Sunday, February 7, 2010

God can use us regular folks

February 7, 2010

Isaiah 6:1-13; Luke 5:1-11

We say we believe in God, but we don’t always believe God. We describe God as giving abundantly, but we tend to hold onto our stuff, because we don’t trust God to give us more. We want to believe God will give us words to say, but we are afraid to open our mouths to speak about our faith to others. We pray for medical miracles, but don’t really expect they will happen, so we prepare our hearts for the worst, instead of the best. We don’t believe God can use us, regular, old – or young – us, with no particular gifts or talents.
And yet, we receive and forward emails telling of such events. We watch the news for such good-news events amidst the tragedies of earthquakes and floods and storms.
Isaiah lived in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, near the time of the Assyrian invasion which would destroy the country and scatter the people forever. God had a job for him to do, to speak God’s words to the people, to warn them, to hopefully turn the people from their ways.
Isaiah had a vision. He saw God as an over-sized being – so immense that just the hem of God’s garment filled the temple. There were attendants – seraphs – we think of them today as angels – who flew around God calling “Holy, holy, holy.” In Hebrew, the repetition of a word is like us adding –er or –est to a word. So God is more than holy, God is more than holier, God is the holiest of all that exists.
In comparison, Isaiah is a mere man, with faults and sins. Like John the Baptist declares that he is unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, Isaiah is unworthy even to speak to or even look at the Lord. Yet, God has a job for Isaiah. God overcomes Isaiah’s feelings of unworthiness by touching a coal to his lips – an act which gives him clean lips and a sinless heart, and makes him worthy to speak God’s words.
Unfortunately for Isaiah, the people will resist God’s words, and Isaiah’s life will be miserable. Unfortunately for the people, they will, therefore, end up conquered and their land laid desolate.
Perhaps Isaiah had foreseen the Assyrian conquest, and had prayed about it, offering himself to God. Did he expect to have a vision of God’s presence and power and purpose, and to be touched by God’s seraphs? I very much doubt it. I think he simply made himself open and available to God, and God worked through him.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus and the crowd were gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee – now called Lake Gennesaret. He was probably in Capernaum, where he and Peter and the other fishermen lived. Capernaum was the town where the prophet Nahum had once lived – so it was called K’fer Nahum – the town of Nahum. In America, we might have named it “Nahumtown” or “Nahumville.”
Anyway, over night, Peter and his crew had been out fishing and caught nothing. But they still had to clean the gunk of the sea off the nets and repair the nets for use the following night. It was quite a time-consuming, but probably boring task.
As they were finishing the cleaning, Jesus asked to use the boat as a pulpit, so his voice would carry to the whole crowd. We’re not told what Jesus said, but we can guess. What’s important is that Jesus then asked Peter to put the nets he has almost finished cleaning back into the boat and to go out into the deep water.
I suspect that Peter rolled his eyes as he replied, “Master, we have worked all night and have caught nothing.” I suspect that there was a little sarcasm in his voice as he spoke. He doesn’t say it, but I suspect he thought, “You know nothing about fishing! We won’t catch a thing, but we’ll still have to clean the nets – again – when we get back to shore.”
He certainly wasn’t expecting the abundant haul, so much fish that it filled the nets and the boat. So much fish, they needed help in hauling it in. So much fish, it filled two boats. So much fish, the boats almost sank with the weight. So much fish that Peter saw the holy, holy, holiness of Jesus, and the sinfulness in himself in comparison. Jesus reassured Peter that he should not be afraid – his sinfulness was not a problem. Once on the shore, Jesus and the first disciples left for a preaching tour, to fish for people.
It’s my belief that Jesus had prepared Peter, James and John – and Andrew, who is missing from Luke’s version of this story – for the time when they would leave Capernaum and begin their missionary journey. So, when this overabundance of God through Jesus occurred, they were ready and able to walk away from the enormous load of fish. Perhaps they had family and other workers to haul in the nets, empty the boats, and sell and preserve the fish. Perhaps this load of fish provided needed funds for the families while the disciples were away for long periods of time. Or, perhaps the fish lay there, available for any hungry person to take and eat.
 When Peter first met Jesus, I imagine he knew there was something special about him. But did he ever imagine nets so full even two boats nearly sank with the weight? Did he ever imagine traveling with Jesus and fishing for believers? Did he ever imagine denying Jesus, and then being forgiven and charged with guiding the believers into the future? Probably not. But once invited, he was willing to offer himself for God’s purposes.
We tend to think of Bible people as special, as different from us, but Jesus wanted to make sure that “regular” people can be used by God for divine purposes. Regular people like us – like you and me. It takes only an awareness of God’s presence, power, and purpose in our lives to be used by God.
Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision US, and the author of a book titled The Hole in the Gospel. I recently read this story in his book. Cambodia is 90% Buddhist, so Stearns was curious to learn how Pastor Roth Ourng came to be Christian. World Vision had come to his part of Cambodia and begun to do ministry: they set up a TB clinic, improved the schools, taught better agricultural methods. Ourng was suspicious, and he kept a close eye on them. “What were they up to?” he wondered. One day, he went and confronted the leader,  who told him, “We are followers of Jesus Christ, and we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are here to show you that God loves you.”
Ourng asked who this Jesus was. The leader gave him a Bible, and he went home and began to read it. Needing help in understanding it, he was taken to meet a pastor, who explained to him about Jesus and his message. When the pastor asked if he would like to be a Christian, Ourng said, yes, and committed himself to following Jesus. Five years later, Ourng was a pastor himself, with eighty-three members in his church. How did he come to have people in his church? Stearns asked. Ourng replied, “I was so excited to learn about Jesus that I had to share this good news with everyone I knew.”
The church’s music is provided by a simple two-stringed instrument for Sunday worship. For special services, runners are sent 30 miles away, to two other Christian congregations, to borrow their guitars. After the special service, the runners then returned the guitars to the other villages.
God used this regular guy, a Cambodian Buddhist, to build a Christian community in rural Cambodia. Who would have thought it?
I’m willing to lay odds that you have at least once in your life experienced God’s abundance. It may not have been a vision of God’s garment and seraphs. It may not have been an enormous catch of fish. But it was something that made you aware of God’s power, presence, and purpose. Perhaps it was something as simple as the birth of a child, and your calling to raise that child to know and love Jesus.
Perhaps you are looking around at our congregation and wondering what God has for us to do. Who are we, this shrinking community of faith, with such a little budget that we can’t even buy Sunday school materials?
It was only when Isaiah and Peter recognized their lack of power in comparison to God’s power that God was able to work through them. We’d prefer to not have to admit our sinfulness and powerlessness to anyone, including, or even especially ourselves. But perhaps if we do, God will see fit to embrace us, and will empower us to be the people and the community of faith God has in mind for us.
If God can use a court prophet, a fisherman, and a Cambodian Buddhist, why can’t God use us? What will we dream of doing? What should be our vision? How will we be God’s people in this time and this place?

Please pray with me. Merciful and mysterious God, you are holier than we can imagine, yet filled with compassion for us “regular folks.” Fill us with your love and your purpose, so we can truly be your instruments of love in our community. Guide us into the future you have in mind for us. In Jesus’ name, amen