Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:1-13
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We seem to be hearing a lot today about shortages. Year in, year out, local councils, for example, find they have less money to spend on services which we once thought essential- care of the elderly and the needy, education for the young, even keeping our public spaces neat and tidy. The reason, we are told, is that there is a shortage of money in our rich country.
Quite often there seems to be a shortage of people. I read the other day that the unemployment rate in Scotland is lower than ever, which must be why it’s getting harder to find teachers, doctors and nurses to come to work here in the Highlands. Many industries seem to be short of the kind of people they need. For example, many engineering companies support efforts to get more children interested in maths and science, because they find it hard to recruit enough young people.
Some people in this country suffer from a shortage of food. It is not that there is a shortage of food, but that our society is so organised that some people don’t have enough to buy food for their families and themselves. It’s why we have food banks- to try to alleviate such a terrible state of affairs. But the need for food banks is a reminder that our society is blighted by social evils such as poverty.
But now, we’re told, the rest of us might be getting short of food. If the government and Parliament can’t agree about the manner in which we leave the European Union, the supermarket shelves might be bare, because we import so much of our food. Coming home from church last week, I heard the end of an episode of The Food Programme on Radio 4, in which they were looking at the impact of Brexit on the food industry. It ended with an interview with a very angry farmer who grew food for our supermarkets, both in this country and in France. He explained how the trade restrictions that a disorderly Brexit would bring would ‘wipe out’ his business. And asked what he would say to anyone who said that sounded like scaremongering, he replied, ‘I’m almost too angry to speak, really, at this being called “Project Fear”… for someone who spends his days in the fields growing vegetables, bent over, getting wet, with mud on my boots… to be told by people who have no idea how their food is produced… makes me, actually, incandescent with rage’.
I have no idea why there are politicians who think they know better than people like that farmer. I can see no reason why, when we are not at war or facing a natural disaster, we should be facing a shortage of food and other necessities such as medicines. A government which cannot feed its own people wouldn’t be much of a government. It really is past time for Parliament in London to get its act together, end this nonsense, and find a way out of this crisis.
We sometimes forget that the people Jesus walked among were people for whom it was never entirely certain that there would be a meal on the table day by day. They were mostly people with mud on their boots, people who got wet, to produce the food they needed- farmers, and, in today’s Gospel story, fisherfolk. Occupied by a foreign power, and ruled by an aristocracy who collaborated with the Romans, they lived on the edge of poverty. But to a fishing community in Galilee, Jesus came one day to proclaim the good news of God’s transforming and bountiful Kingdom.
The reading from Isaiah tells of a vision of God given to an individual- one man, the prophet Isaiah. The Gospel reading is also about people hearing and responding to the Word of God, but this time, it is a communal experience. Jesus gets such an enthusiastic welcome from the lakeside community that they crowd down to the lake shore, and he borrows one of their boats to use it like a pulpit: he stands on a prow of Simon’s fishing boat so they can all hear and see him. For the Kingdom of God can transform, not just individuals, but whole communities. Jesus has come to tell them that God offers a just world, where everyone benefits.
And then Luke the Gospel writer tells a picturesque story to illustrate just how bountiful God’s mercy really is. As he finishes addressing the crowd, Jesus tells Simon ‘Push the boat out further to the deep water, and you and your partners led down your nets for the catch’.
Simon, however, is sceptical. They had been out all night, worked hard, but caught nothing. It seems pointless to try again. I’ve always thought Simon had a point here: he’s the fisherman, after all, so why should he let this carpenter’s son from Nazareth tell him his job? He very reluctantly goes along with it: ‘But if you say so, I will let down the nets’.
And when they let them down, they catch so many fish, they have to get their neighbouring crews across to give them a hand. The nets, we are told, nearly broke; there were so many fish, they nearly sank the boats! All of which is Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus had an incredible impact on this poor fishing community. Seeing the generosity of God’s love and provision, Simon and his partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are awestruck. Simon drops to his knees and says he is unworthy of this great blessing: ‘Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man’.
When the prophet Isaiah was confronted with a confronted with a vision of God in the Jerusalem temple eight hundred years earlier, his first response, too, was to recognise that he was, in a way, unworthy of this blessing. Like Simon, he is terrified, as the very doors of the Temple shake as the strange angels sing,
Holy, holy, holy!
The Lord Almighty is holy!
His glory fills the world!
Isaiah recognises his personal unworthiness: he is doomed, he says, ‘because every word that passes my lips is sinful’. For the holiness of God is about the perfection, the goodness and love of God. God can do no wrong. So when we encounter the divine, we should become aware of our imperfection, the evil that lurks within each of us, our failure to show love in our lives. Confronted with the holiness of God is like having a light shone into part of our life we would rather not think about. Isaiah and Peter were absolutely right to express their unworthiness when confronted with the holiness of God.
Yet Isaiah also says something else about his sense of sin. It is not just that he is sinful in his self: he also lives within a community that is sinful. ‘Every word that passes my lips is sinful’, he says, but then goes on to say, ‘and I live among a people whose every word is sinful’.
God’s holiness makes all too clear, not just our personal sins, but the social evils, such as poverty, which prevail in a society. Luke’s story of the bountiful catch of fish stands is meant to contrast with the normal circumstances of those Galilean lakeside dwellers. The fishermen could go out all night and not catch anything. Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel we will hear of the dangers they face- for Lake Gennesaret (or Galilee, as it is more familiarly known) was subject to sudden squalls and storms. We may imagine that the women and children (who are not mentioned in this story) also worked hard, unloading the fish and preparing them for market. And we might also expect that, as is often the case in a rural community, the fisherfolk weren’t allowed to keep all the fruits of their labours. King Herod, or some local aristocrat, would have taken his cut, probably by claiming that their family had owned the lake for generations, and so they were entitled to charge for the fishing rights. And the Romans would take a cut in taxes, too.
The community from which Peter, James and John came was a hard working community, living precariously. To land a catch as they did that day would have been an incredible blessing- and a sign that despite the difficulties of their lives, God’s blessing was now upon those ordinary, hardworking people.
A burning coal touched Isaiah’s lips, as a sign that his words were no longer unclean. So, too, as Simon, James and John bemoan their unworthiness, Jesus’ first words to them are ‘Do not be afraid’. It’s a phrase Jesus uses very often. For the natural, indeed, the correct human reaction when we encounter the divine is fear. How can it not be, when we realise we are in the presence of a holiness which unmasks all our pretentions and illuminates all our imperfection? And yet, Jesus says to Simon and his friends: do not be afraid.
Because for those poor fishermen, as also for Isaiah, they are now being called to respond to God’s generosity and grace by being, in some sense, called out of the communities from which they have come, so that they can return with the Word of the Lord. For Isaiah, it’s tough gig: he is preach righteousness, speak the truth to his people, but few of those sinful people from whom he comes will ever respond. It will be like God taking an axe to a tree, so that just a stump will remain.
For sometimes God does call us to proclaim a hard message, to a people who will not listen. And yet, that does not mean we are to stay silent. Isaiah and the prophets of his day often spoke harsh words to rulers and to people who were clearly (to the prophets) going in the wrong direction. Again and again, Isaiah was to tell his nation that they were headed for disaster. These were warnings from a loving God, pleading with them to return to the covenant of love and grace which God had made with them through the law of Moses. And yet, the prophetic books are not without hope. They promise that Israel will be restored, even if it’s after they have gone through much suffering. God’s blessing was not to be withheld forever.
And so here is Jesus, saying the Simon and his friends, ‘Do not be afraid. Give up your fishing nets, and join me in catching women and men’. Now they are joining with Jesus in proclaiming the Word of the Lord: that God wants to bless his people, that the Kingdom is at hand, and that despite everything, a generous future age is on its way.
Yet it will not be easy for them, either. The people who take the Imperial taxes, the Temple Tax, who impose charges for fishing rights and to whom they pay rent on their wee crofts- the people who profit for doing nothing- these people are going to be very upset by Jesus. For they will suspect that preaching a Kingdom in which there is enough for everyone will be a threat to their power and wealth.
You know, I wonder what happened to all those fish. Surely the fisherfolk didn’t eat them all? Maybe they stockpiled the fish in barrels of salt. I rather hope they made a lot of money at the marker, even if it meant smuggling them past the toll collectors, so that the Roman Emperor and his excise men didn’t get a cut. And if they did pay for fishing rights, I hope it was an annual charge, and not a percentage of the profits. I hope that it was the fishermen and their community which benefited from the windfall, and not those who said they owned the lakes and the land, the Romans and their tax collectors. Like the islanders of Eriskay, who received that unexpected bounty from the sea during the Second World War, I like to think that those Galileans had a bit of a party that night, and in a Whisky Galore kind of way, got to enjoy their bounty without outsiders confiscating it!
Peter and James and John pulled their boats onto the beach, left everything, and followed Jesus. They were in at the beginning of the career of a new kind of prophet. For Jesus offers us all, individually, as communities and even as nations, a new, more generous way of living. That is the joy, the promise, and the struggle we sign up for if we respond to his call: to follow him, and work with him, to help him catch people up in the net of God’s love and mercy. For when it comes to God’s grace, there are no shortages: there is fish for all, and grace and peace and justice galore!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo