January 26, 2020
Jump to audio
While Matthew had messianic geography in mind when he prefaced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with his own translation of Isaiah’s ninth chapter, on this third Sunday after Epiphany I am thinking about those who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death when Jesus began his ministry. In particular, I imagine Peter and Andrew literally sitting in dark all night long, casting nets from the shore. I imagine James and John and Zebedee in the middle of the night and the sea, dragging and then hauling nets up into their boats, six, seven, eight times between dusk and dawn. But I also I imagine these fishermen sitting in the shadow of death that was, according to First Isaiah, the Assyrian Empire, before it was the Babylonian Empire, before it was Rome. I imagine these men who resided in the region of death paying tithes, taxes, tolls, rents, and tribute to benefit Herod Antipas with little left for their families to live on. Fishing in the dark.
If you google “Fishing, First Century, Sea of Galilee,” you learn that in the light of day fish could see and so swim around linen nets. In the dark? The nets were invisible, the fish completely vulnerable. But to tell you the truth, it was not google that first caused me to assume these men in Matthew were fishing in the dark. It was Luke’s greatly expanded version of Mark’s and Matthew’s story. “Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing,” Peter said to Jesus when, at dawn, Jesus told Peter to “put out into the deep water” and let the nets down one more time. In spite of his well-founded doubts, Peter did. The haul was astonishing, even in the light of day. Why? Because Peter obeyed Jesus’ command, say most of the commentaries. But with Matthew’s translation of Isaiah’s ninth in the back of my mind, I hear Jesus’ command and think, even and especially in this present-darkness-that-we-mistake-for-the-light-of-day, I think that any fisher person worth her salt would do well to quit the shore, dare the depths, venture into the valley of the shadow of death, where those most vulnerable to being caught by love dwell. Fishing in the dark.
On any given Sunday, most of us who mount a pulpit are fishing in the dark for you, for ourselves, for God. Take this morning, for instance. Lost on the sea or in the sea after a week when the nation remembered a death camp’s liberation in Auschwitz as well as the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., marched for women’s rights and against abortion, tried a President without witnesses and witnessed the trying divisions, the unbridgeable gulf between our divergent truths, you and I sit in the shadow of death no less than Peter and Andrew, James and John. “The nation is sick,” another preacher said to a congregation the night before he was shot and killed in Memphis. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know,” Dr. King insisted “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” Fishing in the dark.
And another preacher, I can hear his thick Brooklyn accent even now, Father Flynn said to a darkened theater audience become congregation in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, “I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank and all her crew was drowned. Only this one sailor survived. He made a raft of some spars and being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars [“only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars”]. He set a course for his home, and, exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky.
“For the next twenty nights, as he floated on the vast ocean, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course but there was no way to be certain. As the days rolled on, and he wasted away with fevers, thirst and starvation, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards home? Or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations—had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen Truth once and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance?”
We are that sailor, Father Flynn means to tell us, adrift on the ocean beneath a cloud-covered sky, the course once set but now obscured. Be that course the Constitution by which we plotted our life as a nation, the Civil Rights Act by which we set out to repair the breach, the biblical narrative by which we once traced God’s purposes over our frantic days and fearful nights, now we are adrift beneath a cloud-covered sky. We sit in darkness. This is our human condition. “…away from God, in a far country…a pilgrim,” the old theologians say. Or as Father Flynn explains: we are “the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity. ‘No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’ …Something has happened, you have to carry it, and it’s incommunicable. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: ‘Help me!’ What if no answer comes?” Immortal, invisible, God only wise. In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. Fishing in the dark.
But according to Matthew, an answer has come. Jesus the Messiah. I imagine Matthew fishing in the dark as he writes of the light that shines in the darkness to a fledgling community of Christians. Matthew wrote his Gospel after the first Jewish revolt against Rome, and after the destruction of the temple–of God’s dwelling place on earth, when the question was God’s absence God’s silence. So he picks up the story where Isaiah left off, telling his Jewish Christians readers that God has joined them beneath the cloud-covered sky in the person of Jesus Christ. In him, Matthew says through the story he tells, God has come to accompany them as they walk in darkness, and to abide with them as they sit in the shadow of death. He reminds the nascent church that Jesus made his home, and so must they, among the lost, the most vulnerable, peasants and fishermen, the ruled and not the rulers, the powerless and not the politicians. In the land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan God in Christ came to seek those who are stuck in darkness, those who are resigned to living out their days in the region and shadow of death. Peter and Andrew, James and John follow, to be sure. But soon the diseased and the sick, the demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics are caught in the net of his love that was now theirs to cast as Christ’s church.
Twenty centuries later, we too are being fished for in the dark by Matthew’s Gospel and, as we hear God’s call in Christ to follow, we become the community of faith sent out to fish in the dark still: at the borders where children languish in cages, in prisons where brown and black citizens disproportionately dwell, down city streets where death keeps God’s children in the crosshairs of too many guns, on the battlefield where the young fight the battles of their elders.
But how beneath a cloud-covered sky do we know that the light is God’s light and the call God’s voice? I think we first hear of the light, not unlike Matthew first heard of the light in the words of the prophets. A parent, a teacher, a community of faith tells us the story that becomes the distant constellation by which we set the course of our life. On calm seas and under cloudless skies, the story and the constellation are enough. But then there are seasons when even sitting in a pew is like sitting in darkness given the downward turn of our personal life—a failure, a loss, a betrayal, an illness, a death; or given the shipwreck that our common life has become, stars hidden night after endless night by clouds of bigotry that make us fearful, clouds of pollution that leave us hopeless, clouds of injustice that strengthen death’s hold on us all. So we begin to doubt. “Have we set our course right? Are we still going on towards home? Or are we horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? …The message of the constellations—have we imagined it because of our desperate circumstance? Or have we seen Truth once and now have only to hold on to it without further reassurance?” Fishing in the dark.
“As we now consider the Saviour’s coming into our own midst,” says another preacher to a congregation sitting in the dark that is the Prison of Basel on Christmas Eve, “What kind of a place in our life [does he come]? Do not suggest some presumably noble, beautiful or at least decent compartment of your life and work…Not so, my friends! The place where the Saviour enters in,” Karl Barth says, “…is the depth, even the abyss. Down below, we are, without exception…only poor beggars, lost sinners, moaning creatures on the threshold of death, only people who have lost their way….In this dark place he [comes to us].” Jesus, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, in the sanctuary at 61 Nassau Street. Jesus is fishing in the dark. For you. For me.
The light that he is, according to Matthew, is no longer the light of a distant constellation but the light that has come near, so that there will be no darkness, not even the darkness of the grave, where God is not with us. The first word he invariably speaks, with the authority only love can command, is “Repent.” That is, turn away from the shadows of death-dealing men who have destined you for the grave, and turn toward what can only be described as light enough to take the first step, a step that leads to the love for which you were made. We cannot manage the turn on our own, mostly because, even though it is killing us, we have come to prefer the darkness we know. Prefer fishing in the dark.
So maybe it is more truthful to say that now and again, when the light-that-Christ-is comes toward us, especially after a long night of fishing, when all that we have caught amounts to nothing much, something in us—perhaps God’s grace in the guise of indigestion or insomnia—something in us surrenders just enough to let ourselves be dragged out of bed and into the net of his love–along with poor beggars, lost sinners, moaning creatures on the threshold of death, people who have lost their way—all of us flip flopping together at dawn on the deck of this boat called the church that is momentarily headed out for another week, Christ’s light on the bow, to fish together for people who sit in darkness. Thanks be to God.