.  The line between subsistence and starvation for a Galilean fisherman is a fine one.  Hasn’t it always been that way for small business owners?  All night Simon and his crew have fished, hoping the cool night air would lure the fish out of their languor.  No luck.  In the early morning Simon rows back to the shore to clean distressingly empty nets.  There will be nothing to sell this day, and little to eat.  To a wife, a family, and—lest we forget—a live-in mother-in-law, he will come home empty-handed.  The man Simon sees standing on the bank speaking to the crowd is an added distraction, and a worrisome one.  Even in the countryside, the Romans don’t like large crowds.  And now the man has walked to Simon’s own boat and stepped aboard so as to be better seen by the people.  Simon sighs at his ill luck.  His day is going from bad to worse.

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The sound that erupts around Isaiah as his eyes are downcast in what he thinks is futile prayer is not his own voice.  Of that he’s sure.  He raises his eyes, and what he sees takes his breath away.  There is a throne, and upon it sits One who is indescribable.  All Isaiah can think to report is that the presence of this One seems to fill the whole temple, a space much larger than this church.  Around the throne fly seraphs, higher than angels, who leave a trail of incensed smoke in their wake and thunder with praise for the One on the throne.  This is God, and for a moment Isaiah is stricken dumb.  What do you do when you pray, not really expecting a response, and God shows up?

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Simon endures the sermon of the man who has invaded his boat, but then the preacher turns to Simon himself and says, “Let’s go fishing.”

Simon responds, “Master” (and we can imagine a bit of sarcasm in the way he uses the title) “we—who do this for a living—have fished all night and caught nothing.”

“No,” Jesus replies, “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon expects nothing but a wasted day, but with the watchful eye of the crowd upon him, what can he do?  He trolls out to the center of the lake and lowers the nets.  By the immediate creaking and listing of the boat, Simon knows something is wrong—no, not wrong, but different.  The nets fill to bursting.  They begin to tear under the strain of what they bear.  In desperation, Simon calls to nearby boats for help.  The answer to a prayer, he realizes, is sometimes more difficult to bear than the absence of one.  And his eyes turn to Jesus with wonder and some fear.

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What do we expect when we lift our prayers to God?  What do we expect when we come here, to this place, on an autumn Sunday morning?  Not a whole lot, I suspect: A liturgy that flows well.  A friendly smile from a neighbor and a hand-sanitized handshake from the priest.  A hot cup of delicious Cathedral coffee, maybe.  And the sense of fulfilled duty that comes from saying the words of the prayers.  But most days our expectations aren’t a lot different than those of Isaiah or Simon Peter.

Why is that?  Is it part and parcel of the skepticism that comes from our contemporary age?  Or, is the nadir of our expectation like that of Isaiah and Simon, whose lives have simply demonstrated to them that more often than not the world wins?  Or, might we actually prefer that God stay in God’s heaven and leave us alone?  Are we, deep down, a little worried about what might happen if God showed up?

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may awake someday…[and] may draw us out to where we can never return.”[i]

TNT vs. Dynamite: What's the Difference? | Mental Floss

When God shows up in answer to Simon’s prayer he says, “I call you out into the deep waters, and you will fish for people.”

When God shows up in answer to Isaiah’s prayer, he places a live coal on Isaiah’s lips and compels Isaiah to speak.  “Here I am,” Isaiah says, “Send me!”

God shows up, and Isaiah and Simon see God.  As Annie Dillard warns, God changes them both and compels them to speak and follow, and they can never return to what they were before.

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Sitting in a musty gothic classroom in 1997 at the University of Chicago, a Lutheran friend named Jay Alanis looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Barkley, God is here, doing something with you.”

“No Jay,” I responded, “I’m too much a heathen for God.”

“But Barkley,” Jay pursued with a light behind his eyes that wasn’t his own, “It’s heathens God calls.”

_________________

It is prophets.  It is fishermen.  It is skeptics.  It is the down-and-out.  It is heathens.  It is you and it is me whose prayers God answers, whom God visits and God calls.  God shows up and fills our nets at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.  If we call upon God, we’d better be ready for our lives to be thrown off balance and the wings of seraphs to graze our faces.  When God shows up, God doesn’t leave us where we are and like we are.  God moves us from the shallows in life and into the deep water.  God will put a live coal to our mouths, and we’ll find we have to speak.

The Burning Coal: Eucharist in the Old Testament – St. Paul Center

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  That’s why we claim, with Isaiah and Simon, that we’re not worthy.  What will it look like to speak a word of God—of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s son Jesus—not just here but out there?  How will our lives change if God pays a visit?  Where will we go?  What will we give up?  How will others look at us differently?  In what ways will we be forced to cry out to our brothers and sisters because we admit—perhaps for the first time—that our nets are tearing and we can’t make it without their help?  The answer to a prayer, we realize, sometimes may at first seem more difficult to bear than the absence of one. 

More difficult and infinitely more blessed.  Isaiah finds that the strength given him by God looses his tongue to speak words of wonder, love, and praise.  Simon Peter experiences relationship and redemption in Jesus that transforms him from backward, ego-centered, ruffian into the greatest of apostles.  In fits and starts, the heathen standing before you meets the saving grace of God that empowers me to tell you I need you and I love you, that I am a sinner but I want to be a saint.

I’ll sit down, and we’ll confess our faith, and we’ll pray.  We’ll ask God to meet us here and in our lives.  I hope we mean it.  You may want to put on your crash helmet.


[i] Dillard, Annie.  Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53.

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