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Sermon – February 7, 2010: Unfit to be Called

Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Unfit to be Called

Isaiah 6: 1-13; 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11; Luke 5: 1-11

 

A city service club wanted to honor one of its members for the volunteer work he’d

done. They told him he’d be getting the “Man of the Year” award at the annual banquet,

and that he’d want to begin to think about his acceptance speech.

This led to some soul-searching on his part. One of the organizations in which he’d

become an officer he had joined years before because a senior colleague had told him it

would be good for business contacts. Another group with which he’d become involved

was one that he thought might be able to do something helpful about his son’s future.

There were other things he’d done for motives that he recognized as self-serving, and there

were roles he’d accepted because he had enjoyed the limelight. That busy,

companionable, “hail-fellow-well-met” activity with which he’d filled up so many evenings

hadn’t necessarily, he felt, been done for humanitarian or even always civic-minded

motives. He wasn’t sure that down deep he possessed the character that the award from

his club would impute to him.

He confided in a friend he respected, and finally accepted the arguments offered him

about why he should accept the award. However mixed his motives, a lot of good had

gotten done, and not despite him–he was glad for the benefits that his volunteering had

brought to others. He didn’t have to treat the honor as being bestowed on him for how

great he was, but as a reflection of the community’s valuing the kinds of things in which he’d

worked. His speech of acceptance could deflect what small glory there was onto worthy

causes, and other volunteers’ efforts. He could make his peace with himself by deciding

that, just because he was no better than the next guy, he offered an example to the world

of how much good could be done by ordinary people.

All of the scriptures this morning are about people who have an idea about who

they are suddenly being asked to be greater than they think they can be. Isaiah knows that

the vision in the Temple means that God may want him to be God’s messenger, and

Isaiah’s reaction is that he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. The

apostle Paul, in his urging the Corinthians to accept the witness to resurrection of the

apostles, includes himself as last and least deserving among those to whom Christ was

revealed, and says he didn’t deserve the honor of being a witness. Peter, when the miracle

of the net full of fish makes him realize that Jesus somehow participates in the power of

God, wants Jesus to go away because he feels his sinfulness so keenly in Jesus’

presence.

The truth is, until something or someone raises the issue, we live with the measure

we take of ourselves. We get accustomed to the stature we possess in a business or in a

family. We get used to the amount of respect we receive when we’re a steady customer at

the bank or the coffee shop. We don’t question ourselves, we don’t worry about our

worthiness, about our capacity to exceed our own expectations, in the routine of our lives.

In the routine of our lives we’re managing everyday things well enough, usually. Daily

habits train us to expect to do what we already have done, and to be the person we

already have been. By the grace of God, most of us, most of the time, accept ourselves in

that role.

Perhaps that happens for the same reason that time heals all wounds. Maybe the

reasonable and natural insecurities we experience at turning points in our lives and in the

face of new situations have to give way to habitual self-forgetfulness, have to yield to the

press of daily duties. All the anxiety we felt as small children about whether we would get

our share of attention had to give way as part of growing up, and the trepidation about our

worthiness which accompanied the throes of adolescent romance or the challenges of

youthful employment had to wither as the years required us to plot our own course.

That vulnerable, uncertain soul we all have been, however, isn’t gone. It’s part of us

still, as we discover when the question is raised of just how good we are. Perhaps

someone else’s estimate of you seems too high, as in the example of the man nominated

for an award, and that triggers self-appraisal. Maybe God gives you a task to handle which

seems too hard, and that forces you to wonder whether there hasn’t been some mistake,

whether God may not correctly have gauged your resources or resilience.

One of the conundrums of life is how difficult it is for us to know ourselves. Burns’

wistful prayer to be able to “see ourselves as others see us” betrays the limits of selfexamination.

When the question of who we are and who we can be comes up, sooner or

later we have to try to get a perspective larger than our own. Even thinking out loud in the

presence of an interested listener is helpful, and nothing does more for us than confidence

expressed by someone who believes in us.

What happens again and again in the Bible–it’s there in the calling of Moses, and we

read it last week in the calling of Jeremiah, and we remember it from the Christmas story in

the case of Zechariah and the case of Mary– is that people aren’t ready to accept that they

can be good enough to be useful to God. Gideon’s another one– think about all those

famous characters from the Bible who do something on God’s behalf, and try to find one

who never has a qualm, who doesn’t have to wrestle with the task ahead, who doesn’t, at

some point, have to submit faithfully to God’s leading instead of relying on himself or

herself.

We don’t think Peter is overly modest when he prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and

declares he’s too much a sinner to be in Jesus’ presence. We don’t know Peter that well at

this point in the story, but we presume he’s no better than we are, and which of us wouldn’t

react the same way? It’s not a model of self-effacing, down-on-themselves people being

lifted up by God to serve God’s purposes. All this feeling unfit to be called to God’s work

in the world isn’t a symptom of low self-esteem. Peter the fisherman is a pretty confident

man. He’s something of a natural leader, which Jesus recognizes and endorses. The Holy

Spirit chooses him to recognize Christ. His ego strength is pretty good. He presumes to

tell Jesus what to say and what not to say about Jesus’ coming crucifixion, and at the Last

Supper he declares that he’ll never be a betrayer. We’re not talking about a habitual lack of

confidence being the thing which invites feelings of unworthiness.

We’re certainly not talking about that when it comes to Paul, who comes from a

notable city and knows it, and who is well-educated and knows it, and who has been very

scrupulously religious and knows it. People with ego strength like Paul get on our nerves.

Humility comes into the picture for all of them when they find themselves needing to

say yes or no to God. Humility is just an honest appraisal of how much one amounts to in

the scheme of things, and with God across the table it keeps you from being bigheaded,

Peter or Paul; or anyone else. Being measured against God puts everyone on a level, and

it’s a level which may not seem too promising to the person stripped naked of all pretense

in God’s presence.

God, however, obviously has a different perspective. Sometimes accepting that is

enough. Paul knows he didn’t deserve to meet Christ, or to become an apostle, but he

knows God made it happen, so he accepts it. Isaiah is given a sign–the vision of a coal

from the altar purifying his mouth, making him fit to speak for God. Peter, after he has

protested his unworthiness, is promised a role in God’s plans by Jesus, and he takes that

seriously. He trusts that God, through Christ, can make something of him.

God always needs persons willing to speak for God, willing to accept discipleship,

willing to recognize themselves as flawed but to trust God to make something good out of

them. We commemorate Jesus’ last meal with the disciples when we celebrate

communion, and recognize in Jesus’ way–the way of love and self-forgetfulness, selfsacrifice–

the salvation of the world. It’s a setting which always includes the possibility of

betrayal, and the opportunity to be true. We must recall that it is not our merit which makes

us belong at this table, but the fact that, despite who we really are, the Lord believes in us.

 

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