From doubt to joy

Sermon for 6 February 2022, 4th before Lent Year C.

Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Luke 5.1-11

I rather like February – in the Church calendar it’s often a lovely period of ‘Ordinary time’ (which is church speak for a time outside of the major seasons). For me, it’s an opportunity to regather my bearings after the drama of Creation-Kingdom-Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and prepare myself for the approach of Lent-Passiontide-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost. 

And in our cycle of readings set for the year, this ‘ordinary time’ is an opportunity to appreciate that we have begun our annual meander through Jesus’ life and teaching – this year guided by Luke (otherwise called Lectionary Year C). If the Epiphany season was about revelation in Jesus’ childhood and pre-ministy, then over the next month, Luke will show us some of the pivotal moments of Jesus’ early ministry: from the great catch of fish (and call of the first disciples); to the teaching of the beatitudes; the calming of the storm; and finally the transfiguration. 

In many ways, these stories encourage us to reflect on our own response to Jesus, and our part in his story as we encounter him alongside the disciples and in our daily lives. And so we begin our response today…

My initial plan for this sermon was to talk about joy. It was my first response to today’s readings and I wanted to talk about being joyful in response to God’s call. Unfortunately things didn’t quite go as planned when I got down to writing, and – as you will see – the story took me on a very different journey.

Today, we have heard the story of Simon Peter’s first encounter with Jesus teaching on the lakeside of the Sea of Galilee (a more familiar name for the Lake of Gennesaret). This is a very familiar story – in fact, we heard Mark’s account back in November. Luke elaborates more on the great pun ‘I will make you fishers of men’ by including the miracle of the great catch of fish. There’s a lot that I could say about this, but today I want to talk about the response to God’s call that we see both here and in our reading from Isaiah. 

Being called sends both Isaiah and Peter on an emotional journey. Their initial response to the revelation of the Holy One is to worry about their own worth: 

‘Woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ Isaiah 6.5

‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ Luke 5.8

For the Monty Python fans among us, this may remind you of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: when God appears to King Arthur and the Knights, they cower and proclaim ‘We are not worthy!’… much to the annoyance of the LORD.

And the Holy One doesn’t stand for this: to Isaiah he sends purification, the vivid image of a glowing hot coal being pressed to his lips as a powerful statement of change. It is a direct response to the prophet’s own fears: ‘I shall burn away everything that stops you from feeling worthy of me’. 

To Peter, Jesus gives words both of comfort and instruction: Do not be afraid. As in Isaiah, the Holy One addresses us directly, dismissing our concerns and raising us up from despair into intimacy with him as he drags us into his presence. 

And for both the prophet and the disciple, after acceptance comes call. In Isaiah, ‘Whom shall I send?’. In Luke, ‘from now on you will be catching people.’ 

Both are called to follow in the wake of the Holy One and speak his good news to his people. 

And both respond absolutely. The prophet cries, ‘Here I am! Send me!’, and the disciples ‘left everything and followed him.’

Theirs is a wholehearted embrace of everything on offer – they jump at the chance to do God’s will.

Now, as I was reflecting on their response this week, the word that came to mind was ‘joy’. It was my first reaction to seeing that one of our readings was Isaiah 6, overflowing as I burst into song: Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord?

And it is the response of the angels calling to one another in the temple at the start of the prophet’s vision: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!

But a joyful response does not always come easily in life. Like Isaiah and Peter, our negative sense of self can hold us back – we feel unworthy, and so we do not accept fully.

This is something which I’ve started working on myself to improve my own mental health. Negative self-talk is probably my most destructive behaviour, and it has recently been gaining more attention in psychology and mental health studies. 

Just as the prophet and Peter only see their unworthiness in response to God, negative self-talk is when your thought patterns filter, personalise, criticise, catastrophise, and polarise your experiences and internalising the blame. It overshadows the good in your life, and obscures the truth. It isn’t healthy, and can have long-term consequences for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. 

These patterns are so easy that we have to make a conscious decision not to follow them. The prophet and Peter’s negative self-worth is overturned by the Holy One, and we can only become more positive and joyful by seeking the same.

So, Jesus is calling us to be with him, but we don’t feel able to respond in joy. What can we do?

Well, among other positive practices such as intentionally thinking positively, prayer and meditation, and setting achievable daily tasks to help us appreciate ourselves and our capabilities more…

Like the prophet and Peter, we can voice our thoughts and feelings to God. By recognising and naming them as negative, we can ask for his help turning them around and helping us to be more positive. This is the metaphorical hot coal placed to our lips – God’s help purifying our own self-talk. 

When we catch ourselves being overly negative, we can pause and ask God to help us see the positive in the situation.

We can also look to him for direction. If we have a task or experience about which we feel negatively, we can ask God to motivate us and help us find the way forward. 

Finally, we can support each other through positive affirmation, gentleness, care, and encouragement – all the things to which Jesus calls us as one family. 

Turning the old into the new is not easy, and changing the way we think is especially hard. But by the love of God, the grace of Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the companionship of all of our fellow pilgrims, we can set off earnestly in faith that we will one day be able to wholeheartedly embrace the knowledge of our redemption, and that we will carry that truth in our very being.

May you encounter the Holy One this week.

May God give you courage to challenge your negative thoughts,

May they be overturned by his grace,

May the peace of his salvation fill your heart,

And may you be released to respond to him with joy.

Amen.

Read more about negative self-talk and positive thinking to reduce stress here:

https://sdlab.fas.harvard.edu/cognitive-reappraisal/identifying-negative-automatic-thought-patterns https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950 

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