5th Sunday after Epiphany

February 8, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 6:1-8
Reading 2: 
Psalm 138
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Reading 4: 
Luke 5:1-11
By Ronald Farmer

Isaiah 6:1-8
As with last Sunday’s lesson (Jer 1:4-10), today’s Hebrew Bible lesson reports a prophet’s call to ministry. Whereas Jeremiah’s call focused on “the word of the LORD” that came to him, Isaiah’s call came in response to a vision of the heavenly throne room (cf. Ezekiel 1-3; 1 Kings 22:19-22). This imagery is dependent upon the ancient Near Eastern notion of the heavenly council, an idea mirroring the “royal courts” of earthly kings. In the polytheistic culture of Israel’s neighbors, lesser deities surrounded the chief deity of the pantheon. By way of contrast, Israel’s (hard-won) monotheism creatively transforms the imagery, portraying the LORD as surrounded by “the sons of God” or “the heavenly host,” messengers who do God’s bidding (cf. Job 1-2).

Isaiah’s vision occurred “in the year that King Uzziah died” (742 BCE), a year that also witnessed a lengthening of the ominous shadow of the Assyrian Empire. The fact that the setting for this visionary experience was the temple may reveal Isaiah’s personal anxiety regarding recent national and international events. As John the prophet would later write, he was “in the Spirit” (Rev 1:10) when the vision transpired.

At the center of the vision (vv. 1-4) is the LORD, exalted and enthroned as King of the universe. The observation that the royal robe filled the temple suggests that Isaiah stands just outside the holy place, overseeing and overhearing what transpires in the throne room. Seraphim (literally, “fiery ones”), members of the heavenly court, attend the King chanting antiphonally (as in temple worship): “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Note: The beautiful, poetic threefold “holy” reflects the Hebrew language’s lack of the comparative and superlative forms for adjectives. The adjective has to be repeated.) Expressing proper humility, the Seraphim cover their feet, euphemism for nakedness (no one can approach God naked), and their eyes (no one can see God and live). Awesome manifestations frequently connected with theophanies (shaking of the foundations and smoke) conclude the first portion of the grand vision.

Isaiah’s response (v. 5) to the awesome scene is perfectly fitting: “Woe is me!” (an expression of mourning). Not only has he seen God and thus fears for his life, but standing in the presence of the Holy One of Israel has made him vividly aware of his own sins and the sins of the people. Especially appropriate for a prophetic call narrative, sin is described in terms of “unclean lips.” In response to Isaiah’s confession of sin, one of the Seraphim touches his lips with a live coal from the altar, ritually cleansing his “unclean lips” (vv. 6-7). Interestingly, nothing is said about the sins of the people. Clearly, Isaiah is set apart—but why?
Isaiah then overhears God addressing a question to the members of the heavenly council: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Newly cleansed, Isaiah steps forth: “Here am I. Send me!” (v. 8). The order is significant: Confrontation by God’s holy presence triggers an awareness of sin. Confession of sin results in cleansing. Cleansing enables him to (over)hear and respond to God’s call.

Gene Tucker (The Book of Isaiah 1-39, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001] 6:105) offers sage words on the important relationship between the prophetic spirit and the spirit of worship:

The contemporary call to respond prophetically to social problems such as racism, poverty, and other forms of injustice typically is experienced in the context of prayer and worship. Likewise, prophetic words and actions gain conviction and force when expressed out of genuine piety. Moreover, worship and prayer are shallow without awareness of and concern for the specific and concrete problems of human societies.

Psalm 138
Psalm 138 voices thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance during time of trouble. Although formally classified as an individual psalm of thanksgiving, doubtless it was used to express the sentiments of the post-exilic community in worship. The psalm’s structure is threefold.

Vv. 1-3. The psalmist offers thanks to the LORD wholeheartedly—no divided loyalty here. Indeed, he or she sings God’s praise “before the gods.” Although this expression may refer to God’s heavenly council, it probably reflects the polytheism of the surrounding cultures and should be rendered idiomatically as “in the face of the gods” (i.e., in your face!), which better expresses its flavor of contempt. The point: the psalmist’s allegiance is undivided. Bowing in the temple precincts, the psalmist praises God’s “name,” that is, God’s character. Highlighted are God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (v. 2). These two divine attributes, frequently paired in scripture (e.g., Exod 34:6-7; Ps 40:11-12; 57:2), evoke trust and invite petition. Thus it follows that when the psalmist called upon God, God answered and strengthened his/her soul (v.3).

Vv. 4-6. When the exalted word of the LORD (v. 2c) reaches the kings of the earth, they too burst forth in songs of praise. The personal and individual experience of vv. 1-3 is universalized, revealing the greatness of the LORD’s glory (hence, the use of Psalm 138 during the Season of Epiphany). Yet God’s glorious universal reign functions quite differently than the reign of earthly kings. The LORD “regards the lowly” but the haughty God “perceives from far away” (v. 6). (Note: The word “perceive” can also be rendered “humbles.”) In words echoing those of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10) and foreshadowing those of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the psalmist “articulates the topsy-turvy values that prevail in the reign of God . . [T]o acknowledge God’s reign and to live in dependence upon God means a transformation of what and whom the world generally values” (J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 4:1232-3).

Vv. 7-8. From the universal, the psalm returns to the individual and personal. The psalmist knows that living under God’s reign does not insulate one from experiencing “trouble”; it may, in fact, provoke “the wrath of [one’s] enemies” (v. 7). Yet precisely “in the midst” of these difficulties, the psalmist relies on God’s “steadfast love” for deliverance/salvation. The concluding petition is voiced in full confidence that the LORD “will fulfill his purpose” for the psalmist: “Do not forsake the work of your hands” (v. 8).

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The opening words, “Now I would remind you,” loosely parallel the frequent expression, “Now concerning . . .” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; and 16:12), that introduces Paul’s response to questions the Corinthians had posed in their letter to him. The resurrection may or may not have been one of these questions, but clearly Paul had heard that some in Corinth denied the resurrection of the dead (v. 12).

In the opening paragraph (vv. 1-2; cf. v. 11) of this lengthy chapter, he reminded the Corinthians that they had believed the “good news” he proclaimed to them and were currently experiencing salvation through this message—unless they had “come to believe in vain,” a disquieting statement that telegraphs Paul’s concern. He then concisely stated the content of the “good news,” in this chapter emphasizing the resurrection whereas earlier (2:1-2) he had emphasized the crucifixion. Several things are noteworthy about his famed “gospel in a nutshell” (vv. 3-8).

First, Paul clearly stated that the message did not originate with him. He “received” it from those who preceded him in the faith and “handed on” the message to the Corinthians. (Note: The Greek words translated “received” and “handed on” are technical terms for the transmission of tradition.) Paul’s emphasis on “tradition”(i.e., an established formulation of Christian belief) is a reminder that the gospel message always precedes faith. The Easter message created the first Christians, not the reverse. Grace always precedes response.

Second, in support of the message concerning the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul appealed to (a) the fulfillment of scripture and (b) eyewitness testimony. Although Paul did not quote specific passages from the Hebrew Bible, he did cite (as part of the tradition he had handed on) several eyewitnesses beginning with Cephas and concluding with himself. Conspicuous by their absence in this list of witnesses are women. The Gospels mention women as eyewitnesses (indeed, the first eyewitnesses in some traditions), but the “gospel in a nutshell” tradition Paul quoted omitted them—unless they are included by way of the generic “brothers” in v. 6 (cf. NRSV).

Third, Paul did not expect any further resurrection appearances for he referred to his own experiences as “last of all.” “Though Paul is clear that these decisive appearances have come to an end, we should not lose sight of the way in which the living Christ or the Spirit continued to be a vivid and vital presence in the church” (William A. Beardslee, First Corinthians: A Commentary for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1994] 145).

Fourth, as is typical with Paul, he appealed to his own experience as part of his argument—lest the Corinthians “come to believe in vain” (v. 2). He referred to himself as “one untimely born,” an expression capable of multiple interpretations. Does it refer to his initial resistance? His distance in time from the other eyewitnesses? However the expression is understood, the remarkable transformation of his life from persecutor to apostle is cited as testimony to the remarkable workings of the grace of God. Paul’s untiring apostolic activity clearly revealed that, in his case, this bestowal of grace had “not been in vain.” Lest he sound boastful, however, he quickly added that it was the enabling power of grace that made possible his life as an apostle. The reception of grace empowers creative transformation.

Luke 5:1-11
Today’s Gospel reading presents the interpreter with several interesting structural and source-critical issues.

(1) The temporal connection between today’s Gospel reading and the passage immediately preceding it (4:42-44) is unclear. The final verse of the preceding paragraph has Jesus preaching in the synagogues of Judea, but today’s lesson places him at the Lake of Gennesaret (= Sea of Galilee). This is clear evidence that for the Evangelist, writing an “orderly account” (1:1, 3) does not require chronological order.

(2) Mark and Matthew also record the call of the fishermen (1:16-20 and 4:18-22 respectively), but they place it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke, Jesus’ fame had already grown to the point that he needed helpers, as the stories in 4:14-44 and the pressing crowd in 5:1 demonstrate.

(3) Mark and Matthew contain accounts of Jesus preaching from a boat due to the press of a crowd (4:1 and 13:1-2 respectively), but these stories include neither a large catch of fish nor the call of the fishermen. John 21:1-14, a resurrection appearance story, involves a large catch of fish. Has Luke combined these stories in order to make the fishermen’s leaving everything to follow Jesus more understandable from a psychological standpoint?

However one construes the above issues, clear teachings on Christology and discipleship emerge from the Gospel lection.

On Christology—Although the great catch is not called a Messianic “mighty deed” or “sign,” most readers discern it to be so, especially in light of Peter’s response. For a discussion of “miracles” from a process perspective, see the commentary on John 2:1-11 (Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2004).

On Discipleship—(1) Jesus’ call to discipleship is based on grace, not merit, for clearly the fishermen had done nothing. Some commentators point to Peter’s willingness to allow Jesus to teach from the boat and/or his hesitant compliance to the seemingly strange command to put out into the deep and lower the nets, as evidence of potential. But all people have potential. As was the case with Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible lesson, and Paul in the Epistolary reading, Peter’s response to this “Epiphany” (v. 8) plainly reveals his awareness of sin. The call to discipleship is based on grace. (2) The call to discipleship does not require a sacred setting; it can come in the midst of the everydayness of life, as it did for Peter and his partners. (3) The call to discipleship involves “catching people,” that is, inviting others to discipleship. Interestingly, the Lucan term for “catch” literally means “to take alive in the sense of to rescue from death”; it is not the term used in Mark and Matthew, which is the normal term for fishing. (4) The call to discipleship “requires a reversal of priorities and a reordering of commitments. The disciples left everything (a more inclusive term than is used in the call accounts in Mark and Matthew), and ‘they followed him.’ . . . He will order their lives from now on” (R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, in The New Interpreter’s Bible vol. 9 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995] 9:118).

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.