Wednesday, 27 July 2011

7th Sunday after Trinity: Caught between terror and glory

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
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, 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!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Tom Daley is one of our brightest hopes for the Olympics next year. Although he’s still only seventeen he is already a world diving champion. According to a story in the Times on 24/7/11, he started diving when he was just seven years old, progressing quickly from diving off the poolside to diving from the one metre board and then the three metre board. The ten metre board, however, was a source of terror.

He was eight before he managed to walk along that long bendy plank, and he was so scared that he felt like he wanted to crawl along it. When he stood at the end, and it took him three or four attempts just to get there, he had a choice. He could have walked back down, or he could jump. He was caught in a point in time between the terror and the glory.

With everyone standing at the poolside encouraging him, finally he jumped and he described it like this, ‘I got this feeling of being free and falling through the air. It was amazing and it seemed to last forever; the weightlessness, the adrenalin rush. I just wanted to do it again and again.’

But what would have happened if he hadn’t jumped? Caught between the terror and the glory he could have chosen submitting to the terror and none of us would ever have heard of him. So much hinges on the choices we make in moments like that.

In our Gospel reading we are confronted with a story of Peter being challenged by what he saw in Jesus. He, too, was caught between the terror and the glory, but was wanting to do quite the opposite of Tom Daley, by coming into contact with water and not breaking through it. Now I think this walking on water story was probably quite a lot to ask a first century person to believe, but now, twenty centuries on, it seems almost impossible.

Yet this story is one of only a handful that not only appears in two of the synoptic gospels, but also appears in John’s Gospel too. The reason that’s significant is that Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Mark’s Gospel as a common point of reference. It seems that Mark wrote his first and then Matthew and Luke used that as a basis for their own gospels. John, however, wrote completely independently.

What that suggests to me is that this was such a pivotal moment in their lives together that the disciples all remembered it clearly and related it to the gospel writers. Now I know that we’re supposed to believe that all of the gospels are word-for-word truth, but it somehow adds a little extra credence when something appears in the synoptic gospels and also in John because it means that either Matthew or Luke didn’t just copy it from Mark.

But there’s something more here as well. Each of the stories have slightly different emphases, and the account we have before us today is the one with the most detail and the only one which includes the account of Peter walking on the water too, so that’s what I want us to focus on, and then we’ll turn to the reading from Isaiah.

Although the story covers only two paragraphs it seems to develop over the course of several hours. Firstly we see Jesus sending both the crowds and his disciples away. He wants some alone time to pray, so the disciples depart in a boat while he goes up a mountain to pray; and so the day passes. The next comment is about the evening, and Jesus us up the mountain praying but the disciples are struggling with their boat because the wind is against them and they’re being battered by the waves.

Lake Galilee may only be seven miles across, but its position, surrounded by hills with a mountain range at one end, means that the weather can make it a very dangerous stretch of water to be caught on in a storm. And then the clock flashes forward to the early morning, and so we can only imagine how exhausted the disciples must have been from fighting with their boat all night.

That’s when they see Jesus walking across the lake. Now I’ve often pictured a serene calm lake and a misty sun rising, but they’ve just been in the midst of a storm, so it strikes me that the water wouldn’t have been all that still. So if Jesus was walking on the water he would have been going up and down quite a lot with the swell.

When the disciples saw him, they were terrified. Well I guess you would be wouldn’t you. From a distance they didn’t know it was Jesus and probably thought they were seeing either a ghost or a demon. And then Jesus calls out to them, and we have a pivotal moment in the life of Peter as he, too, is caught between terror and glory.

Unlike Tom Daley though, it is not his own glory but the glory of God that awaits his next decision. So he cries out to Jesus, ‘If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ What an interesting way to phrase it, ‘...command me to come to you.’ Peter is not asking to be given supernatural powers to walk on water like Jesus is.

He is recognising that if he can overcome his terror he can dwell in something of God’s glory. He’s caught between the terror and the glory and so he asks Christ to command him to come, because he knows that only then we he be able to. There is no self-sufficiency in this, and nor is there any attempt at self-aggrandisement, just a request in the midst of terror for help to step out of the boat.

What we can learn here from Peter is what we are capable if, caught between terror and glory, we are willing to risk it all on God, and this is one example of what faith looks like, and it bears a remarkable resemblance to courage. It is a willingness to look at the terror of what surrounds us, and then look at God and step towards him, getting out of the boat.

The remarkable thing, I believe, is the honesty we see when, caught between terror and glory, Peter takes his eyes of Jesus, off glory, and terror begins to reassert itself and he starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus and is immediately rescued. Peter is not a sceptic who is overwhelmed by doubts, but a man who, in a place of terror amidst the waves stacked up around him, needs help.

Caught between terror and glory, he chose glory and therefore, even when the terror began to reassert itself, the Lord came to his rescue and didn’t let him sink.

Let’s have a brief look at our Old Testament reading here for a moment because we can see the same kind of thing taking place. Although this passage is in Isaiah 6 it is actually the commissioning of the prophet. The previous five chapters are more of an overture to the symphony that begins in this chapter.

Isaiah is caught up in a terrifying vision of God’s glory. The Lord is filling the temple in Jerusalem with merely the hem of his robe and he is surrounded by angels. As the angels speak their voices are so powerful that the whole building begins to shake so that smoke and rubble begins to fill it. And remember, this is just the voices of the angels; God himself hasn’t spoken a word yet.

What we hear from Isaiah are two responses. Caught between the terror and the glory, it is first the terror on which he focuses. God is so perfect, so awesome, so beyond description that Isaiah realises how terribly far short he falls of what can survive in God’s presence. Even the magnificent angels are covering their faces, and yet he has glimpsed the face of God, and so he cries out in terror at what must come next, surely his complete destruction.

And then in steps one of the angels who collects a live coal from the altar fire which is so hot that even he has to use tongs. With that purifying fire he touches the lips of Isaiah to burn away his uncleanliness. This is important too because, when caught between terror and glory, being cleansed of our terror can be painful in its purification. Purgatory can be as much about this life as the next.

Isaiah then hears the voice of God, calling for someone that he can send to the people of Judah to proclaim what is going to happen to them. Caught between the terror and the glory Isaiah now turns to glory, the glory that is of God, and declares, ‘Here I am. Send me.’

And so to us. How often have you dwelt on this boundary layer, caught between the terror and the glory? Which way did you turn? Throughout our lives God puts us in positions where we may have to make decisions. It is interesting that Peter wasn’t alone in the boat, yet caught between terror and glory, he seems to have been the only one to have seen the possibilities of glory.

And Isaiah, caught up in that vision of God’s glory, did not have to speak out when God asked, ‘Whom shall I send?’ He could have remained silent in terror. He had complete freedom as to how to respond.

So where are you now? Or where have you been? If, sometime ago, when faced with the choice between terror and glory, and you succumbed to the terror, it is not too late to turn back to the glory now. Was it a job change, or thinking about moving, or stepping out to do something you had never considered doing before. As with Peter, the Lord continues to hold his hand out to us when we think we’re going to sink, that the terror will overtake us.

But I really need you to hear this. I’m going to be writing about this in more detail for the parish magazine but the truth is that over the next ten years there will be a net 10% reduction in the number of priests simply because not enough people are coming forward. God may be calling you to think about priesthood, but I’m pretty certain he’s going to be calling you all to look at what you can do to shoulder the mission of the church in this place, because if the Lord still has me here in ten years time, all the signs are that I won’t just be doing this one job.

If the church is going to continue to grow, it can only do so if people like you agree to get involved in its life and ministry and mission. People often say to me, ‘I’m not good enough’, to which I will direct you to the purifying work done to Isaiah. Others will say, ‘I don’t have enough faith’, to which I will direct you to the hand of the Lord stretched out to Peter as he began to sink.

In fact, saying, ‘I’m not good enough and I don’t have enough faith’ are pretty much a prerequisite for serving God in ministry. It’s only when we recognise our shortcomings that we are remotely ready to serve, because it’s only then that we serve in God’s strength rather than our own.

Caught between the terror and the glory we must trust God and step out of the boat using the words of Isaiah to say, ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ Are you ready to step out?

1 comment:

  1. Oops, amde a mistake in this one. It's not a net 10% reduction in the number of vicars over next ten years...
    It's 40%!!!!!