Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5:8-11
When Simon Peter saw what had happened, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!" Ö Jesus said to Simon, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." They pulled the boats up on the beach, left everything, and followed Jesus.

Encounter with the divine

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah presents us with a magnificent picture. He declares, "I saw the Lord". He goes on to describe what he saw. He sees things that are beyond normal experience. He witnesses first hand God sitting on his throne in heaven and hears those gathered around the throne of God call out to one another, "Holy, holy, holy! The Lord Almighty is holy! His glory fills the world." The voices of those praising God were so loud that the foundations of the temple shook as if there was an earthquake and the smoke of God's divine presence filled that place of worship.

In other places in the Bible, those who have seen the glory of God express their joy and excitement, (like the disciples when Jesus was changed before them and they saw Moses and Elijah talking with their master), but this was not Isaiahís response. Seeing the glory of God, Isaiah said, "There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful."

Then the gospel reading from Luke tells us about Peterís reaction to the huge haul of fish. He had been working all night and caught nothing and when Jesus instructed him to go out to the deeper water and let down the nets, he told Jesus that it would be a waste of time. From his many years of experience as a fisherman, Peter knew when it was a bad time for fishing and this was one of them. But out of respect for Jesus he let down his nets, not thinking for a minute he would catch anything more than he had previously. How wrong he was. Peter had experienced the love and the glory of Jesus and his reaction is the same as Isaiahís. "He fell on his knees before Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!"

It seems that to be given a vision of the living, righteous God is also to see how we have fallen short, messed up, rebelled in our lives under God. The readings today are in agreement. They are not about joy in the presence of God; rather they speak of terror. The writer to the Hebrews had this in mind when he wrote, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" (Hebrews 10:31).

Both Isaiah and Peter were terrified and were brought to their knees and confessed their unworthiness.. They were in the presence of the glory, the power, the majesty, the perfection and purity of a God who is so totally opposite to what they were. They knew that God looked further than the outward appearance; he looked into the heart (1 Sam 16:7).

People think they are okay, even some Christians believe their trust, their commitment, their love, their sincerity, their prayers, their obedience, even their faith are okay and bring them closer to God. It is believed that these ensure that God will be on their side, make them acceptable to God. But the truth is - in the light of the glory and love of God what we consider our best and purest actions are still filthy rags. We read in the Bible, "We are all infected and impure with sin. When we proudly display our righteous deeds, we find they are but filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). In God's presence our reaction is the same as that of Isaiah Ė "I am doomed".

When we come here to worship we come into the presence of a God who is so totally different to what we are, that we are blown to bits, turned upside down, knocked down to the floor. As we take our seats here in church, our pretensions that everything is okay fall away as we shrink back from the gaze of the One who is so good, so holy, so just, so godly that we say with Peter, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!"

But letís be honest, how many of us think of this when we walk into this church on Sunday morning. We come here wearing the filthy rags of sin;
there is not one good intention,
not one act of the will,
not one good deed that is not corrupted by sin.

Let me add this. Letís not think of sin as simply individual bad deeds. Sin is not only what I do but what I am. Sin is deeper than my failings. By nature we are selfish, rebellious, we are hateful, lust-filled, jealous, whether we put these into practice or not.
Sin is a radical break with God.
Sin is a gorge so deep that we can't get across it.
Sin is total separation from God, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Some Christians tell us that we are free to get off the train of sin and Ďmake a decision for Christí. If I am standing on one cliff and I want to jump across a chasm that is humanly impossible to jump over, no amount of deciding on my part will get me to the other side. My first step will bring about my end.

I wonder if we become just a little bit too blasť about the confession of sin in our worship and in the Lordís Prayer when we say, "Forgive us our sins". We say the words without any real appreciation of how unworthy we are to stand in the presence of God. What if we come into the presence of God here on Sunday morning and find to our terror that God is so totally holy and righteous, so completely "over-against" everything that is covered with the grime of sin? We experience this occasionally when we have done something terrible that we know is offensive to God. At that moment we feel the deep divide between God and us. But isnít it true that too often when we say, "We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have failed to do. ... We deserve your eternal punishment", these are just words spoken with no real appreciation of just how serious the situation is. Even our confession of sin is flawed. We are unworthy of being called children of God.

Even though I have said that we are not worthy to be called children of God, nevertheless we are not worthless in God's eyes. I have spoken quite a bit about our total slavery to sin, our helplessness to do anything about it, and our lack of freedom to accept Jesus. I have emphasised how totally "other" God is compared to us.

If we can grasp just what are our true colours then we can grasp something of the wonderful release and freedom and joy that the cross of Jesus gives us. We are and remain sinners and yet we are accepted by God because of what Jesus did for us on Good Friday. God comes to those who are totally helpless to do anything about their situation and welcomes us home. It is not that we have taken the first step toward God but that he has come to us and tells us that we are accepted.

Take Isaiah as an example. The prophet is in God's heavenly throne room overcome with a sense of his own unworthiness. You might say he is frozen to the spot, fearful that his sin will bring about his destruction. Then at God's command an angel takes a burning coal from the altar and touches his lips, saying, "Now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven."

God does the impossible; he accepts the ungodly. He says to us as he said to Isaiah, "Your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven." The blood of Jesus has set you free. Jesus has closed the gap in our relationship with God and has declared, "Your sin is taken away".

The message of the Gospel is this and anything less than this is no longer the gospel. Jesus, the Son of God, took on to the cross all of our guilt and sin and paid for all of it with his life. It is only through him and him alone that we receive forgiveness and are saved eternally. Even though we let God down constantly, we can be confident of where we stand with God. We know that through Jesus we are accepted.

God gives us the faith to grasp and rely on his grace. Faith is the realisation of how empty we are and how much we need God's help. We believe in him and trust him because he has first accepted me. And even when our feelings tell us that God could not possibly forgive us, or when our faith gives way to doubt, that doesnít change our status with God one bit. God loves me, Jesus died for me, God has accepted me and thatís all that counts. Thatís the beauty of the gospel in all its simplicity. Itís grace, itís free, itís a gift, but oh how it goes against the idea that you only get what you pay for. By instinct we feel as if we must do something in order to be accepted.

But that's not the end of it.
After Peter had made his confession of sin, Jesus gave Peter and his friends a commission. "From now on you will be catching people."
After Isaiah had been cleansed of his guilt, he hears the voice of the Lord ask, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" And Isaiah replies, "Here am I. Send me!"
God then gives him the task of being messengers to his people. Isaiah doesn't say, "Send me if it isn't too hard. Send me if I don't lose face with my friends or it doesn't cost me anything. Send me if you will guarantee me success." Isaiah had experienced the judgement of God on sin and realised to an even greater degree that God has a never-ending love for him. He responded with gratitude and thanks,
"Here am I! Send me!"

Having been cleansed and restored to God and assured of life with him now and forever, let's us also like Peter and Isaiah take up the challenge to catch people - telling them what Jesus means to us,
serving them in their needs,
comforting them with Christian love,
encouraging and supporting those who are sad and depressed.

Let's not excuse ourselves with the plea, "Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing. We tried so hard but we haven't had any luck."
May the Holy Spirit create in us a new heart.
With sins forgiven and God's grace in abundance, let our response to the love of God also be, "Here am I! Send me!"

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
8th February, 2004

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