Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing-- Joh_21:3
In the Absence of the Master
When the feast of Passover was ended, the disciples left Jerusalem for Galilee. It was there, amid the scenes of tender memory, that Christ had promised to meet with them again. One would have thought that having such a promise they would have hurried north without delay. We should not have expected them to linger in Jerusalem when it was in the highlands they were to see their Lord. But we must bear in mind that it was Passover and that the disciples were believing Jews to whom it would have seemed impiety to quit the city before the feast was ended. That was why they waited for ten days and only then set out for Galilee. And when they reached it and its familiar scenes, everything was as it had been in the past. Unruffled by the tempest in the south, unshadowed by the darkness of the cross, the simple life was flowing on as usual, and the meadows were beautiful with lilies. After the strain and agony of Calvary, that rural quietude would be like heaven. There would be no thought of instant labor, for any moment Jesus might appear. But the days went on and the Master did not come, and every evening the fishing boats put out until at last it was too much for Peter, and he cried impulsively, "I go a fishing." John would never have suggested that. Like Mary, he had the gift of sitting still. But he saw the wisdom of it when it was suggested as did the others of that little company, and it is on that resolve I want to meditate. Will you follow me then while I handle it in this way: first, there are seasons when Christ seems to be lost; second, in such seasons duty still remains; third, through duty lies the road to restored fellowship.
There Are Seasons When Christ Seems to Be Lost to Us
When the disciples went northward into Galilee they traveled in the radiant hope of meeting Christ. It was not in their thoughts that they would have to wait; they were expectant of seeing Him at once. Before He was crucified Christ had told them that it was in Galilee that He would meet them. Then, lest perchance they had forgotten it, the angel in the grave repeated it. And as if to make assurance doubly sure, Christ Himself, on resurrection morning, charged the women to go and tell the brethren to go to Galilee, and they would see Him there. Three times over the promise had been given, and they did not doubt it for a single instant. And they went northward eager with expectancy, saying, Tomorrow we shall see the Lord. And tomorrow came, and the sunshine lit the waters, and the smoke rose heavenward from cottage fires, yet no one moved into the village street having the marks of the nails upon His hands. Their thoughts were full of Him--that made it all the harder. Everything that they saw suggested Christ. There was the very boat upon the beach in which He had preached one memorable day. And so they woke and wandered by the shore and spoke of the dear, past days beyond recall; and the sun set, and the glittering stars came out, and nowhere did they have a glimpse of Jesus. They needed Him, and yet they could not find Him. They watched and waited, and He did not come. And their hearts sank within them and were heavy, and they looked at each other with despairing eyes. And the sky was as blue as it had ever been, and the peace of God was sleeping on the lake; but for them there was no peace, no rest, no beauty, because the Lord they loved seemed to be lost.
When His Presence Seems to Be Withdrawn
Now no one here has seen Christ in the flesh, nor shall we look on Him with our eyes on this side of the grave; yet in spiritual senses is it not still the fact that there are seasons when He withdraws Himself? There are times when Christ seems absent from the world, and evil triumphs without hindrance. There are times when Christ seems absent from the church, and its worship is only fashion or routine. And there are times when Christ seems absent from the soul, and faith is dead, and comforts are departed, and one is ready to cry again with Mary, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him." It is then that one prays, and prayer seems a mockery. It is then that the Bible loses all its dew. It is then that one comes to church and bows the head with a heart that is a thousand miles away. And one is never glad in such a season; one is fretful, irritable, weak, and every day is but a makeshift, and the grasshopper becomes a burden. Such seasons are always hard to bear. They cast a shadow on the leafiest June. When we have known Christ and when we seem to have lost Him, it takes the sunshine and the joy from everything. It is in such hours a man is prone to fall and to clutch again at what he had forsworn. It is in such hours that, for a word of sympathy, a woman will bow down her head and weep.
Yet He Is Near
May I say in passing to any in that state that there is a word of comfort for them here? Christ had withdrawn--He was not to be seen--yet was He watching the seven all the time. They looked for Him and He never came. They had His promise and He disappointed them. And they went out to fish and it was night, and they were unsuccessful and alone. And all the time, not very far away, standing upon the beach and watching them, was the Master whom they thought that they had lost. They were never more precious to Him than they were that night. They were never dearer to His heart. The future of the world was in that boat, and Christ in an agony of love was watching it. And yet they thought He had forgotten them, and they were dejected because they could not see Him, and perhaps they fancied that in the company of angels He was too mighty now for humble fishermen. I beg of you, then, not to misjudge Christ. When He seems lost, He is not far away. He is standing on the beach, within call, when the net is empty and the heart is sick. Only it takes a little love to see Him and to cry in the grey dawn, "It is the Lord"; and it takes a little courage to leap out and make for His pierced feet upon the shore.
In Seasons When Christ Seems to Be Lost, Duty Still Remains
So far, then, upon our first thought--there are seasons when Christ seems to be lost. Now a word or two upon the second--in such seasons duty still remains.
When Simon Peter said, "I go a fishing," you are not to regard it as a sinful impulse. It has been taken so, and by some eminent scholars, but I am quite convinced that they are wrong. It was not a counsel of despair. It did not mean that Peter was now hopeless. It was not a return to the old life in Galilee as if the discipleship had been a dream. It was the action of a man of energy to whom it was torture to be sitting idle, and who would fill in the hours till his Lord appeared by doing the plain duty at his hand. There were many things that Peter could not do. He was not a scholar; he was not a farmer. But there was one thing he could do, and do well--and it was not a great thing--it was fishing. And I say that that is Peter at his best, the man who was waiting to see his L
ord again, and who in the meantime, when it was dark as night, went doggedly and quietly to duty. No one could have blamed these seven disciples had they wandered listlessly along the shore. They were unsettled; they were tossed and torn; they had a score of excuses for not working. But Simon Peter said, "I go a fishing"--there is work to do and I am going to do it. There was no joy for him--his Lord was absent--but the doing of his duty still remained.
Our Duty in Times of Sorrow
Now that is a lesson we all need to learn, and it is not always an easy one to learn. Think, for example, of the time of sorrow. There are sorrows in human life so overwhelming that they seem to blot out the love of God. It is so hard to see the meaning in them--so difficult to discern the hand of pity. And life seems shattered into a thousand fragments, and summer shall never be so sweet again, and how shall one pray when prayer has been mocked, and the heart is empty and the coffin full? It may be idle to talk of trust in God. That is the very thing that has been crushed. But at least you can rise out of an idle grief and say with this gallant heart, "I go a fishing." For there is still some duty you are called to; there is still someone who is in need of you; there is still some service in your power to render lying by your hand this very day. It is hard to take the cross up in the sunshine. It may be harder to take it in the night. But hard or not, that is what Peter did, and that is what you must do if you would triumph. For always that is the pathway to the music and to a peace more exquisite than music and to a trust in God that blossoms red, although its roots are in the silent grave.
Or think again of a young man who has won his liberty and lost his faith. He was nurtured in a Christian home, and he believed implicitly the Christian doctrine. He believed in it because he loved his mother. He came to church because his father did. And every night he knelt and said his prayers as he had been taught as a little child to pray. But now it is different--now he is a man--now he has begun to read and think; and for a little Christ has disappeared, and God is but the shadow of a shade. There is nothing to be proud of in that state. There is nothing to despair of in that state. Christ understands it--He has seen it often--He is not far away though He be hidden. But now, if ever, a man must rouse himself and cling to duty and cleave to what is good. Now, if ever, like Simon Peter, he must cry to his comrades, "I go a fishing." He must be good however hard it be. He must be pure however keen the battle. He must believe, although the heavens are silent, that it is better to play the man than play the beast. He must struggle up the mountain in the night, and then, when the day dawns and it is sunrise, he will have such a prospect at his feet as will tell him that the climbing was worthwhile.
Through Duty Lies the Road to Restored Fellowship
And so I reach the last truth I want to give you--through duty lies the road to restored fellowship. It was when they had toiled, and toiled heroically, that they discovered Jesus on the shore. There is something magnificent in their persistence all through the weary hours of that night. Time after time their nets were shot, and time after time their nets were empty. And yet they held to it till every light was quenched that had been twinkling seaward from the village, and the only sound that broke upon the silence was the calling of the night-bird on the lake. The wonder is they did not give it up. They must have been intensely disappointed. The fish were there, for other boats were taking them, and they were quite as skilful as the best. And yet they held to it all through the night and till the dawn was crimsoning the east, and it was then that Jesus Christ came back. They did not find Him because of their success. They found Him because of their fidelity. He did not come after a day of triumph. He came after a night of toil. Not in despair, but from a sense of duty had Simon Peter cried, "I go a fishing"; and he discovered when the morning broke that duty was the road to restored fellowship.
My brother and my sister, may I impress on you that it is always so? When the gladness and the glory are departed, that is the way to come at them again. You cannot always walk upon the mountains. You cannot feel like singing all the time. We are so strangely wrought of soul and body that such exultancies are sure to pass. But at least you can say when darkness is around you, "Please God, I am going to be faithful"; and to you, as to Simon Peter on the lake, that will restore the vision by and by. It is sweet to pray when the gates of heaven are open. It is sweet to serve when everyone is grateful. But I will tell you something that is not so sweet, and yet may be worthier in the sight of God. It is to pray when the heavens are as brass. It is to serve when nobody is grateful. It is to do one's work, and do it well, though there is not a star in all the sky. That is the way into strength of character. That is the avenue of inward peace. That is how men, victorious over moods, come to discover Christ upon the shore. Any baby can say, "I go a fretting"; but Simon Peter said, "I go a fishing," and he went fishing, and he toiled all night, and then there came the morning and the Master.