Imagine a graduate student working late into the night at her computer in a coffee shop. She’s thinking and staring at the blank screen, starting and stopping. She finishes a paragraph, gets herself a cup of coffee, and sits back down at the screen with mug in hand. Her eyes flash over the paragraph she just typed. She sets the mug down, highlights the paragraph and hits delete. She runs her hands through her hair. Stares at one spot on the wall. Types then deletes then types then deletes. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning with nothing to show for her night of labor, she powers down the computer.
Now imagine that a street preacher pops in just as she is packing up her computer and says, “Hey, turn that thing on and start writing.” She might have a few choice words for that guy as she heads home to bed.
That’s how I would expect Simon to respond when Jesus tells him to go out into lake and let down his net. The net, you may recall, that he has just finished cleaning. The lake, we soon learn, that has yielded no fish all night long.
And Simon begins his response as we might expect: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” Then comes the “but.” “But if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Because of this response, Simon and James and John bring in the biggest catch of fish they’ve ever seen. This story is one of many in the Bible that reveal God’s extravagant provision for God’s people: we have the Garden of Eden, the manna in the wilderness, Elijah’s oil and flour during the drought . . . we have all of the miracles of Jesus: water into wine, feeding the 5,000, healing after healing . . . we have the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the rapid growth of the early church . . .
In fact, if you were asked to summarize the Bible in three words, you could do worse than: “God gives lavishly.”
So in some ways, this story is typical. But it gives us a unique view of the human involvement in God’s lavish giving. In this story, we get a unique glimpse into that moment of human decision—to give Jesus a chance or not. To take the trouble or not.
And even though we know that God gives lavishly; even though we have read the many stories of miracles; there is still a dramatic tension here—right here in the pause between Simon’s “Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing,” and his “but.”
That moment of dramatic tension before the “but” can lead us to consider all of the factors that might have encouraged Simon’s “but . . . I will let down the nets” to win out over “so I’m going home to sleep.” All of the factors that might prompt us to agree to get back in the boat and put our nice clean nets back in the water.
What might tip the balance for us from “and I’m going home to sleep” to “but if you say so, Jesus” ?
It could be faith—a faithful imagination. It would have been easy for Peter to think, “There weren’t any fish to be caught two hours ago. There can’t possibly be any fish now.”
Pastor Will Willimon recalls a time when he had to miss a financial meeting and the congregational chair told him that, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, they had unanimously approved next year’s budget — a 10 percent increase over this year’s. “Let me get this straight,” Willimon responded. “The church that is five percent behind on this year’s budget is going to have a ten percent increase next year? That’s crazy! I’m the spiritual leader of this congregation. I will tell you when the Holy Spirit gets here. There is no way that you will pledge that budget!”
But the finance committee had enough faithful imagination to pass the budget. And the second Sunday of the pledge drive, the chair rose and announced that the congregation had pledged its budget in full. Fortunately, the congregation’s “but if you say so” resonated louder than the pastor’s “but I’m going home to sleep.”
Something else, I think, that we must have to get back in the boat is energy—physical energy, spiritual energy. Exhaustion can easily push us in the direction of going home to sleep. I’ve been fishing all night. I just got this net clean. Maybe I’ll take you fishing another time, Jesus, after I go home and get some rest.
Honestly, I think this is the tipping point I have to watch out for the most. Who has the energy to put down “exploratory nets” when there are activities scheduled every night of the week? Let me say that there is nothing wrong with working hard, nothing sinful about being tired. Still, when we find ourselves continually exhausted, we should realize that our weariness will limit our ability to respond in faith to the call of the Spirit.
In order to get back in that boat, we need to have faith; we need to have energy, and, finally, we need to have humility. In his sermon, “Why Some People Don’t Catch Fish,” pastor Robert Wright suggests that some people don’t catch fish because they think they know more about fish than God does.
Simon was the fisherman, not Jesus. Simon made his living catching fish. He must have been pretty good at it. And if he had not caught any fish all night long, then there were simply no fish to be caught that day. Simon was, after all, a fish expert.
Our world today is full of experts. Anything you want to do—someone is an expert. There have been studies done. There are right ways to do it, and you can probably find out what those ways are with a google search.
The church is not immune to this phenomenon. There are plenty of studies about pretty much every aspect of church life—from music style to effective outreach techniques to parking lot size. I think that churches can easily fall into the trap of believing that we know how to do church better than God does.
Jim Wallis, of Sojourners magazine, once gave a lecture to a group of pastors on “The Renewal of the Inner City Church.” He told story after story of declining inner-city churches that had, by the grace of God, rediscovered their mission and begun to thrive. After this lecture, among the pastors, there was much grumbling. They accused Wallis of looking at the church through rose-colored glasses. One even implied that he had lied about the amazing successes of these inner city churches.
In a conversation later that evening, one of the pastors told Wallis that he had been appalled by the group’s reaction. Wallis said, “That’s the reaction I always get from mainline, liberal pastors. They are amazed when God wins. Scared to death that Easter just might, after all, be true.”
But we shouldn’t be amazed when God wins. We shouldn’t be surprised when the nets are lowered and so many fish swim into them that we have to call over our friends to help us haul them in.
The miracle is not what God does when we put out into deep water and let down our nets.
The miracle is that we have the faithful imagination, the energy, the humility to get back in the boat and begin rowing away from the shore.
This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Peace Mennonite Church on February 7, 2010.