Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

We read of God’s epiphany to 3 different people throughout the readings we’re given today; appropriate subject matter for this season of the church year, contemplating God’s revelation of himself to humanity, both as individuals and as a whole.

In all of the testimonies given this morning, we read of the same response from each person: when faced with almighty God, each one is pierced by humility, seeking immediate and full surrender to the obvious Lord and God standing in front of them. Each one admits their own shortcomings, their own unworthiness in the full light of Life, and yields completely.

Isaiah says, “I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.” Simon Peter declares, “depart from me, I am a sinful man!” And Paul, here, and other places, boasts only of his failures and unworthiness as he is given the grace of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

What can we imagine our response might be other than this same one of the holy people we read this morning? Our own humble bowing, our own yielding and surrender, our own acknowledgement of our inadequacy, as our faces are filled with God’s light, our full selves exposed to his glory.

This is the same response that another holy person had to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ; I’ve been reading some Julian of Norwich recently, and near the beginning of her memoir, the Revelations of Divine Love, she writes of a near-death experience she has. She knows that death is creeping closer, indeed, she’s received Last Rites and describes fixing her eyes toward heaven, as she expected to be there very soon. She demonstrates this full surrender, this complete yielding, in the presence of Almighty God, and yet, as perhaps an analogy of what is recounted in the 6th chapter of Isaiah today, she misunderstands God’s purpose, even in her humility and her longing.

She is certain she will die; as he notices that the pain and suffering is relieved in her body, she prepares her soul more fully she says, knowing that God must mean to take her with all haste. And yet, this is only in chapter 2 of more than 100 that she writes of the visions God gives her and reflections on them over the ensuing 20 years. She indeed does not die, and her humility and yielding, though crucial to her intimacy with God, does not safeguard her from every myopia in her vision of God and his will.

“Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:9-13, ESV

Despite Julian’s faithfulness, she hears and does not understand, she sees, but does not perceive the fullness of God’s purpose for the experience she’s undergoing, or for her life. So, too, the people Isaiah addresses, the Israelites, do not understand the signs of the times, they do not perceive the message which is being preached to them. And as their heart is made dull, their eyes blinded, their lands, too, are laid waste, they experience great dissension and suffering, they endure the removal of their lives far away, as the prophet says; they go into exile. The desolation is so complete that not only is it like a tree that’s burned but one that’s been chopped down to boot. As hopeless and dead as can be.

But what do we read as the last line of this prophecy? “The holy seed is its stump.” That most-desolate moment, that most-hopeless-situation, that deadest-of-the-dead — there is where God in his will and for his kingdom brings forth a living, holy seed. It is through the exile that the fullness of time comes for God’s people and Jesus, God incarnate, is born. It is through his death on the cross that Easter Sunday is made possible and later, that Paul comes to belief. It is after Simon Peter’s disastrous night of fishing that he finds the revelation of God incarnate sitting in the stern of his very boat.

We read and learn and are reminded here in this words, brothers and sisters, that the God we worship, the God YHWH who has found us and drawn us to him even now, is the God who finds a holy seed in a dead, rotten, evil, oppressed, divisive stump.

We live in a moment of division, of the fraying of our society’s fabric, of tension politically and in our culture, and, I suspect, even in our very families and homes. We can be tempted, even in our humility, to think that we know what God has planned, that we have a clear vision of God’s will and plan, but even the most faithful throughout ages and ages have rarely if ever gotten it right. And so perhaps our work is to continue to yield, to continue to walk in humility, to continue to believe and practice and live as if even in the darkest times and the most painful brokenness and the most isolating fear that God will make the stump itself into a holy seed for the glory of his kingdom. Amen.

this version, more or less, was preached at Ascension in Lafayette, LA, on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 at the noonday service.

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