“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!”
“For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle”
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
These three quotes come from today’s Scripture readings, from Isaiah 6, 1 Corinthians 15, and Luke 5 respectively. In their own ways, each reading tells the story of a theophany, a dramatic, life-changing encounter with God. And, each of these encounters leads to a declaration of unworthiness, an almost uncomfortable expression of humility. Today I’d like to reflect a bit on this shared aspect of the readings.
The reading from Isaiah is the story of the prophet’s call. He is in the Temple when he has a vision of God being attended as a mighty king by seraphim (angelic beings of fire), whose voices shake the Temple walls. It is in response to this vision that Isaiah proclaims that he is “lost” and with “unclean lips”. Notice that God hasn’t addressed him yet; his sense of unworthiness is not in response to any words of judgment. It is simply a natural reaction to being in the presence of God. If we can experience awe and wonder in the face of transcendent beauty and excellence in the forms of a vista or genius and be transformed by it, how much more are we confronted by our smallness in the presence of God — especially in a situation like Isaiah’s, where God is envisioned as an enthroned king ready to render judgment upon his subject! But, in response to Isaiah’s declaration, one of the seraphim purifies his lips with a coal, and God appoints Isaiah as a prophet.
Turning to the Gospel reading, Jesus has borrowed a boat from some fishermen so he can preach to a large crowd without getting mobbed. When he’s done, he tells the fishermen to drop their nets one more time. They are skeptical, since they’d just fished there and had come up empty. But when they do as Jesus asked, their nets are immediately filled — to the extent that they come close to bursting and almost sink the boats! It’s clear that this wasn’t just a good guess; this is no natural haul, but a clear, supernatural demonstration of God’s abundance. Simon immediately falls to his knees and tells Jesus to leave him, for he is a sinner. Again, this humility is not in response to words of judgment, but simply Simon’s natural reaction of wonder and awe in the face of something far greater than he can understand. And in response to Simon’s reaction, Jesus tells him to get up and calls him to follow him; he will no longer trawl for fish, but for people. And his haul will be far greater than he can imagine.
The last story is a bit different but we see some similar themes. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul passes on what seems to be an early creed. The words focus on Jesus’s death and resurrection, and — unsurprisingly considering the strangeness of these claims — a list of those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. At the end of this list, Paul tacks on his own name and declares himself to be the “least” of them all. The experience Paul is referencing is his conversion story, told in Acts 9 (and repeated in similar forms in Acts 22 and 26 and in Galatians 1). Paul was on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus when he is confronted by a vision of the risen Jesus. He is blinded and thrown from his horse and instructed to continue to Damascus to be instructed in the Christian faith. There are differences here from the other stories: there are words of judgment in this story (”Why are you persecuting me?”), and Paul’s debasement is forced upon him by the power of the vision, rather than a response to it. But, it’s clear from the vantage point of 1 Corinthians — years later — that this experience had a lasting impact on Paul and he remembered well the humility it produced in him. He had thought himself wise and discerning; he was zealous for God in his attempts to thwart the upstart sect of heretics called ‘Christians’. And yet he was all wrong. God stopped him in his tracks and set Paul on a new course, using his zeal to become the apostle to the Gentiles.
So what can these stories offer us today? Very few of us are likely to experience the kinds of theophanies we see in today’s readings. But, if our eyes and hearts are open, we are no less able to be struck by the Mystery all around us — the Mystery of life, the world, of God. The more we see, the more we realize how little control we have over our lives and circumstances, how insignificant we are in the big picture. And that’s a wonderful, freeing thing. This is a beautiful kind of humility, which God can use. Isaiah is confronted with the reality of his ‘lying lips’ and God cleanses his lips and uses them to speak words of judgment and comfort which continue to inspire us over twenty-five hundred years later. Simon Peter is confronted with his unworthiness of God’s abundance and tells Jesus to leave him, and Jesus tells him to follow him and promises a life of even greater abundance. Paul is confronted with his spiritual blindness and misplaced zeal, and God opens the eyes of his heart and uses his zeal for way of Jesus.
Humility is a good and natural response to wonder. And by understanding what we’re not, we are in a better place to understand who we are, and who we are called to be: Small and finite, yes, but beloved and precious, and each called to live out our unique vocations as best as we can in the circumstances before us.
May all of our weeks be filled with wonder and awe, and all-due humility.