What’s the Point? (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany)

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Like many people over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve been re-assessing how I do things.  For all of the disruption and chaos that Covid has created, this time has also taught us that we can do things in different ways.  And in some cases, this has given us a chance to ask whether what we were doing before was really the best or most efficient way do things.

One of those things for me, and I know for a number of us, is asking how many weekdays I really need to drive over here and sit in the office.  Before Covid, I would pretty much come in every single weekday that wasn’t my day off, whether or not there was really anything I needed to be here for.  In my mind, it was just what you were supposed to do…!

But in fact, there are a lot of things I do (like prepare sermons and work on class preparation) that I do much better when I’m at home.  My email is accessible to me everywhere. People can always call or text me wherever I am, and even if you call the church and leave a message on my church voicemail, our system instantly sends me an email with the audio file attached.  So, many of the reasons I used to feel the need to physically sit at my desk in the office just aren’t good reasons anymore.

I still come in at least a couple weekdays, because there are things I really do need to be physically present for.  Often, this is a great place to meet and collaborate with staff and volunteers.  And there are times when it’s easier and more efficient to do things on site.  But I don’t come into the office just to sit by myself everyday and say (to myself or others) “Here I am!  I’m sitting in the office!”  I mean, what’s the point of that?

And that’s the basic question many of us have asked when we’ve considered doing or resuming a lot of things we used to do all the time.  What’s the point?  And if there isn’t a good reason to do it, then what’s the point of still doing it?

And I gotta tell you, I also asked that question as I read a couple of our readings this morning!  Both Isaiah and Simon are asked by God to do things that, frankly, they’ve been doing for a long time, and that they’re good at.

Isaiah is a court prophet in ancient Israel.  His job is to speak God’s Word and tell people about God’s will and direction for their lives.  And in today’s reading, he enters the Temple and an astounding thing happens.  He has a vision of God himself enthroned in heaven with angels swirling about.  He sees this and, as all ancient people did, he figures he’s in trouble.  He’s seen God, and that’s not something any mere moral is supposed to do.

But God sends an angel to touch his lips with a burning coal from the altar, which cauterizes his sin.  And then God asks (somewhat rhetorically), “whom shall I send and who shall go for us?”  To which Isaiah replies, “Here am I!  Send me!”  And that’s usually where this passage ends when we read it.

But God goes on, and basically tells Isaiah that he’s to go and speak to people who will not listen.  He’s to show people things that they will not pay attention to.  He’s to be the prophet who gets ignored.  “For how long?” Isaiah asks.  Until the whole country has been destroyed and is in ruin – so basically, until it’s too late.

And so you read this, and you have to ask, “what’s the point?”  Why bother speaking, if not one will listen?  Why bother going out there and trying if no one will care?  Why would God even send Isaiah?  What’s the point of that?

And then there’s Simon.  Simon Peter has already met Jesus and Jesus has cured his mother-in-law of a fever.  And as Luke’s story goes, sometime soon afterwards, Jesus was teaching a crowd of people on the beach near where Simon and his buddies had been fishing all night.  They were hanging around in their boats listening also, as they were cleaning their nets, and so Jesus got in Simon’s boat and used it as a lectern.

Then, after Jesus is done, he tells Simon to put out into deeper water and let down the nets for a catch.  But Simon, who fishes for a living, has fished all night and caught nothing, in spite of his skill.  Daytime is not the best time to catch fish in that lake.  And so he knows that a better idea would be to get some rest and try again in the evening.  So the very first thing he tells Jesus is that “we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  Why try again now?  What’s the point of that?

What’s the point?  And yet, Isaiah goes and preaches to the people who won’t listen.  And Simon, perhaps just to humor Jesus, agrees to go back out and let down the nets.  They did this in spite of the fact that both of them had to have wondered, “what’s the point of doing this?”

So what is the point?  What’s the point of either of these guys (or any of us) doing things that God asks when we’re not sure we can see the point of doing it?  Well, it seems from these stories that sometimes the point is simply to:

  • Be the light of God in the world, even and especially when nobody cares and nobody notices – that’s still worth doing; in the end, Isaiah does go and speak the words God gave him, probably because he decided that being an agent of God’s light in the world was worth it in and of itself, even if people didn’t particularly pay attention.  And sometimes, that’s the point of doing things we feel God is calling us to do also – they make God’s love visible. And even if many people don’t notice, and they’re the right things to do …
  • Open yourself to God’s work in your life – Simon decided to go back out in the lake and put down the nets.  He certainly didn’t expect much to happen.  But at least he was open to the possibility that Jesus was going to show him something through what he did, even if he didn’t see the point at the moment.  And the point, it turns out, was not to catch a lot of fish; indeed after Simon’s most successful catch, he left fishing!  The point was that Simon realized and recognized the reality of God’s presence and power in his actual everyday life.  And Jesus’ call was to use that experience to help others come to recognize God’s presence in their lives as well; and sometimes for us, being open to doing something we feel God is calling us to do can make us aware of how God is working in our lives, which is why caring for people who never know it was us helping them can be good for us as well as for them …
  • Participate in what God is doing, even if you won’t be around to see the outcome – Isaiah’s words were actually listened to, but by people who came after him – and those words weren’t just words of destruction, but words of hope, which gave later generations strength to rebuild and trust in the power of God to help them.  And some of the things God calls us to do – indeed, some of the most important things – are things that will most matter after we’re all gone …

So what’s the point?  It’s good question to ask, especially when life is changing quickly around us.  And it’s good to carefully ask that question, and see whether there really is a point to doing something.

And as today’s readings remind us, even when it’s not initially apparent, there is a point when God calls us to do things.  And often, the point is simply to be God’s light in lives of others around us.  The point is to open ourselves to God’s work in our lives so that we can see and experience God’s presence in the midst of difficult times.  And sometimes, the point is simply to participate in God’s plan, which we may never see the end of, but which God has made us a part of right now.