We’ve toiled all night and taken nothing

Stained Glass window in the 15th Century Elzenveld Chapel in Antwerp, Belgium, depicting Jesus Calling Four Fishermen to Follow Him

Luke 5.1-11

I don’t know whether any of you know St. Leonard’s on Sea, but if you do you will probably know the church on the sea front after which the place is named.

I visited the church many years ago when I was doing a placement nearby, during my Church Army training, at the Youth Centre in Bexhill. And the church has always remained in my mind because of its pulpit. The church was destroved by a V1 flying bomb in 1944 and soon afterwards, Canon Cuthbert Griffiths, the Rector of the church and who would later oversee the rebuilding, had a dream. He dreamt that Jesus was preaching to the church’s congregation from a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Soon afterwards he went to Galilee, and bought the front half of a fishing boat – he had it brought back and installed it in the rebuilt church as the pulpit.

And there it is – the front half of a boat, protruding from the wall of the church. And so, just as Jesus had preached from a boat on the Sea of Galilee, so the clergy of the parish could preach from a boat. And week by week, the people of the parish would be reminded of this incident in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus taught from the boat and called Simon Peter to fish for people.

In today’s gospel reading we meet three fishermen – James and John, two brothers and sons of Zebedee, and Simon – they have been out fishing but unsuccessfully, and are now washing the nets. hAnd Jesus is there teaching. And then something interesting happens. The people are really anxious to hear what Jesus has to say and are crowding in. So Jesus gets into Simon’s boat and tells him to put out a little way. And note that he doesn’t ask permission from Simon. He just takes control of the situation and gets into Simon’s boat without as much as a by-your-leave. He tells Simon what to do and Simon does as he is told. Sometimes we need to let Jesus take charge of our lives and do what he tells us.

When he had finished speaking, Jesus gives Simon another instruction – again, he clearly just expects Simon to do as he is told – go fishing. Simon, understandably, was somewhat surprised by this – he had been fishing all night and caught nothing – and what could this teacher know about fishing? Why did Simon do as he was told? Again, a lesson for all of us – sometimes we need to listen to Jesus and do as we are told, even if we are not really sure why, even if we think Jesus might have got it wrong! At this point I want to introduce you to Clarence Darrow. Clarence Darrow was a great criminal lawyer who practised in the United States. Perhaps his most famous case was in 1925 when he defended a school that had broken the law by teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. At that time you were only allowed in America to preach the Biblical account of creation.  It became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Darrow himself was not a Christian – he described himself as an agnostic. One of his friends, though, was a young minister. And the story is told that they were talking one day and Darrow was reminiscing about his career and the many trials where he had been the defender. He said to his friend, “This has been an exciting life.” He had made, he said, a comfortable fortune and he guessed he might be regarded as somewhat of a success. Then Darrow asked, “Would you like to know my favourite Bible verse?”  His friend said, “Indeed I would.”   Darrow said, “You will find it in Luke 5:5. ‘We’ve toiled all the night and have taken nothing.’”  He added, “In spite of my success that verse seems to sum up the way I feel about life.”

Perhaps that’s how Simon felt. Perhaps he felt that he toiled all his life but to no avail. Perhaps this was the point, when confronted by Jesus, that he realised that his life was somehow empty. Perhaps there are those of you today who can feel an echo of Clarence Darrow’s feelings, who feel that life seems like toiling all the night, but with nothing being caught, nothing to show for it. I’m sure we’ve all been through times like that.

At any rate, Simon submitted to the authority of this teacher who couldn’t possibly know anything about fishing, but whose words had obviously begun to speak to him, perhaps even in spite of Simon’s better judgement. So he does as he is told and goes fishing again. And there are so many fish the nets begin to break. And suddenly Simon, we are told, realises who Jesus is – not just some itinerant preacher, but the Lord. And he suddenly realises just how unworthy he himself is. fHe falls down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’

What went through Simon’s mind – what actually caused this astounding response to Jesus – we will never really know. But what Simon sees is his own spiritual condition, and he is ashamed.

When we come face to face with Jesus, are we like Simon, truly aware of our own unworthiness? Because we should be. And it’s why we begin each communion service with confession. Jesus calls people to be his followers, but he can only use those who know their need of him and know what he has done for them.

Like Simon we need to come face to face with our own. Our own! Not anyone else’s. It’s so easy to notice other people’s weaknesses and failures and ignore our own. I know – hardly a week goes by without someone telling me in no uncertain terms what someone else has done wrong. Jesus isn’t interested in how good you are at spotting other people’s faults – he already knows what they are and doesn’t need you to tell him! He is interested in whether you are willing, like Simon, to face your own. Because it’s our own sin we must face up to and acknowledge, not other people’s!

For it is only when we finally understand as Simon did the reality of our own sinfulness, that we can experience the response that Jesus makes to that confession: “I am a sinful man”. For the response that comes from Jesus to our confession of sin is not punishment, but forgiveness, restoration, and a response from us. – he places us back on our feet and uses us.

It takes Simon time after this moment to fully comprehend what this life-changing moment would mean for him – and it wasn’t until after the resurrection that he finally completely understood. But he knew something had changed in his life. And his response was immediate. And perhaps because of Simon’s response, James and John too make their own response. All three of them, we are told by Luke, brought their boats to shore and left everything and followed Jesus.

Like them, we too need to come before Jesus. We need like Simon to fall down on our knees before him. And then – and only then – can he take us and use us. And like Simon and James and John we must make our response. Does this all mean that like them we must leave everything to follow him?

Well, it may be that you are indeed called upon to do just this. It may be that your vocation is to a service of Jesus that demands everything; a new start, a complete change.  

For most it does not mean leaving everything – but it does mean leaving everything in his hands. It does mean offering who you are and what you have – your material possessions, your relationships, your feelings, your dreams and desires – to Jesus so that he can then take us and use us. And like Simon and James and John we can follow him for the rest of our Lives.

Canon Cuthbert Griffiths, Rector of St Leonard’s Church, had a dream in 1944 that Jesus was preaching to the congregation from a boat.

Today, Jesus stands in a boat and preaches to us. And he says, “Follow me.” How do we respond?