Heading Into Deep Water – sermon on Luke 5:1-11 for Epiphany 5C

February 6, 2022

Let’s review what’s happened in Luke’s gospel so far. Luke spent the first chapter introducing us to John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. We met Mary and Joseph, and heard Mary and Zechariah sing praises to God for what God was about to do.

Luke 2 is all about the birth of Jesus, his presentation in the temple – where Anna and Simeon recognize him as Messiah – and what little we know about Jesus’ childhood. There’s that story of Jesus hanging out with the scribes and teachers while his parents head home to Nazareth, but that’s about all we know from Luke about the boy Jesus.

Then chapter three brings us back to John the Baptist, but now he and Jesus are grown men. John baptizes Jesus and moves into the background. He knows that it’s time for him to become less so Jesus can become more.

Chapter 4 has taken us into the wilderness of temptation, and back home to Nazareth to hear Jesus preach his first sermon in the synagogue there. It starts out well, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but it ends up with the people of Nazareth trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Jesus passes through their midst and gets away. He knows this isn’t the hill he’s supposed to die on. He still has work to do.

I don’t know if you noticed it, but Jesus mentioned to the people of Nazareth that he’s already been at work, over in Capernaum, and in other parts of Galilee. Since Capernaum wasn’t a very big village, it’s a pretty good guess that Jesus already knows some of the people who live there. People like Simon and his brother Andrew, and their partners, the sons of Zebedee. Good, sturdy fishermen.

This is confirmed in the parts of chapter 4 that we skip over to get to today’s reading. After casting out a demon while preaching in the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus goes to Simon’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. It’s the Sabbath, but no one questions these acts of healing. Instead, as soon as Sabbath ends at sundown, people come from everywhere, bringing their sick to Jesus.

Jesus and Simon know each other well enough for Jesus to be a guest in Simon’s house. Maybe that’s why Simon doesn’t seem surprised when Jesus shows up on the beach one morning. They are already friends. 

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:1-11

When Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water and let out your nets (again!)” I can just hear Simon groaning, “Jesus, with all due respect, we are the pros here. We know what we’re doing. We’ve already been fishing. We didn’t catch anything! Just leave me alone. Let me get my nets washed and go home to sleep.” But Simon already knows Jesus well enough to realize there is no use arguing. So they head back out to the deep water.

We should be aware of the significance of “deep water” in this story. Throughout the Old Testament, ‘deep water’ reminds us of the waters at the beginning of Creation. It’s a “powerful Jewish symbol of chaos”[1] and Luke sees his world as a world in chaos.

There is hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus. The oppression of the Roman Empire adds to this hostility, and conflicts within the church contribute to Luke’s sense of chaos.

The deep water of chaos swirls around us today, as well. Our culture has been driven for so long by self-centeredness, we don’t seem to know how to function any other way. And when my desires and needs collide with yours, chaos ensues.

People argue over things that shouldn’t matter, and ignore things that should matter a lot. The hostility and chaos that concerned Luke is the same hostility and chaos we experience today. If anything, it feels like it must be worse now than it was then. But I think people have always found ways to be angry with each other. Human beings are skilled at creating division and chaos.

And Jesus says, “Head out into the deep water. Let’s go where the chaos is.”

In other words, get back out there where you have experienced failure. Get back out there where you don’t want to go. Get back out there where you’ve been working so hard you are exhausted. I know you’re tired, but let’s go where the chaos is.

Michelle Henrichs writes, “I wonder if in his innermost, most honest thoughts as he hears Jesus’ command that Peter is sorry Jesus was there in his boat. Sorry that Jesus knows his name. Because Peter is tired.”[2]

And yet, he goes. Because Jesus said so.

We get tired, too, don’t we? We get tired because it looks like the end is nowhere in sight. The worries that plague us, the constant state of turmoil in our world – there just doesn’t seem to be any hope of resolution. It’s like the guy who said, “they told me to cheer up, things could get worse. So I cheered up, and sure enough they were right. Things got worse.”

But Jesus tells us to go back out to the deep waters, the chaos – a place of fruitlessness, of failure, of exhaustion – a place that seems to be without hope. It may be the last thing we want to do. We’re exhausted from trying this strategy and that program and seeing very little return on our investment of time and energy.

But here’s the thing. Simon’s exhaustion matches ours – does our obedience match Simon’s? Because when Jesus says, “Go,” Simon says, “If you say so, Boss.”

And Jesus goes with him.

Jesus stays in the boat. And I think Jesus probably got his hands dirty that day. I think Jesus helped pull in that net. Jesus worked right alongside Simon and his brother Andrew, and he probably smelled like fish and sweat by the time they were done.

I have no idea how Simon signaled the Zebedee brothers to come help with the haul, but I think Jesus was waving and whistling and shouting, too. Jesus was signaling success, while Simon was signaling for help. But here’s the other thing: it’s all the same signal.

Signaling for help is also a signal of success. I don’t know about you, but this is where I often fail. I see a little bit of success, and instead of signaling for help, I think I can do it on my own. I forget the wise words of a friend who once told me, “When someone offers to help, let them.”

I get all excited about the success, and I forget that this is exactly the moment I need to ask for some help. I need Jesus in the boat with me, sweating and stinking of fish, waving down some friends to come help me get the job done.

And it’s this sweaty, fishy Jesus that Simon turns to, and falls down at his feet, no longer calling him “Boss” but “Lord” – and tells Jesus to go away.

We might think this is a pretty dramatic shift, and we aren’t capable of it. We aren’t Simon Peter. But note the progression of Jesus’ call to Simon – first he gets into the boat and asks to put out just a little way from shore so he can teach the crowds. Then he says, “head out to the deep waters” – the chaos, danger, and reminder of fruitless labor from the night before. Finally, Jesus says, “never mind the success you just experienced. Follow me and fish for people.”

In other words, Simon’s call to discipleship is incremental, not as sudden as we sometimes prefer to think. Jesus already knew Simon. We Methodists call that “prevenient grace.” Jesus and Simon were already friends. Jesus had spent the night at Simon’s house on at least one occasion before this story happens.

Jesus invites Simon into deeper relationship – “head out into the deep water” – bit by bit, as Simon trusts more and more. Simon’s confession of sin is his moment of justifying grace, and the rest of his life will become one of sanctification. Do you think it is possible Jesus might be calling you in the same way he called Peter, bit by bit, as you trust him more and more?

Early Pietists asked three questions of any passage from the Bible: What does it teach? What does it command? And what does it promise?

I’ll let you think about what this story teaches us and what it promises, but I can tell you that there are three commands in it.

First, Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Where is Jesus guiding you to go? What chaos is Jesus inviting you to address? How is Jesus asking you to go all in? What blessing are you ready to receive when you put your full trust in Jesus out there in the deep waters? Luke writes, “When they had done what Jesus commanded, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break!” Are you ready for that kind of blessing?

The second command comes from Simon when he says, “Go away from me, Lord!” Simon knew his own sinfulness did not belong in the same boat with Jesus. How often do we recognize our own sin as a barrier to God’s blessing? And how often are we willing to accept Christ’s forgiveness and grace for that sin?

We might feel ourselves resisting the blessings God wants to bring us. We might want to bury our heads and ask God to go away. Maybe we’re not sure God should do something in our lives. We don’t feel worthy for God to use us. Maybe we’re afraid of the change we would experience if God climbed into our boat and sent us out into deep water.

Here’s the good news. Jesus ignored Simon’s command. He doesn’t go away.

The third command is one of my favorites. “Do not be afraid!” Maybe some of us don’t really believe God can do anything new. Let’s face it. Staying on familiar ground is a lot less scary than going into deep water with Jesus. What do you need to remember that Jesus has already overcome, so that you can release your fear?

Steven Garnaas-Holmes writes:

–This is not your work, but the work of God in you.
You are not the fisher; you are the bait.
Imagine what God can do through you.[3]

Maybe you’re the bait.

Maybe Jesus is inviting you out into the chaos to be the one good thing that attracts others to Jesus. It takes great humility to ask for help when we see success. It takes great humility to be the bait that pulls in those who are hungry for God.

Christ asks you to head out into the deep water, the chaos of this world, and be God’s bait to attract more fish than you can imagine.

Christ invites you to leave everything behind – your own success, your own failure – to follow, and stay close to Jesus.

Christ invites you to fall at his feet, to admit your own sinfulness, and in all humility to put yourself at God’s disposal, to serve God’s purpose. The fish are out there. They are hungry. They are waiting for someone to throw out a net.

[1] Ronald J. Allen, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3958
[2] Michelle Henrichs, https://lifeinthelabyrinth.com/2018/07/10/return-to-the-depths/
[3] Steve Garnaas Holmes, www.unfoldinglight.net post for February 5, 2019

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