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I've heard it suggested that there really are no such things as GREAT PEOPLE. Rather, there are only ORDINARY people finding themselves in the right places at the right times and rising to the occasion of doing the right thing. And it would seem that TIMING is everything. Indeed, we can all probably think of people who, given the proper circumstances, would otherwise be considered GREAT people. But because of their place in time and space, because the opportunities were not there, the history of great people will not record them.
Now you may be wondering--and worrying--if I'm going to suggest that all of history is just a giant accident, a series of coincidences. And God just set it all in motion and let us stumble our way through it. Well, that's possible.
But I prefer to think that there is such a thing as divine PROVIDENCE; that God PROVIDES answers, PROVIDES solutions; and that what we see as highly ethical greatness is God PROVIDING the right person in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
And in that context, let us consider Jesus and his choosing of the disciples. How on earth did he decide WHO to choose, WHERE to choose them, WHEN to choose them? Matthew and Mark's record of the choosing of the disciples is, quite frankly, rather boring.
But Luke's record is different.
According to the opening of the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, "Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets."
And the stage is set: a pressing crowd on the lakeshore and two available boats. Now, Jesus did not CHOOSE this crowd: it chose him. And there is no particular reason for him to be here, and no particular reason why those boats are there.
Now, we can say it's all accidental; it's just coincidence. OR, we can conceive of this as divine PROVIDENCE. God is PROVIDING a setting in which Jesus will choose the first disciples.
And here the cynic will stick with the notion of accident, of coincidence. But I like the notion of providence. I like to believe that God REVEALS Godself--revelation--in the numerous opportunities God PROVIDES those of us who are willing to be imaginative and creative in seeking to find God.
But before we go further, we need to examine what REVELATION is all about.
Unfortunately, the BOOK of Revelation has, over history, led us to believe that revelation is prophesy, led us to believe that revelation is INTERTWINED with prophesy, with what is to come in the future. And that IS part of it; but it is not ALL of it.
Indeed, if we examine our own lives closely, we should find that we discover revelation very rarely in the MOMENT, very rarely in PROPHECY. Rather, we more often discover revelation through HINDSIGHT.
We discover, in looking BACK on our lives, how God has revealed Godself. And what is revealed is often unexpected, what is revealed are events which at the time did not SEEM so extraordinary; but we begin to discover patterns in our lives of how God has been WORKING in our lives. And so it is when we study scripture.
Luke goes on to tell us, "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."
And this is our first encounter with Simon, a simple fisherman, but the one to be called Peter, the one of whom Jesus would say, in the eighteenth verse of the sixteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, "on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
Was Simon ACCIDENTALLY there? Was it mere COINCIDENCE that Jesus chose his boat from which to teach? Scripture does not disclose that there was any other conversation between Jesus and Simon other than the request to "put out a little way from the shore." But Simon was in the right place at the right time in order for God to provide a place from which Jesus would teach the crowd.
And then, "When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."
And this is rather ABRUPT. So far as we know, Jesus didn't know anything about fishing. Nor for that matter, did he know anything about SIMON, or Simon much about HIM. But out of the clear blue, Jesus gives Simon this instruction.
The instruction is remarkably UNcomplicated. Although I must admit that I don't fish either, I can't see much in those words that would cause one who fishes to have second thoughts. UNLESS, that is, we look upon it as some kind of PARABLE. We know, from two verses earlier, that the fishermen had gone out of the boats and were washing their nets, which would mean that they had just finished a trip on the lake.
So one thing that Jesus is telling Simon is, "Try it again. Make another stab at it." But there is something else I think Jesus is telling Simon--and us. "Put out into the DEEP water." And the key word for me is DEEP.
But how often in our lives do we make some half-hearted, superficial tries at solving some problem, and then give up? And Jesus is telling Simon, give it ANOTHER shot, but this time put some REAL effort into it.
Well, Simon's response is not unlike what my response, or your response, might have been.
"Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."
Simon is reluctant. Can't you just hear him say, "We tried that, and it didn't work." But Simon is also agreeable: "If you say so, I'll try again." And modest as it may seem, Simon is demonstrating FAITH.
Now, because of what Simon says in the first part of the verse, some may DOUBT Simon's faith. But I don't. EXPRESSING our inability to achieve success does not demonstrate an ABSENCE of faith. Our absence of faith shows up only when we finally GIVE UP.
So long as we are willing to try ONE MORE TIME, as Simon was, we continue to demonstrate faith. Even if we have doubts as we make the effort, MAKING the effort is our show of faith, that MAYBE, just maybe, we WILL succeed.
So what happened? "When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break."
All night long and nothing happened. And now, a catch so big that the nets can't hold it all. You've heard stories like this. Maybe not about fishing, but you've heard stories like this. We call them stories of "overnight success."
A person works for years with mediocre or less success, and then suddenly hits it big. And I think those are stories of FAITH, of continuing to believe that there WILL be a big catch.
But now let us ask of Simon's catch: Was it an accident? Was it mere coincidence? Or was Simon just doing the right thing in the right place at the right time? Or DOES faith have something to do with all of this? What if Simon had said, "Forget it. I'm not going out there again. I've had enough failure for one day." Does THAT sound like the way that WE might behave?
So the nets are beginning to break, and "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."
And when I read this, I wonder to myself, what if there had been THREE boats? Because what is happening here is what the psalmist is rejoicing about in the twenty-third psalm: "My cup overflows."
God gives us MORE than we can imagine, far MORE than we can ever DESERVE. This is not just a "good" catch; it may be an INFINITE catch. It is like a bottomless cup which can never be drunk dry. It is the LIMITLESS goodness of God.
But if this had been just a "good" catch, or even an "excellent" catch, I suspect that the only thing that would have happened would have been that Simon and the crew would have said, "Hey, thanks a lot!" and that would have been the end of it.
But instead, God sought to OVERWHELM Simon, to make it abundantly clear that something was going on there that was more than Jesus just performing a good deed for the fishermen who lent him his boat.
And Simon IS overwhelmed. "When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
Now this may sound like a simple CONFESSION, but I think there's more to it than that. What I hear Simon saying is, "I don't DESERVE this!" However, usually when we hear this or think this, the response is to a NEGATIVE situation. We think to ourselves, "I don't deserve to have anything this BAD happen to me!" But how often are we HUMBLE enough to admit that we don't deserve the GOOD things that happen to us?
How often do we count our blessings and rejoice in God's GRACE? Well, Simon is counting HIS blessings. And the awesomeness of the gift makes him feel small by comparison.
Forty-one years ago my parents moved into a newer house, but not the house my mother lives in now. It was a nice house. In fact, it was SO nice that at first it bothered my mother to live in it.
Because when she was a youth in the 1930s her family lived in small, very plain houses in that same town and STRUGGLED to survive. And in the early sixties Mother still wasn't sure she had yet come to DESERVE to live in a really nice house.
Well, Luke rather prosaically understates Simon's reaction, "For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon."
And there we have the makings of the beginnings of the twelve. In fact, we hear more in the gospels about Peter, James, and John, than about any of the other disciples.
But what I wonder, in this story, is whether James and John HEARD the initial conversation between Jesus and Simon. Were they part of this drama, or did they just see a whole bunch of fish?
I HOPE they HEARD that conversation; or at least I hope that Simon TOLD them about it. Because otherwise all they are seeing is Jesus performing a miracle. They aren't seeing Simon's FAITH in bringing it about.
"Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him."
So Simon and his friends go from catching fish to catching people. That may sound like a strange career move, and it probably is. But what Jesus has demonstrated to the disciples is that through FAITH in HIM, ALL things are possible.
Jesus is telling his disciples, through this story, that IF their faith is strong enough to catch huge numbers of fish, it can LIKEWISE be strong enough to catch PEOPLE.
So--how WAS it that the disciples were chosen as they were? Could there have been other ways in which the first disciples COULD have been called?
Well, maybe; but I like to think that Simon was chosen for a very SPECIFIC reason: In spite of the fact that at the end of a fishing day he had caught NO FISH, he had enough FAITH in this person Jesus to say, "If you say so, I will let down the nets."
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