Psalm 104:1-9, 24-26
I grew up practically across the street from the ocean on the east coast of Florida. Most people who meet me later in life assume that means I was pretty much a beach girl when I was younger. It’s not true, though, not even close. While I actually love snorkeling and swimming in the water when I’m on vacations (and tracking sand into a RENTED car, dragging it into a hotel room, and leaving it behind on THAT shower floor) I wasn’t very into the beach when I lived there.
But when I do get to snorkel over some beautiful reefs it is not just the gorgeous display of color and rich diversity in the reef fish and the coral structures that I enjoy. I love going past the more shallow reefs to what they call “The Drop Off” in Disney’s animated movie Finding Nemo. The drop off is exactly what it sounds like, that place where the ocean floor seems to just drop out from under you. One minute you’re concentrating on following a particular fish and the next you realize the current has pulled you out where you’re floating over water that is much darker and MUCH deeper. If it’s a beautiful day and calm waters the sunlight makes some amazing patterns as it tries to reach down as far as it can in the water that just gets to be a deeper and deeper shade of blue as it sinks. It’s an amazing feeling to be floating there, so tiny in something so big, and for me, it’s one of those times when I finally start to really get the magnitude of our God, and how truly miniscule I am in the scope of all creation.
The Psalmist in today’s and other psalms tries to capture that same wonder and awe for the magnitude and power of God in descriptions of the deep ocean. The oceans, we heard, are a magnificent piece of God’s handiwork. Their size and power, their depth and strength mirror those of God. They are a place of mystery and majesty, holding up the beams of the chambers of God’s household in one line, and likened to a garment that adorns a ruler in another.
I remember learning even as a child that about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. A poster I saw at the Minnesota State Fair told me 97% of THAT is salt water in the earth’s oceans and seas. More than half of this oceanic area is 9,800 ft deep. If we think of the 5 oceans we know as one world ocean that continuously flows together we find that the total volume of this body of water is thought to be about 310 million cubic miles. In other words that amount of water could be contained by a cube with an edge length of 690 miles.
Get it? I don’t. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around numbers and distances and volumes of this magnitude, but the Psalmist says that these waters, the deep oceans of the world, they are just as a garment for God who created them. They are the playground of the Leviathan, a mythical sea monster that makes a few appearances in Old Testament poetry. In modern Hebrew the world leviathan simply means whale, but in ancient times it referred to an almost magical creature, a 7 headed serpent in some literature, a water dragon in others. Yet in Psalm 104, the leviathan doesn’t seem to be a creature to be feared. In fact, in this song praising God’s creation the leviathan is almost like a pet for God, another beloved creature God meets in the deep waters for sport, for play, for enjoyment. The ocean is the playground where God delights in the created order. In the sea, leviathan is like God’s beach ball, and God finds great joy in their time together!
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are precious few narratives set in or near the oceans, surprising for a collection of writings from a people whose entire western border is the Mediterranean Sea. However, if we look even briefly at just a couple of those stories that we do have, there is even more to find out about the deep water and especially God who creates it.
The hallmark story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt. This happens, of course, through the water by the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. Out of the depths of the sea God’s people are saved while the Egyptians are left floating behind. The sea is where the people are set free from slavery. It is the site and the method of their salvation.
The prophet Jonah, when he is called to the city Ninevah to preach a message of repentance, runs instead to the sea. He jumps aboard a boat to try to sail away from God’s call only to find out that God could find him better than a modern fish finder on a fishing boat can discover a school just waiting to be caught. Jonah is tossed into the rough sea and even swallowed by a creature within it until he at last decides to follow God’s call. In the sea Jonah is corrected, refined by God. He repents, literally, turns around from the direction he was running in order to go in the direction God is sending him. In the depths of the ocean, Jonah is given a second chance; he is shown God’s grace even in the belly of a whale.
These are all stories, traditions, and understandings of the deep that are ingrained in the minds Jesus and those to whom he speaks at the lake of Gennesaret, probably more commonly known as the Sea of Galilee. This is what they know and think of the water when Jesus asks them to go out further and put their nets out in the deep. Certainly, the depth of this inland sea, about 140 feet at the most, is hardly anything when compared with the depths of the world’s oceans, but for a people who rarely venture out of the shallows, any depth is deep!
But really the numbers don’t matter too much in the way we’re looking at the text today. What matters is what the depths stand for, what happens in the depths, both in the history of the Hebrew people and in what Jesus is asking of his disciples both then and now. Cast your nets into the deep water he challenges them. Throw them out into the unknown, the mysterious, the majestic place of God’s creation, and see what you find. He asks the disciples who are familiar with fishing in the shallow water to go deeper to find what they are looking for.
And he does the same with us. He invites us to cast our nets, our faith, our lives in deeper water. He invites us to go beyond the good feeling we get at the surface when we sing together in worship. He invites us to go beyond the casual friendships we make in this congregation. He invites us to go beyond a basic familiarity with the Scriptures from our Sunday School lessons. He invites us to go beyond a rote recitation of familiar prayers. Jesus invites us to go deep in our relationship with him. He invites us out into the deep water where we are challenged to repent of those things that keep us running from God, where we can be showered with grace and forgiveness in Christ. He calls us to deeper waters where we will know what it means to be freed from our slavery to sin. He beckons us to a relationship with the Triune God that is full of joy and delight, playful holiness in the presence of God.
Jesus invites us into the mysterious deep waters, and we follow him there when we give ourselves over to him. We go deeper with Christ when we gather for worship not out of a sense of duty or routine, but expecting to offer God our praise and attention. We go deeper when we care for one another in this community and beyond it with our prayers and with our actions. We go deeper when our prayers are offered from the depths of our hearts, praising God’s majesty, confessing our waywardness, giving thanks for new life in Christ, and seeking the will and guidance of the Spirit. We go deeper when we recognize and celebrate the presence of God in all things that bring us joy and delight.
Jesus guides his disciples out of the shallow water, close to the safe shore, into the risky and mysterious depths. This is how and where he calls each of us. Cast your nets into deep water, Jesus invites, and the blessings you will receive will overflow.