The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I don’t know about you, but I hear how St. Peter and the boys immediately leave everything behind to follow Jesus, and I shake my head in jealous disbelief. Of course they leave everything and follow! Just look at the HUGE miracle they just experienced! Peter obviously understood the full import of what was going on here. We’re told that he immediately fell on his face in that nasty boat and begged Jesus to leave him. Peter knew that his sinfulness deserved present and eternal punishment. He knew the wage of his own sin. He also knew, thanks to a HUGE display of divine power and might, that he was in the very presence of almighty God Himself. It’s pretty hard to miss such a miraculous display, right? I mean…your boat is sinking beneath your very feet because of such a miraculous display. Peter understood what was going on. He understood who he was sharing space with him. Peter also wasn’t ready to pay up on his sinful debt, which is why he begged Jesus to leave him. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” This is when Jesus tells him to relax and not worry. “I’m not here to destroy you. I’m here to put you to work. From now on you’re going to be fishers of men.”
This is why I shake my head in jealous disbelief. Peter gets a HUGE sign; a HUGE proof that God is at work in his midst, and then God asks him to do something. What…are you going to say “no”?! Of course he followed Jesus! Who wouldn’t?! My only real jealous/covetous complaint is the fact that Jesus doesn’t do the same thing with me or any of you who’ve been entrusted to my pastoral care. Do you know much easier life would be if Jesus worked some of these miraculous big scores in our lives? How many people would clamor for the opportunity to serve in any way, shape, or form if such a request was preceded by some heaven-rending, jaw-dropping sign?
But…maybe we’re missing something here. Remember: Faith comes through hearing; not by getting your mind blown by some grand display of proof. In order to help us better understand, let us first consider how this same almighty God and Lord dealt with His servant Elijah when he was feeling sorry for himself. If you recall, Elijah had just finished triumphing over 450 prophets of Baal in a God vs. Baal showdown; a huge all-consuming, fire-from-heaven display that made abundantly clear that God was completely in charge and Lord of all. The problem, though, was that even after such a HUGE display of power and might, some people still refused to believe. In fact, wicked queen Jezebel sent word to Elijah, letting him know that by this time tomorrow he would suffer the same deadly fate as that of those 450 Baal prophets he had just slaughtered.
This is just too much for Elijah to bear! If fire from heaven and the slaughter of 450 false prophets won’t convince, then what hope does he have for any kind of evangelistic success in this foul and wicked place? So Elijah tucks tail and heads for the hills, eventually hiding in a cave and feeling sorry for himself. In his depression and sorrow he cries out to God and asks that God just end it now and take him home to heaven. “I quit. I can’t win. Just take me home to heaven.” But Elijah’s plans were not God’s plans.
It’s when Elijah finally settles down in his little cave hiding spot that the very Word of God Himself comes to Elijah and asks him, “Elijah, what are you doing here? Why are you here?” Basically, “why are you not where I’ve called you to be, doing what I’ve called you to do?” God framed this question in such a way so that Elijah might repent. But Elijah didn’t repent. He wasn’t sorry for running away. Elijah was bent on being in control and having his way, and when he didn’t get his way and things didn’t go the way he had planned or thought they should, he lost it. “God, I’ve been very jealous for You. I’ve been an outstanding and faithful Christian, and yet it’s been to no avail. Israel has rejected me and rejected You. They’ve torn down the altars and killed all your faithful prophets and are now worshipping false gods. There’s no hope! There’s no point!”
This is when God tells Elijah to go stand outside on top of the mountain so that God can show him something. God then proceeds to bring forth a boulder-crushing wind, wildfire from heaven, and a mighty earthquake. And yet…God wasn’t in any of those HUGE and awe-inspiring, terrifying things. Instead, God whispers to Elijah in the faintest, lowest little whisper. And where does this whisper come from? If you read the text carefully, you find that the whisper is actually coming from inside the very cave that Elijah had just left! Elijah has to move back to the entrance of the cave to hear. How’s that for “I am with you always”? “I’ve been here all along. You’re the one who has left!”
In this little whisper God tells Elijah to go back and do his job and don’t be afraid. God tells Elijah that He will handle the problems; He will put to death all those who oppose Him, and not only that, but there will be 7,000 people—a remnant of people—who have not and will not bend the knee to Baal. Basically, God was telling Elijah that the Word he had been proclaiming did work! In fact, it was working all along, accomplishing exactly what God needed to accomplish, in His own way and according to His good timeline. Upon hearing this Word, Elijah faithfully humbled himself and returned to his God-given duties with a renewed sense of vigor and joy and faithfulness.
Now, fast-forward about 800 years, and we find ourselves back in Peter’s boat with that miraculous catch of fish threatening to sink the whole affair, and Peter on his face begging Jesus to leave him. And here’s where I want to point you to the greater miracle; greater than the miraculous catch of fish. Peter and the boys were professional fishermen. They knew how to do they’re job. Guys like me don’t tell guys like that how to do their job, unless guys like me are looking for a fight. Yet, Jesus has the nerve to tell a boatload of fishermen—tired fishermen who had already fished all night long and didn’t catch a thing—how to do their job. “Put out to deep waters and let down your nets for a catch.” Put out into deep water and let down your nets? That’s not how you do it! The type of fishing these guys engaged in with the nets was performed in relatively shallow water. This wasn’t a deep-sea sort of venture. This wasn’t like the commercial fishing we see nowadays, where crews put out and recover miles of deep-sea nets with heavy machinery. Their tackle and their equipment was made for close-to-shore fishing. If you wanted to catch fish as a first-century fisherman, you tried to cast your nets where the most fish would be, which is typically in shallower, warmer water at night, when the fish are most active.
Think about that for a moment! Jesus was telling these professionals to do something completely outside the norm! “Put out into the deep water in the middle of the day and cast your shallow-fishing nets out for a catch.” Yet, here’s the thing: They did it. You don’t hear Simon Peter say, “No offense, Jesus, but I’m the captain of this ship. I know fishing, and I don’t think this is a good idea. We’ve always done it this way. So has everyone else. Besides, we don’t have the right equipment. We’re not in the best spot. We’re not out at the right time of the day. I know this lake better than you do.” You don’t hear any of that, do you? Instead, we simply hear, “Master, we’ve toiled all night and didn’t catch a thing! But because You say so, I will let down the nets.” I think we often miss just how profound this statement of faith really is, so profound, in fact, that Martin Luther called this a greater miracle than the miraculous catch of fish itself. The Word worked. The little whisper of God worked. “Because you say so, Lord….” Peter was already obeying and following Jesus before the nets were even cast or the fish were caught and hauled in.
Now, there’s no denying that we have a distinct advantage that Simon Peter and the rest of the disciples didn’t have. We have the gift of hindsight. We know how the story ends. The story, however, was still being written with these guys. They didn’t know or understand that Jesus was preparing them to do the work of evangelism and outreach and grow His Church by teaching them a very important lesson through something as simple as fishing. How could they know? They weren’t even officially called yet to be His apostles. They were just ordinary, everyday fishermen who had just heard Jesus preach a sermon from their boat. They couldn’t see the future. They couldn’t know that Christ’s fishing lesson would have great meaning and profound symbolism until well after all this had transpired and they could look back and say, “Oh…it all makes so much sense now!”
And what kind of meaning and symbolism are we talking about here? Well…it should come as no surprise that the image of the church—the image of God’s people—has always been that of a boat or a ship, going all the way back to Noah, but especially made clear in this particular Gospel lesson. What about the nets? I know it is very popular nowadays to hear congregations putting on “net-fishing events” in their communities. They boast of casting their nets out into the community by having concerts and auctions and car shows and providing a great coffee bar and movie nights and every fun thing under the sun, all in an attempt to get people in the doors and add more names to the membership. And people do come out for the free stuff. They get caught up in those nets. However, those are man’s nets that are being cast. That’s how man says you need to be a successful fisherman of men. But…those aren’t the nets that Jesus was teaching about. That’s not the catch Christ is looking for.
The nets in this lesson have always been understood to symbolize God’s means of grace—His Word and His Sacraments. That’s what Christ was teaching His future apostles. That’s what Christ still teaches us today. Guys: Look around you! By many standards, doing what we do here (and also don’t do here) seems as foolish as casting out shallow fishing nets in the middle of the day in the deepest, coldest water. Bible study and worship? That’s it?! Yet, we do it. Why? “Because You say so, Lord. Because of Your Word and command, we fish Your way.” This has been our modus operandi, and our Lord has richly provided!
I readily admit that I don’t have much to give you here. We don’t have what everyone else has or offers. However, I freely give you all that Christ gives me. I give you Christ. I give you His full counsel—His Law, which says that each and every one of us are sinful and deserve nothing but death and damnation. I give you His life-giving Gospel, which says that each and every one of us are completely redeemed and forgiven because of His all-atoning death and resurrection. I give you today His very body and blood. How’s this for a tiny, unassuming, yet powerful whisper? “This is My body. This is My blood. Given and shed for you your for your forgiveness. Now take and eat.” Because you say so, Lord!
It is because of these humble, yet powerful, life-giving gifts of Christ that I end today’s message with the simple whisper of Gospel proclamation that you are God’s greatest catch. He loved you so much that He willingly ransomed His own Son’s life for yours. Folks: It is this Gospel net which He used, through the working of His Holy Spirit, to catch Elijah and Simon Peter, enabling them both to respond to His outlandish and seemingly unsuccessful commands in humble, joyous, obedient faith. It is the same Gospel net that He used to bring you into the life and salvation of His ark—the Church, and the same Gospel net He continues to use to strengthen you and keep you in the ark of all believers. And it is this same simple holy net of Gospel that He arms and equips you with in your daily vocations as baptized children of God and faithful fishers of men.
May God grant you the humble, peaceful obedience of simple saving faith so that you, too, can confidently cast out His simple, yet powerful Gospel net, when and where He calls you to do so in your daily lives. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men. Do not be afraid, for I am with you always, even to the very end of the age. Let go, let down My nets, and let Me work.”
Because You say so, Lord. AMEN
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