Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2019
Listen to Him
Text: Luke 5:1-11
My wife Sandy grew up on the beach – well, she grew up close enough to the beach in Jacksonville, that the beach helped define her growing up. The deep tans and sun-bleached hair may be just memories, but the beach is still somewhere deep in her soul.
When we go to Florida, we might stay in her childhood house, but the “returning home” part is a morning walk on the beach. The walk is refreshing; the sounds and patterns of crashing waves can be hypnotic; there are some beautiful shells to be found; but the main focus is always the same – to spot a dolphin. We walk with eyes fixed offshore, watching for the arching dance of traveling pods of dolphins.
Sometimes I forget. . . the dolphins don’t come there to put on a show for us; they come to eat. And the best sign that we are going to see them is the presence of shrimping boats, not far from shore. Absent that, however, Sandy has this ability to read the surface of the water to detect schools of fish beneath. (I pretend to see it, too – I think I even have seen it once or twice). An underwater school of fish disturb the surface and changes the wave patterns, and – from a distance – it even changes the water’s color. And that’s a good sign that the hungry dolphins may soon appear.
So, I’m thinking, if Sandy can see where the fish are, I have no problem believing that Jesus could tell Simon where to go to catch a boatload of fish. Since Simon was focused on cleaning-up from a futile night of fishing, his eyes were no longer on the water. Jesus, who knew the Sea of Galilee as well as Sandy knows Jax Beach, seeing the texture and color of the water, knew there was a large school of fish not far off the shore. I can believe that.
But the story does raise a few other questions in my mind:
Over the years, when I have preached on this story, I have found other things to focus on. But this time, I have come to suspect that “listening” is a big part of it.
- How did all those fish get there just in time for this “sign and wonder?” — Was Jesus, in addition to being an astute observer of the sea, a true “fish whisperer?”
|“Come on fish; come over here; we’ve got to show Peter; that’s it, a little closer; right there; now churn up the water.”|
- Did the fish, like the wind and the waves in a later miracle story, actually listen to his voice?
- And — was Jesus just trying to help out the discouraged fishermen? Or trying to “wow” them with all the fish? Or was he testing Simon to see whether he would listen?
In this story, Simon almost didn’t. After an unproductive night on the water, his fisherman instincts told him that any fish out there wouldn’t be worth the effort. And instincts are powerful – if not always reliable — things.
When I began “living with” this text in preparation for preaching, I happened to read a devotional by Quinn Caldwell. It was a reflection on Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” Now that may sound more like a campaign slogan for “American’s United to Banish Valentine’s Day,” but it inspired Quinn to reflect on a current cultural tendency to downplay authority in favor of intuition. Let me read it to you . . .
“Follow your heart,” the purveyors of good advice will tell you. They’ll mean well when they say it, probably. They’ll be trying to free you from unhealthy societal strictures and parental expectations and inner voices. But what if your heart is perverse, like Jeremiah says? What if it wants terrible things? Or what if it just wants a new thing, like, every other week?
“Listen to your gut,” they’ll tell you. They’ll have good intentions, probably. They’ll be trying to free you from self-doubt and gaslighting and bullies and narcissists. But what if you’re white, and your gut is racist against your will and without your knowledge, and what if it warns you of danger at all the wrong times?
“Trust your instincts,” they’ll tell you. They’ll be trying to keep people from pulling the wool over your eyes. But most of your instincts were put into your brain a million years ago, when the best options were often running really fast or ripping something’s throat out. These days, fight or flight are good options in a very limited number of situations, and almost none of them are going to present themselves at work tomorrow.
Honestly, I just don’t think innards are all that trustworthy. Maybe yours are. Maybe one day mine will be. Until then, I’m trying to follow Jesus instead of my heart. Instead of my gut, I’m trying to listen to the prophets, both dead and living. I’m trying to ignore my twitchy and erratic instincts, and instead put my trust in a steady God.
Now, we’ve got to hand it to Simon. Having heard an authority he could trust in Jesus’ teaching, he decided to ignore his instincts and listen to Jesus’s instructions — to go through the tedious tasks of putting his boat back out in the water, breaking out his recently cleaned nets, and go fishing.
It’s important to note that, in Luke’s telling, at least, this “listening” was the first step in his “following” Jesus. And it is also important to note that the disciples were not always particularly good at listening.
In the next chapter of Luke, we find an exasperated Jesus asking, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you.
The disciples, it seems, were just as likely to “listen to their gut” as they were to listen to Jesus. Their guts told them to:
- shoo away the children while Jesus was teaching
- send the crowds away when it got to be dinner time
- jockey for position of privilege in Jesus’ coming reign
- protect Jesus “franchise” by scaring off others preaching in his name
In fact, a few chapters later, at the Mount of Transfiguration, it was so obvious that the disciples had not yet learned to listen to Jesus – that Jesus had not yet become an authority for them –that a voice came from heaven saying:
This is my beloved, listen to him!!!
Of course, there are obvious examples of present-day disciples confusing following their own instincts with following Jesus.
Just last week in Louisville, a young man saw fit to desecrate a Hindu temple – protecting Jesus’s turf. Among the vulgarities he spray-painted on the wall was the proclamation that “Jesus is All Mighty.”
I can’t imagine he got that instruction from Jesus, but it is easy to confuse one’s own gut instincts – threatened by these frightening change – with what you think Jesus wants or needs you to do – like our friend Simon Peter in the garden of Gethsemane — deciding that Jesus needed him defend him with his sword.
I can imagine that that there might be a voice from heaven gently saying to that young man – Next time, before you try to defend Jesus, listen to him.
To be fair, I remember a time around that age of that young when I believed my instincts were pretty much in line with Jesus – that I had been saved and converted and God’s spirit was my internal guide – I must have been pretty unbearable at the time.
To some extent, I think we are all guilty of uncritically thinking that our own biases are in line with Jesus’ teaching. Jim Wallis, the progressive Evangelical activist, accuses the infamous “White Evangelical” demographic of “being more white than Christian” – thinking they are following Jesus when they are actually following their privileged white instincts. I suspect he is right. They may also be right when they fire back that Jim is more progressive than evangelical!
In fact, all of us are probably being guilty of being more something than Christian.
Might it be possible that – even here at CHPC — we also struggle with the same temptation to confuse our own biases with Jesus teaching? . . to act before we listen? Might it be possible that our instincts are not that far removed from the ones that got the disciples in trouble?
So what am I trying to say here? I am simply saying that following Jesus begins with listening to him – it did for Peter, and it does for us. And, too often, I – and I suspect some of you – spend more time listening to our gut, following our heart, or depending on our instincts than we do listening to Jesus. . . or, as Quinn helpfully expands it – to Jesus and prophets, dead and alive.
If we are going to join Elijah, and Samuel, and Paul and Peter in answering God’s call . . . if, in a few minutes, we are going to sing boldly “Here I am Lord, I will go Lord. . .” we need to also remember the “If you lead me” part and spend time listening to the word that Jesus and those prophets bring.
Discipleship requires the disciplines of listening: prayer, meditation, reading of scripture – individually and collectively – so that we can pay attention to the one we are following.
So – along with those preaching from the Gospel of Luke leading up to and through Lent – I want to invite you to join in a Lenten discipline of reading that Gospel as a community. We will host a discussion on the CHPC Facebook page, suggesting readings for each day and inviting you to share your reflections with one another, thinking together about what it means for us to “listen to and follow Jesus.”
Now there is a flip side to all of this, however. And it is a continuation of the theme of grace that Dave and Amy have lifted up over the last two weeks. In calling these disciples, Jesus knew what he was getting. Everyday people with all sorts of issues and insecurities. People who would listen to him – sometimes – and go off following their instincts at other times. People like us. And he chose them anyway. And he loved them anyway. And he placed the church in their hands anyway.
In John’s gospel, this “put the boat out and catch a lot of fish after a night of futility” is told clearly in the context of that grace. It comes not at the beginning of Jesus’ time with the disciples, but at the end. It comes after the resurrection, when Jesus rejoins the disciples who had woefully deserted him just days before. And it turns into something of a love story on the beach, with a breakfast fish fry and a reaffirmation of Peter’s calling and a sending him out to – to borrow a phrase from the upcoming hymn — “hold God’s people in his heart.”
And – after breakfast – I can see them – Jesus and Peter — walking along the beach, with Jesus pointing out the spot, not far from shore, where the surface was disturbed and the spot was teeming with fish. “There; that’s where they are.”