Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11.
There is something of a trap in the gospel this morning: I think it is the seductive ‘feel-good’ appeal of the call-story of Peter and the first disciples. It is very easy for us to feel a bit cosy about this gospel and maybe find in Peter our model for faith and even maybe remember our own ‘call-stories’ and what we might have given up to follow Christ. If we sense in ourselves any trace of that cosiness then we are reading wrongly – and we need to read and re-read the gospel again, and read it especially against the Old Testament and the great ‘call-story’ of Isaiah we have also just read.
This passage from Isaiah is a pivotal text. It speaks of the experience of God, of encountering the Holy and the overwhelming sensation of utter annihilation this experience creates: ‘Woe is me! I am lost ....’ At the very moment of metaphysical terror the Seraph cauterises the Prophet’s lips, staunches his existential unravelling so that - amidst the tumult of the theophany, the noise, the thundering, the shaking and smoke of the Holy – the prophet hears God’s call and quavers ‘Here am I; send me!’
Before the Word, all speech ceases. The Holy precludes all speech: no speech about God can be anything but illusion and deceit; as Wittgenstein declared "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." I have in mind the icon of St John the Theologian, a silencing finger pressed to his lips. To remember that in the context of our sermon is a rather gorgeous irony, but also a salutary reminder of the limits of all speech and expression of the Holy.
By contrast with Isaiah’s theophany, Luke’s story of the call of Peter and the first disciples appears serene and almost domestic. The scene is described in some detail and almost too easily visualised; consequently it has been the subject of artists and illustrators so that it can be hard to read this gospel without the cloying residual influence of some pious illustration affecting us. We glimpse Christ as the teacher seated in the boat and his authority is acknowledged by Peter who calls him ‘Master’ and agrees to put out the nets again when commanded. The result is awe-inspiring and deeply disturbing for those who have laboured fruitlessly all night: where there was no fish, now suddenly and with no natural explanation, there is an overwhelming catch that has nets breaking and an extra boat needed to avert disaster.
The experience is a theophany: the domestic scene is shattered; the serene images of country folk and simple fisherman at their nets are obliterated. The space we call our world is invaded by God who summons this superabundance of fish and clearly commands the waters and all that inhabits them. The orderliness of Peter’s world implodes at this realisation. Peter crashes to his knees, calls Jesus ‘Lord’ and, reminiscent of Isaiah, is overwhelmed by his unworthiness in the presence of the Holy … ‘Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips’ … ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Yet this moment of terrifying awareness is also the moment of call and, stemming panic as the boundaries of reality shake, is a voice that echoes from the resurrection, saying “Do not be afraid”.
Where do we go from here? I think the task of the preacher at this point is to try to see how these readings may speak to us today, this Waitangi weekend.
Isaiah surely speaks to our condition and our predicament: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips …” Might we allow that to describe us? We know well our own lapses of speech: the glibness and the shallowness of our talk; the half-truths, platitudes and self-serving put-downs of others. Of our speech in general – well what of the political speeches of the last few days over the TPPA and all the verbal posturing we associate with Waitangi? How do we rate such speech in our hearts? Isaiah strikes home … again: “ I live among a people of unclean lips.”
But there is something more, it is in the gospel where Jesus says ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’
- First there is an irony, for the ones who cast the nets are the ones who are themselves ‘netted’ in this encounter with Jesus – and, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb.10:31).
- But it is the mention of the ‘deep water’ that has sat with me over this week. The mention of ‘deep waters’ runs through the Old Testament as an image of disaster and of saving grace: in Isaiah (43:2) we hear the promise “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” In 2 Samuel (22:17) the image recurs again, where we hear “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.”
The question I want to ask is: where are the deep waters in your life? The suggestions is, whatever those ‘waters’ – work, relationship, whatever – that is the place in which we are liable to encounter God. I’d even speculate further about the ‘deep water’ and our national life – where is the deep water for us as a nation? What are the issues that we should be addressing but keep avoiding? What will we discover in the deep water?