What happens if I let God come close to me?
A sermon on Isaiah 6:1-13 & Luke 5:1-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 February 1998
© LaughingBird.net

When we encounter the reality of God we are overcome with our own unworthiness, and we are confronted with a choice - to push God away and hide from our self-realization, or to accept God’s gracious invitation to mercy, transformation and mission.

If you were to take a survey among the average group of committed Christian people, asking them about their New Year’s resolutions, you could be fairly confident that you’d find that more than half of them include wanting to get closer to God during the coming year. That has certainly featured more than once in any such resolutions I’ve made, and it will no doubt feature again. Many of you have that on your list of aims for the year too. Am I right?

It is also something we express from time to time as a group aim, especially when we talk about worship services. We say that one of the aims of a worship service is to help people to . . . draw near to God, to experience the presence of God, to encounter the living Christ. And so we should. I hope that will always be central to our aims in worship.

But sometimes the way it is talked about leaves me a little uncertain as to whether we really know what we’re seeking. We want to keep things calm, undisturbed, peaceful. We want a consistent warm and comfortable environment. so that we can maintain the sense of the presence of God. But when I read the biblical accounts of people encountering the presence of God, I don’t see calmness and peace and carefully moderated joyousness. I see awe, terror even, and a devastating sense of nakedness, vulnerability. People throwing themselves down on their faces and thinking they’re going to die. People suddenly not so sure they want to be close to God at all.

Maybe we need to think again about what it is we’re looking for on Sunday mornings.

In the readings we have just heard we hear two major examples from the Bible. Isaiah went to the temple, probably not expecting anything different from what he usually experienced in the temple, just a quiet time of prayer or a well regulated participation in the community liturgy, when suddenly he is confronted by a dazzling vision of God seated on the throne and surrounded by awesome creatures thundering “Holy! Holy! Holy!” so loudly that the foundations of the temple shake. And Isaiah falls to his knees saying, “I’m beyond hope, I am doomed, because every word on my tongue is sinful and I live among a sinful people, and here I am in the presence of the Holy God Almighty!”

Simon Peter, going about his business as a fisherman. He’s met Jesus, in fact Jesus has already healed his mother-in-law, but he has no concept of Jesus as anything more than a rabbi with some success in prayers for healing. But in a strange encounter in his own workplace, Peter suddenly sees into those eyes and you can almost hear the angels singing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” again. He falls to his knees in anguish, “No! No! Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man! Go away from me.”

Paul too, in our third reading, when speaking of his own encounter with the risen Christ speaks immediately of his own unworthiness to be considered an apostle.

Now I haven’t seen a lot of falling to the ground a screaming going on in here, and I don’t hear it mentioned on the list of things we hope will start happening regularly. Not since Michael Arnott left anyway.

So what is going on in these stories, and how does it relate to our hopes for greater closeness to God? If God is love and mercy and peace, why do these men all fall to their knees trembling in fear? What is it they see in those eyes?

This is not just a sense of social discomfort, of being a bit out of place. I’m sure most of you know that feeling - you know, you go to a fancy dress party dressed as a pig, and as you walk in the door you suddenly remember that this is a Jewish household and most of the guests are Jews! That paralyzing sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and you might as well be naked ’cause you wouldn’t feel any worse. But Isaiah and Simon Peter’s experience goes way beyond that.

God is love, and yes love can be comforting and welcoming, but sometimes there is something absolutely terrifying about love too. And when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly and hits you right between the eyes it can be too much to bear.

You know this. All of you have observed it. Most of you have experienced it, at least to some extent. Ask any woman and she will tell you stories of men who are afraid of love - crave it but flee from it when it comes close. It actually happens with many women too but they often don’t find out because their threshold is just high enough that the men run before the women get to their breaking point.

You know it especially if you have ever betrayed the one you loved, and knowing it they’ve forgiven you and with pain etched on their faces loved you still. And you’ve looked into their eyes and you couldn’t stand it. And though you’ve just been given the most precious gift in the world, and one you pleaded for, there is something deep inside you that just wants to scream, “Go away from me. I’m not worth it. I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. Punish me as I deserve and leave me!”

There is something about that look of deep love and desperate pain that burns holes in you, that tears away all your carefully cultivated facades, that leaves you feeling totally exposed. And you know that your loved but it’s more than you can bear.

And I put it to you that that is what happened to Isaiah, and that that is what happened to Paul, and that that is what happened to Simon Peter, and that at some point on the journey that is what happens to each and every one of us if we would draw closer to Jesus Christ. For some it happens at their conversion. For others it can happen at any point along the way. God knows when you need it, but for everyone there comes a point where you’ve come as far as you can go on the journey of faith and the way ahead can only be trod by those who have looked deeply into the face of Christ.

For in that face is a love so high and so deep, so long and so broad that it can encompass the entire universe, that it can dance at the birth of a butterfly and fling stars into space to celebrate the rescue of a lost sheep. And in that face is the agonized pain of one whose heart breaks when a sparrow falls to the ground and who feels nails tear through his flesh with every litre of poison that flows into the oceans, with every land mine that rips the limbs off a child, and with every thought, word or act by which you or I show ourselves to be less than human, less than we know we can be, less than the icons of God that we were created.

When you look into that face, when you are engulfed by the extent of that love and that pain, you will, like Isaiah, feel like you are going to die; like no one can come out of such an experience alive. Looking into the core of a nuclear reactor will seem like a mere flickering candle by comparison.

If you can imagine how you would feel if your ears suddenly turned into loud speakers and broadcast your every thought to all around you in brutal truth, then you can imagine one tenth of what that look of agonized love will do to you.

There are people here who have been there, who can tell you better than I because I can’t claim to be one of them. I’m not sure but I think I’m actually standing at that point now, but I haven’t yet summoned the courage to look into that face. Perhaps I’m too afraid. Too afraid of what I’m going to have to face in myself. Perhaps I’m not sure that I’m man enough to surrender to that love.

Many a person gets stuck at “Go away from me Lord.” They catch the faintest glimpse and avert their eyes and hold Christ at arms length saying “Don’t come any closer” for the rest of their lives.

And that is the choice you have when you experience the love of Christ. In fact that is the choice you face at every step of the journey, at every experience of the love and goodness of God at whatever level. You can choose to turn away your face, say “No further God,” and repress the memory of what you glimpsed in yourself, or you can fall deeper into the arms of Jesus, abandon yourself to his mercy, and go with him wherever he leads you next. You can be sure that just like Isaiah, Paul and Peter, the moment you let yourself go in the presence of God and hear the words of mercy, “Your guilt is gone, your sins are forgiven, be not afraid.” and then the call to become with Christ a bearer of that love and mercy to others. “Who shall I send? Who will be our messenger, our fisher for men and women?”

That’s the choice we face at this table. Will you receive God’s mercy and hear God’s call, or will you say, “Go away from me Lord”? That’s why we sing the same words as the angels as we approach, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord.” Will you come to this table and risk encountering the risen Christ? Look into his face and receive his broken body, his spilt blood? Hear the call, “Whom shall I send”? At whatever point on the journey you are, if you want to know Christ more and take the next step with him, you are welcome at this table, his table.