One of our boys has always had this fascination with wildlife. When he was three years old, he got it into his head that he wanted to catch a bird. Not with a net or a trap; with his hands.
He would spot a bird hopping about in the grass, most likely a robin or a sparrow. His eyes would light up and he would go after it, on his mission to catch a bird.
The birds were not scared of him. Before they were in any danger of being caught, without any effort, they would hop away or fly to the fence post.
It was heartbreaking to watch this toddler at work in his determined mission, knowing in our adult wisdom and experience that he did not have a chance of doing what he set out to do. It is hard to watch, knowing in advance that your child is going to fail, and then seeing it happen, time after time, especially when they go after something with such energy and determination.
Do you ever feel that way about the call to proclaim the Word? Do you ever feel that you are that three year old kid chasing after birds? We spend so much time and energy trying to build up this thing called the church, to be the hands and feet and hearts of God on Earth, to be the voice that brings good news to a world in need, to be the supply line through which God’s goodness and mercy flow into our world.
And what happens? All of that effort is blown away in a single unkind word, a single cold shoulder of uncaring, a single lapse of judgment, a single weakness of character, a single moment of selfishness or pride, or a just a collective shrug of indifference.
Despite the love, sweat, and tears we put into it, mainline denominations get smaller every year. Attendance goes down. The number of unchurched grows. More young people slide away from the church every year.
Do you ever wonder, what is the point? Do we have any hope of getting anywhere? Are we who take seriously the mission of the church naïve, three year old kids chasing after birds with our bare hands?
In the Luke 5, the disciples spent a long night fishing. Rowing the boat, dropping nets, pulling them up, scouting for better prospects and then going through the whole sequence again. Hour after hour, all night long, and for what? They didn’t catch a thing.
Bleary-eyed from their wasted effort, they bring the boats in and wash their equipment.
And here comes Jesus, who says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Peter cannot believe it. What do you think we’ve just spent the whole night doing? We have worked our fingers bloody, and we are so tired we can barely lift a net out of the water. It’s no use. We tried and it just didn’t work.
Peter does not understand it; all he knows is that Jesus asked him to do it. “Yet, if you say so,” he says with a sigh, “I will let down the nets.”
Many of us have devoted most of our lives to building the church into what God intended it to be, to share the light of Christ with the entire world. We have looked on as congregations get smaller, as budgets get tighter, as the Christian message of love gets ever more twisted into a message of narrow, mean intolerance, as our society increasingly tells us that we, and any concept of God, are irrelevant.
What we are asked to proclaim does not seem to have a chance of success. We do not understand it; all we know is that Jesus asked us to do it. The one who has done so much for us, the one who willingly paid the terrible cost to end the separation between God and the people God loves, asks us to do it.
Contrary to the message delivered by many thriving modern churches, that belief in Jesus is a sure-fire way to wealth and success, being a disciple of Jesus more often means long nights of casting the net in the water and coming up empty. Because human beings are so entrenched in pride and selfishness, this kingdom of God business has long dry spells.
When it looks the bleakest, we are asked to back into the deep water and drop the nets one more time.
Why does God ask us to do that?
Our three year old went all those years without catching a bird, but in the process of chasing them, something else happened. He became fascinated by wildlife. He can still go to the zoo every week and find it magical every time. He can tell you an unbelievable number of things about the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.
In chasing after birds, he opened himself up to the astounding mysteries of nature. He did not catch the birds, but his pursuit of them opened up a whole new world to him.
When we take on the tasks that God has set before us, we may not accomplish what we hope or want. The nets may seem empty. We wonder if we are accomplishing anything. But even when we do not catch any fish, or any birds, our pursuit of God’s will opens up a whole new world to us. We see more clearly what life is all about, and we find ourselves closer to God.
A second possibility is this. A few years ago, that same son of ours was walking along a sidewalk in San Diego. He noticed that a bird didn’t move, didn’t even flinch though he stepped several inches from it.
He stopped, and instinctively tried to do what he had been attempting since he was tiny. He reached out and tried to catch a bird.
This time he did. The sparrow never moved. He picked it up in his bare hands and it stayed there, calmly looking at him, until he finally set it back down.
Catching a bird with your bare hands is not impossible. Sometimes it happens, when you don’t expect it, are not looking for it.
The disciples dropped that net as they had a hundred times before, with no expectation for success. Their net filled with so many fish they couldn’t lift it.
It happens. We do not know when or where or how, but God has promised that our work is not in vain. God has promised that our nets will fill with so many fish that we cannot lift them. That the bird will fly into our hands.
So the message of Luke 5 is to keep chasing birds. Keep putting your net in the water.
When God tells us to go out and put down our nets, there is a reason for it. Something is going to happen. There will come a time, perhaps when we least expect it, that the nets will overflow. I don’t know what that will look like, but I sure want to be there when it happens.