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The Right Reaction

February 10, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, where Luke records, [W]hen Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” … And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

What’s the normal reaction to a miracle? Jesus performed many, and every time He did, we’re told that there were people who were amazed, exclaiming some version of the question, “Who is this?” Sometimes, if the Pharisees were present, they responded with anger, frustration, steeling their resolve to bring death to this Galilean rabbi. However, sometimes the reaction people have to the miraculous is actually dread, and that is what we’ve got here in our Gospel lesson.

It’s still fairly early in Jesus’s earthly ministry, but apparently, He’s garnered something of a following – there’s a crowd pressing around Him, wanting to hear the Word of God from Him. Presumably to help all those present hear better, Jesus asks Peter to take Him out in his boat a little way from shore that He may teach the crowds. Peter acquiesces, and Jesus gives the people the word they need to hear. Once He’s done, for whatever reason, Jesus asks Peter to “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter seems hesitant, as he tells Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” He says this with the understanding that, if that yielded nothing when night fishing is supposed to be far more fruitful, there seemed little chance that the fishing would be better during the day. Nevertheless, Peter says, “But at Your word I will let down the nets.”

The result? So many fish the nets start breaking, and Peter has to call some of his fellow workers over to help him haul in this massive catch. Even with the added vessel and the extra help, the amount of fish caught is so copious that BOTH boats are in danger of going under! While most folks would have just rejoiced in the fact that they had hauled in such an incredible catch, Peter does not. So incredible is this catch, so unlikely is it to occur naturally without the direct intervention of God Himself, that he recognizes Jesus for Who He is. Luke tells us that Peter falls down at Jesus’s knees, and begs, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It’s worth mentioning that this is the miracle that turned the lightbulb on for Peter. He had seen Jesus cast out demons, heal his mother-in-law of her fever, heal many others afflicted with illnesses and demons, but this miracle …. This one apparently affects Peter to the point that he recognizes just Who it is kneeling in the boat with him: this is God, and his reaction to this realization is to drop on his face and ask this God-Man to go away from him because he knew his sin, his brokenness in the face of holiness, could and would be his undoing.

Does that sound familiar? It should; we had a similar account in our Old Testament text where Isaiah has a vision of YHWH’s imperial throne room in His temple. Even as the seraphim are flittering to and fro crying “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Isaiah, this holy ancient prophet, is filled with dread as he looks upon YHWH sitting on His throne. “Woe is me!” he cries out, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

To encounter God as a mortal, to see the impossible occur in real time, to encounter holiness as a sinner, is abjectly terrifying. It’s something entirely foreign to us, something we cannot fathom, something we cannot conceive; so anticipating death and bemoaning one’s existence is, actually, a reasonable reaction to a display of raw divinity. To confess one’s sin, as Peter did, is a reasonable reaction for a broken and wretched sinner coming into the presence of the Living God.

Reasonable and right, but what is the response of the Holy One to these contrite and terrified confessions? Not, “Oh, you SHOULD be scared!” It’s not “Yeah, I know ALL your history and whoof, you are a rotten sinner!” True as those statements may be, that’s not how the Holy One operates when His people come before Him humbled and broken and contrite. His response … is mercy.

To Isaiah, one of the seraphim holds a burning coal to his lips and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” For Peter, it was Jesus Himself telling him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” God’s response to contrition, to repentance … is absolution; forgiveness. God would not ask, “Well, are you really sorry for what you did? ‘Cuz if you’re not, then I’m not going to forgive you!” He would not say to the penitent, “How many times have you done this before, and didn’t amend your ways? Why on earth should I forgive you now?” No, that’s a human reaction. A sinner’s reaction. To the broken and contrite heart, our God shows mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Now, sin still has to be dealt with, but that’s not something we can do. Only God can deal with sin … and He has. Within three years of this miraculous catch of fish, the world would see this same Galilean rabbi beaten, bloodied, lifted high on the torturous killing machine called a cross. There, this same Jesus Who called Peter and those fishermen with him to follow Him and be fishers of men … would become sin incarnate, in order to kill it. He would bear our sin and pay the penalty in the most gruesome and horrific death imaginable. There, on that cross, we see the true face of divinity in Jesus, and we rightly bemoan our existence, confessing our sin in the presence of sheer holiness.

Because that is the proper response: fear and awe. It is contrition, repentance, and death to self. But a merciful Lord lifts our eyes … declares us to be clean and forgiven, as He did a few minutes ago in the words of Holy Absolution … and He invites us to go about His work, to spread this message far, and to bring those who need this message near. So drop the nets, cast them wide; your sins are forgiven and Jesus invites you to go fishing.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 5:1-11