In both Isaiah 6 and Luke 5, there is an encounter with the Holy Lord God which shakes the person who encounters Him.
In Isaiah, the prophet is caught up before the throne of God. The six-winged seraphim are flying around the throne; with two wings they flew, with two they covered their feet (so as not to give offense to the Lord or step on His holy train), and with the other two they shielded their eyes from the Lord’s glory. They all sang together:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
They are singing praise to each Person of the Holy Trinity. The Father is Holy, the Son is Holy, and the Spirit is Holy – yet they are not three “gods” but one Triune God, as we confess in the Creeds, most explicitly in the Athanasian Creed. It’s also worth noting that St. John in his Gospel says that Isaiah saw Jesus Christ here in Isaiah 6 (cf. John 12:37-42).
Also, the phrase translated “Lord of Hosts” is “Yahweh Sabaoth.” Yahweh is what the people of Israel called God; it means “He who is or causes to be” and reflects the name that God told Moses in Exodus 3: “I Am who I Am” – meaning, God is the only one who has no one above Him. The word “Sabaoth” reflects this; it refers to the heavenly hosts or armies and denotes supreme power.
Thus, Isaiah encounters the Almighty Lord God, and so Holy and Mighty is He that even the angels who sing His praises shield their eyes and their feet from him.
And yet there’s Isaiah, standing and staring! So, he cries out:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah feels his sins in the presence of the Holy Lord God. All pretense is now gone, he knows he cannot dwell in the presence of the Lord.
And yet, he doesn’t die. One of the angels comes to him with a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice and touches Isaiah’s mouth with it, declaring:
“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah is justified before God due to the sacrifice. He then hears the Lord say:
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah, who only moments before was scared to death, now yells out:
“Here I am! Send me.”
What a transformation. And indeed, the Lord will send Isaiah to the people to call them to repentance and point them back to the Lord for their salvation.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, then, we see the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, in the flesh, come in person to begin the restoration of fallen creation and to reconcile humanity back to God, each other, and creation itself through his ultimate sacrifice on the cross.
Simon (later re-named Peter by Jesus) and the brothers James and John are fishermen on the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberius (called so after the Roman emperor). They are fishing partners and have spent all night fishing and are now on the shore of the lake, washing their fishing nets.
Jesus is also at the shore of the lake. He has a great crowd around him to hear him speak when he eyes two boats, the boats of these fishermen. He just gets into Simon’s boat and asks him to go out a bit from the land; speaking across the water, Jesus will be better able to address the crowds. It’s also interesting that while Jesus had been teaching the crowds, Simon and his partners were apparently pre-occupied with their nets and minding their own business, until Jesus brings them into his orbit, so to speak.
After Jesus was finished speaking, he gives Simon and the others perhaps the greatest teaching that day. He says:
“Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
He wants them to move out from shore, into the deeper water. Listen to what Simon says:
“Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”
First, Simon calls Jesus “Master.” It’s a term of respect, but Simon will call Jesus something more meaningful and true later. Second, Simon gives a little protest, thinking that it’s probably futile to put out the nets, but acquiesces.
Despite his initial doubts, Simon ends up getting so many fish caught in his net, that the has to get his partners to help him and they seem to just barely land that catch due to its weight in their boats.
Simon then has an epiphany – literally! He falls down before Jesus and exclaims:
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
No longer is Jesus just “master” in Simon’s eyes, now he is “Lord” or “Kyrios.” This is significant. In the written Hebrew Old Testament, the consonants for the word “Yahweh” were written with the vowels for the word “Adonai,” which meant Lord. It was a visual cue to the devout Jews to say “Adonai” or “Lord” when they encountered God’s name. Later, when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, which was the main version used in Jesus’ time, the word “Adonai” was translated as “Kyrios” or “Lord.” We have somewhat of the same in most of our English translations where “Yahweh” in the Old Testament is translated as “LORD” in all capital letters.
So, Simon recognizes that he has just encountered the Holy Lord God in the flesh. And like Isaiah, he fears for his life, because he is a sinner. Yet, there is no coal from the altar of sacrifice here, but rather the sacrifice Himself. The One pointed to and anticipated by the Old Testament sacramental system is here in person, and he justifies Simon and then commissions him, like Isaiah had been commissioned:
“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
And then Simon and James and John “left everything and followed him.”
In both Isaiah and Luke’s Gospel, there’s a similar pattern. An encounter between sinful man and the Holy Lord God. A recognition by man of his sins and resulting fear before the Lord. Then, justification of sinful man by the Lord. Finally, a commissioning of man by the Lord.
We too have been brought into a similar pattern. The beginning of faith in the Lord is a recognition that we are sinful. The Ten Commandments are meant to show us this fact, and even before we recognize the Ten Commandments as the word of God, we have them written on our hearts as natural law. If we are honest with ourselves, which can be very hard, we recognize that we have sinned against God and each other. Things are not as they should be in our lives due to our own sin and the sin of all others in this world. And we have death hanging over our heads due to sin. Everyone knows that things are not right in our own lives and in the world, even if we can’t put our finger on why this is so.
So, we look for a deliverer. We might try many things which promise to deliver us from this sense of disorder and grant us peace. Various religions, philosophies, other people, money, pleasure, power – an endless array of false gods beckon us to their shores.
Yet, none of these can grant us the peace that we seek. St. Augustine, in his “Confessions” to God, famously said:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
All of these false gods cannot fulfill us, because they cannot fill the God-shaped hole that we have in our hearts that can only be filled by our Creator. We may not realize it, but our hearts need the Son who was standing on the shore of Galilee. So, he comes to us. He steps into our lives, often through the ministry of another person.
Isaiah was sent by God, so was Simon, James, John, the other apostles, and many others since their time. Individual Christians, in fact, are commissioned – as part of the Church – to go proclaim the redemption and salvation that it found only in the Son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Lord God who cared so much for His lost creatures that He came in person to effect our salvation so that we may have the peace only He can give.
We have been brought into this reconciliation. Christ has made peace between us and God, among each other, and – ultimately – among all Creation, as evidenced by the future resurrection of our bodies.
And we too, then, are sent to proclaim this to all people so that they too may be caught in the net of the Church and receive freely what we have received.
This is how the Church goes on. In fact, the miraculous catch of fish bookends Jesus’ ministry on earth. Here in Luke’s Gospel and again at the end of John’s Gospel after the resurrection of Jesus, it reinforces the ministry into which Peter and the others were called as Jesus prepared to ascend back into heaven and hand the nets over to the Apostles and their descendants until his return in person. The first Apostles were followed by men like Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch. They took up the nets left them by the Apostles to also become fishers of men in order to draw in greater and greater catches into the Church. Then they too passed on the nets to the generation after them – to men like Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, and others. And the nets have continuously been dropped into the deep for generations after them, even when it seemed hopeless, in order to draw out condemned sinners into a new, reconciled life with God and His people.
And so within the Church we have people of all nations and languages, just as a net draws in many types of fish. We too, in our own day, continue bringing in the catch, bearing Christ before all the world and looking forward to the day when the entire Church will be reunited in person at the resurrection.
(Image: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515). By Raphael – Own work, user:M.chohan, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1718094