A sermon preached on February 7th 2010 based upon Isaiah 6:1 – 8 and Luke 5:1-10.
There is that funny little story, perhaps you’ve heard it: A little girl sits intently drawing a picture. Her mother asks, “What are you drawing, honey?” “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The mom replies, “You know, sweetie, nobody has actually seen God, so nobody knows for sure what God looks like.”
“They will after I’m done drawing.”
We started our worship this morning with a passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet describes seeing God. He was in the temple one day and suddenly he is caught up in a vision in which he sees the Lord lifted up, seated on a throne surrounded by all these angels. His response to what he sees is to be absolutely terrified, crying out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
This is one of the very few instances in the entire Bible when somebody claims to have a face to face encounter with God. God appears to Job out of whirlwind at the end of all his suffering. The author of Revelations describes an extended vision that include direct encounters with God. Moses is said to have seen “the back side of God.” That’s about it.
The implication in these handful of stories is that in our present state, we human beings are not ready to see God directly, that to do so would somehow obliterate us. In some sense it is an act of mercy on God’s part that God doesn’t come to us directly, unveiled. To see God directly we have to wait til after we die.
Nonetheless, it leaves us in a puzzling place. We are called to trust in a reality that we can not see, or touch, or hear, and yet upon which, it is said, our very lives depend; to have “faith” which the letter to the Hebrews defines as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I find I can’t help but long for a glimpse behind the veil. I am fascinated by, and a bit envious of people who describe having received such a glimpse.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant seventeenth century mathematician; an early scientist, and one of the truly great intellects of his age. His later writings turned towards religion. Following his death, a servant found sown inside his coat a journal entry he had carried around with him, close to his heart, that described an experience he had eight years prior his death: It read:
“The year of grace, 1654, Monday, 23rd of November… From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight, FIRE. ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’, not of philosophers and scholars, Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ…”
Alone late one night Pascal had an experience for about two hours during which all doubt about the reality and power of God altogether vanished, an experience he described as being like unto a consuming FIRE. Apparently Pascal had been anxious to hold on to the memory of this experience of absolute certainty, keeping the account close at hand at all times.
St. Thomas Acquinas the great medieval theologian is said to have had an experience of the presence of God late in life of such intensity that afterwards he refused to write any more theology. Having experienced God directly, he described all the words he’d written about God just “so much straw.”
I find these stories fascinating, and for similar reasons, I have read all the books about people who have had what is called “Near Death Experiences,” because such people also claim to have seen “behind the veil”, and in doing so, portray themselves as having left behind all uncertainty and doubt.
Although such experiences may be more common than we realize, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of us are not privy to a glimpse behind the veil. We identify with the distressed father in the Gospels who brought his sick and suffering child to Jesus in a desperate plea for healing. Jesus says, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” To which the father cries out, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
Belief and unbelief; that’s where we find ourselves having not seen face to face. Sometimes the belief part seems stronger, but at others, such as in times where we witness things like the suffering of children, it is the unbelieving part that comes to the forefront.
(Even atheists who claim certainty in their doubts are, I believe, deceiving themselves. They cannot prove the non-existence of God; their atheism means only that their unbelief dimension seems stronger than their belief. But who knows what doubts haunt their certainties within?)
So, those of us who haven’t gotten to see behind the veil, how do we come to believe in a powerful God of love who is intensely invested in our lives?
This morning’s Gospel story provides some direction here. Jesus shows up at the lakeside and begins to teach. People are instinctively drawn to him; so many people show up in fact that Jesus borrows Simon’s fishing boat to manage the crowd. He is, to say the least, a compelling speaker, and in large part this is because of the sense of internal authority he conveys; he speaks as one who seems to know from first hand experience of what he speaks. He isn’t a mere scribe, talking about what others have said before him. He holds their attention, which, in and of itself, is no small thing.
But by the end of his talk, Simon and the others who have been listening are probably quite impressed, but not fundamentally changed. “That may well be the best preacher I’ve ever heard, and I’m certainly going to give some thought to some of things he said, and if he comes to town again, I’ll make a point of coming around to hear him speak again. But there’s work to be done, a living to scratch out. I didn’t catch any fish last night. I need to get back to my job.”
So then something weird happens. The preacher directs Simon to put his net down on the other side of the boat. For a variety of reasons, this suggestion doesn’t make much sense. It’s the middle of the day when the fish should be chillin in the deeper waters, not hanging about near the boat waiting to be caught. But out of politeness if nothing else, he does as the preacher says. Suddenly his net is bursting to the point of breaking with a great catch of fish.
Now here’s the thing: God hasn’t stepped out from behind the veil. Nothing has happened that is undeniably miraculous. Maybe the preacher just saw something they missed, or maybe it was just a lucky guess. Maybe it’s nothing more than a coincidence.
It’s pretty weird though, and particularly in so far as it occurred in relationship to this man who claims to be so very close to God, it makes Simon stand up and take notice. It inspires a profound sense of awe.
So this is how it often goes with the faith journey. We’re paying attention, and we notice weird stuff happening. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe it’s a God instance.
I suspect many of us here today could share experiences of this sort of weird stuff happening in your life.
Frederick Buechner tells a story of a time he had a stopover in an airport. With some time to kill, he stopped into an empty airport bar to fortify himself against his least favorite form of travel. Every seat at the bar was open. When he sat down, he noticed that in front of every seat there was a little card featuring the drink of the day, but at his seat, the card had a bit of metal attached to it. On closer investigation, he saw it that it was an old tie clip, made up of three initials. Exactly his three initials, in the right order.
Just a coincidence? Possibly. But Buechner could not help but feel as though it was a kind of calling card left by God, to let him know he wasn’t alone, that he was expected and on the right path.
My wife has a friend Marty with whom she works. For the better part of a year, Marty had derived much pleasure and comfort from watching a family of three birds in a nest outside her kitchen window. When the three birds finally flew off and left the nest, never to return, Marty found herself feeling surprisingly grief-stricken. At some point soon afterwards a friend, unaware of the whole bird saga, happened to give Marty a card that featured on the cover a picture of three birds.
Just a coincidence, or a comforting nudge from the veiled God?
Over twenty five years ago I was in a very stuck place, both psychologically and spiritually. My stuckness involved a particular young woman who lived at the time in another state. Though I rarely saw her, my thoughts went to her often. On a Sunday afternoon I set out to begin a week of vacation, heading away from where this woman lived. As I drove down the highway, my thoughts returned to obsessing about her. I pulled into a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway to go to the bathroom, pulling in to the only open parking space I could find, and there, standing literally next to me, was this young woman. It could have been a mere coincidence, but it sure felt to me that God was giving me a pretty direct message: Deal with her. One way or another, get yourself unstuck.
A few years back I had a friend over to the house who was despairing. Though Carl spent a good deal of time in church, he found the whole business of God pretty unbelievable. I asked him whether it seemed conceivable to him that when you die there is a heaven. He replied, with some cynicism, that it would be great to believe that when you died you went to Disney World.
A few minutes later, my son Bobby who was six or seven at the time, entered the room. He hadn’t heard the conversation. He liked Carl, and he wanted to give him a present. Bobby wrapped something up and gave it to him. Carl unwrapped his present to discover a Mickey Mouse figurine that Bobby’s sister had brought him back from, of all places, Disney World.
Carl agreed; that was pretty weird.
I find in my own life that there are times when I seem to be in the flow of the Holy Spirit where the God instances happen fairly frequently. Doors open. Connections with the right people to get a project moving are easily made. God seems close at hand clearing the way.
Other times, the way is not so clear; the God instances less apparent. What makes the difference? I don’t know for sure. Even Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, experienced times when God seemed far away; the Garden of Gethsemene and the crucifixion are the most obvious examples. There appear to be times when the journey requires quite literally trusting without any kind of obvious encouragement coming our way.
But there is an interesting detail about the story of the catch of fish that should challenge us. The weirdness of what happens seems to reveal God’s holy-though-unseen presence. Simon’s response, however is to fall on his knees before Jesus and cry, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” There is something disturbing about the possibility that God is indeed very real and very involved in our lives. It means, in a sense, that our lives are not our own. Our lives belong to God. The experience implies that there is a claim on us. It matters how we live our lives. And we may well have our priorities, our agenda skewed. If we begin to take into account the big picture that these experiences invite us to consider, it may well mean that some significant changes will need to take place in the way we live our lives. So, we must consider the possibility that there is something inside us that is invested in the state of disbelief, and resists noticing those God’s instances.
In the story, Jesus quickly reassures Simon. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. The power that has a claim on Simon’s life has his best interests at heart. His life, however, will indeed change. From now on, Simon will be about fishing for people; helping them to catch a glimpse of the graciousness he has witnessed.