Sermon for High Mass 4th Sunday before Lent Sunday 10 February 2019
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11
“Bright the vision that delighted once the sight of Judah’s seer,” we sang in Bishop Richard Mant’s hymn – but that’s a rather imaginative interpretation of the prophet Isaiah’s vision in the Temple which we heard in the first reading.
What Isaiah said when he “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty,” the hem of his robe filling the temple; when he saw the seraphs, whose very name means “fire”, and heard their song and felt the building shaking and saw the house filled with smoke, was:
“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!”
Of course we love Bishop Mant’s hymn and the passage from Isaiah here – not least, because its house filled with smoke and the singing of the foundation-shaking thrice holy hymn sounds rather like the worship here. (I sometimes think of this scene if I am in the Vicarage sitting room when one of our organists is practicing with all the stops pulled out and the room begins to vibrate. I’m glad William Butterfield was a good builder as well as a brilliant architect).
The tune we sing that hymn to was written by Richard Redhead, who was organist of this church, until he went off to Paddington as one of a group to plant a new church there – St. Mary Magdalene’s. Like Isaiah, they heard the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And they said, “Here we are, send us!”
Isaiah’s sense of unworthiness is no impediment to his being called. When the seraph touches his lips with the burning coal from the altar, he says to him: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
The same is true as we heard in the Gospel of Simon Peter in the Gospel. His response to the extraordinary catch of fish which they have found by following Jesus’ instruction, is to fall down at Jesus’ feet and say: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
And it is also true of Paul, “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Singing and incense are not the only features of our worship which are echoed in our worship. After the entrance hymn and Greeting, we pray the Collect for Purity:
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thought of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy name….”
Then we confess our sins against God and neighbour. But our sinfulness does not have the last word; God does, as the priest pronounces the absolution. Confession and absolution together teach us that our sins cannot determine the future. They cannot damn the stream of God’s grace and love. Instead, like Paul, we are taught that “by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me had not been in vain.” Like Simon Peter and the others, we are called to be, “fishers of people.” That was a call which even the three-fold denial by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard could not negate. Over another fire by that same lakeside, the three-fold denial is cancelled by the three-fold commission to feed Christ’s sheep.
Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the apostle; not just converted to a personal faith in Jesus on the road to Damascus, but commissioned to be an apostle to the Gentiles; transformed from policing the boundaries of an exclusive religion to preaching a gospel for all people.
When we have confessed and been absolved, we listen to the word of God in the scriptures. Coming into the temple, like Isaiah we hear God speaking; like the crowd around Jesus beside the lake to hear the word of God, pressing in on him, so that he has to commandeer Simon’s boat as a temporary pulpit.
When we have heard readings and sermon, we make our profession of faith. In that passage from 1 Corinthians, we find one of the earliest Christian creeds:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…”
There is a popular idea that Paul invented Christianity all by himself. While his encounter with the risen Lord was clearly a life-transforming one, his new faith was not formed in isolation. He received and needed the witness of others and, in turn, he passes it on to his converts, as of “first importance.”
There is another misconception, popular among the more protestant-minded, that sets prophecy over against priesthood; word against sacrament; preaching against liturgy; mission against worship. But Isaiah has his vision in the temple; indeed, it is likely that he was as priest.
Like Paul, we need the ongoing witness of scripture and creed to form and direct our faith and our lives. That is why we have to keep on coming back here Sunday-by-Sunday, even day-by-day. Like the Corinthians, we need to be reminded “of the good news” which we stand, through which we are being saved.
None of us can predict what the effect of that coming to church, that listening to the word of God, might be – anymore than Isaiah could have known that this one of so many visits to the temple would bring something extraordinary; that he would hear himself saying, “Here I am! Send me!” Or any more than Simon Peter, weary after a fruitless night’s work, could have expected that great haul of fish, when he might well have thought, “Who is this carpenter-turned preacher to tell me how to go about fishing?” Or Saul, riding to Damascus, fired by an all-consuming zeal to defend God’s true religion against this new heresy, could have imagined the change which would first reduce him to helpless dependency on others, then make him one of its most zealous advocates both in word and deed; fired now by the grace of God in which he now placed his trust.
For most of us, most of the time, it will be the ordinary business of forming us as Christians, but on some days, more often than we might imagine or expect, it will be a quite specific: “Whom shall we send? Who will go for us, in this situation or that?”
It is part of the calling of a church like this to pass on what we have in turn received. But maintaining tradition is not about living in the past but living towards the future which is God’s. We have a responsibility to hand on to others, not just to keep to ourselves; to proclaim so that others may believe; so that they might glimpse the bright vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So we must expect the pivots of our thresholds to be shaken from time to time. We must expect to be told to do things we have not done before – to leave the safe and familiar shallows and put out into deeper and unfamiliar waters. We must expect that me might sometimes need to be blinded before we can see.
Isaiah would be sent to proclaim a message which his people would refuse to hear – with tragic consequences of destruction and exile.
Peter and Paul’s labours were the beginnings of a universal mission whose scope they could not have imagined, but their own lives would end in captivity and martyrdom; in apparent failure – as had their Lord’s.
The outcomes of our lives as disciples of Christ are unlikely to be so dramatic, but we may fear that they will be failure and disappointment, but that should not be a reason for despair and paralysis.
We know from his letters to them that Paul had more than enough reasons for despairing of the Corinthians. One of them was their selfish behaviour at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. A little earlier in the epistle, he spoke to them of another receiving and handing on:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
That tradition has been handed on, that command has been obeyed, since this parish’s beginning more than a century and a half ago. It has been the source of that grace which has enabled people and priests to work hard as fishers of people, in the mission of the church in this city to which the peoples of the world have come. It is handed on and obeyed still, and our prayer must be that if the grace of God will not have been in vain among us, if God wills, it will be long after we have gone and will send worshippers out to be fishers of people, to bring them to see the bright vision of the glory which does delight.