“On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on Jesus 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 Peter’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.” – Luke 5:1-6
I can picture Peter sitting on the sand and rocks cleaning his fishing nets which refused to hold a single fish during a long night out on the water. Nobody was talking that morning as it had been a highly unprofitable 24 hours in the family fishing business. How would Peter feed his own family? What about the others who regularly came to buy from his catches in order to feed themselves? Was this fruitless evening on Gennesaret Lake a sign that God wanted Peter to move on to something else? He felt like a failure, maybe Peter was losing his edge. Regardless, he didn’t have time to think about it because the nets needed to be cleaned from all the junk that they had picked up. Funny, he toiled all night with his partners and missed what he wanted to catch and ended up with a net full of stuff that no fisherman wanted. I can hear Peter muttering to himself as He looked forward to going home and getting some sleep and close the books on this waste of a night.
It was right then that the Master shows up and gets in Peter’s boat to deliver a short sermon to the crowd by the lakeside. I guess Peter wouldn’t be leaving right now after all. He sits through the sermon, listening as he finishes up on the nets and waits to be able to bring his boat/pulpit back onto land. Sermons hold little for Peter on this occasion as all he is really thinking about are bills that are due and what he is going to tell his wife when he comes home empty handed. Maybe all this time and energy he has been sinking into ministry with Jesus and the other eleven is irresponsible. Maybe he should spend more time on the lake and less time walking around with the Master. As he is debating in his mind about the right thing to do, he hears Jesus tell him to get back in his boat and cast out his nets again. Great. What an unreasonable command from the Teacher. Jesus was a carpenter last year before starting His ministry and now He wants to give fishing advice? C’mon. Peter looks up and explains to Jesus that he just got done wasting a night on the lake busting his back with absolutely no results. Jesus doesn’t reply, and Peter’s respect for Jesus kicks in as he says, “Nevertheless, because You have said so, I will do it.” He gets back in the boat with the nets he just spent forty-five minutes cleaning and he migrates out from the shore just enough to prove to Jesus that he is being obedient. He’s made up his mind to give it fifteen minutes and then he is heading home, no matter what anyone says. Without the slightest shred of optimism, Peter goes through the motions of tossing in the net and watches it begin to submerge beneath the lake’s surface.
Then there is instant activity.
The net seems to come to life as Peter’s stunned eyes watch fish beginning to fill it. Wait a minute, there’s no fish in this lake today! The part of the net he holds in his hands grows taught and then heavy. Wait a minute, didn’t last night prove that empty nets were Peter’s future? He calls Andrew, his brother, to grab a hold of the other side of the top of the net and before long they realize that they will not be able to handle the miraculous catch without some help. So they called James and John to row up beside them to help out because they are in the process of bringing in the single largest catch they have ever known. Peter would be rejoicing if he were not so focused on the task of getting these fish to shore. How could this be happening? Just a short time ago he had no reason to expect such bounty. He had all but given up and with clear evidence backing his discouraged outlook. What did Jesus do to make all of this happen? Peter’s mind was darting back and forth between the fish, the long night of nothingness that had just come to an end hours earlier, the Master’s sermon, his own reluctant obedience to keep doing what he was supposed to do as a fisherman and then…wham!…an unprecedented, last minute harvest of help from the Lord.
What can we learn from Peter and his long night of toiling? For me it is a simple lesson to learn but sometimes a challenging one to live. When you are toiling and coming up empty, when you are praying but getting back silence, when you are waiting and growing more panicky, when your nets come back empty for the twentieth time in a row, when nothing is indicating that help is on the way…keep listening for what Jesus has said and remain obedient. God honors obedience, and sometimes we cannot be obedient without simultaneously being patient. Peter didn’t need a new boat or net or a change of location. Peter didn’t need a new partner or a new business name. He didn’t need to move his membership to a different synagogue to get a fresh start. The real issue that Jesus was working on was this: Peter wasn’t lacking, Peter had way too much of something. What was it? Peter had too much Peter. So the sovereign Lord over the sea let Peter discover what all of Peter’s human energy could produce without Him – that was the night Peter caught nothing. Then Jesus showed Peter what Jesus could do without all of Peter’s skill, experience and logic -that was the morning Peter’s ship nearly sank because of the amount of fish that were caught. You, I and Peter need constant help in remembering that there is great blessing in being who God has made us to be, being where God last told us to be and showing up in faithful obedience even when the last time we did so did not yield desired results. When your heart gets hasty and your mind gets discouraged, you don’t need to move out in action you need to move down in humility and get still and small before God.
Your long night of toil may have exhausted you. Get back in your boat. Your empty nets may be occupying more time than you had ever imagined. Keep them ready because things will change. The words of Jesus may seem like they lack practical help to you because you are distracted and discouraged by lesser things right now. You really need to hear what He is saying. Jesus had been speaking to the crowd from the boat but then, at the very end, He spoke directly to Peter. That is when Peter knew what to do, and he obeyed.
Then the empty nets were not empty anymore. You say you are waiting on God, and that is good. Maybe today God is waiting on you to begin casting out that net you’ve been working on. Do the last thing He told you to be doing and then wait to see what His timing will bring. The fish were in the lake the whole time but Peter’s net would have remained empty until Jesus controlled it.
When our nets are empty, it is a signal to move into a deeper surrender. We boldly say, sing, declare, proclaim and pontificate that we trust Jesus with our everything.
Maybe the real test is our call to trust Him with our nothing – to trust Him when our nets are empty.
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