If I had to pick a single word to summarize the past two years (and counting), I would choose the word “overwhelm”. I find it such an appropriate word to describe the pandemic, which has different shades of meaning, depending on the context. It can be a very positive term, or – shall we say, a less than affirmative expression. With all the changes and challenges of the past months, I have to admit I often feel overwhelmed, and not necessarily in a very good way. There’s dealing with changing rules and guidelines as the pandemic rises and ebbs – and then rises and ebbs again. There are weeks that the many commitments or the items in my to-do list can feel overwhelming – I’m left wondering how it’s all going to get done. There are those times when I read the newspaper and watch the news that I become overwhelmed with frustration or sorrow at the dysfunction and evil in our world. Yet, conversely, as I take the time to see how God has worked in and through people and situations in these recent months and years, and especially within this congregation, I find myself overwhelmed as I consider the goodness and greatness of God.
In our scripture readings this morning, we find both Isaiah and Peter overwhelmed – and in a good way- by the presence and power of God. Isaiah is overwhelmed at the miracle of glimpsing God’s heavenly throne room. As an experienced fisherman, Peter is overwhelmed by the miraculous catch of fish. Not only the massive amount, but their appearance at the time of day for cleaning nets, not for fishing. He sees God’s power here revealed, in a different kind of splendor, in a new creation, fashioning something from nothing.
The recognition of God’s power and presence brings recognition to Isaiah and Peter, the recognition of their sins. Peter and Isaiah both recognize their otherness, feeling out of place alongside God’s holiness. They recognize sin separates us from God but find in that another miracle. God is drawing near anyway.
The setting for Isaiah’s revelation is likely in the temple, in the context of worship. He dates his experience to the year that King Uzziah died (scholars have pinpointed this to around 742 B.C.E.) and a time of great political turmoil. Isaiah beheld a vision; one so powerful it all but brings the future prophet to his knees. It’s almost as if God tugs the curtain between heaven and earth open just far enough so that the prophet can peek into the heavenly realm. He sees “the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted”, in the temple. God is accompanied by the six-winged seraphs, who declare God is holy. It’s all enough to shake the temple almost to its foundations.
So how does Isaiah respond to this glorious vision? Does he sing along with the seraphs? No, Isaiah’s vision of heaven overwhelms him with a sense of his and his contemporaries’ sinfulness. When the prophet catches a glimpse of God, he sees himself, as well as all people, for what they – and we – really are: those whose sin has put our lives in danger. He, in other words, sees the bad news.
Therefore, Isaiah responds to this vision with cries that he is not worthy to behold such a vision, and then one of the seraphs touches a coal to his lips, purifying them so he may speak before God. Thus, when God says, “Who will go, whom shall I send?” Isaiah can reply, “Here am I.” God then tells Isaiah what to say but that the people will not understand. God speaks the hard message of sending the people away, foreshadowing the exile, before the people will listen and comprehend.
God wants Isaiah to announce judgment on Israel’s sins and that judgment is bleak. Yet it contains a seed of great hope. While God mourns that all that will be left of judged Israel is an ugly stump, God also announces the good news that that stump will also be the seed of God’s redemption, a purified remnant that, like Isaiah, God will turn into something “holy.” Judgement with hope. Overwhelming assignment? Seems so. Yet the prophet sets forth with the assurance that the God who calls him will sustain him.
Then there is Peter. The story opens with Jesus beside Lake Gennesaret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. He borrows a boat on the lakeshore that belongs to a fisherman named Simon. From there he teaches crowds of people. They will not leave him alone, for they want to hear “the word of God.” Then, as the story unfolds, Jesus sends Simon into the deep water to put down the nets for a catch. Simon does so; resulting in a great catch of fish; a catch so great that the nets are in danger of breaking and others must help bring the nets ashore.
In this encounter, Simon seems to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, or at least a prophet sent by God. In response he is so overwhelmed that he tells Jesus to go away, because he, Simon, is a sinful man. But Jesus doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Rather, he calls Peter to follow him and “fish” metaphorically for men. It’s going to be “deep water” work, where healing and plenty will follow and mark the encounters of the disciples with Jesus and with God’s people. The interplay between teaching, healing, and call continues.
Jesus’ mention of the “deep water” implies that the work Jesus has for this future disciple is going to include times when he is “over his head” as he journeys with his Lord. Yet it also suggests that there may be unexplored areas of potential beyond perceived limits of resources, knowledge, and energy. So, when Peter puts aside his doubts and follows Jesus’ direction, the response to this willingness is immediate; suddenly they have more fish than two boats can bear.
What do we know about Isaiah, Peter and Jesus that will give meaning to this call that comes not just to the first disciples, but to us weary ones in February 2022? What about the “deep water” we are called to or may find ourselves in already? What will the way the “fishing for people” as it unfolds in Luke’s Gospel mean for us? We see in Luke’s gospel that is personal, relational work—deep water work—where healing and plenty follow and mark the encounters of the disciples with Jesus and with God’s people. The interplay between teaching, healing, and call will continue in in the lives of the prophet and Peter and continues on in us.
One devotional writer tells the story of being a young child peering into the deep end of a swimming pool, wondering if he could touch the bottom. So of course, he decided to find out by cannonballing into the pool. But he says he forgot something. He had no idea how to swim. He began to sink to the bottom and sure enough, he touched it. He then started to move his arms and legs around, trying to get back to the surface. But he wasn’t going anywhere. He began to panic. His movements became wild kicks and flailing arms. He was in the deep waters of the swimming pool and in very deep trouble. Suddenly, he felt a strong hand grab hold of him, and was pulled up and out of the water. His older brother, who had been with him, dove in to rescue him. His big brother saved his life.
He continues on to say that God is more powerful than his brother. And although God calls him into the proverbial deep water, he is assured that God will never leave him to sink in deep trouble. When the deep waters threaten to overwhelm, he remembers that God’s hand made him – and us. God’s hands hold us forever.
There is a saying that God does not call the equipped, but rather, equips the called. God’s strength shines in those who own up to their own weaknesses. For when we recognize our shortcomings, then God is able to work in and through us. Let us remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So, I leave you with this reminder: When God calls, God also equips. When God calls, God enables. When God calls, God provides. When God calls you, God qualifies you. God will never call you and abandon you. So, when God calls, may your answer always be, “Here I am, send me!” Therefore, when God calls us to do something, we need not fear – God will always provide the skills, ability, direction, and resources we need to carry out His will. So, let’s not delay – let’s take the first step and do what God is calling us to do. So, help us God, Amen!