An encounter with God means an encounter with love: and this can be truly terrifying. (Listen.)
Why are you at worship today? If I were to ask most of you, you’d say something like, “I want to be closer to God” or “I hope to experience God’s presence.” These are good and right reasons to be here. They are what we always hope for, and making space for such an encounter is exactly what I try to do. But it must be said: I have never yet curated a service where people have fallen flat on their faces in awe, terror and wonder at the devastating presence of the Living God. Nor have I heard anyone shriek, “Get away from me, Lord, for I am sinful!”, or say they think they’ll die in God’s presence. And I’m not sure any of us here want these reactions: yet in Biblical accounts, such responses are normal.
For example, Isaiah. Off he went to the temple one day; it was probably just an ordinary Sabbath. Most likely, he expected a nice service, a bit of reflection, some time in prayer. Nothing special. Nothing too challenging. But suddenly he was knocked to the ground by an awesome vision of God’s grandeur. He saw God’s throne; he glimpsed the fullness of God’s glory; he saw fantastical flying creatures singing and praising God. It was all in surround sound, so thunderingly loud that the pillars of the temple shook: and it left him gasping. “Woe is me!” he moaned, “I’m doomed! For my words are sinful and my nation is sinful, yet I’m in the presence of the Almighty God!”
When Peter met Jesus for the second time, there was neither surround sound or seraphim: but Peter had a similar response to God’s presence. He was cleaning his nets after a night of unsuccessful fishing when Jesus came along. Jesus commandeered his boat and used it as a pulpit to teach the crowds. Then he told Peter head out to sea and lower his nets once again; when he raised them, they were overflowing with fish. “Whoa!” said Simon Peter, falling to his knees. “Get away from me, boss, for I’m a sinful person!”
And I find myself wondering, What did Isaiah see in God that was so terrifying? What about Peter? What caused their response?
The cheap answer is that God is infinitely terrifying; it’s cheap, because it explains nothing. The controlling answer is that God is infinitely judgemental and violent, so you’d better behave. But the real answer is, I think, both simple and complex, and that is this: God truly knows us and loves us, and mostly we find this unbearable.
We place our faith in a God who knows us before we are born, and who is with us every step of our lives. We place our faith in a God whose love and mercy know no end, and who extends the free gift of grace not just to friends, but to enemies. We place our faith in a God whose presence fills the whole earth, from the polar ice caps to the hinterlands of the internet, from the banks of the Hopkins River to the depths of the human heart.
From this God and this love, there is no hiding: and when we sense this God’s presence, when this love pierces our defences and touches us deeply, we can feel excruciatingly vulnerable; we can feel naked and afraid. Under God’s loving, piercing gaze, our masks are stripped away. The illusions that we cling to are exposed; to too the ugliness in our heart. We are confronted by our fear of forgiveness; our mistrust of the free gift of grace; our reliance on an economy of exchange. We become acutely aware of our sins and limitations, and all the ways we block and rupture shalom.
“Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful person!” we might cry with Peter. Or “Woe is me!” with Isaiah, “For my words are sinful, and so is my nation!” And we might stop there. We might push away this love, turn and run from the encounter, and spend the rest of our lives trying to blot it out. Better to live with our comfortable illusions, to feel in control of our lives, to owe nothing to anyone, than to bear being so fully known and loved.
Or, like Peter, like Isaiah, we might take the next step. We might offer ourselves up to the burning coal, the healing touch, God’s gracious gift of forgiveness. We might allow ourselves to be transformed.
If we do, what happens next? In each story, it leads to two things: hearing God’s word, and being commissioned to share it with others. “Whom shall I send?” wonders God, I think rhetorically. Isaiah throws up his hand and shouts “Pick me! Pick me!”, and he is sent on a speaking tour which, God says, will be a total flop. On the other hand, Peter is told not to be afraid anymore: and that from now on he will be catching people. But the outcomes don’t really matter. As the Rule of the Community of the Transfiguration says, “For us there is only the trying; the rest is none of our business.” The point remains: leaning into an encounter with the Loving God turns us around and sends us out to share the good news of this love with others.
So back to the first question: Why gather for worship? Well, I still hope it is because we seek an encounter with God: which is why I and so many people organize services the way we do. That is, we follow the structure of the story of Isaiah in the Temple: gathering in God’s presence. Confessing our sin. Receiving forgiveness. Attending to God’s Word. Accepting our commission, “for the service of worship never ends: it must be lived.” And, like Isaiah, we go out knowing full well that our proclamation may fall on deaf ears; though from time to time we may find ourselves catching people.
So that’s the pattern, but it’s not a magic wand rustling up the divine presence. Instead, it’s simply about making room, with signposts, for an encounter with the God of love: but as the story of Peter shows, this can happen anywhere, anytime. And so I invite you to join me in curating spaces not just in the worship service but in every corner of life: spaces which make room for love.
Let us make spaces where people are showered with affirmation and acceptance. Let us make spaces where shame is banished and people can take off their masks. Let us make spaces where forgiveness is a reality and the spirit pours down like rain. Let us make spaces where people can unfurl and grow into all their fullness. Let us make spaces in schools and offices; let us make spaces in kitchens and gardens; let us make spaces in theatre groups and cricket clubs. Let us makes spaces in chance encounters with strangers and with friends. Because God’s presence fills the whole earth: and it is the fullness of love. So in awe and wonder, with deep gratitude and joy: let us make room for love. Amen. Ω
Reflect: What blocks you from making room for or accepting love? What do you need to confess? Where could you make room for love today?
A reflection on Isaiah 6:1-13 and Luke 5:1-11 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 6 February 2022 (Year C Proper 15) © Sanctuary 2022.
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