Deepening Faith

By Bruce G. Epperly

Epiphany 5
Deepening Faith

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 138
Luke 5:1-11

Listen a moment to the Isaiah passage again. Hear Isaiah 6 imaginatively as if God spoke to you right here in church . . . How would you feel if one day you showed up in worship and you truly encountered the living God? If your prayers for guidance and presence were answered by a direct word from God, giving you an undeniable sense of your vocation and vision in life? (Conversation)

Well, that’s what happened to Isaiah. The country was falling apart. The leadership was corrupt and clueless, and was going in the wrong direction faster and faster. And that day, Isaiah showed up at the temple, no doubt, simply for a moment of peace and comfort, and to escape from chaos of the political situation into the familiar comfort of the liturgy. Crowds milled around him, and others said their prayers, but Isaiah alone experienced the Holy One of Israel personally and directly.

Isaiah 6 describes a mystical experience, akin to Rudolf Otto’s image of God as “mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating.” Mystical experiences can happen anywhere and everywhere. We cannot control when and where mystical experiences occur, and we often run away from them, but when we open to God’s surprising presence, our lives are forever transformed, even as they are turned upside down.

In his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis described the Lion-Christ Aslan as “untamed,” and that is surely the case for God’s revelation to Isaiah. The foundations shake, angels fly, and Isaiah is overwhelmed. “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” What a revelation! All things are permeated by God, inspired by God, enlivened by God. Every moment is a holy moment, every place is a holy place, and every encounter is a holy encounter. In the spirit of our prayers at Disciples United Community Church, Isaiah experiences “God in all things and all things in God.”

Glued to his seat, Isaiah wants to run away. He confesses his “unworthiness” and the “sin of his nation” and then he is touched by forgiveness . . . by love . . . by the Holy Power that will give him voice and vocation.

In his awe, Isaiah hears a majestic voice, “Whom shall I send, and who will speak for us?” The majestic God that confronts Isaiah in glory beyond imagination is neither all-powerful nor all-controlling. God needs Isaiah—God needs us—to be God’s partners is mending the world (tikkun ‘olam) and in speaking a prophetic word of justice and healing to the wayward community. Suddenly understanding that God needs him, Isaiah says more than he could have imagined an hour before and changes his whole life course: “Here I am, send me.” (Send me to challenge our nation’s imperialism, idolatry, materialism, and injustice. Send me to be your messenger of radical and subversive hospitality.)

Psalm 138 describes the interplay between divine majesty and divine love. Majesty alone does not lead to worship or trust. As domineering American foreign policy and the wanton violence of terrorists reveal, power without wisdom and justice can intimidate and destroy, but it cannot heal and transform. Psalm 138 speaks of another kind of power—a holy power, a whole-making power, a majesty, grounded in loving and steadfast care.

This is the only power that can inspire love and gratitude. And, this loving power utterly transforms the Psalmist. As Meister Eckhardt notes, if the only prayer in your entire life is “thank you,” that will suffice. Thank you, God, for waking me up this morning. Thank you, God, for morning sun. Thank you, God, for insights and inspirations. Thank you, God, for the love of families and friends. Thank you, God, for unexpected courage and strength to face even the most desperate personal and political crises with hope and wisdom.

Thanksgiving connects us to the larger realities of life. When we are thankful, we see our lives from a wider vantage point. When we live by gratitude, we trust that God can transform even the negative realities of our lives. From gratitude comes perspective and willingness to face life’s “unfixables” (Margaret Guenther) with patient, persistence, and resolve.

Isaiah proclaims “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And Peter experienced God’s glory right there on the job, after an evening of unsuccessful fishing. Peter’s initial response to Jesus mirrors his own experiences of failure—I’ve been fishing all night, and haven’t caught anything. How can my unsuccessful future be any different from my unsuccessful past?

Have you ever felt like Peter—working fruitlessly, losing an important document on your computer, unsuccessful on the job hunt? This is real life—and sometimes we can’t imagine a future in which we will find wholeness and fulfillment. But, Jesus calls Peter to “go deeper”—go deeper into the waters, go deeper in faith, go deeper in your imagination, go deeper in trusting my vision for your life. God’s aim always calls us to go deeper in our spiritual and vocational lives. God says “go deeper and you will experience abundance beyond your wildest dreams.”

Though God’s call is always personal and conditioned by our limitations as our achievements, God’s dream for us is never tied to the status quo. Divine energy pushes us forward to new adventures and greater stature as persons and congregations.

Jesus’ encounter with Peter challenges us to look at our own lives personally. “Where do I need to grow? What deep waters call to me? Where do I need to take a risk in order to claim God’s adventure in my life?” But, it is also addressed to this congregation, “what new, and apparently impossible, adventure does God call us toward? Amid our failures, what new vision needs to be born?” A few months ago, we envisaged the future of this congregation—and sometimes it seems like an impossible dream. But, yet!  What if we really opened ourselves to God by praying for divine inspiration and energy for our congregation every day, by looking deeper into our lives and our calling as God’s beloved children and as members of this faith community, by intentionally and regularly praying for synchronous encounters that will inspire us to invite progressive allies and seekers to join us. What if?

Like Peter and Isaiah, we may feel “unworthy” and powerless. We may want to run away from our personal and congregational calling, and the desperate state of our national life and the environment, but God’s grace speaks through our experiences of unworthiness and limitation, inviting us to become more than we can ever imagine. God gives us a dream, a vision, and the energy to bring it about.

That day, Peter launched out into deep waters . . . and found abundant life . . . and companions to help him with the task. And this day, God calls us to deeper waters, and to find companions to support and grow with us. Do you hear God calling? Can you imagine the smell of incense and the touch of an angel? Do you see abundance and prosperity, hidden beneath failure, for ourselves and our community? Go deeper . . . for an adventure awaits you . . . an adventure awaits us . . .

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.