Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo, on Feb. 7, 2010.
There’s an old saying, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” We make our plans, our goals, and our dreams. They give us a sense of direction. They help define who we are. But things happen … a flood, a fire, a shadow on an X-ray, a reduction in the work force, bad grades, a broken relationship … and suddenly we realize that whatever control we thought we had has been nothing but an illusion.
Sometimes the interruption comes from within … a growing sense of dissatisfaction even though everything seems okay on the surface. We feel angry and cheated because our lives are not turning out like we supposed or dreamed they would turn out. Maybe we discover that the dreams of young adulthood are not coming true. Joseph Campbell once observed: “Sometimes people climb the ladder of success only to discover that the ladder is leaning on the wrong wall.”
John Claypool added this poignant reality from an interview with a disillusioned TV newscaster who noted: “I am near the top of the mountain that I saw as a young man, but lo and behold, this is not snow up here, it is mostly salt.”
We may discover that when our early dreams of life get bogged down or interrupted, there’s always a loss experienced as disorientation or the death of a previous dream. It can be frightening and in the end we can become rigid and unyielding.
But in the middle of it all, there’s always the chance for rebirth and a deeper experience with God. God is always with us through the reorienting times in our lives and may even be the catalyst behind our reorientation. Someone once wrote: “Sometimes the Lord stills the storm, and sometimes the Lord is the storm itself.” Knowing the difference is a matter of faith and perspective. It is a way of believing that helps to put some sense into our lives. Maybe framing our lives and dreams in this way can be helpful in getting beneath the skin of our gospel story today.
Simon Peter was the everyman of his day. He was a fisherman. He got up early long before daylight in order to get his boat ready to set sail. He and his buddies probably lived life as fully as most working men by living life out loud. After a long day with the nets and the stinking fish they might get together with the other fishermen to let off steam by drinking, knocking a few heads together, and loud stories late at night. We presume they lived life “full-steam ahead” and didn’t worry about delicate gentilities. Simon bar Jonas had likely heard about Jesus, knew he was the latest popular preacher to follow John the Baptizer, and heard Jesus was in the area teaching, reportedly doing some pretty hard to believe stuff.
When Jesus arrived that day, they had already had a frustrating night on the Sea of Galilee, all to no avail. It was one of those nights where they couldn’t stir up any fish at all. Some nights were like that: The fish just wouldn’t come up off the bottom and they couldn’t reach them with their nets. Jesus came along and there was a huge crowd of people clamoring along in tow.
The people were like schools of hungry fish and wanted to be near him and be within earshot of so they might hear what he had to say to them. Jesus saw Peter and the other fishermen in their boats along the shore and he said he wanted to get in with them so he could preach to the crowd. So Peter pulled the boat away from the beach a short ways and Jesus sat down to say a few words in the same manner teachers of their day would do by sitting down to teach. The boat came in handy because he could put some distance between him and the crowd so more could hear him rather than just the handful closest to him.
After his lesson was over, (we don’t even know what he taught them), Jesus told Peter to launch out in the deeper water and to drop the nets over the side. Peter’s frustration was overwhelming. “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing but since you asked, we will do it.” But when they did what he told them to do, the nets began to stir about and then began to fill! As they pulled the net up closer and tried to pull it in, they discovered the nets were overflowing. They had to pull the boats and the overflowing nets back up to the shore because the nets wouldn’t hold this kind of catch.
Then Peter realized what was happening. It struck him as hard as anything had ever struck him. He was caught in the presence of God just being with Jesus. The thing he had least expected to happen – happened! The singular thing he could muster to do was to fall at Jesus’ feet and say the only thing he could imagine by understanding how small he was and how great Jesus was: “Get away from me, I am a sinful man, O Lord!” It’s the kind of thing we likely might utter in a moment of transcendence when we realize we’re in the presence of God and we experience for the first time how utterly insignificant we are comparison.
Do you see what happened? There was a divine interruption in the mundane events of life. It’s not something that you can predict or prepare for. But somehow God comes looking for us and then jumps into the middle of where our lives are and made himself known to us.
Dr. James Loder is the Professor of Practical Theology at Princeton Seminary. Based on an actual event in his life involving a serious car accident where he had a near-death experience, he called this kind of encounter with God, “a transforming moment.” He recognized there are times where God sometimes moves dramatically into our experience and at the bottom of it all is the belief that God has something special in store for us.
Maybe it happens in this way. First, there is a sense of the presence of God’s presence and God’s holiness. There is the conviction of our inadequacy. “Woe is me for I am a sinner,” cried out Isaiah in the temple. Peter said it too. Saul said it later when he was knocked off the burro on his way to Damascus. It’s the sudden realization that we stand before the holiness of God and we are struck by the level of our sin.
What follows is our feeling of inadequacy. There is the thought that surely God could find better help. There is a strong feeling of self-uncertainty. What other response would seem normal about God looking for human assistance in divine work?
Lastly, there is the sense of resignation and cooperation. “I will do whatever he asks of me.” That is the only response necessary. It’s simple: just go and do what the Lord has asked you to do. The grace of God is always with you in the painful interruptions of life. But sometimes God is the interruption, calling you to something better, to an adventure instead of a routine, to service instead of self, to courage instead of comfort.
And in those moments of interruption, you always have a choice. You can cling to the old and hope the crisis will pass and you can get back to your plans. Or you can let go and go after God’s new way for you into the new. It’s the way of faith. It’s keeping your eyes and ears open for the new moment of God’s interruption where you might learn to be spontaneous in playful, joyful response to God. You might learn to let go of having to control everything. You might accept the interruptions as opportunities to give or receive grace. You might even discover the God who is always with you, even in the interruptions, and especially in the places where things don’t go your way. That’s when things can go God’s way instead, if you are going with God to the depths where beneath the surface there’s an undiscovered world. We only get there by listening to God and paying attention.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).