Feb 10, 2019 – Experience Perfection
I used to work for a wonderful guy, Norm Baggs in a bookshop in north Seattle. We’d sometimes go to movies or out to eat and a few times to the Seattle symphony.
We had a regular customer who played violin in the symphony and she would sometimes bring in complimentary tickets. One Saturday she brought in tickets for Beethoven’s 9th for that night. So, we went. The seats were about as far back and high up as you could be in the concert hall. It’d been a long day of work, I was tired, and it was warm up there.
Now, the Ninth is very long! At one point about half-way through, when I was leaning back in my chair trying not to nod off, I happened to glance over at Norm. He was sitting on the edge of his seat, leaning far forward… with tears rolling down his face. Now, I don’t know if Norm was experiencing perfection or not, but for sure I knew he was experiencing something I wasn’t. And it was far closer to perfection than what I felt.
The idea of experiencing perfection sounds wonderful doesn’t it – I’d like to experience perfection wouldn’t you? Perfection seems as though it carries no worries, or anxiety – no dismay or fears. I think it might be an experience of bliss and joy, such as I saw in Norm. The idea of perfection conjures up in us a hunger for it.
We desire it because we perceive that perfection would mean that we lack nothing, need nothing and nothing would be a bother. Perfection, and the ability to experience it, would seem to be all about my personal freedom and peace… And yet.
And yet in the scripture readings for today we have two people who have been in the presence of perfection, and their descriptions do not include any of the things we’ve talked about. Their experience of perfection was terrifying, humiliating, shameful, fearful and yet at the same time, gave them an experience of God’s grace.
It’s paradoxical that the idea we have of perfection is in sharp contrast with the actual terrifying experience of being in the presence of Perfection related to us in the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Try to imagine and sense what Isaiah saw and experienced in that vision of heaven:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth
With fear and trembling Isaiah labeled himself a ‘woeful’ man by seeing the Lord’s perfect presence. And yet there came also to Isaiah a sense of great relief and peace when the angel, doing God’s will, touched Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal followed by his sin being declared atoned for. He now experienced the freedom of God’s action of cleansing atonement for him. Realizing what God’s grace to him meant, it was now right for him to be there, to be in the presence of the perfect, holy, living God.
And then God, from His throne makes a request. He asks for a volunteer to go and speak His words to the world. At this, Isaiah steps forward and knows that he can do this because of where he is and what he has experienced, by the grace of God.
By the declaration of forgiveness, in the presence of God Himself, Isaiah had been made acceptable to God. And, when God asks, Isaiah is prepared by God’s mercy and able to go and do as God prepared for him to do.
But the point for us today is that Isaiah feared to be in the presence of the living God because he understood himself to not be worthy to be there. He was sinful. And he was in the presence of sinlessness. And so, there was an immediate recognition of his own unworthiness.
Think about a time when you recognized your own unworthiness. How does it feel to know you are wrong and you are guilty for it? Perhaps it’s like this letter sent to the White House by a boy back in 1895. He wrote …
To His Majesty, President Cleveland: Dear President: I’m in a dreadful state of mind; and I thought I would write and tell you. About two years ago—as near as I can remember—I used two postage stamps that had been used before on letters, perhaps more than twice. I did not realize what I had done until lately. My mind is constantly turning on that subject, and I think of it night and day. Now, dear President, will you please forgive me? And I promise I will never do it again. Enclosed find the cost of three stamps, and please forgive me, for I was then but thirteen years old, and I am heartily sorry for what I have done. Signed; From one of your subjects.
We know the kind of dread that young man felt that made him write such a letter. And we’d be foolish to dismiss that sense of dread as being something childish that we all grow out of. Of course, the deed and the dimension in this story may be child size, but that feeling –the grip of fear and dismay – is something we can all relate to. Dismay is what I felt when I realized Norm was experiencing something I was missing at the concert.
Or consider this. To be exposed and without any cover of any kind is what Isaiah felt when he stood in God’s presence. That, Woe is me, that Isaiah said is our human reaction to the penetrating scrutiny of being in God’s presence.
The French general Lafayette tells us that he was once shut up in a little room in a gloomy prison. In the door of his little cell a very small hole was cut. At that hole, a soldier was placed day and night to watch him. All he could see was the soldier’s eye; but that eye was always there. Day and night, every moment when he looked up, he always saw – that eye. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘it was dreadful! There was no escape; no hiding’. When he lay down or rose up, that eye was watching him
The awareness of being ever-watched and seen for what we truly are is bound up in the dread that both the boy in the letter, and Lafayette felt. Such as what Isiah also felt and, what happened in the gospel lesson today, when Peter recognized Jesus as holy and divine. Peter in his recognition of who Jesus is speaks of what Lafayette and the boy expressed. Read with me please verse 8 of the gospel lesson. “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
When we think of being in the presence of the divine God we’re always brought to our knees in shame and fear. It’s our natural guilty reaction to the power and perfection of God. It’s like when Adam hid from God in the garden. When anyone is confronted with God’s divine perfection, we have no choice but to see our own guilty filth, our own sinful shame, our own utter poverty of purity; just like Peter.
Jesus is nothing but purity, light and peace. We are nothing but turmoil, angst, and darkness. And yet when we see Him as He is, we desire and crave more of Him … or we reject Him and loath Him.
And here’s the thing that overwhelms our fears like it did Peter’s; God, despite His perfection and holiness, still / wants / us. Though we see our shame and we know He knows it, yet still He desires us. His love reaches out to us through our dark and awful sinful condition and in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ alone, draws us to Himself.
Then Jesus said to Simon,
“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”
Peter understood that Jesus was giving him absolution in the words Don’t be afraid. Peter experienced what Isaiah experienced: forgiveness from the Perfect One.
Jesus, the Perfect One – now in the flesh – granted to Peter the grace to follow Him, because Jesus loved Peter. Like Peter, we know that it isn’t because of any loveliness in us but because of the loveliness of Jesus that He grants us that same forgiveness also.
Though He is righteous and holy, and we are only vile and unrighteous yet, of His grace and mercy and His desire for us, He was willing to do whatever it takes to make us righteous. This His did so that He can bring us to Himself and we can be with Him in His Father’s mansion. It took the reality of the all-atoning death on the cross for Jesus for us to be made righteous and worthy, and like Isaiah, to stand now in the presence of God’s perfection.
Peter knew himself to be unworthy of the presence of the holiness that is embodied in Jesus Christ. Jesus had just brought to Peter great wealth, in terms of this world, through the large catch of fish. And this miraculous act made Peter aware of his own sinfulness. Such perfect wealth Peter knew came not from his own hand or work, but such a thing could only come from the work of God alone. This was a power that was not in Peter’s control and Peter had to bow down before it, to bow before Jesus. His is the power of perfection.
The experience of perfection is what Isaiah and Peter both had, and for both it was a matter of the power of the grace of God alone that allowed them to live. This perfection and power is what Jesus calls His followers to tell others of. Like the first disciples were to take the good news of the kingdom of God to others, so we also are given that same joy.
Others we love and know, need and desire the perfection that comes through the cross of Jesus bringing us the grace of God that enables us to be in the presence of God and live. By the blood of Jesus Christ, we are made perfect. It took the gruesome experience of suffering on the cross by Jesus to bring His perfection, His holy righteousness, to all people.
His experience of the cross we needed, in order that we can, through the grace of Jesus Christ alone, experience the perfection of God’s presence. In Jesus holy and perfect name we pray, amen.
[Sermon #1002 Rev. Thomas A. Rhodes, Pastor – Zion Lutheran Church, Bolivar, MO]
First Reading Isaiah 6:1-13
6 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
Epistle Reading 1 Corinthians 14:12b-20
12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
Holy Gospel Luke 5:1-11
5 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.
8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.