Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sermon: “Finding a Way on the Road of Faith”, Isaiah 6:1-8/Luke 5:1-11 (February 10, 2019)


Picture this: you’re driving from one end of the United States to the other. You’ve been driving for a while, so you’re a long way from where you started and everything around you is unfamiliar. Let’s imagine, too, that for some reason, you aren’t able to drive on the major highways, so you’re slowly making your way along backroads. It’s been hours and hours since you last saw a sign telling you where you are. You’ve stopped to get gas, and you’re wondering if it’s even worth the effort to keep going. It’s late; you’re tired, and you’re not even certain that you’re still on the right road. Maybe you should just give up.

I imagine that this is something like what Simon (who we usually refer to as Peter) must have felt when Jesus told him to put down his nets again in today’s Gospel reading. Simon informed Jesus that they’d been working all night with no results. They had no reason to believe that they were even fishing in the right spot. The fact that the fishermen were washing their nets indicated that they had finally given up and were done for the day. They probably felt rather hopeless, and more than a little bit stuck professionally—it’s not like a fisherman can give up fishing for good, no matter how frustrating it gets.

Does ministry ever feel like either of these scenarios to you? Does the task of “being the church” ever feel unproductive, like we’re not making any progress and you’re not even sure if we’re on the right track? We gather every week to hear the Word of God and to learn, and then in response we go out into the world to try and literally practice what we preach. But too often, it can feel like we’re not making a difference, like what we do doesn’t matter and we’re on a road to nowhere. Like Simon Peter, we find ourselves saying, “Jesus, I’ve worked all night—all week—all year—but I haven’t accomplished anything. If you say so, I’ll keep going…but I’m doubtful that it’ll make a difference.” If only we could have some proof that we’re doing the right thing, if only we could see our final destination right around the corner, then we’d know that this journey is worth it.

When we’re actually traveling down backroads and feeling lost, though, we don’t expect immediate results, do we? We don’t expect to miraculously arrive at our destination just because we’re feeling tired and discouraged. That would be silly and unreasonable, especially if we already knew that the trip was a long one. But we DO need something to help us, to keep us from giving up. So when we’re on the road, we look for a sign. A sign that grounds us and tells us where we are. A sign that tells us that we’re on the right road. And most importantly, a sign that tells us what’s coming up next.

Signs are important on any journey. Signs give context and reassurance. They help provide much-needed motivation to keep going by affirming that we’re headed in the right direction. Sure, it’d be nice if we could just skip to the destination and get immediate validation of our efforts…but that’s not how a journey works. If we WERE to get such “proof” of our rightness, we’d be skipping to the end without the work of getting there. It’s impossible to get to the “proof” part without the struggle and ambiguity of the journey, and all we have to rely on in the meantime are whatever signs we can find along the way. Understandably, this can make it difficult to keep going sometimes—it takes so much time and so much work for what often feels like such little payoff. But that’s the gift of signs: they point to something bigger, something that’s beyond our reach right now but hopefully won’t be forever. Something worth the effort of the journey.

The miraculous catch in Luke 5 was a sign for the fishermen. Notice how it happened AFTER Jesus had been teaching—in a way, it was a response to the Word that Jesus preached. Notice how it came at a time when Simon Peter and the other fishermen were disheartened and feeling discouraged. Most importantly, notice how it didn’t represent the end game for the fishermen. It wasn’t the end of the road; it was the sign that they needed to keep them going on a larger, more important journey. The story doesn’t end with the extraordinary catch. It “ends” with the men leaving everything and following Jesus…it ends with a renewed energy and a new beginning, as any good story of a sign should.

Being a disciple of Christ means being on a journey that never ends during this lifetime. We shouldn’t be waiting for our spiritual GPS to say, “You’ve arrived at your destination!” because if we’re depending on that to fulfill us, we’ll quickly fall into despair. Instead, we should be looking for the signs that tell us we’re headed in the right direction, whatever they may be…signs like a true sense of God’s presence…deepening fellowship…a renewed sense of purpose…or something else. We don’t always know which signs we’ll find along the way, but if we’re looking for them, we’ll recognize them when we see them.

Of course, the signs we do see won’t always be the signs we were hoping for. Sometimes, in scanning the road for signs, we may discover to our dismay that we’re heading in entirely the wrong direction. That’s sort of what happened to Isaiah. As the scriptural cannon presents it, Isaiah has been prophesying to the pre-exile Israelites for 5 chapters by the time he has this vision. He’s already been on the journey for some time when he encounters God face-to-face in this passage. (As a historical side note, “the year that King Uzziah died” is a literary marker that represents the end of stability for the kingdom of Judah and a beginning of significant threat from the Assyrians.[1] So the context of Isaiah’s sign is a crossroads of sorts.) He sees for himself the glory of God. He hears the angels proclaiming God’s holiness. And he’s horrified to realize that God’s people have been turning away from God’s glory and holiness in pursuit of their own earthly agendas.

When he perceives this sign, when he sees for himself who God truly is and how the people have been rejecting God, he cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” In other words, “Eureka! We’re on the wrong road!” The obvious question for Isaiah, then, is, “How the heck do we get back on the right path? How do we course-correct?”

Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20, and we know that the Israelites didn’t listen to Isaiah’s prophetic wisdom—they were forced into exile because they stubbornly stuck to the wrong road and ignored the signs that Isaiah pointed out to them. This is a familiar narrative in our time, too: we live in a world of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, where politicians and celebrities are constantly called out on mistakes that they’ve made in the past. Like the Israelites, they’re all too willing to remain on the same destructive road, covering their tracks and making excuses so that they don’t need to adjust their trajectory. And they, too, often find that, rather than being their salvation, their choice to ignore the signs around them often leads to disaster.

But that’s not the inevitable outcome of a wrong turn. It’s possible to find our way back to where we should be—otherwise, what would be the point of signs? In the Church, we often use the language of “repentance” and “turning back” to describe this sort of direction-changing. But there’s a pretty major problem with this imagery: we can’t undo the wrong we may have already done while we’ve been traveling down the wrong road (plus, nobody really likes three-point-turns). We can’t walk back the mistakes that we’ve made. All we can do is start getting it right from now on.

That’s not to say, of course, that repentance is useless and unimportant. Maybe, instead of retracing our steps in penitence, we can focus more on reorienting our hearts, minds, and spirits so that we can find the new path that God desires for us from now on. When you’re driving down an unfamiliar road and realize that you’re heading in the wrong direction, which would be a more productive way of handling the situation: turning around and hoping that you can figure it out, or making sure that your map is oriented in the right direction before you choose your next turn? Repentance is like recalibrating our internal compass to make sure that it’s pointing to true North—God. After all, turning around doesn’t do us any good if we want to keep moving forward, and God is the only one who can help us make sure that the next road we choose is the right one.

We’ve already traveled so far on the road of faith, and there is so much further yet to travel. We shouldn’t waste our time regretting the wrong turns we’ve made and fixating on our mistakes. God has already forgiven them. Repentance isn’t about scolding or punishing ourselves; it’s about readjusting our direction so that we can leave our own road behind and choose God’s instead. We often refer to this passage in Isaiah as the story of the prophet’s call, but that implies that this is Isaiah’s starting point, his origin story. It’s not. Isaiah’s prophecies began before these events and continued long afterwards. Maybe this can serve as a reminder to us that a successful journey doesn’t require that we be on the right road from the very beginning. Obviously, it’d be wonderful if we could keep our lives oriented towards God at all times (and we should certainly try) but we ARE human, after all. We make mistakes. Isaiah shows us that even if we wind up taking a detour, it’s never too late to course-correct. All we need to do is look for—and heed—the signs that God offers us all along the way.

In fact, maybe this is a good time for us all to check the side of the road that we’re traveling on and see if we’re heading the right way. Are our lives reflecting God’s will? Is our community reflecting Christ’s love? Are our actions truly reflecting what God is asking us to do? Both Simon Peter and Isaiah saw the signs along their path, and it forced them to confront their own sin. It’s not easy to follow God’s signs sometimes, especially when it tells us something that we’re not excited to hear. Maybe we’re clinging to an outdated tradition for selfish reasons. Maybe we’re more fixated on what church can do for us than what we can do for Christ’s Church. Maybe we’re forgetting the real reason we gather together in a church community in the first place. None of these things make us bad people or bad Christians. They just mean that we need to watch vigilantly for the signs that God is placing in our lives. We need to find them and follow them wherever they lead. If Simon Peter, the rock upon which Christ built the church, and Isaiah, a prophet of God, can find themselves in need of correction and submit to God’s direction, certainly we can be humble enough to do the same.

Each of us is even now in the middle of an epic journey. At many points, the roads on which we’re driving converge, and we travel together for long stretches. But we each need to decide for ourselves when the signs along the way are encouraging us forward, and when they’re trying to divert us in another direction. The road is long and we may grow weary, but God’s guidance is true and the journey is worth it. Let us not get hung up on those moments that we’ve made wrong turns or the fact that our destination is still far off; instead, let’s embrace the adventure together and rejoice in the moments that we get it right. Like the fishermen, let’s leave everything and follow Christ on the holy road that lies before us. Amen.


[1] Childs, Brevard S., “Isaiah”, p. 54.

No comments:

Post a Comment