The older I get, the more I love (and perhaps need) this story about fishing (Luke 5:3—8). Peter, James, and John had been fishing all night with no luck. They had taken their nets out of the boats and spread them out to dry. Jesus hopped into Peter’s boat and used it as a pulpit, perhaps taking advantage to the natural amphitheater of the shoreline and the way sound travels across water.
We need to be careful about who we let into our boat. Jesus can change everything. Before this day ends, Peter will be leaving his nets and his boat to follow Jesus around for the next three years. Peter will see the glory of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, deny Christ three times, preach to, and convert, thousands on the day of Pentecost, face persecution, go to jail, and eventually, history tells us, get crucified upside down in Rome. Peter did not merely let in few theological propositions; he let the living Christ, the Son of God, come into every part of his life. Nothing was ever the same.
This also a story about letting Jesus speak to us in our weariness. Jesus tells Peter to push out into the deep water and let his nets down. Peter explains that they had worked hard all night and caught nothing. And Peter had just sat through the sermon Jesus had given to the people. Peter had every reason not to do what Jesus asks.
Sometimes our weariness makes it hard to obey. We often feel, perhaps justly, that we have earned the right to rest. Regarding those we are called to love and serve, we can feel we have done more than our fair share of giving and serving. We, after all, have earned retirement. We grow tired of hoping and helping.
Sometimes we grow weary praying for wayward sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends. We may labor for years, hoping to see their hearts soften and their lives healed. We do the hard work of loving the hard to love. For some of us, pushing into the deep water means obedience even when we have lost hope. It means loving and serving those whose grow harder and move farther, not nearer to God. It is often obeying when we have lost all hope of catching anything.
Not only did Peter have to push past his tiredness, he had to push past his reason and expertise. Peter, John, and James were, after all, professional fishermen. They knew when to fish and where to fish. If the fish in the Sea of Galilee, called today St. Peter’s fish, behave like many fish in our lakes, they usually aren’t found out in the deep water.
Today we certainly have a vast array of academics that argue for the foolishness or even toxicity of the Christian faith. In a sense, every person who puts their faith in Jesus is pushing into deep waters intellectually. The current of our culture is certainly working against faithfully following of Jesus. Many Christians have reasoned their way out of faith and out of following Jesus.
And Peter’s own immediate experience, fishing all night and catching nothing, argues powerfully against what Jesus is asking him to do. Like Peter we all have our own story and set of experiences. Every Christian must resist the temptation to make an idol of their experiences. The older we are as believers, the more we are tempted to obey our experience instead of the voice of Jesus. When I teach students how to argue for a solution to a problem, I warn them to be ready for the old geezer objection: “we tried that in 78; it didn’t work then and won’t work now”. I don’t know how old or experienced Peter was at this time, but he was experienced enough to know when to fish.
I often pray for the sick to be healed. I do this because I think it is something Jesus asks his disciples to do. I have seen only few people immediately healed. I have seen some who weren’t healed experience the tangible presence of God when I prayed, but if I based my theology of healing on my experience, or lack of it, I would stop praying for the sick. It is just too disappointing when I pray and nothing happens. I keep doing it because not doing it feels like disobedience. Praying for the sick with some expectation of them getting better is, for me, deep water.
The third, and most important point, is that Peter also said, “but at Your bidding, I will let down the nets.” This isn’t a story about working hard even when exhausted. It is about listening to the voice of the Master even when our expertise, experience, and weariness might shut our ears. It is about always having our heart tuned to His voice. In our discouragement and exhaustion, do we still have ears to hear his bidding?
This story is mostly about obedience. A while back when I was bone-tired of loving someone who was completely unresponsive to my love and seemed unable to exit a cycle of self-destructive behavior, I read John 13. As Jesus is getting ready to wash the feet of the disciples, John comments that Jesus “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” This included Judas, who Jesus knew was going to betray him. This slapped me up the side of the head as a call to love the hardest to love, all the way to the end, even though I was weary beyond words. I am waiting for the full net.
All obedience without hope pushes us into deep water. I have good friends who have lost children to fatal accidents. They have no answers to the hard questions they still carry in their hearts, but they have loved and served God faithfully. They have weathered storms, and at the Master’s bidding let down their nets in deep waters.
Since I preached this sermon at the local Presbyterian church, our son, Peter, died. Teckla and I had many promises from God about how He desired to bless and use Peter. Despite years of prayers and love, Peter said no to these promises. Or perhaps we did not hear what God was saying and put words in God’s mouth? Regarding Peter, we fished all night and caught nothing—or at least it seems. These are deep waters, and our weariness is deeper than our bones.
In the days before Peter died, we did all we could to help him battle his diabetic keto acidosis. He had gotten back from the emergency room but was still unable to keep anything down. We cleaned up his vomit and brought him drink after drink to help him stay hydrated and to flush out ketones. The night before he died, I checked to make certain he had everything he needed and then left his room. I took about four steps and came back into the room and stood at the foot of his bed. Broken and weeping, I prayed aloud desperately, “Jesus, help Peter. Pour out your grace and mercy. Save him. Heal his body and soul. Come help Peter.” The next morning, I found him on his bed struggling to breathe. I called the ambulance, but it was too late. He was so thin, nearly skeletal, that the EMTs easily carried him to the gurney. He died of heart failure on the way to the hospital.
I do not know if any of my prayers for Peter were answered that night. I don’t know if that last cast of the net caught any part of Peter’s heart. I don’t know. These waters are dark and cold. I do not know why God asked us to adopt Peter—in too many ways it seems like we failed him. There is so much I don’t know. And not knowing too easily becomes not caring—growing numb with grief and unbelief. We loved Peter to the end.
But no matter how long the night and how empty the nets, I must obey the master’s bidding. I must cast nets in deep waters and try not to drown.