4 before Lent
Today’s three readings act of a sort of review of how things are between us and God. So in the wonderful passage from Isaiah we glimpse God’s majesty and immense being – so immense that the huge Temple at Jerusalem can contain only the hem of God’s robe. Isaiah is so awestruck with this vision that he vision that he is reduced to a gibbering mess, fully aware of his sinfulness and unworthiness. When God frees Isaiah from these chains, he is given an impossible job – to talk to people who will not listen, who cannot understand, and to witness a land laid bare, the cities in ruins, the countryside desolate, the people gone. So there is a sense of our insignificance, our unworthiness and a reminder about our sin, our unworthiness to receive blessing.
In the passage from the first letter to the Corinthians we hear Paul talking about God’s revelation to us in the person of Jesus – to a few disciples, then to larger and larger crowds and finally to Paul himself – the persecutor of the first Christians now counted among their number – the outsider and opponent welcomed into God’s flock. So when we hear of God’s self revelation in the person of Jesus we move from the immensity of God to the God who came to be with us, who is revealed as one of us. And the good news – that Jesus went to the cross for us and carried our sins through death to resurrection and hope. This wasn’t because God needed vengeance; rather it was God loved us – still does. This message of God’s love shook the world – the tremors moving outwards as the Gospel – the good news, spread out through the world. Within 200 years it had reach the shores of our own land and Christianity took root here – we stand on the shoulders of those who spread the message of God’s love 1800 years ago.
So from Isaiah and awe to Paul and the discovery of God’s love, to our Gospel which speaks of God’s blessings. It should be no surprise to us that Simon thinks he knows best and argues with Jesus – we can imagine him saying ‘look, I’m a fisherman and you’re a carpenter. If anyone around here knows how to catch fish it’s me, not you’. Nevertheless, Simon did as Jesus asked and his nets were full to bursting point with the most enormous catch of fish. And we’re taken neatly back to Isaiah’s awe as Simon suddenly comprehends God’s power and his own sinfulness, smallness.
We hear, often enough, that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners – we didn’t have to be good before God would take action, didn’t have to be lovely before God loved us. God loves us anyway – always has, always will, no matter who we are, what we have done or how we feel about ourselves. But we perhaps forget about blessings – God blesses us even when we’re as pig-headed as Simon who became Peter, or as dangerous as Saul who became Paul. A blessing of fish to a stubborn fisherman. The blessing of a new start for someone who had been responsible for the deaths of the first Christian martyrs.
It is easy for us to misunderstand God’s generosity with blessings. It is easy for us to forget the glory, grandeur, and majesty of God. We turn God from a lion to a pussy cat, from a wolf to a Chiwawa. We domesticate God to such an extent that we come to believe that we deserve to be blessed – we feel hard done by if we don’t get the equivalent of the huge catch of fish. We also inflate our opinion of ourselves – ‘I’m a good person, I live a decent life, I deserve for God to treat me well’. These are two sides of one coin. If we have never really paid much attention to God’s perfect goodness and majesty, then we have nothing to measure ourselves by and we come to have an overinflated sense of our own importance. We become terribly self righteous. We lose our humility. We see this the lives of those who draw attention to themselves – ‘see how wonderful I am, how much I achieve’. How easy it is for us to bow down and worship at the feet of those who exude self confidence and put themselves on pedestals, or expect people to put us on pedestals and wait for the worship to begin..
On the other hand, there is also a widespread belief that God blesses only the righteous. This is the gospel of success. Last week Hilary spoke of the part the churches in South Africa played in the invention and sustaining of apartheid – those who were righteous were wealthy and privileged – the chosen ones. The unworthy could live in slums because that’s what God had given them – that’s what they deserved. Actually the gospel teaches us that God’s favour is with the poor and marginalised.
The big catch of fish we heard about today shows us that we receive blessings precisely when we don’t deserve them. God blesses us anyway. In fact I sometimes wonder if God blesses us so much that we stop noticing. I’m very aware that we have been given and are still being given blessings in this church that we fail to notice, or worse, we reject and complain especially where the givers are quiet people who don’t seek the limelight.
We have expertise in this church which we reject and belittle. We have quiet humble service which we ignore so that people give up for the lack of a kind word, a quiet thank you. This failure to notice our blessings, this driving away of the gifts people offer, really has to end. Please, let us stop and think before we reject someone’s offering, pause before we moan, open our eyes to see the work that’s done quietly, behind the scenes. Let’s open our eyes to the blessings God sends us in many, many ways. For the love we can share here at our best, for the friendship and support we can find here, for the contributions of quiet and humble people – things which we miss because of the very quietness and humility with which those blessings are offered.
When people see how much we’re blessed, they can’t shut up about it. Those who know they’re blessed will share their joy with anyone who’ll listen. If we stopped to count our blessings there would be no stuffiness about coming to the events at the hall, no fear in meeting with people who are poorer than us, who we think are different to us.
It’s quite old fashioned to say ‘count your blessings’. But it’s only when we do this that our lives, and the life of this church will be transformed by joy.