Isaiah 6:1-8 (with the children)
A story from vacation: kayaking in the marshes in southern Virginia Beach. We encountered a water snake, coiled and floating upon the water, head raised several inches above the water, poised to strike. Now, I don’t like snakes, but, even so, this dangerous creature was attractive.
What is it about dangerous things that is so attractive? Annie Dillard, in her memoir An American Childhood, wrote about a downed power line, sending off sparks and burning a hole through the pavement. Every time there is a snow fall in York County, there are a bunch of folks who hop into their 4 wheel drive vehicles just to see “how bad it is”. What is it about dangerous things that is so attractive?
We each have different tolerance for danger. Have you ever met the danger that is too big for you?
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5.8). Danger.
In the last chapter, Peter has welcomed Jesus into his home and Simon’s mother-in-law was healed from the fever. In this chapter, with a theme of “Jesus, the Holy One”, Simon welcomes Jesus into his boat and is blessed with a great catch of fish. And all of this goodness adds up to . . . danger?
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and mystic, describes the human condition as one of deep longing for true relationship, relationship with the “You”, with a capital “y”. He spoke of it in the context of religion – the difference between being converted to a religion, to a new god, and truly knowing God “as deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me” (Ps 42:7). He spoke of it in the context of intimate love between a man and woman, “When a man loves a woman so that her life is present in his own, the You of her eyes allows him to gaze into a ray of the eternal You” (I and Thou, 1970, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 154). These moments of profound connection, to the depths not just of the other but the depths of God, are available to us in almost any situation . . . but we miss it. He describes the experience as both “mysterium tremendum” – the mystery that makes us tremble with fear – and “mysterium fascinans” – the mystery that draws us in with desire and attraction.
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. As Isaiah cried out, “Woe is men! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6). All of this goodness does indeed add up to danger. Why?
Peter was convinced that this level of goodness, this extraordinary bounty, this catch that was sinking his ship, could only come from One whose Holiness was complete and unbroken. And he knew the stories. He knew the story of Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark of the covenant on the ox cart – and dying (1 Chronicles 13:7). People who get too close to a holy God might not survive the encounter, not because God is out to get them but because holiness is deadly to those who are not holy.
In this moment of blessing, Peter realizes that holiness has come too close. He fears for his safety, despite being attracted to this Jesus who does such wonders. “Mysterium tremendum”.
In older communion liturgies, we used the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to show mercy.” It is a prayer that recognizes “tremendum”, Isaiah’s “woe”, the dire danger of approaching a holy God.
Today, Jesus invites us to approach, to come before the mystery. In the traditional language, he asks Peter to “launch out into the deep”. We’ll find ourselves in over our heads if we “launch”. As Bilbo says in The Lord of the Rings, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to” (JRR Tolkien).
Jesus asks Peter to “lower his nets for a catch”. That word for “lower” is a word used for slackened bowstrings, lowered guard, released hold, opened dead bolts. Aside from fishing, the word is used to describe vulnerability. First, “launch” – risk. Then, “lower” – vulnerable.
Approaching this unpredictable, undomesticated, holy God is dangerous business AND incredibly rewarding. For both Peter and Isaiah, they found forgiveness and cleansing . . . though a burning coal on the lips does not sound at all comfortable. They encountered the Holy and they emerged holy themselves. And, they found a calling that defined and drove them. You want a higher purpose for your life? You want to know the call of God? It doesn’t come without encountering the dangerous Holy One.