Epiphany 5C

February 01, 2010

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    Luke 5:1-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    Anybody can have a bad day fishing. But you don’t expect professional fisherman to come up empty, yet the men who went on to become the first disciples seemed often to have this problem. If you wanted to find somebody to become a “fisher of people,” you might want at the very least to choose somebody who had proven to be a pretty successful fisher of fish! That seems not to have been the case with Simon and company. They were not superstars even in the fishing world. There was nothing particularly striking about any one of the people Jesus called out to follow him. Like the nondescript location Jesus chose to begin his ministry, so the people he drummed up there to be his first followers were ordinary folks. Simon was not kidding when he claimed to be “a sinful man” as reported in verse 8. He was sinful, fallible, imperfect at best. (The trajectory of Simon Peter’s career hereafter would bear that out rather nicely as a matter of fact!).

    Sometimes we wish we could see and meet the disciples. We hear people say, “Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount?” Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.

    But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.

    We need to forget about the illustrations from those well-meaning children’s Bibles some of us grew up with. In those pictures the disciples tended to be pretty handsome with well-groomed beards, sporting robes worthy of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In such depictions the disciples were always clean and remarkably Anglo-Saxon looking. The fashions may have changed over time, but in an era when tunics and robes were what people wore, we often visualize the disciples wearing the ancient equivalent of Armani designer suits. Probably, though, they were far more common and ragged looking.

    That’s why, if magically you could see the disciples, their demeanor, speech, and appearance would not make it easier to believe the gospel but just possibly tougher to swallow. Can it really be that this rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe?

    Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story as they discover that the scruffy-looking character they never quite trusted is actually the true king of the realm. In the classic The Wizard of Oz we get a double treat at the end of the story: first, the great and powerful Oz turns out to be nothing but the man behind the curtain, a puller of levers and switches who looks like a humbug of a charlatan. But then, almost before the dust of that reversal of expectation settles, we get jolted yet again: as it turns out, the humble man behind the curtain is a pretty good wizard after all.

    Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.

    That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service. When Peter tried to wield a sword, Jesus told him to put it back in its sheath.

    The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize.

    Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

    Just what was it that made Simon want to send Jesus away?   We are told that the reason he told Jesus to leave—and the reason he saw himself at that moment as such a sinful man—was that he was amazed at that great catch of fish.  Amazement was a proper response.  But how did Peter go from being properly wowed by what looked for all the world to be a pretty cool miracle to reflecting on his own sinfulness?

    It is precisely this nugget in Luke 5 that makes the connection to this week’s Old Testament lection plain to see.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees the Holy God of the universe high and lifted up.   The barrier that exists between our world and the realm of God was temporarily removed, allowing Isaiah to glimpse a vision of glory and holiness that knocked him flat.  It also led him to bemoan his status as a man of unclean lips.  In the face of raw holiness, the tawdriness of everyday life is revealed.   In the light that streams from God’s throne, our every blemish shows up.  (Sometimes when you are looking at your own face in a bathroom mirror, dim lighting is a gift!   But every once in a while your face is illumined by searingly bright bulbs and then there’s just no denying or missing the wrinkles, the age spots, the . . . whatever.)

    In the light of holiness, there’s no hiding.   There’s no missing the wrinkles on one’s soul, the marks left by our missteps.  Coming face to face with holiness does that to a person.

    But in Luke 5 there is no searing vision of holiness the likes of which Isaiah saw.  Simon saw a big catch of fish.  Granted, this smacked of the miraculous but it’s also the kind of thing that a cynic could explain away as a stroke of luck, as a random school of fish that just happened to find its way into their nets.  No need to evoke the divine!  No need to get all misty eyed over the work of God!  These things happen.  Even rotten fishermen strike it right now and then.

    You see, if a spectacle like the one Isaiah saw had happened there by the Sea of Gennesaret, no one would miss it and no cynic would be able to do any eye-rolling dismissal of what had happened.  Yet Simon saw something that had the same effect on him as Isaiah’s vision of glory: he saw himself as a sinner who was in the presence of The Holy and felt that he could not possibly continue to co-exist in the presence of that pristine glory.  How did this happen?  Was Simon just something of a bumpkin who was too easily impressed, too easily blown away by parlor tricks and the like?

    Or was all of this a move of the Holy Spirit that helped Simon to see through to the reality of things no less than had happened to Isaiah?   I think we can opt for this possibility.  Simon and the others recognize, by the grace of the Spirit, that they were in the presence of just possibly God’s Christ.  True, a minor miracle had happened and this helped but as just noted, the catch of fish was not quite eye-popping enough or convicting enough to explain everything that happened as a result.   This is the work of the Spirit.

    But all of this begs the question of how often we might find ourselves in the presence of the holy.   Do we encounter holiness in unexpected places?   And when we do, do we have the spiritual vision of Simon or do we mostly miss such occasions in our lives?   When we are in the presence of a quiet saint in the congregation who for decades has been bringing hope into people’s lives along with the casseroles and blueberry pies she brings to the sick and sorrowing, can we detect the holiness of God in our midst?  When a young person speaks a discerning word that we perceive to be no less than the very truth of God, do we see God’s holiness at work in even this youngster?

    Granted, typical scenarios like these may not actually rise to the level of an Isaiah 6 vision and are not quite the same as Simon’s actually being in the physical presence of God’s Christ, but they may even so be glimpses of holiness and of the work of the divine to which we would do well to pay attention.   After all, if our faith is real and if our God is forever on the move and is forever at work, shouldn’t we expect to encounter the divine presence and work on a pretty regular basis?   And if we do not, is the reason because we are wrong about the incessant movement of God’s Spirit in the life of the Church or because we are mostly just not seeing it when it’s right in front of us?

    Textual Points

    First, commentators point out that in Luke 5:1, this is the first time in Luke that we read the phrase “logon tou theou” or “word of God.” Here we have an early indication that what came out of Jesus’ mouth were not merely his own words but no less than the very word of God, a revelation that bore the imprimatur of God’s truth. It’s easy to let a phrase like that slide right on by when reading this passage, but it packs a wallop and may well be worthy of pointing out in a sermon.

    Second, it is probably not necessary to point this out, but in Luke 5:10, the Greek word that refers to that of which the disciples would not become fishers is anthropos, referring not to “men” with its male connotations but to “humanity” more broadly.

    Illustration Idea

    From Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee: Suddenly Jesus came up with a strange idea. “Let’s go fishing out into the deep water. I’ve got a hunch there’s a catch out there.” Simon, experienced fisherman that he was, tried to be polite in his answer to this landlubber. “You know, Master, we’ve been out the whole night, and caught nothing.” He didn’t add, but was probably thinking, “This guy doesn’t realize that no one goes deep sea fishing in broad daylight around here”. But Simon, having failed to accomplish much by his own tried and true methods, was in no position to question the Lord’s strange suggestion. What he does say is the sentence that will change the entire course of his life. Perhaps he said it with a sigh of resignation. “If you say so…we’ll do it.” Well, you know what happened.

    It all begins when Jesus comes to us in the middle of our lives, where we work, where we live, the seaside, the classroom, the hospital, the office, the kitchen, and asks us to trust him enough to do one strange little thing, like fishing in the deep water in broad daylight. It’s the kind of thing that’s a little weird, a bit outside your usual routine. It’s the sort of request that demands trust because you wouldn’t normally do it. It’s like when a friend of mine asked me to attend a weekend retreat called De Colores, and then wouldn’t tell me very much about it. Or, it’s like the lawyer who just felt that a colleague was hungry for spiritual life and dared to open up a conversation over coffee by asking, “How do you feel about God?” Or, it’s like the woman who saw an ad in the paper about an opportunity to tutor illiterate adults and picked up the phone. A little odd; not anticipated, unplanned. That’s the way Jesus’ call often comes. Christ invades our everyday lives with one of these little offbeat impulses, these strange biddings. We have the feeling they are coming from him, though we’re not at all sure. And a lot hangs on what we do with them. What if Peter had ignored Jesus’ strange suggestion?

    The other thing about Jesus’ strange request is that it came at a point of failure and vulnerability. “All night long, and nothing.” I love that little phrase. For me it depicts how we often feel about our lives. Striving, working, struggling, but with meager results. It speaks of the feelings we often have of futility, dissatisfaction, and boredom. “All night long and nothing.”

    But that’s often where Jesus’ call comes to us: where we least expect it. Where we’ve failed. Where we feel over our heads. Where we feel uncomfortable. Where we sense our own futility. Jesus does not typically walk into our lives where we feel in control, where we are flush with our own success. It’s in our places of vulnerability and confusion, failure and sin. He likes to get us out there in the deep water in broad daylight where we feel a little silly and strange.

    I knew a woman who, for some very good reasons, was very insecure around men, and particularly around ministers. Yet, she had always had a deep fascination with God and a ravenous hunger to know more about God. One day, as we were talking, she was complaining about the fact that her life had no direction, she didn’t know what to do with her life. Her children were all in school. She was stuck in a dead-end job for which she was over-qualified. Now what? She was scared, hurt, and angry. She had been fishing “all night long, and nothing.” Off hand, almost jokingly, I said “Ever think of the seminary?” We both laughed. “Are you kidding?” You know where she is today? She’s a minister. Still struggling with insecurities. Still wondering where it will all lead, she followed this voice inside that called her to throw her net in the deep water. I believe that Christ called her at precisely those most dangerous and vulnerable points of her life. That’s where he calls disciples.

    Jesus invited Peter to fish in the deep water. That little phrase bristles with suggestive possibilities. God takes the highest view of our potential. He doesn’t want us to be paddling around in the shallows of life where we often spend so much of our time. I remember swimming with my Dad. He was always insisting that I go with him into the deep water, while I clung to the sandy beach. Finally I did it, and I found the joy and freedom of swimming in the deep water. I think Jesus is constantly inviting us into the deep places. He’s calling us to acts of trust and courage, while we want to play it safe. He’s calling us to step out in faith and freedom while we cling to our safe and familiar fears and anxieties. He’s calling us to think and live deeply, to face our doubts and fears, and abandon ourselves to the depths of God’s abundant life.