A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent, February 10, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
Without Jesus, we can do nothing. With Jesus, we can do more than we ever dreamed. If I was to summarize this morning’s Gospel reading into two sentences, that would be it: Without Jesus, we can do nothing. With Jesus, we can do more than we ever dreamed. Whether we apply this truth to the church or to ourselves or our family, the truth is the same.
Imagine the scene. You’re a professional fisherman. You’ve done everything right, especially finishing at night. In the Lake of Gennesaret even to this day the fish mainly come up at night, and for most of the day they stay far below the surface of the water. You come in from a long night of fishing and there’s Jesus on the shore, talking to the people, and he’s being crowded and almost pushed back into he water. Interestingly, it doesn’t say Jesus asked if he could get into the boat. The text simply says that he got into the boat.
So, you get into the boat with Jesus and you push out into the water so he can talk to the people without being crowded. This might seem a little strange to us, but the geography of the place forms a small amphitheater, and some scholars say it’s easier even to this day to talk to a large crowd from the water than it would be from the edge of the lake. When Jesus finishes speaking, and remember that you’ve worked all through the night, he says the strangest thing to you: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
You’re a professional fisherman. You know what you’re doing. You don’t fish during the day, you fish at night when you have the best chance of catching fish, and you fished all night and caught nothing. You just want to go home. You’re done. You’re tired. And here’s Jesus telling you to go fishing again. Perhaps even stranger than Jesus’ suggestion, or perhaps it’s a command, is that Simon Peter says yes. This is a situation that isn’t foreign to any of us. We know the thing Jesus says to do, but we also know, or we think we know, what’s the most practical way to accomplish what it is we want to accomplish, maybe even in his name. Or perhaps we’re just tired, and we know the thing we should do, and the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. It’s been a long day, Jesus. I don’t want to lower the nets again. I’ve been fishing all night, Jesus, and we didn’t catch anything. Let’s come back and try again tomorrow.
But Peter says yes, and of course, we know what happened. Peter and the other fisherman caught so many fish that the nets starts breaking, and Peter had to call to the other boat for help. Peter seems to suddenly stop being involved with bringing in the fish, and instead he turns to Jesus, falls at his knees, and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Peter recognizes that there is more to Jesus than meets the eye. Peter recognizes that there is holiness to Jesus, and power, and that Jesus was more than just a wise teacher. Peter seems to learn the lesson quick. Without Jesus, he could do nothing. With Jesus, he could do more than he ever dreamed. And in the light of this, he doesn’t celebrate as if he had just a genie in a bottle buried in the sand around the lake. He doesn’t shout about how he’s going to be the world’s most successful fisherman now that he has Jesus. No, in light of this incredible success he experiences by listening to Jesus, instead of celebrating, he recognizes his own sinfulness.
The allusion to Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne room is obvious, and Luke wants his readers to thing through these two texts together. In one Isaiah sees the Lord of Hosts upon his throne, and 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!” (Isa 6:5). Likewise, Peter sees Jesus’ glory, not the radiating glory he will see one day during the transfiguration, and not the hidden glory of the cross, but the glory of the God who controls the wind and the waves and even the fish, and he, like Isaiah, sees his own sinfulness in the light of that glory.
So, what are we to make of what Jesus says at the every end of this story? The point is made. Jesus reveals his glory as he reveals to Peter what his life will be like with him and without him. Everyone is astonished at the number of fish that were caught that day, and then Jesus says to Simon Peter, seemingly avoiding the punchline of the story, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” This is often thought to be a clever turn of phrase: you were catching fish, and now you’re going to be catching people. Except, that’s not typically how Jesus speaks. Most of what Jesus says isn’t an expression of his rhetorical cleverness, bur rather, speech that is deeply rooted in the Old Testament.
You’ll remember from last week that we talked about the opening verses of Isaiah 40. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sin.” These verses are about the end of the exile, and I’ve said before that this is the dominant lens through which we need to read the story of Jesus and attempt to understand who he was and what he did. Keep this in mind as I read to you these verse from Jeremiah 16. The beginning of the chapter is the announcement of God’s judgment on the city and exile to come, but then the prophet says, “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them” (Jer 16:14–16).
Once again, Jesus draws from the deep story of God’s coming redemption to explain to Peter was has just happened. The time for fishing has come. Not the fishing you do off boats but the fishing of God that will bring back the people to the land and bring about the long awaited renewal and restoration of the people. And this new vocation isn’t just for Peter. “They,” Peter, James, and John are mentioned by name, they left everything, and followed him. God’s great plan for the renewal and restoration of this world is what we call the coming of the kingdom of God, and that plan is still unfolding before us today. We all have a part to play. I’m not a fisherman. Some of you are. But we are all called to be fishers of people, to leave behind all that we have and all that we’ve known and go out to the places where God’s fish are, where those created in his image are, where those in need of restoration and renewal are, and bring them back to the Lord. This is our task as a church. To be fishers of people in the communities around our church. And we can do this, and we should do this, with the best strategies and resources and wisdom that we have. But ultimately, if we try to do this without Jesus, without seeking him in word and prayer, we can do nothing. But if we will listen to him, with him we will be able to do more for this community than we ever dreamed.