OUT OF THE DEPTHS
February 7, 2010
If they had been catching fish all night this story might never have happened but as the night had been long and futile when Jesus came along and suggested casting the nets one more time into the deep and the catch was overflowing it was not only all the more impressive but meaningful. It’s a great fish story but it has a lot more to tell than the number of fish that are caught. We know it wasn’t about the fish because they left the catch behind with the nets behind. This story actually addresses one of the great mysteries of our relationship with God. We hear of the abundance of God and at the same time we mostly experience God’s absence and somehow we never put the two together. We assume I suppose that it is either one or the other, abundance or nothing. We never think that it may well be when we experience God most absent that God is even closer than we could know. It is out of the depths that God’s hope is most efficacious. It is out of the silence that God’s song can be heard. It is in the darkest night when nothing can be seen that God is likely to appear.
This is not so easy for us to fathom for we are masters at filling the absence ourselves. We avoid the depths if we can. When we are empty we fill the emptiness with anything we can think of and it may distract us for a while but before too long we realize that the emptiness is as vast as ever. We never can fill that void and sometimes what we try to fill it with actually destroys us. The very thing we hope will fill the hole in our heart only buries us alive and we are lost beneath the rubble of our own devices.
All of the readings for today reveal how to get out of the hole, how the emptiness may be filled, in short, where our hope really is but how we may never know that until all other hope is gone or in the words of this great text from Isaiah cities lie waste and without people, utterly desolate and everyone is sent away and vast is the emptiness . . .(The words of the prophet do not hold much back.) The great prophet’s calling brings him to his knees, the proper beginning when called by God. Upon seeing God, Isaiah’s only response is confession. Woe is me, he cries, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips! Nevertheless he is called by God. God forgives and heals his unclean lips with fire. (That had to hurt.) But not perhaps as much as the description of what it is God is calling him to do. After all of this he does agree to go, to be sent and this is his assignment: Go and say this to the people: Keep listening but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. In case you missed it he is telling the prophet to make people blind enough to see and deaf enough to hear and dull enough to comprehend so that they can turn and be healed. Turn and be healed. The prophet wants to know how long and gets the answer already noted - basically – when all hope is gone.
I would seem that we need drastic measures to change our direction. It is interesting that Paul, the writer of our second reading for this day was blinded in order to see. His own eyes and his keenly intelligent mind had failed to provide him with understanding until he was knocked from his horse or donkey or whatever it was and blinded by a bright light and had to be helped by the very people he sought to persecute and destroy. Please note this powerful truth, a light so bright that we are blinded, blinded by the light. This is one reason I love the Christian story because it is full of such wondrous truths. In the world of the everyday we calmly assume that the light is what enables us to see but to see what? But no it is the light that blinds us and it is only when we are blind that we can finally see.
And here is a connection. Paul, like the prophet before him, speaks from his knees when he says what God has called him to say that this Jesus who was crucified has risen from death and is alive against all odds, is alive, a revelation of a truth that is far outside his rational understanding, beyond the vision of human eyes, something seen only by those who know what they do not know. And Paul like the prophet, makes his confession, I am the least of the apostles, the last to see. But by the grace of God I am what I am. I am what I am. Paul was a proud man, completely convinced of his righteousness until he wasn’t, until he turned and was healed.
This was not what Paul had planned. He did not see this coming. Who could have seen it? Like those poor fishermen who fished all night and came up empty who could predict that the next morning the boats would be so full that they would begin to sink the boats and who could have foreseen what with the catch of a lifetime they would leave the fish behind and go where they knew not where they were going?
In each case, whether it was the prophet or Paul or the disciples it was out of the depths that God was present to them in ways that they could not have predicted. The most poignant image for me in all of this incredible word today is the stump of the oak tree after it has been felled. At the very end of the first reading we have the good news that the stump, all that is left when everything else is gone, is the holy seed of something new. Hope is not the full blown oak tree strong and true and glorious in its magnificent beauty but the stump, what you might call the absence of the tree, where the holy seed is found.
Can there be a more powerful expression of the absence of God than the death of God’s son. Such an absence was certainly an experience of the depths for those who witnessed its horror and finality, and it is as graphic a depiction of removing God from the world as e can find in any literature I expect and yet out of that complete and brutal absence arose a whole new presence, the resurrected life, the risen Christ, the eternal life of God for all to receive. In the end the emptiness of the nets was only a small hint of things to come.
Is it possible that we must know the utter desolation described by the prophet before we will turn and be healed? Perhaps it is so. Perhaps it is necessary for our eyes to remain open but not see and our ears listening but not hearing until the absence of God simply can no longer be endured. Here is the what we know about us. We will not turn to God until we have to, until there is nothing else to which we can turn, nothing else left to fill the vast emptiness, until we can no longer deny the absence of God in our lives. God help us if we must wait until our cities are laid waste and our houses emptied and the land utterly desolate. Perhaps such a vision does not seem so far-fetched as it once did.
Before the gospel is good news it is bad news and if we do not hear the bad news we will not understand the good news. The bad news is that life is hard and there are deep and terrifying places we do not want to go and we are afraid because we do not understand what is going on and so we create our own understandings that too often pit us against each other to secure ourselves in the darkness but we are lost and the hole in our heart never seems to heal and nothing ever seems to change except the terrible absence of God in our world. The good news is that God has overcome our bad news with a love that endures forever and everything that God loves cannot and will not be lost. The abundance of God is everywhere present as grace where God seems to be most absent. We seek God not in our abundance but in the absence of everything we thought we needed and in everything we were so sure we knew so well.
Wisdom comes not when we know what we know but when we know what we don’t know. Wisdom seeks to know God when God is nowhere to be found.
Out of the depths we find God where we thought all had been lost. O God you offer us your abundance even as we experience your absence. Take us to the deep water and give us faith to cast out our nets. Make us blind so that we can see. Out of the depths we cry unto thee, show us a new way, where to turn and be healed. How long, O Lord!?
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