February 7, 2010 – Douglas Scalise, Brewster Baptist Church
Is anyone else looking forward to the Winter Olympics that begin this Friday in Vancouver and conclude on February 28? I enjoy watching the games, especially the ice hockey. I can’t believe it has been 30 years since the miracle on ice at Lake Placid, New York when a bunch of American college kids shocked the Russians and the world and went on to win the gold medal. Jill and I watched the movie Miracle this past week and it was stunning to be reminded of the price that is paid by Olympic athletes in terms of dedication, commitment, sacrifice, time, money, effort, and energy all to go swifter, higher, stronger in the hope of winning a medal and glory.One of the interesting changes in the Winter Games since 1980 is the addition of “extreme” sports, such as snow boarding. Extreme is kind of a hot marketing word today. “Extreme” refers to something that is not bland or middle-of-the-road, but rather pushing the limits, situated on the edge, risky, cool. Interestingly the Bible speaks of God in terms of extremes. God is extreme.
For example the scriptures tell us God is “high above all nations” and yet is concerned about an individual poor man and childless woman (Psalm 113). God is enthroned in heaven and yet looks down on the earth’s inhabitants (Psalm 33:13). God is “high and lifted up” and yet reaches down to a person like Isaiah and gives him a task to be done (Isaiah 6). God says “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). God is “Our Father in heaven” who is concerned about our daily needs here on earth (Matthew 6:9-13).
To put it another way: according to the Bible, God is both transcendent (far away) and immanent (near at hand). This view of God in terms of extremes is expressed at the center of Psalm 138 that we began the service with, “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly…” (Psalm 138:6).
This is similar to the picture we get of the Lord God and the prophet Isaiah in the passage from Isaiah 6 I read earlier in which Isaiah feels unprepared and unworthy and is afraid that the very sight of the Almighty will cause instant death! Exactly what Isaiah means, however, can be difficult to decipher. Depending on what translation you have verse 5 says Isaiah is lost (New Revised Standard Version) or ruined (New International Version). The Hebrew root has three meanings, and it is not clear which one is correct. The word can mean “to be destroyed,” or “be brought to silence,” or “made in the likeness of God” as in Isaiah 40:18. All are possible.
It is also possible that all three are meant because each tells a truth about humans and God. God is so extreme that God can destroy us; an encounter with the Holy One could stun us into silence; and yet even when unclean we are still made in God’s image. It is interesting that the word for “unclean” here is not implying sin, but it is a ritual word indicating the prophet did not properly prepare for this encounter. That can even be the case with us sometimes on Sunday morning, can’t it? We’re rushing and brushing to get ready and get here and perhaps every once in a while – Whoa! God connects with us in worship in a way we didn’t expect. For Isaiah, this seems to have occurred without warning. God does not wait for us to “get clean” before appearing to us. This is good news. In fact, is excellent news because if God hung around waiting until we had our lives all cleaned up before appearing to us, God would likely still be waiting!
Isaiah is grieving the death of the king when he has this encounter with the Lord. When he is down, God shows up.
In the Gospel text for this week we see this same dynamic at work again when Peter is in the presence of Jesus. Listen to Luke 5:1-11
“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 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. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 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. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 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.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
We do all kinds of preparation to get ready for worship, but sometimes God shows up when we least expect it, like Jesus did with Peter, after a long shift at work that has been a waste of time because he doesn’t have one fish to show for it. The story opens with Jesus beside Lake Gennesaret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus borrows a boat on the lakeshore that belongs to a fisherman named Simon. From there he teaches crowds of people. They will not leave him alone, they want to hear “the word of God.” As the story unfolds, Jesus asks Simon to go out to the deep water and to put down the nets for a catch. Simon protests but eventually, grudgingly does so; there is a great catch of fish; the catch is so great that others have to help bring the nets ashore; and the story ends with Jesus’ recruiting Simon and the others as disciples.
The names of those on the scene are provided but it is Simon who is mentioned by name five times (5:3, 4, 5, 8, 10), and on one of those occasions he is called Simon Peter (5:8). Clearly Simon Peter is the main figure on the scene, apart from Jesus himself. It is his boat that Jesus uses. It is he to whom Jesus speaks first, asking him to go into the deep water. Simon Peter is the only person who speaks to Jesus. He addresses him as “master” (Greek: epistat ēs, a term used for tutors and teachers) at 5:5. But after the miraculous catch, he addresses him as “Lord” (kyrios) at 5:8. Likewise, Simon Peter is the only one whom Jesus addresses directly, both when he tells him to go into the deep water (5:4), and at the end of the story when he says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10).
While many people claim they would love to have an overwhelming close encounter with the Almighty, when we read about people who do, we see it is kind of hard to deal with, there are serious implications. The price of worship is steep because God has expectations of us. When Simon is called, he resists, just like Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name but three significant Biblical characters (Exodus 3:11; Isaiah 6:1-11; Jeremiah 1:6). Simon objects to Jesus’ command to go out to the deep water because he thinks he knows better than Jesus what to do (always a mistake!), but then he does as he was told (5:5).
Like Isaiah, Simon says that the Lord should depart from him because of his being a sinful man (5:8). It is a common biblical theme for a person to feel unworthy in the presence of the divine (Exodus 3:6; 33:20; Judges 6:22; 13:22; Isaiah 6:5; Luke 18:13).
Finally, the miracle of the great catch is, like other stories in the gospels, an example of how when God shows up, our expectations are often exceeded. We see this in many Jesus stories like the Feeding of the Multitudes (Luke 9:12-17), and the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) when Jesus turned water into wine so the celebration could continue. We have seen this at BBC this past year even in the midst of difficult times we have been abundantly blessed. I spent three days this week down in Pennsylvania at the Nehemiah Leadership Network annual conference. I serve as a mentor to other pastors in this program and I tell you listening to the condition many churches are in, hearing the spirit of discouragement weighing some folks down, we are in a boat overflowing with fish thanks to Jesus.
The call of the first disciples marks the beginning of a movement that culminates in the founding of the church. The church did not come into existence through a group of persons who wanted to start a good, benevolent, organization. From the gospels, we learn that the church had its beginning with Jesus, who called certain ordinary persons to follow him. He created a community of disciples who heard him preach and teach, heal, and finally suffer, die, and rise from death on the first Easter.
The story of the church is reflected to some degree in this story itself. When Jesus calls, Peter is hesitant and thinks that what Jesus asks of him is both unnecessary and too demanding. The price of worship and obedience is high and needs to be considered. Nevertheless, Peter responds, and he discovers that life has a surprise in store for him when he is willing to go deeper with Christ. By doing what Jesus asks him to do, he is blessed beyond belief. God shows up in unexpected ways when we least expect it but also when we pay the price of obedience and worship.
God often becomes manifest in the ordinary, even seemingly unnecessary events of a person’s life — events which nevertheless are in accord with some purpose that is or isn’t known. When I began I mentioned the price that is paid by Olympic athletes in terms of dedication, commitment, sacrifice, time, money, effort, and energy all to go swifter, higher, stronger and to win a medal and glory. Listening to the scriptures today, we are reminded that God is high above us – mighty, holy, powerful and awesome. At the same time, God appears to us and comes to us as the Lord did to the Psalmist – who was walking in the midst of trouble, to Isaiah – who was in the midst of grief, to Peter – who’d had a bad day on the job, and to the Apostle Paul – who was lost and needed to get his life back on track. When we are less than holy or clean, less than perfect, when our faith is still new, developing, wavering or weak, when we are unprepared and not looking for our life and priorities to be rearranged or turned upside down – that just may be when God shows up inviting us to worship, challenging us to listen, obey, and follow.
The Lord is high and exalted and yet the same Lord walks with us in the midst of our troubles, cleanses us from our sin, and gives us a job to do, a task to perform – to catch people with the good news of Jesus, to share God’s word, to do the will of God and share the kingdom of God, and to do so with all the dedication, commitment, sacrifice, time, money, effort, and energy we can muster. Not, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 9:25 for a perishable wreath like an Olympic athlete, but for an imperishable one – that of sharing in the blessings of the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the price of worship and it is well worth paying.