King is one of my heroes, and I find much about his life inspiring.
But there is a danger in putting King—or any other great person—on too high a pedestal. Sometimes we celebrate our saints so much that they become irrelevant to our lives. We think of the saints as great in a way that we could never be. We may be grateful for their witness. But—this is the danger—we don’t even try to follow their example.
But think again about the prayer with which we began this morning. We asked God to grant that we, “illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments,” might “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” We prayed that the radiance of Christ’s glory in us would make Christ “known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”
We, shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory? We, shining so brightly with Christ’s radiance that we illuminate the ends of the earth? That might be true for someone like Martin Luther King. It might be true for the great saints. But for us? It just doesn’t seem possible.
That feeling is not entirely wrong. Certainly humility before the holiness of God is a good thing.
But, important as humility is, important as it is to remember that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, we should not let our “humility” prevent us doing the work that God calls us to do and being the people that God calls us to be.
We are sinners. But that is not the whole story. We are sinners who have been forgiven. We are sinners whom God loves.
We know that. And we struggle.
We know the good news of God’s grace and love. We know the good news of Christ’s forgiveness. We know the good news that the Holy Spirit empowers us. And we have trouble really accepting that good news, really accepting that we are acceptable and that we are indeed accepted by God.
I say all this this morning, because our readings offer us one more piece of good news. We are not the first generation to struggle with what it means to be called by God, to be God’s people and to do God’s work. God’s people in every generation have struggled with a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy. AND God worked through them, which means God can work through us too.
At the beginning of our passage, the prophet Isaiah acknowledges that he was called by God to great things. Isaiah says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb [God] named me….And [God] said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” Isaiah was called to be all shiny with the radiance of Christ’s glory.
But—this is an amazing thing!—Isaiah felt like a failure. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” That is Isaiah, the great prophet of God! Isaiah struggled with a sense of his own unworthiness.
But God sees Isaiah differently. God sees Isaiah as one through whom God can and will do great things.
So God points Isaiah forward. God puts Isaiah to work. God calls Isaiah to an even bigger task. God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
God says, in effect, your job was to proclaim the good news to Israel. But now I want you to proclaim the good news to all nations. No matter how you feel, you, Isaiah, will shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory so that God may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.
Isaiah feels unworthy, and yet God grants Isaiah exactly what we prayed for this morning.
We see the same thing in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
We know from later parts of the letter that the Christians at Corinth were struggling. They disagreed among themselves on very basic issues about the Christian life. Things got so bad that people were suing each other in the pagan law courts.
My guess is, they could have echoed Isaiah’s words: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Indeed, if I had been Paul, I might have said that about them!
But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead Paul does for them essentially what God did for Isaiah.
Paul reminds the Corinthians who they are and whose they are. Paul says they have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Paul says they are “called to be saints.” Paul says that they have been enriched “in every way…, in speech and knowledge of every kind.” Paul says they are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”
Paul does not blame them for their failures, which were real enough. Instead, Paul points them forward. Paul reminds them of their calling, of the gifts they have received from God. Paul tells them that they can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.
Our passage ends with the most reassuring line of all. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” And the Christians in Corinth kept moving forward.
As you probably know, Martin Luther King Junior had the same kind of struggles. One night, he nearly gave up. He had received one death threat too many, and he did not think he could keep going. So, sitting at his kitchen table late at night, King prayed. He told God that it was too hard, that he did not have the strength.
And in that moment, King felt enveloped by God’s comforting presence, by God’s awesome strength. King felt God’s call to keep going, and to do even more.
And King rose to the challenge. He heard God’s call to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, and he changed our nation.
I take perverse comfort in the struggles of our great forefathers and mothers. They help me to remember that, despite our own sense of failure, despite our problems, despite our fears, we, too, are called to be saints. We, too, are capable of great things. We, too, can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory so brightly that others see.
And whenever we feel inadequate, we can remember that, like them, we do not rely on our own strength. We can take comfort in the fact that it is God who calls us, God who gives us the gifts we need, God who is faithful, God who ensures that, in the end, God’s will is done in and through us.
And so this morning I give thanks to God for the witnesses who have gone before us. I thank God who illumines us with his Word and Sacraments. I thank God who shines in us with the radiance of Christ’s glory, even when we do not feel very shiny. And I ask God to give us the strength and courage to embrace God’s mission to make God known, worshiped, and obeyed to the very ends of the earth.
I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.