Our texts from Isaiah and Luke are two of the famous calling and sending passages in scripture. One thinks also of the calling of Moses at the burning bush and the calling of Paul on the road to Damascus. In a vision Isaiah was called into the divine throne room, so vast that the whole of Solomon’s temple was the floor level, completely filled with the hem of God’s robe. God was attended by flying seraphim and spoke directly to Isaiah himself. Isaiah saw God directly, and was commissioned to deliver God’s message to the people.
Luke’s text tells of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John at the seaside to be his disciples and then to go out in the world as apostles of his Way. I don’t know whether Peter and the others really were fishermen, or whether the whole scene is an elaborate set-up for the wonderful line: “from now on you will be catching people,” or as the older familiar translation had it, “you shall be fishers of men.” The Gospel of John places the calling of Peter, James and John in a suburb of Jerusalem, and puts the incident of Jesus telling them where to cast their nets for an overwhelming catch in a post-resurrection appearance. At any rate, when the disciples were called, they left everything and their lives were transformed with a mission, as was Isaiah.
These two texts have something special in common. Both Isaiah and Peter were totally thunderstruck at the divine glory, something Peter recognized only when he saw the miraculous catch of fish. The first response of both of them was to bewail their own sin. Isaiah said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Remember the biblical tradition that you cannot see God and live. (Exodus 33:20) Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” John Calvin, the great reformer and theologian, began his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the observation that if you reflect on the glory of God, your attention immediately will be called to the fallen estate of human beings. And if you begin by considering the wretchedness of the human soul, your attention immediately will be drawn by contrast to the divine glory.
In the cases of Isaiah and the disciples, the divine encounter revealed to them not only God, but also their own true identity as sinners. We don’t know whether this was the first time they realized their sinful identity—I rather doubt it because they were all quick to identify themselves accurately before God. The point, however, is that confrontation with divinity immediately delivers the imperative to present yourself honestly before God. In doing so, you may find out who you really are if you don’t know already.
The great twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, said that everyone has an ultimate concern. The object of our ultimate concern ought to be God, of course, although most of us put other things first—our comfort, money, power, the needs of our ego. I think that Tillich was wrong in his claim that everyone has an actual ultimate concern, however misguided. Don’t we all know people who aren’t concerned about anything in an ultimate sense? Don’t we have friends and acquaintances that flit from one concern to another, taking nothing very seriously? Don’t we know people who are everlastingly “finding” themselves and, then not liking much what they find, abandon that identity and hunt for another? Doesn’t the fact that we live in a consumerist society teach us subliminally to be concerned only about the next acquisition, which, as soon as we have acquired it, is not enough? We ourselves, of course, you and I, the Marsh Chapel crowd, are indeed concerned to acquire deep meaning in life, but many of those other people are concerned only with the acquisition of the next thing. Surely you and I have ultimate concerns: but most of those others don’t. We live in a society of proximate concerns. The passionate commitment to proximate concerns, to the acquisitions and little things, is a flight from the terrors of ultimate life.
The reason Paul Tillich believed, however naively, that everyone has an ultimate concern is that everyone, he said, is grounded by and in touch with the ultimate. Even when we don’t know what the ultimate is, and flit from one thing to another, the grounding presence of God in our lives drives us, he thought, to a passionate search for something about which it would be worth being ultimately concerned. He followed St. Augustine in understanding the depths of each human soul to reach into the vastness of God; Augustine said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Augustine said his soul was restless until it finds its rest in God, because that is its natural place (see Augustine’s Confessions). In fact, the restlessness of Augustine’s soul was the divinity in the soul seeking its proper place. But Augustine himself from his youth was a driven man, earnestly seeking something to love ultimately. When he was young, he said, he was in love with love itself, with the idea of being a lover, and only as he tried out things to love, people and religions, did he mature. His conversion to Christianity was the choice of the right way of life, the Christian, through which he could acknowledge his soul’s true home in God, and this was the fulfillment of his ultimate concern. Not many of us are like Augustine, with the passion of ultimacy driving us from our earliest days. Most of us don’t take anything with ultimate seriousness. Or should I say, although you and I surely are ultimately serious, most of the others are not.
I agree with Tillich and Augustine that God lies deep in our souls. But we, or those others rather, are asleep to that divinity. People are under a deep anaesthesia to those frantic stirrings of ultimacy that drove the saints before they encountered God’s call. Hence we need a shocking encounter with the ultimate to wake us up. We don’t know much about Isaiah or Peter before their encounters with God and their special calls. They seem to have been successful, functional people. The events of their callings, however, brought them face to face with the ultimate and they were changed people.
Alas, I doubt that we would be much impressed with the ultimate encounters Isaiah and Peter had. If a contemporary person were to experience Isaiah’s vision of God in the throne room with the flying seraphim the likely response would not be “woe is me” but “way cool—is this a video projection or was there something in those brownies?” The same with Peter’s inference from the huge catch of fish that Jesus was the Lord whom the unclean could not approach: we would treat it as a scientific question about how Jesus knew where the fish were. Neither Isaiah’s vision nor Jesus’ dramatic catch would give us “ontological shock,” as Tillich called it, the shock of encountering something ultimate when we had thought only proximately important things were there.
If we have the ontological shock of encountering God, it might be in some sublimely beautiful thing, a sunset, a song, or a smile that reduces us to tears. More commonly we come up against ultimacy when suddenly faced with the ruination of our career, or the death of someone we love, or the immanent prospect of our own death. Or maybe we stumble on ultimacy not in external events but in a sudden recognition of our own abject failing, when the ultimate appears as a divine judge. Or maybe we find God as a creative power deep within our soul that we had not recognized before, a power wild and perpendicular to whom
we thought we were. But if we are asleep, we defend ourselves against the ontological shock of the ultimate in front of us. We do not attend carefully to what is beautiful. We deny or trivialize death. We lie to ourselves about our failings, always saying we can and will do better. And we tame the God within with the ropes of conventional expectations. I say, my friends, that we need to take down these defenses and wake up to ultimate reality. Creation abounds with opportunities for the divine encounter.
The price we pay for such an encounter, however, is the humbling admission of our own identity. No matter how good we are in comparative terms, in absolute terms we are bums. Please don’t think that I am demeaning human virtues, of which you and I have many even if those others don’t do so well. It’s just that with us the virtues are so mixed with harms and vices that our identity is ambiguous, a mixture of good and bad. The encounter with the divine does not make us merely lament our sorry state. It makes us admit that state, to be honest. To test yourself for spiritual honesty, imagine yourself presented before God who sees and knows all things, face to face (as I quoted Paul last week). To live before God is to live naked of any excuses and cover-ups. Encountering God strips us naked of all the shams by which we try to present a good face to the world or to ourselves. Even a sunset, observed with ultimate seriousness, does that.
Sometimes it seems to work the other way. Without any conscious encounter with God or anything ultimate, we interrogate ourselves about our personal identity and find nothing we like. We admit to ourselves our ambiguous morality, our self-deceptions, our flights from seriousness into a round of petty proximate concerns. We had been so proud of ourselves, so much in love with ourselves, that when we come to the shocking and unwelcome admission of moral vacuity we turn against ourselves with the condemnation and spiteful hate of a spurned lover. For a while we can take perverse pleasure in the ironic righteousness of our self-condemnation, but sooner or later that evaporates and we have just despair. No hope. Nothing. Nothing worthwhile is in the soul at all. Abandon hope, all ye who enter honest into the soul. But if you admit to absolute despair you will have found God. What is it that propels this internal examination but ultimate concern itself? Honesty that goes to the end finds the object of ultimate concern, the God whose creative power rushes through us like a mighty river. It’s like John Calvin said: starting without God but with only the human soul we immediately find God.
The result of the divine encounter and the turn to absolute honesty is a mission, a meaning for life. When Isaiah and Peter came to know who they were, they knew what they had to do. Of course they didn’t know the details. God had to instruct Isaiah what to say, and Jesus had to shape the ministries of those who gave up their nets to follow him. Nevertheless, Isaiah and the disciples knew who they were relative to God, to the ultimate. Whatever confusions they later had, and the disciples had many, they lived through those confusions before God. They kept their proximate concerns in perspective, and lived for those things that were of ultimate importance.
Let me tell you now that we all have been called. The simple gospel is enough for that. We have a mission to live before God as lovers, to create communities and human relationships that make love possible, and to pursue careers whose real meanings, whatever the job, is to extend Jesus’ ministry of recreating the world in love. The exact content of your life and mine is dictated by the particular contexts in which each of us lives before God. We each must discern what our destiny of living in ultimate perspective is, and that depends a lot on the needs of the world around us. We are thrown into our particular situation and need to learn how to live ultimately in that world. The discernment of spirits, so as to detect the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that identifies precisely what is ultimate in our lives, is a gift devoutly to be prayed for.
Before that prayer for discernment, however, is my fervent prayer for you today, that you encounter the God who shows you who you really are, who allows you to shuffle off your petty identity and take up an identity powered by ultimacy. You can fly to sublime beauty and God is there. You can suffer deep tragedy and God is there. You can sink to despair and God is there. You can encounter the wild creativity of our cosmos in the deepest recesses of your heart and God is there. I invite you to wake up to the divinity that is before and behind you, to your right and left, above and below, and deep within. When you come awake, you will know who you are and will be called to what to do. You will bear God’s creative love in the shape and substance of your life. Without the resonance of ultimacy your life is as a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. With the ontological shock of the divine face to face comes honest life before God and an ultimate direction for life. Come, Holy Spirit, and reveal yourself, and us. Amen.