5 Epiphany—Year C, February 10, 2019
Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13], Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
Isaiah cries out: The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost!”
As a kid I enjoyed sitting on the floor building things: building a house of cards that would become this sprawling thing with two floors. Beautiful! Then the dog would get too close, wag his tail and down it came. I found that building with Lincoln Logs created a much sturdier structure. Then when my kids were little I found that Legos are really strong, strong enough to stand on.
These are images of the building of the self. When we’re little our identity is like a house of cards—easy to build and easy to knock down. One month my granddaughters wear their princess costumes, imitating Anna and Elsa of Frozen, the next month they are sugar plum fairies dancing to the Nutcracker. In a few years their mother will pack up all the costumes as the girls head off to high school to begin building what we think of as their real, solid selves, just like we did.
When we get into our thirties we feel more secure as we build a home and live as a teacher, therapist, lawyer, engineer, cop, salesman, mother, father, or priest. This is what we’ve been waiting for. We spend all those years in college and take on all that debt, so we can finally build the solid structure of who I really am and live the dream.
Now we are that brick house the big, bad wolf can’t blow down.
Scholars think that Isaiah was raised in the upper class of Jerusalem society, probably educated in the royal school. He builds a solid self ready to take on the world. Then one night—in an overwhelming vision of the majesty of God—this solid self vanishes in a moment!
The living God who no one sees and lives—seraphim and smoke and the foundations of the temple are shaking and Isaiah’s solid self falls like a house of cards, vanishes like a soap bubble in the wind.“Woe is me, I am lost.” And he is—who can he possibly be if his personal structure collapses into nothing.
Of course it was always a thin illusion. It was never the real Isaiah but he thinks it is, THINKS IT IS, just as we think so.
One day our house of thoughts will collapse in the presence of too much Reality. “Woe is me, I am undone! I am a sinful man.”
He’s not simply referring to that time he yelled at his father or beat up that kid at Temple School. No, he’s experiencing a deep sense of being disconnected from God, the ground of his being, his source and life.
As you know, the Greek word for sin, “hamartia”, means to miss the mark, like an arrow missing its target. Our sin, out of which all our other sins come, is to live without the awareness of being connected to God. To live as if we have no need of God, as if we have power in ourselves to be ourselves.
This is the original illusion that we maintain by believing the mental fiction of who I am is real and capable of giving me life.
Isaiah is terrified as he discovers he has no real substance in himself—all his mental constructions are dust in the wind, and now in the presence of his source and ground of being, he cries out: woe is me, I am undone!
A terrifying moment—the stuff of nightmares as we can’t escape from the ghost that is chasing us. Yet at the same time a thrilling moment as the angel places a burning coal against his lips, and sets Isaiah free of his illusion that God is not at the center of his life.
A thrilling moment, for when Isaiah sees who he isn’t, he collapses into who he is–a man sustained by God, his source, soul, and salvation.
This is the same type of mystical experience Peter has in the presence of Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish. Peter’s self-understanding is shaken, for how can a carpenter turned rabbi know more about fishing than he does? “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
These kinds of dramatic mystical experiences happen to select men and women throughout history, and not to everyone. They haven’t happened to me.
I’ve prayed for such an experience, sort of, but who wants to be undone and transformed in the blink of an eye when you’ve already bought the tickets for your vacation in the islands next week?
Like Saint Augustine’s “Make me chaste O Lord, but not yet.”
We cry, “Make me a mystic O Lord, but not yet.”
But I think we are all called to be mystics—to see the reality of who God is as our source, soul, and salvation; the source of all that is—creating a luminous web holding all together.
Our mysticism as followers of Christ happens gradually, as we have small moments that reveal the cracks in our carefully constructed self, like when our child has trouble in school or we get passed over for a promotion or we get sick. Slowly we learn that we can’t stand in the wind unless we are grounded in someone bigger and stronger.
By grace we learn we are branches of the tree that is Christ, the Word of God from which we come and in whom we live and move and have our being.
This knowledge comes to Isaiah and Peter and all the faithful as grace. But that’s not to say there is nothing we can do. Our spiritual practices, like prayer, Bible reading, worship, loving kindness toward those outside our comfort zone, help us to say “Yes” to this process of deconstruction and self-transcendence.
But most of all what counts is our daily intention to pay attention to the presence of God in each moment. As our intention becomes clear our attention increases.
As much as I liked to build things as a kid, I never once considered becoming a contractor, or architect, maybe because I was too worried that anything I built might fall down.
Jesus says that if we want to find the abundant life, we must die to the illusory self and live into the Self we are in God.
We do it like Isaiah, by saying, “Here I am, send me.”
We do it like Paul who says, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
We do it like Peter, who leaves everything and follows Jesus.
We do it every time we remember what the Psalm 127:1 says: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
We do it by remembering what Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise who built their house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” Matthew 7:24-25
And that Rock is Christ.