Before Israel went into exile, and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. the prophet Isaiah had an extraordinary vision:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! 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!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and talk to the people.”
Notice some details that will be useful later: King Uzziah has died. It is the end of an era, and his kingdom is about to be destroyed. In contrast God appears to Isaiah sitting on His glorious eternal throne. Uzziah and his son had professional prophets who kept insisting that everything was going to be just fine but the prophets of the Most High kept announcing a national disaster that no one was going to be able to escape. That would cost Isaiah his life later on, and will also claim the life of many of his fellow prophets.
King Uzziah has descended to the darkness of the grave but the glory of the Living God fills the Holy Temple. One more time in contrast, the Lord is surrounded by cherubim whose feet and mouth are covered. They won’t walk or talk, the task that God is about to announce is something that angels cannot do; the cherubim must remain silent in their place. When the call comes Isaiah feels woefully inadequate to respond, he knows he is unclean. That is how a man reacts in the presence of the Divine. We all know we are not worthy to talk in God’s stead. Yet God’s purpose cannot be frustrated. (Luke 19:40) He wants Isaiah to be a messenger to Israel, and so one of the cherubim touches the prophet’s lips with a hot coal, instantly purifying him. When God asks for a messenger, Isaiah offers himself gladly.
Six centuries later another man, Saul of Tarsus, a faithful disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, would have a similar experience on the way to Damascus. Recalling his experience and comparing it to the experience of the other apostles of Christ he wrote:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
If Isaiah was glad to accept his mission, Paul had to be shocked out of his reluctance to accept Christ. Both men contemplated the glory of God. For Isaiah it was a voluntary benign experience, for Paul it was a terrifying forced passage from darkness to light.
There are echoes also of the call of Isaiah in this passage of Luke 5:1-11. It is early in the morning; Jesus is near Capernaum preaching on the lakeshore.
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on Him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished 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 Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
One of the boats belonged to Peter, the other most likely to the Zebedees, James and John. They have toiled all night for naught and now they are cleaning and fixing their nets. Their failure to catch anything is not mere bad luck. Sometimes negative things happen to manifest the power and glory of God. (John 9:1-4) Christ is the raising sun that comes to the workers of the night. John will recognize the same lesson later, repeated after Christ’s resurrection. (John 21:4-14) Then Jesus decides to get into Simon’s boat and asks to be taken a short distance into the water. Obviously the water was calm, Jesus uses the surface of the lake as a natural amplifier so even those in the back of the gathering crowd can hear Him well. With our imagination we can see the boat and the figure of Jesus reflected on the tranquil morning water, the sun is rising behind the crowd intently listening to the words of the Galilean Rabbi. But there is another reflection: the crowd eager to hear the word of God is reflected in the great catch of fish described at the end of the story.
The crossing of the lake is used several times in the Gospel, apparently as a metaphor of the Church crossing the treacherous waters of History all the way “to the other side” where the end of her mission and the glory of the Second Coming awaits. This morning is the beginning and Christ, like Moses many centuries before, is gathering Israel at the shore, preparing them for the final Passover, a crossing that will last many centuries and affect many generations of believers.
Once Jesus finishes the morning sermon He invites Peter to “Put out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch.” Remember that “the deep” is where the enemies of God reside, that is where the great serpent Leviathan hides, the fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah and kept him in the depths of the sea for three days and three nights. With that gesture Jesus is signaling to the fact that the Church will embark in a great rescue mission, snatching souls from the depths of darkness and death. Like the lips of Isaiah were cleansed by the cherubim, Simon Peter’s nets have been cleaned and dried.
The catch is so huge that it almost sinks both boats. Peter, the old fisherman, knows this man is no ordinary Rabbi; He has to be the blessed Messiah, the Son of Hashem. Imagine the fear of Peter’s crew when they saw their boats almost sinking … and yet Jesus said to them “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” The parable is complete but is not merely made of words. This Rabbi moves the water, the people, the fish, and the morning sun, weaving a teaching that penetrates the souls of the disciples like the sensation a man feels when he is falling in love for the first time, when the whole universe seems to conspire to pluck every string of his being.
Peter collapses before Jesus and nearly repeats Isaiah’s words; Peter knows he’s a violent man, dealing with the roughest social element. Simon Peter remembers how many times his words and his sword have fought the motley crew he had to work with. He is no saint; he’s a tough Jew from the Galilean shore, a marginal character fighting for survival in an unmerciful world. He senses Jesus’ sanctity; the Rabbi’s words remind him of his sins. Why did he accept to come in the boat with that strange Teacher? Now he’s stuck with Him! He better confesses his sins: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” What a scene! The man, who only a few years later will be given the power to forgive or retain the sins of the world, is a sinner himself! He begins his career “fessing up” like a child, scared of his own record, recognizing in that strange Teacher a “Lord” and ruler.
We have been through a brief catalog of stories showing the way God awakes a vocation of service in the souls of a few men: Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter, plus John, James, and Andrew. These three stories are preceded by a need, a vacuum of sorts. Isaiah is a faithful man living in an age of unfaithfulness; his witness would lead him to martyrdom. Paul is a man living a life of unmerciful intellectual pride and error. He is persecuting Christians with “letters and chains” but God will turn his life around; as a Christian convert he will be persecuted, he will be in chains, he will be writing letters to liberate souls from error. He will also die a martyr, humbly kneeling before the executioner’s sword, giving up that wise and powerful head for the glory of God, the God he used to persecute in his ignorance.
Peter had arrived at the shore after a night of working in vain. His hands were empty; he had wasted a whole night for nothing. One can imagine his thoughts: “I’m too old for this, the young men used to trust my instinct to find the schools of fish in the right current, at the right spot. I am losing it; if this goes on like this I’m out business, etc.” Then the Rabbi’s words hit his heart. Peter has lived a lifetime away from God, fighting for survival, trusting only in his strength and his instincts. Imagine his remorse: “What kind of example I have been for the young men working for me? My old partner Zebedee trusted me with his sons … all these families depend on me now, on this business, and I am taking them on a whole night of wandering around the lake to catch not one lousy fish.” And yet when Peter steps on the shore again after hearing Jesus he is a different man, with a different mission. The Word has transformed Peter and his crew as well.
I have noticed that the lives of the saints often begin with these empty landscapes of despair. The long rainy season, that ‘nothing’ season preceding the glorious spring, is perhaps one of the dullest times of the year but it is necessary. Maybe there was a long, empty, dull rainy season before that day when God fashioned Adam from fresh mud.