February 10, 2013 –– 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6: 1–2a, 3–8 / 1 Corinthians 15: 1–11 / Luke 5: 1–11
Taking Holiness Seriously
Sunday, December 7, 1941.... Friday, November 22, 1963.... Tuesday, September 11, 2001.... If you were alive and old enough, you remember where you were and what you were doing on those days when you first heard their startling news. Today’s reading from Isaiah is shaped by the year that King Uzziah died. After a fifty-two year reign, it was an unsettling time in the kingdom of Judah.
National calamities can cause people to think about God. It happened again in our country two months ago with the awful killings in Connecticut, but then it seems that mostly everyone’s attention shifts back to the routine. I was part of a secular BBS messenger board during the time of the 9/11 crisis and in one post I suggested that it was important to think about what God might be saying through such an awful event in our country. The reaction among some readers was vitriolic; they resented my implication that anything we might do or not do as a corporate people might prompt any kind of divine message or intervention. Such an opinion dismisses the message of the Old Testament prophets.
Isaiah recognized that this death of the king was an important time to give attention to God. He then was given a vision –– a sobering, frightening vision –– of the holiness of God.
How often do we give real attention to the holiness of God? We Catholics say it every week: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.... This refrain from the Mass is taken from both this sixth chapter of Isaiah and the fourth chapter of Revelation. But it’s not just something we say –– it means something!
For Isaiah it meant coming face to face with the huge gap that exists between us and a holy God: Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.... If this was true of Isaiah, is it not also true for us? Just taking it literally, we are living among a people of unclean lips. Think of the way swearing and other filthy speech has escalated over the past decades. (In 1939 there were shocked sensibilities when Gone With the Wind ended the movie with a single expletive!) Today we can hardly shield our ears from profane language. An even more focused example is the use of the word “holy.” Along with the now common profaning of our Lord’s name, and “God” being used as a by-word, I often hear a juxtaposition of the word “holy” with some word for excrement. Do we recognize the diabolical spirit that is at work in our world? We can become numb even to the very meaning of the word holy! This is one of the words our God has used to reveal himself. Surely we can say with Isaiah, I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips. ....Lord, have mercy.
This is not just an Old Testament concern. In today’s Gospel Jesus reveals a bit of his authority to some of the men he will call to be his apostles. After a night of failure, but obeying the command of Jesus, these experienced fishermen hauled in a greater catch than they could handle. Along with the general astonishment, the point comes into focus with the initial response of Peter: Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.
We live in a time and a society that has lost touch with the holiness of God. We can so easily be pulled emotionally into a situation in which the Word of God seems unreasonable –– antiquated and out of touch. Who is God? Do we turn to a “god” that is a mere ideal of ourselves? The right response is to bow in true reverence before the One to whom we offer the words, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
St Paul tells of one way we can understand what this means for us. Notice how Paul introduces his gospel message: as of first importance.... The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important thing we can know. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only way we can have peace with a God who is so holy that even the seraphim in heaven cover themselves in his presence. The death and resurrection of Jesus actually draws us into the holiness of God.
The God that Isaiah saw sitting on a throne high and exalted is still on his throne. The Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose to give us eternal life is still the same Jesus who first caused Peter to fall to his knees and confess I am a sinful man. That’s where we all need to start, and when we come to our holy God with humility and honor we get the gracious word: your wickedness is removed, your sin is purged.
We live in a world that does not want to see this, even in the midst of calamity. As our own culture and others around the world spin out of control, as turmoil threatens our stability and security, and as the Church tries to speak Truth into the chaos, let’s be people who honor our God who is holy. Listen to what he says. Believe what he has done through his Son. This is of first importance. The Scriptures for today are about taking holiness seriously.