A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Pen Selwood
on 4th Sunday before Lent, 6 February 2022
Readings: Isaiah 61-8; Matthew 513-20
The two readings have an obvious similarity. Both men felt themselves totally unworthy. But there were a number of differences.
In almost poetic language we heard how – ‘In the year that King Uzziah died’, namely about 740 bc – the young Isaiah was in Solomon’s Temple. It was possibly at their New Year’s Day of the Autumn Festival, a time of prayer and sacrifices. King Uzziah’s death had provoked a sense of foreboding and urgency. Affected by this, Isaiah was then overwhelmed by the surroundings and significance of the Temple, aided by the swirling clouds of incense. He became aware of the presence of the Holy One, the Lord of Hosts – and his sense of his own uncleanness and unworthiness became unbearable. But then he had a profound experience of being purified and forgiven. And when he heard the call of the Lord, he found himself saying, ‘Here am I; send me!’ So began his life as one of God’s prophets.
Simon Peter, on the other hand, was (you may say) at work. He and his colleagues were washing their fishing nets. According to Luke’s Gospel, before that, Jesus had taught in the synagogue at Capernaum – and then had gone nearby to Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was sick; and Jesus healed her. That connection could explain why Jesus asked Simon to let him teach from his fishing boat. After that Jesus told him to fish again, further out. After the amazing – if not alarming – catch of fish, Simon knelt before Jesus. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ As he owned up to his own unworthiness – perhaps he was also fearful of what might be involved; he didn’t feel ready or good enough to be accepted and called by Jesus.
But Jesus reassured him. ‘Do not be afraid.’ Words that had to be repeated time and again, in his roller-coaster career as an Apostle. And with the others, he left everything to follow Jesus. Perhaps to begin with, it wasn’t too hard. Capernaum – the small town by the shores of the lake of Gennesaret (otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee) – was their base and Simon Peter’s home town. The big step came when they moved north to Caesarea Philippi – and Peter spoke up on behalf the disciples. ‘You are the Christ.’ But he couldn’t face the consequences of Jesus’ kind of Messiah – and told him so. Later on, in Jerusalem, Peter said he’d never deny Jesus – yet, only a few hours later, he did so, three times. And then after the Resurrection, he confessed his love for the Risen Jesus – and was reassured and confirmed as Peter, the Rock, and told to tend the flock of Christ.
Simon Peter was no lifeless and rigid rock. He was a fallible, impetuous, developing human being. He made mistakes – but he also became able to accept forgiveness. He learnt and he grew. As Jesus told him, he changed his original ‘occupation [of] fishing for fish to fishing for men’.
[C F Evans, St Luke, p. 292.] Eventually he followed Jesus to the end.
In very different circumstances, many of us will have experienced feelings of unworthiness. There were times when, in my own small way, I felt unworthy to be called and lacking in confidence to be entrusted with new responsibilities. And from the opposite angle, there were many occasions when I asked individuals to take on some particular work in the Church, and the response would often be, “No, not me, I’m not good enough.” It was an initial sign that they might be the right person. To some extent any new responsibility can bring out a sense of unworthiness and unfitness. Yet we learn that God lovingly accepts us and gives us the resources to take on the task of working with Him. And, of course, that is never the end, but another beginning.
Some of you may have read Nelson Mandela’s memoirs, Long Walk To Freedom. It was partly written during his imprisonment on Robben Island – and then finished after his release from prison, before he was made President in 1994. He died in 2013. The last paragraph of his epic story has an attitude of openness, hope and trust. We might apply his words to our experience of discipleship, and to our own individual journey.
I have walked [the] long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made mis-steps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. [p. 751]
For each of us, in our many different ways, the journey goes on. Dag Hammarskjold put it succinctly: ‘For all that has been, Thanks; for all that shall be, Yes!’
I’ll finish by repeating the prayer in today’s Collect:
O God, … grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.