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Back in 1995 Joan Osborne’s ‘What If God Was One of Us?’ was an instant hit. It was asking the question how we would react if God was identifiably walking amongst us as just one of us. It’s a good question to ask in every generation, for it awakens us to a time when it is claimed that divinity did walk amongst us – not as one of the elite but as one of us.
In the opening lines of chapter 5 of Luke’s Gospel we read of a scene on the foreshores of Lake Gennesaret on Lake Galilee: … The crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear the word of God; he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat…
In his book, The Holy Trinity Dr. Robert Letham comments that the world at the beginning of the 21st century replaced ‘reliance on reason’ with ‘a preference for emotion’. Successful athletes are more often asked ‘how they feel’ rather than for their analysis of the game. ‘The cardinal fault in interpersonal relations is to hurt someone’s feelings,’ he observes …
‘While emotions are not to be shunned, for God created them…,’ Letham continues, ‘there are peculiar and sinister dangers in a world shaped not by considered thoughts, but by image and gut feelings. These dangers relate to civil society and the rule of law, and also to the church and its faithfulness to Christ’ (pp.449f).
How often we fail to understand what is happening around us. And with this failure we’re not equipped to live wisely as God’s people in the wider community, let alone to defend our faith.
The drama that unfolds in Luke chapter 5 takes us back in time to Jesus’ teaching and actions, to the way he not only instructed minds, but also stirred emotions and touched hearts.
The scene Luke describes in the opening lines of chapter 5 would have been a familiar sight: fishing boats hauled up at the water’s edge after a night’s work and fishermen washing nets. The nets, probably made of linen, were most effective at night for in daylight fish could see them and avoid them. This detail highlights the drama of the unfolding scene.
Pressed by the crowds, Jesus asked Simon, one of the fishermen, to pull his boat a little offshore. Not one to stand on dignity, unexpectedly Jesus sat in the boat to teach the crowds: he came amongst them as one of them.
Luke’s narrative now focuses on Jesus and Simon (Peter). ‘You (singular) put out into the deep,’ Jesus said to Peter, and ‘you (plural) let down your nets for a catch’ (5:4). The command is specifically to Simon, but also to the others who were there. All of them would be needed to haul in the catch.
Thus, in a moment we are introduced to Simon Peter. For him Jesus’ command is ridiculous: he had fished all night and had caught nothing. Nevertheless, what he had seen and no doubt heard of Jesus (4:37; 38-39) impressed him. Significantly Peter didn’t address Jesus, as ‘Teacher’ or ‘Lord’, but rather as Master (5:5). ‘You’re the boss,’ his words implied. ‘I think you’re mad, but because it is you who has told me to do it, I’ll do it. Don’t blame me if we don’t catch anything.’
Clearly Jesus was someone who impressed Peter – perhaps the nature of his teaching, and even ‘the cut of his jib’.
The haul of fish that day was astonishing. It was so great that a second boat was required for the nets were at breaking point and the two boats were almost swamped (5:6-7). Such was the size of the catch everyone recognized something abnormal had happened.
Astounded, Peter fell on his knees in front of Jesus. Acknowledging his lack of faith and the gulf that he perceived existed between them, he exclaimed, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (5:8). Peter knew he was in the presence of divinity.
James and John, Peter’s business partners were also astonished (5:10). We can imagine an interviewer today asking, ‘How did you feel?’ By his words and actions Jesus touched minds and hearts. And, although he was clearly one of them, he awakened their awareness that divinity was walking amongst them. A miracle happened that day.
Yet today miracles are dismissed because ‘we now know the laws of nature’. To which the philosopher and mathematician, Dr. John Lennox replies, “From a theistic perspective, the laws of nature predict what is bound to happen if God does not intervene… To argue that the laws of nature make it impossible for us to believe in the existence of God and the likelihood of his intervention in the universe is plainly false” (God and Stephen Hawking, Lion, p.87).
The laws of nature that science observes are the observable regularities that God the creator has built into the universe. However, such ‘laws’ don’t prevent God from intervening if he chooses. When he does, we are able to identify the irregularity and speak of it as ‘a miracle’.
Luke’s record of Peter, James and John’s response to Jesus’ command and action that day (5:6-7), points to the One of whom it can be truly said: he is the man from heaven.
But the scene is not yet complete: Jesus says to Peter, “Don’t be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men and women” (5:10). The scene concludes with Luke’s comment: And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (5:11). The three men, recognising divinity in their midst, left their business and followed Jesus.
In Luke 5:1-11 we have significant clues to the answer of Joan Osborne’s question: What if God was one of us?
A prayer: Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your holy word. May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths, and strength to our lives. Take us and use us to love and serve all people in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason
You may like to listen to the song Across the Lands from Keith & Kristyn Getty.