By Paul Koch –
Growing up in this country, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be governed by anything other than democratically elected representatives. As Americans, the closest thing we know to a monarchy is the sad soap opera tale of the royals in Great Britain. As far as I can tell, it is more a matter of national pride than real power. And when we do hear about leaders with real defining power, it is usually some terrible dictator in a third world country. But there was a time when kings were more common, when the great powers of the world were ruled by a king, and to be brought before a king was to be in a very dangerous position. Standing or kneeling before a king was to be before one with ultimate authority over you. The king could grant you great and abundant blessing, but he could just as easily take everything from you, even your life.
This is what makes the calling of the prophet Isaiah such a powerful story. He begins by saying, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Is. 6:1). In the year that this earthy king died, Isaiah finds himself in the throne room of the true King, the King of kings, the Lord on high. And the scene that plays out before him is awesome and terrifying. There are these seraphim creatures flying around with six wings each. Now seraph in Hebrew is a fiery serpent. I imagine these celestial beings are like dragons that keep guard around the throne of the King. But in addition to flying around, they are also calling out one to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” And the whole place was trembling at the sound of their voices, and there was smoke billowing up filling the building.
Finding himself in such a situation, Isaiah only has one move to make. See, he knows where he is. He knows whose throne he is in front of, and perhaps most importantly, he knows that he should not be there. “Woe is me!” 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!” (Is. 6:5). Isaiah confesses that he is a sinner. To be a sinner in the presence of the King, the Lord of hosts is to meet your end. He cannot hide, he cannot run away, he cannot pretend that he is anything other than what he is, so he begins to confess his sins. He is a man of unclean lips and lives in the midst of people of unclean lips.
And then one of those six-winged seraphim does something remarkable. It flies down to the altar and with a pair of tongs takes from it a single burning coal. If you think Isaiah was terrified before, imagine how he felt when this dragon-like creature comes flying at him with that coal in its hand. And before he can run away, it touches his lips. The coal touches the very thing that he confessed was unclean. The very sin that he knew was his undoing before the throne of the King is touched by the coal. The creature speaks, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” In the presence of the living God, Isaiah confesses his sin, and in return he has is sins removed. There is hope for him. Life, salvation, absolution are given not out of his merit or worthiness but out of the gracious love of the King. Long live such a king, a king of mercy and abundant forgiveness.
Around 700 years after Isaiah’s incredible experience, Scripture teaches us of another encounter with the King of kings. This time it isn’t in the throne room of God, and there aren’t any flying dragon creatures, but it is a powerful revelation of the nature of our God. It happens a little way from the shore in the Sea of Galilee. There we find Peter in his boat with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had been teaching to great crowds, but now he has Peter push out into deep water and let down their nets to catch some fish. The thing is, Peter and his crew had already been fishing all night, the time when the fishing is the best, and they caught nothing. It seems like it would have been best to chock this day up to a loss. Besides, they had already finished cleaning their nets. To cast them in again would mean that the whole process would have to be done over again. “But,” Peter says, “at your word I will let down the nets,” (Luke 5:5) and when he does so they catch such a large number of fish that nets began to break. They had to signal another boat from shore to come and help. There were so many fish filling the boats that the boats themselves began to sink.
What happened was crazy. It was an insane, massive, miraculous catch of fish. Like Isaiah before him, Peter begins to realize where he is. He realizes who he is standing in front of, and perhaps most importantly, he knows that he shouldn’t be there. So, what does he do? He falls down at the knees of Jesus and confesses. He says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). The miracle reveals the identity of our Lord. Peter is before the King of kings, and he is a sinner. This moment will be his undoing. There is nowhere to run, no place to hide, so he confesses his sin. But Jesus doesn’t leave him in his broken confession. And he doesn’t use seraphim and a burning coal either. No, this time he simply speaks a word of hope and life and salvation to the penitent. He says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” A new life, a new purpose, all at the word of Christ.
The story of confessing before the true King, the story of knowing that there is no place to hide, no place to run, that all you can do is confess and fall empty-handed before your God, is a story that continues to be told. It is a story that continues to be lived out in the lives of the children of God. This ancient story is your story as well, a story that you live every week right here, right where you gather around the gifts of God. You come into this place of worship, and how do we begin? We begin when the pastor declares in whose presence you have come. We begin by invoking the name of the King in whose presence we gather: the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Before such a king there is no place to hide, nowhere for you to run. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the all-knowing and all-powerful Creator of heaven and the earth. He knows your thoughts and desires, your past, present, and future. There is only one thing that you can do, only one option left: you confess. You confess that you have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and by what you have left undone. You confess that you have failed to live as a child of God, that you have squandered his blessings and selfishly stored up blessings for others. In your own way, you cry out, “Woe is me,” or shout, “Depart from me for I am a sinner.”
Over and again the great King doesn’t give you what you deserve but returns your confession with atonement, with forgiveness and mercy, with words of sweet absolution. He doesn’t use a flying creature with a burning coal in its hand, but he uses the words of his Son. He uses the words of life and hope, spoken into your ears from the mouth of one called and ordained for just such a purpose. You come this day before your King. You come as sinners one and all. You come with empty hands and nothing to barter with, nothing to make a deal and sweeten your situation. The Words of the King to you are simple, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Forgiveness is yours.
And like Peter and Isaiah before you, you are then sent out. God said to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I! Send me.” Jesus tells Peter that he will become a fisher of men. That he will speak words of life and hope to a dying and lost world. And so shall you. It may be a coworker or an old friend. It could be a former member who long stopped coming to receive the blessings of the King. It could be your parents or one of your own children. But you go out bearing the message of the King. You go to forgive and love and welcome.
Long live the King.