Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 10, 2019
Luke 5:1-11 Commentary
We’ve come to call it “the Holy Land.” From the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the country of Jordan in the east, from Syria in the north to the Sinai in the south travel companies, tour groups, and tourists treat this piece of Middle Eastern real estate as a unity. It’s where Jesus walked and that’s what now makes it “holy.” It’s essentially one place with Jerusalem more or less as its center. That’s how we think of the Holy Land today, and this way of viewing that part of the world influences the way we read the Bible.
It matters little to us precisely where this or that gospel event took place. One locale is as good as the next–it’s all the Holy Land, after all. Jericho or Jerusalem, Capernaum or Bethsaida: the places matter little compared to the presence of Jesus in those places. Unless we are actually in Israel on a tour group, we are typically interested in what Jesus said, not where he said it. In fact, I would guess that were I to give a quiz on gospel geography, even those of us who are quite biblically literate would not do too well. Were I to ask things like “Where did Jesus meet Zacchaeus?” or “Where was it that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ?” many of us would likely have to look up the answers.
But knowing such answers ought to be more useful for our faith than merely helping us win a game of Bible Trivia. After all, if we stop to think about it, geography is pretty important. We’re shaped by the places we live. The philosopher José Ortega y Gassett once famously said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” I think most of us sense the truth of that.
As Kathleen Norris pointed out in her book Dakota, people who live on the prairies think differently than do city folks, mountain folks, or those who live on the sea. Place matters. Of course, it’s a little hard to get a handle on this. We may have a hard time describing such things, but all of us know that certain areas of the country carry certain associations. Rightly or wrongly we point to areas of the map and make descriptive comments: one region may be called urbane, another redneck; one place might be tres chíc and another somewhat backwards; one place would be labeled conservative and another ultra-liberal. In more recent times we talk about “Red America” and “Blue America,” about “The Liberal Coasts” as opposed to “The Conservative Interior.” Place matters.
Yet in the gospels we forget this. We shouldn’t, because in the stories of Jesus, place is important. And not just because Jesus, as a real human person, always had to be SOMEwhere. That’s true, too, but when I say we should not forget the importance of place in the gospels, I’m thinking more along theological lines. Luke tells us that no sooner does Jesus get his ministry going following his baptism and time of wilderness temptation and Jesus high-tails it north some eighty miles to Galilee. Jesus then moves out of his backwater hometown of Nazareth and settles in at an equally out-of-the-way place called Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and as Luke 5 opens, he is in an equally remote place around the Lake of Gennesaret, which may be the Sea of Galilee or a small lake nearby. In other words, Jesus has gone out into the sticks.
Eighty miles may not sound like much to those of us accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour, but in a day when nothing moved faster than a donkey could plod, eighty miles was quite far indeed. Jesus has taken himself very far away from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from all things religious.
It did not look like a logical choice. But it was THEOlogical! The nearness of God’s great kingdom of shalom has already been announced in the vicinity of Jerusalem. So Jesus makes a point to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom also to others. Jesus has come to this world for the sake of this world–for all of it. There are no unimportant places. There are no places where the presence or preaching of Jesus would be “wasted.” Ultimately the whole world needs Jesus, and so Jesus begins by making a foray into the wider world.
This need not be the main point of a sermon on Luke 5, but it’s a point worth underscoring in that, as we will see below, the people whom Jesus called to his side were also rather unlikely figures.
After all, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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