In the Year the King Uzziah died
Epiphany 5, 2010
February 7, 2010
The liturgical calendar moves on. We are nearing the end of Epiphany and already the staff is looking ahead to Lent—we are busily putting the final preparations to the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, working on bulletins for Ash Wednesday and nailing down the final pieces of our Lenten programming. Tomorrow, I will be heading off for a two-day clergy retreat. I don’t know what they are like in this diocese, but in Upper South Carolina, our January or February retreat was clearly a pre-lenten retreat; it was designed for us to prepare spiritually for the season, so that in turn we might nurture the spiritual lives of those in our care.
I’m looking ahead to Lent, but we’ve still got two Sundays in Epiphany to get through and both of them have as their scriptural focus peak spiritual experiences. You have already heard me criticize the editors of the lectionary for various decisions they make, and no doubt I will make similar comments from time to time. They were more than occasionally ham-handed in the way they dealt with scriptural texts and injudicious in their editing. Still, on this fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C, they got it exactly right.
The season of Epiphany offers us the opportunity to reflect on God’s presence among us; God’s presence in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but also the ways in which God manifests Godself in the world and in our lives. The Psalms are full of reminders of God’s glory—“The heavens declare the glory of God” our hymns of praise repeatedly have us singing about the glory of God. We read about that glory in the story of the wedding at Cana and in the coming of the magi.
In today’s lesson from Isaiah, we hear one of the most familiar, and most transcendent experiences of God’s glory in all of the biblical tradition. The prophet Isaiah has a vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lofty.” It is so important to the biblical tradition that the song the seraphim sing has become our song in the Eucharistic liturgy. For many scholars of religion, the vision described by Isaiah and his response to that vision, have become something of a paradigm for understanding religious experience in general, not just Jewish or Christian.
Isaiah describes a vision in such vivid detail that it may seem to us as if we are with him in the temple. He claims to see God, but the vision itself is of God’s throne and a being so vast that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance, flying and singing. As Isaiah looked on, he felt the temple shake as if it were in an earthquake and the temple itself filled with smoke.
Isaiah’s response to that awesome vision was to recognize the vast gulf that divided him from God. He described himself as lost, a man of unclean lips, unable to perform the tasks to which God might be calling him. It is an experience similar to the one we heard the prophet Jeremiah describe in last week’s reading from Hebrew Scripture: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah’s response to God’s words is to protest, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God insists and reassures Jeremiah, just as God reassured Isaiah, that God would put words in the prophets’ mouths.
Paul described a very different sort of experience in I Corinthians 15, the experience of the risen Christ. It is one of the key passages in all of Paul’s writings, a key passage for understanding Paul and a key passage for understanding New Testament Christianity. Paul cites for his readers a long list of all those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He seems to be saying, if you can’t take my word for it, here’s a list of everyone to whom the risen Lord appeared, go talk to them. The accounts of the encounters with the Risen Christ in the gospels as here in Paul seem unable to explain the radical transformation that took place; changing a rag-tag bunch of disciples into a group of men and women who took the gospel to the ends of the earth. That’s the important point.
As with Isaiah and Jeremiah, what matters is not so much the experience itself, it is the response. Isaiah and Jeremiah became spokesmen for God, prophets of Yahweh, and Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ was also a call, as he says in Galatians. In fact, the language of Jeremiah echoes in Paul’s understanding of his own call: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me.” For Paul the appearance of the Risen Christ to him was less significant for affecting his conversion than it was in establishing his authority as one of the apostles.
Speaking of which, the gospel story of Jesus calling the disciples is easily the least dramatic of all of the call narratives we have before us today. Jesus is by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds pressing in upon him, he seeks refuge from them in Simon Peter’s boat and teaches from that place. When he concludes, he tells Peter to put his nets back in the water, and there is a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus uses this to invite Peter, and the others, to follow him, and thus they become Jesus’ disciples and, to use the words of our gospel, “fishers of people.”
So Peter, Paul, and Isaiah each had pretty spectacular things happen to them, and their response in the end was to set about on the tasks that God had given them, to respond to God’s call.
I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday that one of the challenges facing Grace today, indeed one of the challenges facing Christianity as a whole, is the lessening importance of religion as a factor in people’s lives. A series of surveys has shown the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to no religion. Often, when this answer is probed, respondents mention that they are “spiritual, not religious” that they have spiritual lives, even nurture them, but they do that outside of traditional religion. My guess is that for at least some of you, something similar is true. You may come to church, but if asked to describe spiritual experiences, you might mention something that had no connection with traditional worship or life in community.
I have no doubt that those of you who fall into that category have authentic spiritual lives. In some respects we have been culturally programmed over the last two centuries to seek spiritual experiences outside of traditional religious institutions. Many of us might find ourselves as likely to pursue meditation practices that have more in common with Buddhist techniques than with traditional Christian forms of prayer.
Even more important than the “spiritual not religious” idea is the notion that we are seekers, each of us in some way on some sort of spiritual journey or quest. From time to time, we may find ourselves in pursuit of deeper and more fulfilling spiritual experiences, trying to quench a thirst that never seems to end. We might desire ever greater highs without taking the time to understand them or their effects on us. For most of us such quests are deeply individualistic, often occurring entirely in solitude.
As we come to the end of the season of Epiphany and begin to look toward Lent, making a connection between the experiences of the sort we read about in today’s scriptures and the hard work of deepening our faith, may be what binds Epiphany and Lent together. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul did not satisfy themselves with the religious high of their experience. For it was not just a high, it was also a low. Each of them responded to the glory of God with an awareness of their own finitude and inadequacy and each of them came out of their experience on fire to do God’s work in the world.
The quest for spiritual experience is not enough. Our communal worship, the Eucharist, and our individual experiences may be ways of encountering God, but we should never allow them to become ends in themselves. Our lessons make the case that spiritual experience should lead to a sense of call and mission, a new awareness not just of our finitude or even a deeper sense of our relationship with God. As we end Epiphany and look ahead to Lent and Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, may our experience of the glory of Christ become strength and nourishment for the journey ahead.