Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Fisher of People (Luke 5: 1-11)

Regardless of our profession or daily labor, there is, for Jesus' followers, only one true work.  For Simon Peter, like you and me, understanding what that true work is can take many small steps. Perhaps you can recognize yourself somewhere in the process through which Simon came to understand who Jesus is and the work he called him to do in Luke 5: 1-11.

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 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. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." 5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

When Jesus invited Simon (who will later be called Peter) to go out into the deep water he responded with polite skepticism. Simon had already met Jesus…in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  He heard him preach and pray…he also saw him touch his mother-in-law who was sick with a fever, after which she immediately improved and began serving them (see Luke 4: 31-44).  Now, once again, Jesus is teaching…but not in a synagogue; he’s beside the sea in an area known as Gennesaret which is an ancient district just south of Capernaum where the land slopes down to a beautiful bay. 

When the crowds begin to press in on him, Jesus spies two boats, one of them belonging to his new friend, Simon, and the other to his fishing partners, James and John.  Jesus gets into the boat belonging to Simon, and asks him to put out from the shore a little.  From there, he continues to teach the crowds as he sits in the boat. It was no accident that Jesus chose to teach here … Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.  Imagine the sea acting something like the Hollywood Bowl, reflecting the sound of Jesus’ voice upward to the crowds seated to hear him.

Now immediately after Jesus finishes teaching, and the crowds disperse, he turns to Simon and, to his surprise, asks him to go out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch of fish. "Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing.” Simon replies.  In other words, 

'Jesus, you know a lot about synagogues and teaching, you seem to know a lot about outdoor preaching, you even know something about treating a high fever…but you don’t know anything about fishing.  You are an expert in religious matters, but not in the daily grind of my own workaday life.  Fishing is my business. The wind and the sea are my companions… the 18 different kinds of fish that fill these waters and the nets I use to catch them with my fishing partners are my specialty. Let me try to explain it to a layman.  Last night we were in search of the tropical Musht fish which migrates to the north shore in winter.  They’re actually drawn  by a warm spring that flows into the lake here. Normally they come together in large shoals but after a long night, we were unsuccessful.  Jesus, if there were any fish out there, we would have spotted them, because that’s our job and we have years of experience. I'm really tired Jesus...and I'd like to go home and get some sleep, but if you say so I'll let down my nets one more time.'

I can relate to Simon’s skepticism, how about you?  A lot of us trust Jesus to advise us on spiritual matters like prayer, interpretation of scripture, and how to get to heaven; but when he starts talking to us about our daily work…whether it’s how to be a parent, or how to run a business, how to get through calculus, or how to finish a degree program…that’s another matter.  This is not Jesus’ expertise.  We’re not sure we can trust him with non-religious matters. What’s beautiful about Simon’s response is that he admits his doubt…and then decides to do what Jesus asks anyway: “I think it’s a waste of time, Jesus… but if you say so, I will let down the nets.’” He takes a blind leap…against his better judgment; opening a door through which Jesus may enter and begin to work.  Do you think you have to believe before you can obey?  Often, what Jesus is calling you to do is obey him so that you may eventually believe.  

As Simon and his partner (perhaps his brother Andrew) throw the net into the sea they immediately discover a huge catch of fish… a catch so large that they motion to their partners in the other boat to come help them, so large indeed that the weight of the fish begins to sink both of the boats. At this, Simon and his partners register another emotion, not skepticism or polite disregard but…amazement, for "all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken."

The text literally reads: “wonder (qamboV thambos) seized Simon and those with him because of the catch of fish that they took in.”  The root meaning of the word thambos  is “to make immovable.”  Today, we would say they were “stunned” or “stopped in their tracks” or made “speechless” by the event they just witnessed. At first this sense of stunned amazement was the realization that Jesus knew more about how to do their daily work well than they did.  It’s the wonder that comes from knowing there is no part of our lives where His presence, power, and perception would be irrelevant.  It was the realization that there was no area in which they had expertise that He was not already Master.   

But what really transformed Simon was not the really big catch of fish; or Jesus’ surprising expertise as a fisherman.  Certainly this was part of it…but beyond all this it was a new conviction: “The Lord of Heaven and Earth is in my boat!”  That in every life situation…Jesus, the incarnation of God, is on board! The implication is that if we ask the Master to show us how to engage in our studies, that if we ask him to give us wisdom as we go about our daily work, that He will amaze us as he enhances our human abilities with his own. He will amaze us as he teaches us how to do our work with excellence. He will amaze us as he challenges any habits that hinder our success. He will amaze us as he shows us not only how to be a success in his eyes, but how to encourage the success of others.

As another Oscar Night approaches, listen to what X-men and Star Trek producer Ralph Winter has to say about the convergence of his faith with filmaking in Hollywood. 
“It is about excellence. It’s also about how I do the job to get to the end result. How I treat people—how I fire them, hire them, deal with them—reflects on God in my life. Hollywood has so many flakes in it. A job done with excellence…makes you stand out. The employers, the executives, the studios, the distributors, the financiers, they know and can figure out pretty quickly who’s got the goods. Christians are held to a higher standard of excellent work, but we also have to work with integrity….I am out to make the best movies I can make, and hopefully some of those movies and stories will stimulate discussion and issues about what is important, what life is about.” [from Faith in Hollywood: An Interview (Part I) with Ralph Winter, producer, and Scott Derrickson, director and writer by Scott Young].  
Ralph works with a conscious awareness that Jesus is on board; that the way he works and serves his family are a reflection and a witness of that reality.  I went to visit an older woman in the hospital the other day, to pray with and encourage her; but as is so often the case it was she who encouaraged me with her faith, her experience of the nearness of Christ, and her conviction that His plans are best.  In essence she was telling me, “Steve, I know I'm in the hospital, but it's OK, because Jesus is on board!”  And whether it is a hospital bed, a lot of homework, or a hellish work week we’re facing, we need this conviction too.

For Simon, this conviction set off a chain reaction as he fell down on his knees and said, “Lord, go away from me for I am a sinful man.”  To be in the presence of the Holy One is to recognize first that he is Lord, then to see the parts of me that are not Lordly or Lord-like, pure or holy. Like Simon, to be in the presence of the Holy One is to repent and turn from the things that I know are wrong.  Then, to receive the promise of God’s forgiveness.  Jesus accepted Simon’s humble confession of sin…but he did not send him away.  The next thing he did was to show him how everything he had learned as a fisherman would now be used in service to Him. For Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people (alive). And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Friends, regardless of our profession or daily labor, there is, for us only one true work.  We’ve been invited to partner with Jesus in the business of catching people alive…to learn how to recognize them out there (even when it seems they are hiding), how to hold their hurts and concerns, how to serve them, how to welcome them in, love them, pray for them, teach and send them out in his name.  The text literally says, “from now on you will be catching men alive.” Simon, a hard working man of the sea, weathered by the sun and by life…knew men.  It was three women who are named as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, but it was three men who first dropped their nets and followed him…Simon Peter, James, and John.  There are churches which have neglected the leadership of women, and there are churches that have neglected the leadership of men.  Christ called both, and among his disciples he desired to have many men.  I have a growing conviction that the leadership of men is deeply need again in our local churches.  Women have showed tremendous leadership ability in my own congregation, and for that I am very grateful, but I am concerned that many men are unsure of their role as spiritual leaders in the home, in their workplace, and in the church.

I was reading about Navy Seals and the kind of man that makes it through such rigorous training and into this inner circle of elite soldiers.  Eric Greitens, a former Seal writes: 
What kind of man makes it? That's hard to say. But I do know—generally—who won't make it. There are a dozen types that fail: the weight-lifting meatheads who think that the size of their biceps is an indication of their strength … the preening leaders who don't want to get dirty, and the look-at-me former athletes who have always been told they are stars….In short, those who fail are the ones who focus on show. Some men who seemed impossibly weak at the beginning of SEAL training—men who puked on runs and had trouble with pull-ups—made it. Some men who were skinny and short and whose teeth chattered just looking at the ocean also made it. Some men who were visibly afraid, sometimes to the point of shaking, made it too. Almost all the men who survived possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the "fist" of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose [emphasis added]  Eric Greitens, "The SEAL Sensibility," The Wall Street Journal (5-7-11).
Lately the Lord has reminded me how much he desires to catch men alive because so many are feeling crushed under the weight of their jobs or their responsibilities at home.  Many men want to dedicate themselves to "a higher purpose," and to move, like those Seals, from being me centered to being others centered; to being godlly leaders at home, in their workplace, and in their church community but they need encouragement.  In my own congregation I’m looking for a few men who feel God moving them, like Simon, from skepticism, to amazement, to conviction of sin and our deep need of God; men who would like to train on a regular basis for their ongoing role as spiritual leaders, especially in their families and at work.  If that’s you, please contact me at

The other day, I was leaving my office to go pick up my daughter from her dance class.  A man who had come to our church campus to set up for a community homeowner's meeting approached me as I was about to leave.  He asked me about the sound system that was to be set up for the meeting in our event hall.…and he seemed frantic.  Apparently no one had asked for the sound system to be set up and he didn't know what to do.  As I began to help him, he smiled and said to me with some other guys, “You know, you’re making me think I should get religion.”  I smiled. It was the kind of good natured ribbing I’m used to as a pastor…and his way of thanking me. Inside, though, I thought about how many men in our community feel that Jesus is the one we go to when we we're ready to "get religion."  He has no real relevance to my everyday life of work and home and community involvement, but he may be a convenient "add on" when I'm ready to get spiritual. He can't set up sound systems...but he's probably good for something.  So many men don't know that at the depth of their souls what they really need is not religion but a relationship with God, and to know that their #1 job is to be spiritual leaders in their homes,workplace, and community.

Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid Simon, from now on you will be catching men…alive.”  From now on you will be bringing people to me: the lost and lonely, the sick and grieving, the harrassed and helpless, and those who are running from God.  But first you must come to understand that you are the lost who I have found, the lonely who I have loved, the rebels who I have called. “And so like them, let us leave it all behind, put him first in all things, and follow him.”  

Lord Jesus, I thank You for reminding me today that You are on board; that in the midst of the daily routines of life You are at work, and have called me to the great adventure of following You there, and everywhere that You lead. For trying to confine You to religious places and spaces, as if that were possible, for being skeptical of Your ability to help me with the practical concerns of my workaday world, and for all my sins, I ask Your forgiveness. Because You called me, I leave everything behind to follow You, asking that in all things You might have first place. Now make me a true fisher of people as I bear witness to the words You spoke beside the Sea, Your atoning work on the cross, Your victory on the third day, the Spirit that brings me power, and the grace that is greater than all my sin.  Amen.  

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