Let us pray: Lord God, bless us with ears to hear and eyes to see when you speak to us. Give us grace when we fall short, and carry us through those places where your call is too much for us. Give us ears to hear your word, O Christ. Amen.
I once read a comparison between searching for knowledge and deep water*: shining a light into deep water only shows you how very deep and very dark the water is; the brighter the light is, the further down you can see into the water, see that there is still no bottom in sight, and the darker the edges of the light look against the brightness.
In the same way, when we search for knowledge, we discover the edges of knowledge. We discover how much there still is to learn. Every kind of knowledge has edges, places where our knowledge peters out into questions and speculations and theories. There is always more to learn.
God’s call weaves its way through all of our readings for today. Saul, the persecutor of the church, heard Christ on the road to Damascus. He gave up his persecution, knew instead that this new church was God’s movement, and changed his name to Paul. Isaiah sees a vision of God in the temple at Jerusalem, surrounded by the heavenly court full of seraphim, these indescribable creatures with six wings and a desire to sing to one another that God is “Holy, holy, holy.” Simon Peter offers his boat to a traveling preacher and ends up following that preacher around.
And throughout there is mystery: that God would appear, specifically, to some guy who’s made it his life mission to destroy everything new that God is doing in Israel, who has put Christians to death and traveled the nation looking for more. The court of the Lord, which Isaiah glimpses and is so unable to describe. The unexpected, bountiful catch of fish, overflowing not just one but two boats, and Simon’s decision afterwards to leave it all behind to follow this Jesus.
Mystery brings us right up against our own limitations. We crash into them as we try to formulate our truth, to make lists and theories, as we try to categorize and make these mysteries become small enough for us to understand: because I’m not talking about cozy murder mysteries, where everything will be revealed by page 300 or by 8:50, but mystery writ large, mystery of the type where more light shows only how deep and dark the waters are. No matter how far we go, no matter how much we strain to see the edges, there is only so much we can see and know.
Not only is this prime persecutor of the church called by Jesus, that man, who’s spent his whole life learning to be the very best Jew he can be is sent to the Gentiles, to people who couldn’t care less that Paul could recite every clean animal and the entire cleansing ritual and every other minutia of the Law. Not only does Isaiah have this vision, but when God speaks to him and gives him his call and mission as a prophet: it isn’t a call to love. It isn’t a call to feed the hungry or encourage the hopeless or bring freedom to those who are full of fear and wrapped in chains. No, it is a call to destruction, to preach so that no one understands, to preach until Israel has been destroyed, until only the tiniest remnant of God’s people remains. Not only does God call Simon Peter, an illiterate fisherman, but he eventually promises that he will have a huge part in building God’s church.
Our called people that we read about today know that their experiences show their own frailties and limitations. Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles,” “one untimely born.” Isaiah’s response, not even to his call, but just to his very vision, to seeing God’s court overflowing with seraphim and how only the hem, the very edge of God’s robe filled the Temple–Isaiah’s response to all that was to say, “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’s response to this abundance of fish was to fall at Jesus’ feet and cry, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Coming up against God, against God’s mysteries and strength and abundance, shows us our own limitations, how little we can see and understand and do.
And yet–when we enter into that mystery, go out onto the deepest part of the lake at Jesus’ urging, follow God’s call: we receive abundance more than we could ever have imagined. Maybe not an abundance of fish, but an abundance. So much that others will see and come to help. We are surprised by results we never expected. We take part in something huge and sprawling and world-changing, like evangelizing an entire empire. We do good. We take part in something beautiful–for Isaiah’s message may be depressing beyond measure, but he wrote beautiful poetry, poetry that has lasted through the ages and touched countless Jews and Christians.
And yet–God calls us. God is doing something unimaginably huge, something that will change the world in fundamental ways that we cannot understand, and still God reaches out to us, invites us to join in and take part. We are sinful, we have unclean lips, we are the least of those who serve, but still God wants us. God knows our flaws and sins, far more deeply than we can, but still God reaches out, inviting us to join in this new, wonderful re-creation.
We are not called to understand, to know the deep water’s darkness. We are not called to act alone, for God promises to be with us. We are not called to certain results, for this is God’s calling and God’s world and God’s work. No, we are called only to follow.
And so let us follow.
*I believe it was in Alison Croggon’s book The Riddle, although I haven’t been able to find it to confirm.