4th before Lent, 10 February 2019, 8am, 10.45am
Isaiah 6.1-8 Luke 5.1-11
In 1986 there was a long period of drought in the Holy Land. Lake Galilee began to run short of water. The level dropped so much that near the north-west shore, in the region of Magdala, the remains of an ancient fishing vessel became visible. It was dated to the time of Jesus in the first century. It therefore gives us the best estimate of the kind of boat used by Peter and his partners. It is 26 feet long and provides for a tiller man and four oarsmen. This is a substantial vessel which could carry its crew of five plus cargo, or alternatively a dozen disciples and their master. It is not easily sunk. You would need something like a ton of fish to get anywhere near.
All that helps us to get the picture. Peter’s boat is limping to shore. A second boat has come to share the load. Each struggles to maintain an even keel, while all the disciples, and Jesus, are knee deep in fish.
How may we expect Peter to react?
He was a seasoned fisherman and Jesus was a novice. So he may have thought, “This is beginner’s luck. It’s statistically improbable but not impossible. The test, Jesus, is if you can repeat it tomorrow.”
Or Peter may have been very embarrassed. In one day he has caught more than the annual quota set by the region’s Common Fisheries Policy. How would that look against the strapline on the side of his boat? “Working towards a sustainable Galilean environment”.
Or he could have seen bags of denarii floating before his eyes. Peter, James and John had the boats. Jesus had this miraculous sense for where the fish were. It was a partnership made in heaven.
Instead we read that Peter “fell down at Jesus’ knees”. It’s an unusual expression. It suggests he is right in front of Jesus, down in the fish, daring not to lift his eyes. He fears for his life, but not because they are sinking. He says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord”.
There is a striking parallel with Isaiah’s vision and call. I chose that passage for my induction service last March, because it has been with me a very long time. I had to memorise it as a young schoolboy. I’ve had a vivid picture of the scene in my mind ever since. The train and the smoke filling the temple. The throne high and lifted up. The seraphim all around, each with their six wings, and calling out, “Holy, holy, holy”, their voices shaking the building.
In response Isaiah cries, “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips”.
What is happening here? Peter and Isaiah are in fear of their lives. Not because of all the spectacular physical phenomena around them, but because they know they are in the presence of the Holy. That’s why they call themselves sinful and unclean. We tend to think that must be about a guilty conscience and an immoral past. But it’s more about what happens when a creature, a finite, mortal human being, comes up against the awesome, holy presence of God.
If sin is about falling short, this is that sense of utter mystery and transcendence which can accompany an encounter with God. A recognition of that ultimate source of existence and goodness and truth before which we can only bow in reverence and fear. There’s no room here to negotiate an agreement. No thought of being able to turn this encounter to one’s advantage. It’s a place where everything about you is made transparent. No place to hide. No defence to raise.
Have you ever had an experience anything like this? We can all recall times when we have been drawn out in wonder and amazement, whether by the natural world or the beauty of art and music, or by human endeavour or goodness. Has that ever gone further than a fascination, or our attention being held, to be an awareness of the sacred and of being in the presence of the holy?
Have you ever stopped to think about the mystery of your own existence? You say, well I did have parents, it’s not that difficult to understand why I’m here. But that’s not what I mean. You’re sitting in this church, with a unique perspective on the world. No-one else is you, nor ever will be. For billions of years you were not around. Today you have life and you had no say in that life beginning. And your parents had no say in it being specifically you who was born.
None of us is self-made. And for all the progress in human knowledge, every philosopher, whether they believe in God or not, knows that there are questions we can ask about the world to which we can never know the answer.
And there are two ways we can go with that mystery. One is to resist it and make the best of what we can understand. To focus on taking control as far as possible, negotiating our way in life while pushing those ultimate questions out of mind.
The other is to be humbled before that which is beyond us. To believe that it is foundational to our life that we acknowledge our limits and dependence; that we are open to whatever that mystery is which is the source and goal of our life.
It was such an openness which meant that both Peter, and Isaiah, encountered God in Jesus Christ. It’s John’s Gospel which tells us that what Isaiah saw was actually the glory of Jesus. And that’s how we should come together today. We’ve come to meet God in Jesus Christ.
We can say that so easily. And make it sound as if we’re popping next door to see a neighbour. And to be honest we want to make the experience of church in a sense homely – welcoming, friendly and warm. I was a bit cold in here last Sunday and we don’t like that do we? Did you know that the choir have special heaters under their stalls?
But none of that should mean that our worship domesticates God. He isn’t our mate next door. We’re not here just to socialize and be encouraged to be nice to each other.
Our services at St Mary’s have different styles but they should have in common an appreciation that we’re on holy ground, approaching with reverence and humility the mystery by which we are here, called into a presence which brings us to our knees.
Why ever else would we come? That I think is what many who don’t come to church may say. If there is no such encounter with the divine here, what’s the point? Everything else can be done better elsewhere in Nantwich.
The Church of England went through a period from the 60s onwards when it felt that it had to accommodate to the culture as much as possible to make itself familiar and accessible to people. There were many good things that came from that, but there has been something of a swing back, especially among many younger people in the church, and among younger people starting to come to church.
If it is God whom we seek, then give us mystery, give us profound doctrine, and meaty teaching, and rich tradition. I may not understand everything. It may at times be disturbing and uncomfortable. But it speaks to the question of who I am and why I am. It changes my life. It gives a foundation to my life. And above all, it sends me out to follow Jesus Christ.
Because that’s the movement here. Peter on his knees in the fish, then sent out as an apostle. Isaiah goes from “Woe is me” to “Here I am. Send me”. In the same way, Jesus is calling each one of us today. Drop on your knees and open your hands. Then go, and live to his glory in the world.