Friday, February 12, 2010

Trembling

Isa. 6:1-8; Lk. 5:1-11[1]

Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the season of Epiphany as a time to celebrate the good news that Jesus came to fulfill the dream and the hope of the ages. It is a time to rejoice in the Gospel message, that Jesus brings to us all God’s life, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love.[2] It is a time to remind ourselves joyfully that God’s new world is in the process of “emerging” all around us, that God’s glory is even now filling the whole earth!

And yet I think we have to pause to recognize that joyful celebration is not the typical way in which we human beings respond to the presence of God working among us to reveal the light of his glory, transforming us all into the people we were created to be. I would say that Isaiah’s response in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today is more typical of the way we tend to respond to a powerful encounter with God—“Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isa. 6:5). We find this pattern reflected throughout the Scriptures—whenever anyone experiences the presence of God, their first response is one of fear and trembling![3]

Simon Peter demonstrates this common tendency with his typically bluntness when he responds to the experience of God in Jesus of Nazareth by saying, “Get away from me, Lord!” (Luke 5:8).[4] I think what Simon Peter shows us about ourselves is that we’re really not very comfortable with God getting that close to us. Some of you may object that in point of fact there have been many saints throughout the ages who have developed disciplined practices to cultivate a deeper experience of God’s presence. And yet, I would insist that when God really breaks into our world in the ways depicted in our Scripture lessons today, our typical reaction is one of fear and trembling.

The truth about us all is that we prefer to keep God at arm’s length. We like our religion good and shallow—we’re very happy with God as long as we don’t really have to undergo any significant change. We want to do all the “religious” things we’re supposed to do, as long as it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. We want a God who is domesticated” enough that we can stand before the presence without having to endure any kind of “fear and trembling.”[5] One one contemporary prophet says we’re much more comfortable fishing with Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us wisdom about life, and even occasionally points out our social injustices, than we are with the Risen Lord who “rocks the hell out of my dead and dying world” with yet another demonstration of God’s new creation.[6] As Paul Tillich so eloquently reminds us, whenever and wherever we truly experience the presence of God, we must expect the foundations to be shaken![7]

Our response to God is truly bewildering—we celebrate the good news of God’s presence transforming all things and all people, and yet we shrink back from having to undergo too much change ourselves. How do we explain this puzzle? I think part of the answer may lie in the fact that we tend to assume it’s all those other people out there who need to be changed by the presence of God. We celebrate the gospel of Epiphany that God is in the process of filling the whole earth and setting right everything that is broken in part because we tend to exclude ourselves from what needs to be changed. But the truth is that we are all a part of this broken world that needs so desperately to be transformed by God’s presence.

The good news of Epiphany is one that is double-edged. The glory of God that fills the whole earth with God’s freedom, and God’s joy, and God’s love is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead radically changes us all. It convicts us, it cleanses us, and it commissions us all, just as it did the prophet Isaiah and Simon Peter the fisherman. Yes, let’s celebrate the glory of God in the process of filling the whole earth even as we speak. But we must also remember that it is a glory that is so powerful that our experience of it will leave us trembling as we are being radically changed.



[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/7/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 124.

[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith130-31. The classic statement on this is that the experience of God is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery that is terrifying and fascinating at the same time; cf. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy ).

[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke 69: “Simon Peter gets a glimpse of the power and knowledge of Christ and falls before him in the profound grip of his own sinfulness.”

[5] Darrell Jodock, “Called to Change,” The Christian Century (January 25, 1995): 81. He adds, “A God this high and lofty cannot be domesticated into an American God or a capitalist God or a God who protects the ‘good guys’ from the bad. The holy God brings us up short, jars us into self-recognition, and beckons us to a radical reorientation.”

[6] Will Willimon, “Get Out Of Here,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004): 21.

[7] Paul Tillich, “The Experience of the Holy,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 89 ; by contrast, he observes (p. 91) that people tend to want false prophets who will satisfy their longing “to be flattered in regard to their desires and virtues, their religious feeling and social activity, their will to power and utopian hopes, their knowledge and love, their family and race, their class and nation.”

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