Isaiah 6:1-8 Psalm 138 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11
In 1974, Christians in Chad suffered persecution because of their devotion to Jesus and because they rejected idolatry. At the time, hundreds of churches took a strong stand against government-enforced tribal initiation rites. The believers were severely persecuted, and many of the clergy were martyred together with members of their churches. They were told that if they renounced their faith in Jesus, they would be spared. While a few apostatized, the majority preferred death to renunciation. All foreign Missionaries were expelled as well and Chad remained a closed country until 1975.
The question one asks when one reads reports like these is often simply, why? But for me, it is not why did God allow this or why were humans so cruel to other fellow humans…no, for me it is more a case of why did these men and women and children choose death instead of renunciation? Only severely depressed people actually want to die…most of us would rather choose to remain on this side of the turf, right?
So what was it that made these dear children of God choose to die, sometimes in the most horrific ways? The answer they would give is this: It was their encounter with the living God…because they knew Him, they chose death rather than deny Him.
In today’s readings we read about four different individuals from four different periods in history all of whom had one thing in common and that was each one of them had a personal, life changing encounter with God.
The first man we met was Isaiah, a prophet who served under four kings of Judah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It seems that he had been preaching to the people of Judah for some time before the event recorded in chapter six, but together with many believers before him and after him (John Wesley is a good example), it may be that Isaiah did not have a complete understanding of Who God really was. Many of us know about God, and we can talk about God, and even tell others about God, but we have never truly met God…this seems to have been the case with Isaiah. But all this changed in chapter six.
In this heavenly vision, the prophet saw himself and, indeed, the nation against the backdrop of God’s holiness and glory. Meeting the Almighty God face to face in one sense was for the prophet an epiphany…a moment of reckoning…a moment of exposure…a moment of clarity. The piercing light of this revelation of the Person of God cut through the layers of blind self-justification and self-righteousness and uncovered the depths of Isaiah’s core being. And what Isaiah saw was that his spiritual condition was no different from the people he was preaching to…he too was a man of unclean lips. This vision changed the prophet forever…the glory, the majesty, the purity, and the righteousness of God became his message…or more pointedly, it became his life.
It is interesting to note that according to the Talmud, Isaiah suffered martyrdom by being sawn in two under the orders of the evil king Manasseh. Like the Chadian martyrs, Isaiah chose death rather than deny his Lord.
The second man we met was from an earlier period in the history of Israel…the great king David. In Psalm 138, David rehearsed his personal reasons for worshipping God…one of which was the fact that God had preserved his life even in the midst of trouble, struggle, and persecution. But it wasn’t simply the gift of preservation that brought about David’s declaration of praise…it was his knowledge of the character of the God he served that undergirded his faith. In verse two David said, “I bow before Your holy Temple (and keep in mind that this is God’s heavenly Temple, as the earthly Temple had not yet been built) as I worship. I praise Your name for Your unfailing love and faithfulness; for Your promises are backed by all the honour of Your name.” Holiness, love, faithfulness, and honour…all character traits of God.
It is upon this understanding…this personal knowledge of the Creator God…that David built his request for further preservation. “The Lord will work out His plans for my life – for Your faithful love, O Lord, endures for ever. Don’t abandon me, for You made me.” Even when his life was threatened, David rehearsed his full trust in God’s plan for his life…his repeated experiences of God’s Presence, gave David the strength to stand even in the worst of times.
The third man we met was Paul. Like so many other believers throughout history, Paul thought himself blameless, pure, and righteous…until he encountered Jesus face to face on the road to Damascus. In that moment, just as with Isaiah, Paul saw the depths of his soul laid bare in the blinding light of the revelation of the Person of Christ. Later he would write to fellow believers in Philippi that everything he once held dear he now considered worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. His tireless ministry was based solely upon his personal knowledge of the grace and greatness of God.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul listed all his trials and sufferings for the sake of preaching the good news of Jesus to the unbelievers. In verse 27 he wrote, “I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? But if I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” Boast in his weaknesses? How many leaders do you know who boast in their weaknesses? Later, in chapter 12 Paul said, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That is why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul knew where his strength lay – not in himself, but in Jesus. Paul had met Jesus on the road to Damascus and his life was never the same again. Tradition tells us that Paul was martyred for his faith in Rome by decaptitation. Again, a man willing to choose death rather than renounce his Lord.
The last man we met was one of my personal favorites, the Apostle Peter. The interesting thing about this account of the miraculous draught of fish was that Peter had been called to follow Jesus before, but had, for some or other reason, declined. By this time, Simon Peter had known Jesus for quite a while. He had heard his brother testify that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah…he had personally heard Jesus teach and had marvelled at his authority together with the crowds…he had seen him heal lepers and drive out demons…he had even witnessed the healing of his own mother-in-law. But still Simon Peter was not convinced…at least not convinced enough to leave behind his apparently lucritive business to follow an itinerant rabbi. Peter had it all…a boat…business partners…a rather large house by 1st century standards…why would he risk losing it all for the sake of following Jesus?
That is until he saw Jesus for Who He really was…the one Who had power even over creation. Like Isaiah, Peter’s immediate reaction was one of repentance brought on by a realisation of how sinful he was in the light of the holy One standing before him. By asking the Lord to leave him Peter was confessing his unworthiness to be a disciple. He had yet to learn that no human could ever claim to be worthy…and this is the lesson we all have to learn.
None of us are worthy…even the best of us fall far short of the glory of God. The Lord’s love for us is not based on our merits, but upon His grace. He loves us not because we are great but because He is great! Isaiah, David, Paul, and Peter all encountered the living God and all realised their emptiness, their sinfulness, their unworthiness…and all experienced that amazing relief as the burden of their guilt was lifted off their shoulders by one greater than their sin. This revelation of the Person of God was so life changing that everything else paled in comparison…even life itself…each one of these men, and countless men, women, and children throughout the ages, have chosen to die rather than disown their Lord.
A radical revelation indeed…
Have you seen the Lord? Have you seen Him high and lifted up? Have you heard the angelic beings crying out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’? Have you experienced His care and His protection and His provision? Have you been touched by His immeasureable love?
Jesus wants to meet with us all…that is why He instituted what we call the Lord’s Supper…the Eucharist. It is here at His table that every one of us can meet Him face to face…it is the most intimate expression of His love for us…the giving of His life for ours. It is the most intimate expression of His unity with us, His beloved children…He in us…us in Him…it is a preview, if you will, of heaven. Here we see Him high and lifted up…and here He draws us into His holy presence.
So, as you come to partake of these gracious symbols of His love and His compassion, ask Him to open the eyes of your heart…to shine into the depths of your soul…so that you, like these four men, may experience the reality of His greatness…and be changed forever.
© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-02-06