Beckett: Sermon – The Taste of Atonement

Date: February 6, 2022
Festival: 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Isaiah 6:1-13
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Sermon Hymn: LSB #827 Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The stories of the beginning of Isaiah and Peter’s ministries we read from today have some striking similarities as well as some obvious differences. I want to talk about Peter’s first. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is just beginning His earthly ministry, and He calls His first disciples: Peter (also called Simon) and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. To put into perspective what’s going on in our Gospel reading this morning, I’d like to borrow an illustration from Bishop Jamison Hardy of the English District that I heard earlier this week at the Campus Ministry Summit in Lansing.

After a hard day’s work, have you ever experienced a sudden obligation to do more work at home? You come home from a long day of work and suddenly something needs fixing on the house. You just want to flop on the couch and watch the game or read a book, and your children need you for something. Or you just got off a long shift of work and you need to cook dinner for everyone, do laundry, and wash the dishes. Or after a long day of classes, you have to go to work, do homework, write a paper, work on a project. I’m sure you’ve all experienced this, and it happens a lot in ministry too.

There were times during my vicarage assignment and even now as a pastor where, after a long day of working on my sermon, preparing Bible studies, making phone calls, doing pastoral counseling, visiting shut-ins, having lovely chats with someone walking into my office, and so on that I come home, wanting to play a video game or watch Criminal Minds or read a book or spend time with my wife that I’ll get a phone call. Somebody has just died, so I need to go and comfort the family; or a pastor in our circuit gets sick and I may need to cover his church services for him; or someone is suddenly sent to the hospital, and I need to go there and comfort them with the Gospel.

When COVID first hit around this time of the year in 2020, it made vicarage especially difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn how to produce and edit videos for our online services, which takes several hours. Most of my days were longer because of this, and I’d get home and change into comfortable clothes and would often get a phone call from someone just to talk because they were in quarantine and hadn’t heard another human being’s voice in weeks. But I would still answer and talk to them, sometimes for an hour. Or I’d get a phone a call to visit someone in the hospital because my bishop couldn’t make it, and then we’d be planning their funeral a couple days later. Sometimes, more work needs to be done even though you are spent.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love being your pastor. It is my joy to serve you, especially when you are in dire need even though it’s “after hours.” However, I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the sinful part of me at times prefers to stay home and relax rather than answering that phone call or email, or comforting that person whose loved one just died, just as I’m sure most—if not all—of you have preferred to relax rather than working on the house or cooking dinner for your family or doing homework. You and I are both sinners, and at times our exhaustion causes us to be selfish. But I kid you not when I say I’m filled with the joy of the Lord when I force myself to answer that phone call or comfort the bereaved, or when I work on the house instead of flopping on the couch like a potato. The Word of the Lord does His good and gracious will despite ourselves. Thanks be to God! {with sarcasm} It’s almost like God knows what He’s doing.

I think this point of exhaustion after a long day’s hard work is similar to what Peter, James, and John were experiencing when this man named Jesus suddenly approaches them. They didn’t know who He was yet. You see, Peter, James, and John were professional fishermen. When they were fishing on the lake of Gennesaret—more commonly called the Sea of Galilee—they knew what they were doing. Jesus saw them washing their nets, which means they were packing up for the day. Then, without even asking, He hops into Peter’s boat and then asks him to put them out just a little bit from land, sits down in it, and He begins to teach them and the crowd that followed Him there. When He finishes His teaching, after a long day’s hard work, He tells Peter, “Put your nets into the deep water for a catch” [Luke 5:4].

Peter’s response is no surprise, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at Your Word I will let down the nets” [v. 5]. Peter, James, and John laboured all night and found no fish! So, naturally, Peter thought the command was foolish, but recognising His authority as Rabbi, he obeys His Word. But as we know, Jesus knew what He was doing. They catch so many fish that their nets begin to break and the boats began to be filled with so much fish that they began to sink! This is when Peter recognises just who this Jesus is that he says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” [v. 8].

I would like to pause here for a moment as we turn to Isaiah’s story, but keep Peter’s words at the forefront of your mind. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord sitting on His throne comes in the same year that King Uzziah died. This tells us that the vision was brought on by Uzziah’s death. At the beginning of his reign, Uzziah had God’s favour. 2 Chronicles 26 tells us that he feared God and sought Him in all he did, and that “God helped him against the Philistines and the Arabians” who were warring against Israel [v. 7]. As a result of his victory, he became famous in foreign nations and grew extremely strong, but then he grew prideful and became unfaithful to God by entering the Lord’s temple to burn incense on the altar that was supposed to be only the high priest’s job. That would be like the President of the United States walking in here to give you Communion and baptise your babies; that’s how sacrilegious and blasphemous this was. And it took eighty normal priests to stand against Uzziah and rebuke him. As a result of his sin, leprosy broke out on his forehead, and he remained a leper until his death.

So, Isaiah receives his vision when Uzziah finally pays for his unrepented sin. He sees the Lord Himself on His throne and many seraphim surrounding the Lord. Now, these are not cute, plump babies we usually see depicted in Renaissance art, otherwise Isaiah would not have been so terrified. No, these are immense, divine beings with six wings all around them and elsewhere in the Scriptures there are eyes covering their wings. These aren’t chubby babies surrounding God’s throne; these are massive, fantastical, divine beings that carry out God’s message, will, and wrath! So, Isaiah does the only thing a mortal human being can do when he is before the Lord, much as Peter did. He cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” [Isaiah 6:5]

“Woe is me,” Isaiah says before his Lord, “for I am a man of unclean lips.” “Depart from me,” Peter says before his Lord, “for I am a sinful man!” And what is the Lord’s response? Atonement and the call to the ministry of Law & Gospel. We will only be spending time on this first response today: atonement. As Jesus calls Peter to the ministry of the Gospel, He says, “Do not be afraid” [Luke 5:10]. Why shouldn’t Peter be afraid? After all, he like Isaiah is a sinner standing before the Lord of hosts! Peter may have wondered this himself, especially because Jesus doesn’t tell him why he shouldn’t be afraid. But I think we the readers can get a pretty good idea from the immediate context at the end of chapter 4 just before this account takes place. As we read last week, Jesus said in the synagogue of Nazareth, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” [4:43]. And He does just this on the lake of Genneserat, which fishermen from many towns go to catch fish.

Peter had nothing to fear because Jesus came to announce the Good News of God’s kingdom. And what is that Good News? Entire books have been written on this subject, but it should suffice to say that the Good News is this: Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and ascended for you. This is the message that Peter, James, John, and all the other apostles would take up and spread in Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, and pass down to the church to spread to the world. To put this message in a single word, the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and ascended for you is atonement. That on the cross, your sins are atoned for—taken away. Like a criminal that becomes exonerated for all the crimes he did, Christ exonerates you for all your sins in thought, word, and deed. And Jesus continues this pardoning for you right now in His ascension!

Going back to Isaiah, he got to taste this atonement. I find it fascinating that the burning coal the seraph picked up was so hot that the seraph itself—this divine, holy being—had to use tongs, but as it touched Isaiah’s lips it didn’t burn his lips to a crisp as we expect. Instead, as the seraph tells him, his guilt is taken away and his sins are atoned for [Isaiah 6:7]. And then he himself receives his call to the ministry of Law & Gospel, his most famous Gospel message being Immanuel who would be born of a virgin.

Like Isaiah, you also get to taste atonement. You taste it in the Lord’s body and blood in His Holy Supper. We expect the burning coal to burn Isaiah’s lips to a crisp, but instead it takes away his guilt and atones for his sins. Similarly, the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, was shed because of you and me. We killed Him! The justice we therefore expect and deserve for spilling the blood of God’s only-begotten Son is wrath, but instead His blood takes your guilt away and atones for your sins. Christ in His ascension comes down in the Supper and gives you atonement for all your sins!

In the midst of our exhaustion, we would choose to relax rather than serving our neighbour in need. For this sin and all other sins, the Lord offers forgiveness in His body and blood today. Many of us would probably likewise prefer to stay home rather than coming to church in the morning, especially when the weather is bad or good, or when there’s a sports game on. I’m glad you came here instead. The Lord offers forgiveness for this idolatry too here at His Supper Table.

Are you a man or woman of unclean lips? Do you speak words of hate, fear, anxiety, division, and so forth? And do you dwell in a land of people who speak similarly? Yes. Therefore, come to the Table and receive on your lips the atoning blood of Christ. And are you a sinful man or woman; do you have guilt? Yes. But do not fear. Come to the Table and receive on your lips the atoning blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins and the utter removal of your guilt.

Who knows what the burning coal of atonement felt and tasted like for Isaiah? It is a mystery. But you know what Christ’s atonement tastes like. It is sweet like wine and filling like bread. Do not be afraid, for our ascended Lord comes before you to give you the Good News of His atonement.

Let us pray: Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bountiful mercy and goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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