by Danielle Jones
The word is central to our faith as Christians. God spoke and the world takes shape. Light and dark. Oceans and land. Summits and squid and sunsets and snow falls.
The word was spoken to Moses and the Ten Commandments were given and the people of Israel were set free. Prophets received God’s word and gave God’s word to his people — to set them free too! And John tells us that Jesus is the Word come to life, the one who comes to gives us a new word about the revelation and work of God.
The life-altering power of God’s word takes center stage in this all-too-familiar story.
It is a story that shows just how personal God’s word can get. Jesus was standing beside the Lake of Gennesaret and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God. And so, in order to make sure the crowd could hear him and to give himself a little space, Jesus makes his first contact with Simon Peter — the most famous of his disciples — by using his boat to push out onto the lake and to give a word to the crowds.
As we make our way through the book of Luke this winter, the last two passages we preached on also contained Jesus sharing the word. In Luke chapter 4 Jesus focuses on God’s word spoken through the prophet Isaiah and he retells the stories of Elijah and Elisha living out the word they received from God and sharing it with others.
And all these words given by God, stirred up a lot of hope with the people who heard them and they caused a lot of trouble. So much trouble that just before the passage we read today the people are so filled with rage at the new word of God that Jesus was speaking, they chase Jesus to the edge of a cliff in hopes of pushing him off!
In our story today we find another group of people wanting to hear a word from God, and they do hear a word, but this story in Luke doesn’t give us the content of what was spoken by Jesus from that boat that day. It just tells us the word was spoken.
We don’t know if the people were mad or sad after they heard the word Jesus spoke that day. We don’t know if they cheered or clapped when he was done speaking. But we do know that Jesus sticks around to talk to a few fisherman and it’s those words we will focus on today.
We’ve talked before about the power of words. Phrases like “Will you marry me?” or “The cancer is back” or Dr. King’s famous words “I have a dream…” change our path and set us in a new direction.
This story has something for everyone. It is a miracle story, with fish filling previously empty nets to overflowing after Jesus asks them to put their nets back in to the water. It is “a call” story. Simon Peter, James and John will later drop those nets filled with fish to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives. And it is a pronouncement story, exclaiming the news that God’s kingdom is expanding and moving from being centered in the Synagogue and in the person of Jesus into the middle of real life by the sea and in people as ordinary as a group of fisherman. And by the end of this interaction with fish by the sea, Simon, John and James are so captivated by Jesus’ words and actions that they will leave everything to follow him.
The number of leadership books that exist these days is dumbfounding. It’s harder to find books on the art of following. I have a love hate relationship with following. I love the idea of being able to sit back and let someone else be in charge, until they are actually in charge and then I really wish I could lead and that I could be the one everyone is following. As Christians we are told to follow but it’s hard to know how to follow a God we can’t always see.
In this first encounter with Jesus, Simon Peter is faced with following. When Jesus finished sharing the word with the crowd he turns to Simon and says “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” This first word from Jesus to Simon Peter comes at the end of a long, hard night.
It seems this is where discipleship tends to begin. So often the invitation to discipleship doesn’t come when we are well rested and well fed — comfortable in our lives with things all tied up in neat little packages. A word from God is most often offered to us after we have given all we can give.
I continue to learn this truth in my life in various ways. In my own pursuit to hear a word I intellectually long to crack the code of how to effectively following God but my heart reminds me that my weakest and most vulnerable times are the times I am most open to a word from God.
You can only imagine how exhausted Simon Peter, James and John must have been that morning. Discouraged, demoralized even, stressed about not having a catch and likely even more stressed that they would not have any fish to sell to support themselves- and it is in this moment as they are cleaning their nets and getting ready to go home to sleep that Jesus speaks to them.
And of all the things he could say to them, he invites them to drop their nets into the water once more. Its funny how God meets us where we are at in ways we can’t recognize at first. Jesus doesn’t try and explain complex theology or give them the top ten reasons why they should follow him. He invite them to do what they always do — just one more time.
And Simon Peter says, “Master, we worked all night and caught nothing! yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” I have to believe Simon Peter had heard something in that teaching time that gave him a nugget of belief that something about Jesus was different. He’s skeptical but he says, “yet if you say so, I’ll do it.”
And so they go out one last time and drop their nets. And Luke tells us they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break and they had to signal their fishing partners to come and help them pull in their haul! Jesus’ word, asking these tired fisherman to let down their nets just one more time, changes them.
Reluctantly they obey and their obedience puts them in position to experience a miracle catch.
If Jesus begins by meeting us in our most tired places of deepest need and giving us a word that relates to that place, he then surprises us with joy — performing a miracle that to one person could look like the simple good luck of a fisherman but to another is a reminder that there are some things only God can do.
There is clearly power in going when God says go.
And this miracle elicits a unique word from Simon. Instead of tears of joy at this monster catch or songs of praise at this big haul, Simon feels completely unworthy in the presence of Jesus. In his mind –and in his heart– he knows that net full of fish is a miracle and he immediately feels like he doesn’t deserve it.
When God speaks into our everyday lives and shows up in a miraculous way, we are reminded how much we need him and how much we don’t deserve the gifts he gives us. And we are reminded of our own sin and unworthiness.
Simon’s response at this net full of fish is to say, “Go away from me Jesus for I am sinful.” I think in this moment Simon knows. He knows that his life is never going to be the same again. The word, the net, the fish, the trust, the miracle, this Jesus has already changed his life. And although he feels the pull to follow- he asks Jesus to go.
Have you ever asked Jesus to go? Have you ever heard God’s word or seen God move and have you been too scared to follow him?
For some reason, Simon feeling unworthy to be in the presence of Jesus makes me think of all the times that I have felt like I deserve something. Recognition. An easier path in life. Or for God to make a way where there isn’t one. And I think to myself that if I could just actually get what I think I deserve I would finally be all filled up.
But isn’t it funny that when God gives us what we truly need instead of what we think we deserve- it has the opposite effect on us. When we get what we really deserve we are not filled up- but instead we are emptied. We see what God has done and our response is “I am not worthy of this blessing.” A genuine encounter with God has a way of humbling us and bringing us to our knees.
I’m not easily brought to my knees. The first ten years of my life as a child we attended an Episcopal church that had built in kneelers in front of the pews. A handful of times during each service we were invited to pray on our knees. It wasn’t a very comfortable way to pray, and in fact I found it more distracting than reverent.
Several years ago Brian and I were praying for God to show up in a new way in our lives. We had some good ideas of what we thought God should do to answer our prayers and we told him what we thought we deserved.
And so we prayed to those ends but when God did show up I was completely shocked by what he chose to do. What God did in our midst was a miracle and I remember receiving the good news and falling to my knees upstairs in our bedroom in shock that God had actually answered our prayer in a way we never prayed — because he knew what we needed better than we did. Miracles do that to us. They clarify things for us and that clarity leads us to run or to follow.
Jesus isn’t surprised by this fear response in Simon Peter. He’s seen it before. He says, “Do not be afraid! From now on you will be catching people.”
The kind of fear that comes from witnessing a miracle is holy fear. And holy fear shows us that any control we thought we had was false and the only one who is truly in control is God. Fear becomes holy when it moves us from feeling paralyzed to trusting more deeply in God.
Most people run in the face of fear, but not Jesus. Jesus lovingly holds Simon Peter’s fear and says to him, don’t worry about all of that. You have a new calling now. You are going to fish for people! And when they brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed him.
Each gospel has stories about discipleship and each gospel has fish tales. But Luke is the only writer that says right up front that they left everything to follow Jesus. Luke wants to make sure we know that hearing the word of God is not enough. Seeing the word of God at work is not even enough. We are called to leave everything and go.
This big fish story teaches us that the word of God comes into our daily lives in the most common circumstances. It comes at us when we are tired, worn and at the end of our rope, and it invites us to release our way and to allow God’s way to take over. God’s way invites us to try one more time. To trust God for one more thing –and when we do, God shows up and gives us more than we could ask for, ultimately giving us purpose and call beyond our wildest dreams.
So what word are you waiting for? What is the message God has been giving you? Where does it call you to drop your net in the water one more time? And how might you leave your own net full of fish behind to follow the living God who is right in front of you?
I can never get enough of the truth that God really wants us to join him in his work.
And I am always amazed at God’s gentle ways of coming alongside us in the most common activities of our lives to call out our gifts, encourage us to step up in faith, and to move us from hearing, to seeing, to risking, to believing and ultimately to following.