A few years ago, there was a TV series called “Burn Notice,” in which a spy is disclaimed by the US government. Burn Notice: “We have no further use for you… what did you say your name was?”
I have felt this way, related to my sin and failures: a deep burned-out despair in my gut that it is all over. A fear that I have failed to such an extent that there is no going back (or forward for that matter). I’m disappointed in myself, and certain of others’ utter disappointment in me, So I wallow in the ashes of burnt hopes and dreams….
But God doesn’t see it that way. He has a different version of burning coals. God offers Isaiah a dream job; to be his messenger. It is conveyed in the imperative, but still… The only drawback is that the circumstances seem no-win: provide public service to people who don’t want to be served. Instead, they want to be fed the apple. The same one that Eve wanted, and that I want and maybe you want on any given day: to be our own little gods, doing what we want, when we want, how we want; yet still miraculously fed and protected by God against all odds.
But instead of leaping at the opportunity, however poorly stacked, to advance his status; Isaiah looked at God, looked back down at himself, and asked, “How could someone as unholy as me, ever speak for someone as holy as you?” And God took – in the hands of a seraphim – a burning coal, touched Isaiah’s lips, and said, “I took care of that.” Really? Someone as holy as you, wants someone as unholy as me… to speak for you…on the world stage…because Jesus atoned, and that’s enough? (See Isaiah 6.)
So Isaiah, instead of wallowing in the burnt out ashes of his past and possible future failure, said, “I’ll do it.” Somehow, all he could see was God with the big G, and not the worrisome details about god with the little ‘g’. Burning coals were enough for him, and the claim that God could, and in fact wanted, to use him.
Then there’s Peter, rash and boastful. I cannot imagine what it felt like after…to betray the friend with whom he had walked and talked and witnessed do miracle after miracle. Peter is drawn in, by another disciple, to the courtyard of the high priest.
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.”
The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them: they know what I said.” When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
“John 18:15 (ESV) – Simon Peter followed Jesus and.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 17 Jan, 2019. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/esv/jhn/18/15/s_1015015>.
What must it have felt like…to deny the friend with whom he had walked and talked and puzzled mind-bending questions; to have witnessed life and death miracle moments, and now be drawn in to another; only to conclude with a mutter, “No, I am not one who ever followed Jesus…anywhere…at all.
I can only imagine what Peter might have felt, from the despair I feel to fail the ones with whom I live and breathe every day; the ones who know how I have failed in the past, and that I likely will again. The ones who are still here anyway, thirty years later… I can imagine staring into the fire and wondering, with Peter, if one will ever feel warm on the inside, ever again.
But the burning coals of invitation, find Peter again:
That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
“John 21:7 (ESV) – That disciple whom Jesus loved.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Jan, 2019. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/esv/jhn/21/7/s_1018007>
And this time, Peter leaps. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and despair, Peter counts the invitation real: to bring himself (and all his baggage), his need to perform (anything), and the real offering to contribute. He comes to a breakfast of grace and hope and continuing purpose. An invitation to follow. See John 21:1-19.
Long into my own journey of following Jesus, following in close company with others; I can imagine staring into the fire with Peter. While I sometimes feel a twinge of desolation while I wait for the coals to really take hold; if I am willing to take the leap into the grace of Christ my Savior, there is hope.
One thought further… the burning coals of Jesus invite me – into purpose, into fellowship, into overflowing grace. The thing that holds me disconsolate, is the thought that I must somehow be perfect, or perhaps even deeper, that it is my right to be perfect, and to be seen as such. That somehow, along with Eve, I should be granted permission to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and therefore, be like God in this knowing. How I struggle to be in the right. Perhaps you do as well. The God of Isaiah, Jesus the friend of sinners, and the Spirit of the living God, invite us instead to be graced. These feel like ‘big girl’ thoughts. I invite your comments. And I close with a prayer for us all.
Jesus, we journey in places that test us; tripping headlong like Peter, often at the slightest provocation. Our fears pull us down fast. Help us to be willing to follow; to see in you, the burning coals of grace. Help us to move closer, to accept the searing definition of your purpose, and to watch, reassured, as moment by moment by moment you walk in the footprints of your Father’s will. Amen