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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Hopeful Words in Hard Times

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: go, call, commission, do

February 6, 2022    Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand

Text: Isaiah 6:9: “And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.

If you have ever attended the ordination of a priest in our church, you will almost certainly be familiar with the lesson we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah. It is inspiring, and bold, and dramatic, and just the touch that new ordinands, who have no idea what they are getting into, think of as an appropriate way of beginning their ministry.  

That’s because it is a commissioning story; it is Isaiah’s own account of the moment he knew he had been called to the vocation of a prophet. We don’t know, we will never know, whether he was literally in the Temple in Jerusalem when this all happened, or what the circumstances were that led to his firm conviction that he had been called. What we have is this dramatic story, with God speaking in the first-person collective, with smoke and seraphs flying around the whole scene, with one of them anointing the new prophet’s lips with hot coals. 

Ordinands love it, because it ends with these words: “Send me!” Every time I hear it, it brings to mind a classroom of eager children, with hands raised as high as they will go when the teacher needs someone to go on an errand to the principal’s office—“Me! Choose me!” 

When you hear this reading at an ordination, almost always that is where it ends. And that is a pity, and even a tragedy, because it only tells half the story. The other half of the story is not nearly as wonderful, or affirming. But the whole story is made up of both halves, and it’s really the second half that speaks to our predicament—and to our own calling, all of us, in this world at this moment.

Bear with me for a little history. King Uzziah has died. That is no small thing. Uzziah had been the king of Israel for fifty-two years—five decades of prosperity, and stability, and a steady record of victory over menacing neighbors bent on attacking Israel. Life without Uzziah is unimaginable.

Not that there hadn’t been troubles during his time on the throne. For the first two decades or so he had ruled as co-regent together with his father. For the next ten years, after his father died, he had ruled alone. Sometime in that period, the scholars tell us, a tremendous earthquake rocked the Middle East; the evidence of archeology shows stone walls broken in two. 

Maybe because of this, or maybe in spite of this, Uzziah had done something unforgivable. He had gone into the most sacred part of the Temple, the place where only the priests were allowed to go, to burn incense. The priests confronted him there. One account tells us that immediately there was an earthquake, and the stone walls of the temple broke so that sunlight streamed in and struck Uzziah on the face, and immediately he became afflicted with leprosy; the last ten years of his life he lived, essentially, in quarantine, in a separate house, and his son, Jotham, ruled together with him, much as he had done with his father.

And now, Uzziah is dead. It isn’t just the temple that is trembling. It’s the whole nation. It feels as though the order and stability people had known for years and years is being rattled apart by the upheaval.

Sound familiar?

In the second half of that reading, God tells the new prophet how hard his job will be. The people will reject his message. The accomplishments of the past decades will be lost. The faithful will refuse to see what is going on around them, or to hear his message of repentance and renewal. 

It won’t be what the stock market gently describes as a “correction.” It will be a near-complete loss. And not because God has abandoned them—but because they had chosen to have faith in themselves instead.

Again...does this sound familiar?

The disciples are living on the other end of that story. By the time they are tagging along with Jesus on his teaching mission, seven and a half centuries after the year that King Uzziah died, Israel has been reduced to a colony of Rome. 

The faithful are few and frightened. Judaism itself is divided into different sects—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. They are no longer a single, unified community of the covenant. They argue among themselves over who has the right answer to their future. They wonder whether they have a future.

Is this all sounding a little too close to home?

So what happens to Isaiah? What happens to the disciples? In the midst of their uncertainty, in the midst of their exhaustion, when they are absolutely certain they are at the end of their rope, they each in their own time get the same message: Go and do this impossible, ridiculous thing. 

Go and speak to people who are bound not to listen to you. Go and show that the answer to our most profound problems—the deprivations of poverty and disease, the mistreatment and abuse of refugees and the vulnerable, the destruction and war of mindless nationalism, the breaking apart of our societies in polarized camps—show that the answer to all of that is love. Show it to them even though they will not see.

Go and fish for followers of the gospel. Go and seek out people to join us on this journey of faith. Go and do it in places where you tried before and got nothing. 

Maybe you’ve done all this before. Peter certainly had gone fishing before. Isaiah had almost certainly shared his ideas with people before. Nothing they were being asked to do was new to them.

What was different was that this time, God was in it with them. Before, they were doing something because it was what they wanted to do. But this time—this time, in their despair and feelings of failure, they stopped for a moment and listen. They heard a call. And they responded.

Now friends, that, too, is our circumstance. We have been through a lot of high hopes, and a lot of disappointments. We look at what is happening around us, at what is happening in many of the countries we come from, and we feel like the temple is trembling under our feet. 

And in this moment—in this moment—there is a call to us. It is not “come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” 

No—the call to us now is, “go and do.” Go and speak to them. Go and show them. Go and reach out to them and try to catch them, even where you cast your nets before. 

Go. Do. All of us. Certain in our hearts, though the foundations shake, that the Lord will make good his purpose for us, that his love for us endures forever—and that he will not abandon the work begun by our hands. Go. Do. Amen.