Open your bibles to Luke, chapter 5, verse 1 through 11. Listen as I read for what God is saying to you, to us.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.For seven months my wife Cindy and I lived in Skopje, Macedonia, a small country in Eastern Europe. We crossed the ocean full of love for Jesus, young and wanting nothing more than to spend our energy to love as he loves.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Lk 5.1-11) Amen.
When I started the application process with the mission board, I imagined I would split my time in Europe between bringing comfort to orphans and refugees and sharing the gospel over cappuccinos with young people. But, instead, what met me once the plane touched down was confusion and loneliness. I asked what I could do in a city I did not know that spoke a language I did not understand. Instead of cafe conversations and building orphanages, I taught American missionary kids arithmetic, history, and grammar.
But wise friends and co-workers told me to persevere, that they could see that God had brought me there even if I was a bit foggy on God’s reason for doing so. They also encouraged me to learn to language. I would be a lot happier they said, once I could zboruvat Makedonski.
So every Tuesday and Thursday night Cindy and I would ride the bus toward the center of the city, to a neighborhood called Novo Lisiche, and sit for an hour or two with our language teacher Richard learning vocabulary and grammar, how to ask for directions, how to buy a kilo of potatoes or oranges at the market.
One Thursday night, a few months into our time in Macedonia--probably in February--I was riding the bus back to our apartment.
It is not warm in Macedonia in the winter. This night there was snow on the ground. I was sitting in the back of the bus. The bus was pretty empty, just me, a few men riding home from a day at cafes watching soccer, and a Roma family riding up front, a father and mother, one son who looked about ten years old and a younger son who was probably four or five. The mother and especially the father looked too old to have such young children, but by this point in my time in Macedonia, I’d learned that in Roma families people often look much older than they are. The Roma are gypsies, the trash-pickers, the scrap-metal collectors, the people who build their homes in the city dump. They live hard lives, so a man who looks sixty may only be thirty and a woman who looks fifty-five may only be twenty-eight.
I looked up again at the family at the front of the bus as we bounced through another intersection. The father’s toes and heels were sticking out of his shoes. There was snow outside, cold air blowing in around the doors to the bus, and this man’s bare toes and exposed heels had nothing between them and elements.
I sat there, disturbed, unsure what to do. I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I knew that I had come to the country with two pairs of shoes and a pair of sandals besides and this man had nothing that passed for decent shoes on a cold February night. And I felt afraid. How would I speak to him? I could barely express myself in my broken Macedonian, and odds were that his own Macedonian was not that great; he would speak some Roma dialect. Would I offend him? Is it an insult to his character if I offer him a gift in front of his children?
I sat there feeling guilty and afraid until he and his family stepped out into the cold a few stops later. When the bus finally reached the end of the line, my stop, I thanked the driver, pulled my coat collar up, and walked to my apartment, feeling disappointed at my lack of response.
I had an opportunity to love the way Jesus loves--to bring warmth to a poor man’s feet, to offer him some small measure of protection and stability. This action, this gift was what I wanted--the hope that brought me to Macedonia. But instead of untying my shoes and misspeaking and gesturing my way through an awkward interaction, I sat securely in my seat in the back of the bus. I failed to respond.
Luke’s story about Jesus asks us to make a decision. When Jesus brings us good news, he brings us a demand, a demand that we choose whether to follow him and join with him or to ignore him, to pretend nothing has really happened, to go back to life as normal. We must choose.
Luke begins this story this way: “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.” The scene opens on the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret--a body of water we might know better as the Sea of Galilee. There is Jesus, and the crowds are mobbing him, trying to hear him, trying to see him. And what does this multitude want? They want to hear the word of God.
What is the “word of God”? I’m often quick to supply my own meanings for these words. I hear them and I think “the bible,” or “good news about sin, heaven, and hell,” or, even, “a prophetic message to the powers.” But how does Luke want us to hear these words when we’re listening to his story?
Luke takes care and takes time to make sure we know what “the word of God” means in his story. He begins before Jesus is born, even before he is conceived. Zechariah hears the word of God when an angel tells this old man that he and his elderly wife will have a son. And when the child is born, he praises Yahweh: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us . . . to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant . . . to rescue us from the hands of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (1.68-75).
Then God’s word--Yahweh’s message--comes to Mary, Miriam, a young woman yet to be married. An angelic messenger tells her that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and “give birth to a son. . . . He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (1.31-33). And how does Mary respond? She praises Yahweh: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. . . . He has performed mighty deeds with his arm. . . He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful” (1.46-54).
The word of God--the word the crowds press in to hear Jesus speak--is the good news that God has remembered God’s people. After lifetimes spent exiled from the kind of good, sweet, restful, purposeful life God desires, God has come to rescue us from the powers that rule us. We see this in the story of the Israelites--the hope of return from Babylon for the daughters and sons scattered to the ends of the earth. But the prophets promise us that God’s desires are for more that just Abraham’s family. Even though our sins have shattered the good world God created, God has not forgotten us or written us off. No, now God, in Jesus, returns to set things right. Life, now and forever, the world and all of creation, are being made new, being reconciled to God.
Jesus summarizes this message at the beginning of his ministry in ch 4. This is a story I know and love dearly. Jesus comes home to Nazareth, after being baptized and tested by the devil, and taking the Isaiah scroll, he proclaims, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4.18-21). This is the word of God, this is the good news Jesus proclaims.
So the crowd gather to listen. But not only to listen but also to experience and to see. They have heard the stories from Capernaum and from Nazareth. How Jesus casts out demons and heals every disease. The people gather not simply for the encouragement of a good word. No, they come because they want to see hope happening in their lives--they want their sicknesses healed, their lonely hearts befriended, their debts forgiven. This, I hope, is also what we want: Not merely to know the good news but for our lives to be changed by it.
But not everybody is enraptured by Jesus’ teaching. No, we read in v 2 that “Jesus saw at the water’s edge two boats, and their fishermen had gotten out to clean their nets.” The last words surprise me. When I heart it, I expect it to end, “but the fishermen had gotten out of their boats and were listening to Jesus teach.” Instead we hear about a group of men largely ignoring what’s going on down shore--ignoring the God’s word of life who has come to visit them. No, these fishermen are too preoccupied picking algae and kelp from their nets.
Why? Why would anyone choose to ignore this Savior, this messenger of hope and renewal? What could be more important than hearing, tasting and seeing, that, yes, Yahweh is good and his mercies do endure forever?
I grew up in Bozeman, Montana, near the headwaters of the Missouri River and some of the greatest trout streams in the world. Flyfishing was like religion for many of us. Tourists would fly in from around the world for the annual Mother’s Day caddis fly hatch on the Yellowstone. While I don’t remember ever skipping out on church to fish, I do remember skipping school to fish the Upper Missouri with my dad. Maybe these men were the same. Maybe fishing was what they loved most.
It’s more likely, however, that their interest were far more commercial. Net fishing in the Sea of Galilee is not a contemplative pastime like flyfishing. Rowing out to deep water, casting out the nets, then diving in to the water to close them and haul them back aboard the boat sounds more like hard work than a hobby. Cleaning the nets afterward insured that fish would not escape and the nets would not weaken and break. These men probably needed to be attending to their business if they hoped to land enough fish to make a living and feed their families. Maybe they thought their livelihoods (and their lives) depended on picking seaweed instead of listening to Jesus.
Or maybe they wanted to get ahead in the Galilean fishing industry. We find out later that these men manage a sizable business--two boats and some hired hands. They knew, however, that if they ever wanted to be more than a two-bit operation, they had to put in the hours and the hard work. They couldn’t let themselves get distracted by the promises of some charismatic idealist down the beach, who taught that God especially “helps those who cannot look out for themselves.” Maybe they were sensible, practical.
If I’m honest, I can at times see myself in this group of men. I’m distracted by the needs and even the opportunities of day-to-day life. Instead of pressing in to get at the life Jesus brings, I get pressed into the deadlines and concerns and aspirations of a world still broken by sin. Some days I’m more worried about my paycheck than God healing the nations. I’m caught on how my co-workers think of me rather than how they think of Jesus. I’m excited about catching my television show instead of watching how God births a new creation here and now. I’m preoccupied with cleaning my nets while I turn my back to life himself walking down the shoreline.
In v 3 Jesus steps into the boat, asking its owner to take a break from mending nets to push out into the shallows. Before the days of microphones or PA systems, a boat off shore made a great on-the-spot amphitheater. But when Jesus taps the fisherman on the shoulder to ask him to row out a few yards, who is the owner? It’s Simon. Simon who Jesus will later re-name Peter. Simon Peter is the one too busy to pay attention to Jesus.
Now if this were Jesus and Simon Peter’s first meeting we could understand. Everyone meets Jesus somewhere, and God rejoices in bringing us back from exile to Godself. But this is not Jesus and Simon Peter’s first encounter. If we look back at chapter 4, verse 38, we hear that Simon not only knows Jesus, but Jesus has healed someone in his family.
Today we pay doctors in dollars, but in the first century people understood relationships differently. A person like Simon, for instance, shouldn’t be so consumed with his pocketbook but with the interests and goals and responsibilities of his extended family. When Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, Simon’s whole family went into Jesus’ debt--a debt of gratitude, loyalty, allegiance. Simon should have been one of Jesus most devoted followers. But, quite unexpectedly for us, he’s busy picking seaweed while Jesus teaches a few yards down the shore!
So no wonder Simon lets Jesus use his boat. Maybe he’s hoping he can pay off his social debt by being Jesus’ driver for the day. But Jesus will show him and us that this grudging act is not a sufficient response to who Jesus is and the message he brings.
There are times when God surprises us, when God steps in unexpectedly, dramatically to rescue us from our sin-shaped misconceptions of who God is and what God desires for us and the for the world.
This happened to me once--at least once. I was a happy nine year-old. I grew up in a family who loved hiking, hunting, fishing, and Christian AM radio. Some of my earliest memories are of kids Bible memorization programs in churches. I learned my Bible and tried everso hard to live a good, moral life.
But, in a prepubescent nine-year-old way, I was headed on a trajectory of trying to pay God off, to live a lukewarm, self-satisfied “Christian” life in response to a God who crossed heaven and earth to bring me back into God’s family.
God interrupted me. On the way home from Sunday worship with our rural Bible church, a friend, his mom, and I were in a head-on collision with another pick-up truck at 90 kilometers per hour. We all lived, but my life took a turn for a very different course. I remember my dad telling me, “Josh, everyone says you should have died in that accident. God saved you. And if he saved you, he saved you for a purpose. That’s something to think about.” And, while I’m still looking to Jesus to show me where this purpose leads, my life has never been the same. I’ve never prayed to our God in the same way. Now I always ask, “Father God, what have you saved me for?” The question is never just what we are saved from but also what we are saved to do.
Jesus finishes his sermon to the crowd in v 4. And while the people disperse, Jesus asks Simon to row out into the deeper waters and to cast out the nets for a catch of fish. Peter points out that he--not this carpenter from Nazareth--is the fisherman. He and his crew have already put in a hard days’ night and caught nothing. But, he replies in v 5, “Master . . . because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon’s first word alerts us to how he thinks of Jesus. “Master,” he says. The Greek word in Luke’s Gospel is ejpistavthV. This is a respectful title, a title that shows Jesus authority--perhaps as one who can exorcise demons or heal a sick mother-in-law. But in Luke’s story, the disciples only address Jesus this way when they have seriously underestimated who Jesus is or what he’s doing. It’s a title that misses the point.
The rest of Simon’s reply tells us just as much as his earlier net-washing that he doesn’t understand who Jesus is or what his message is about. He objects that he’s worked all night, that they caught nothing. Jesus wasn’t telling him to do anything new. There was nothing special about this part of the lake; Simon and his crew had probably fished here a hundred times.
Friends, I think we’ve often responded to Jesus in the same way. We object that we’ve prayed for justice a hundred times already. We’ve called the friend or relative we need to make peace with ten times only to have them hang up on us. We’ve invited neighbors or co-workers to share dinner a few times, but they always make excuses about why they can’t. So when the Spirit urges us to pray again, to call again, to give another invite, we complain that we’ve already tried this, that we’re tired.
Verses 6 and 7 are perhaps the part of the story I like best. It makes me laugh. It’s like a holy joke, a prank. We’ve heard already that God’s message in Luke is good news. Very good news. It involves blessing, the vindication of the oppressed. Jesus pictures it with abundant meals shared with his followers and the multitudes. It’s a message that the time of the overflow of God’s blessing has finally come.
So when Simon dips his nets in the water, he experiences this overflowing blessing. In v 6 we hear, When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. We read on in v 7: they came and filled both boat so full they began to sink. Jesus blesses Simon until his nets tear and his boats sink.
This is the punchline. God’s blessing--the good news Jesus announces--demands that our lives take on a completely new direction. Jesus isn’t a divine venture capitalist backing Simon’s fishing enterprise. No, Jesus is claiming Simon’s life--all of it--by tearing apart and sinking the idols that distracted him from God’s good word. Through a grudging act of obedience, Jesus’ good news entered Simon’s life. Now it’s erupting everywhere--not only at synagogue or on the Sabbath, but in his family, in his home, even in his work.
When I first trusted Jesus and committed myself to following him, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought I was getting a ticket out of hell and into heaven. I was young and more scared of being separated from my parents eternally than wanting to be part of God’s new creation world. But a prayer muttered on a cold November car ride when I was four years old was the place where God first began to work the gospel into my life. Since then its taken over every part of my life, from my friendships to my job to my hobbies to my marriage. This is Simon’s story.
Beginning in verse 8, we hear how Simon responds to Jesus--how we should respond to Jesus. We hear, When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken.
Something about what Simon sees knock him flat. Jesus is obviously more than what Simon had thought he was, and now Simon knows that so far he’s responded to him all wrong. Then maybe grudging, maybe respectful “Master” of v 5 becomes the pleading “Lord” of v 8. “Lord,” kyrie, adonai, the same word Galilean Jews used in their prayers to Yahweh.
It’s at this moment, just as Simon names Jesus as Lord that we hear for the first time in Luke’s Gospel Simon’s more familiar name, the name Jesus will later give. Luke tells us this is Simon Peter: Simon Peter who falls at Jesus’ feet, Simon Peter who sees God in Jesus.
All this because of a big catch of fish. I’ve caught a few big fish, and, sure, it’s exciting. I might excitedly tell and retell the stories to friends and coworkers. But for Simon Peter, this catch isn’t just a thrill or a rush. This is not simply a windfall for his fishing business. No, Simon Peter meets God here. He’s falling on his face, he’s confessing his sin, he’s calling on the name of the Lord. Why? Why does Simon Peter feel exposed rather than exuberant?
Simon Peter’s bible--our Old Testament--has few stories that suggest that God is likely to show up on a fishing trip. But in one or two places, God and fishing do show up together. In Numbers 11, we hear the Israelites again grumbling and complaining that they are tired of eating only manna. So God promises to send them what they’re asking for: God will give them meat for a month. In v 22, Moses scoffs at Yahweh’s promise. He says, “Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” (Num 11.22). Yahweh responds, “Is Yahweh’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I will say come true for you” (11.23). And God does provide. God gives meat and more meat to the camp in the wilderness, meat until they are sick of it. And with the meat comes judgment, a plague which kills many because they wouldn’t trust God.
Just like with Moses and the Israelites in the desert, God calls Simon Peter’s bluff. Simon thought he could dabble in Jesus’ good news. He could reap the benefits--a healing for his mother-in-law--without getting too caught up in what Jesus was doing. He thought he could simply go back to life as is. The Israelites thought that Yahweh would free them from servitude to the Pharaoh, but then they wanted to go back to Egypt for the double-edged fringe benefits of slavery--the easy access to a market, their two-bit vegetable gardens. But both times God refuses. God confronts our presumption; God blocks our attempts to use him and then lose him.
Again, I can see myself in Simon’s shoes. Maybe you can see yourself there too. Jesus shakes us out of our easy assumptions about religion, about morality, and we have nowhere to go but to our knees. We cry out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am sinful!” We discover that our spirituality is mostly show, something we save up for Sunday mornings or prayers before mealtimes. And even though we’ve got most people fooled--even though we’ve often fooled ourselves--we haven’t fooled God. We realize that we’ve been trying to buy God off. We want a blessing in this or that part of our lives. But Jesus shows up overflowing God’s new creation blessing into all of our lives, even those parts we’d rather have God leave well enough alone.
Listen to Jesus’ response. In the end of v 10, Jesus’ first words after Simon Peter’s confession are “Do not be afraid.” Stop there. We might expect Jesus to respond in judgment, like Yahweh did to the grumbling Israelites. But instead we hear the same words God spoke to Zechariah and Mary in ch 1 and the shepherds in ch 2. These are the words that introduce the good news that God has remembered us and has come to rescue us. When we turn to Jesus, finally full of trust rather than self-interest, we hear words of blessing.
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “from now on you will fish for people.” When Jesus’ good news comes into our lives, we are faced with a decision. We must choose whether to pretend that nothing has happened and carry on with our lives thus far or to join in with Jesus in announcing God’s blessing. We can go back to our nets or we can begin to fish for people.
So far, Simon has looked to his nets for his livelihood. His family lived day to day on what he and his partners could catch; his daily bread depended on casting out and hauling the nets. But now Jesus tells Simon Peter that those nets are no longer his primary concern. Instead he will be “fishing for people”--in the Greek, literally, “capturing people alive.”
So in v 11 we hear how Simon and his co-workers respond: So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him. They leave everything--nets, boats, family, employment, security, identity. Everything they built their lives upon, Simon and his friends surrender in a moment to follow the one who brings God’s good news. This is the decision Jesus confronts us with. Will we follow or ignore?
Jesus does not hate boats. God is not opposed to our occupations. The apostle Paul sewed tents for a living. Paul told the Thessalonian believers to “work with you hands” (1 Th 4.11).
But God is opposed to our preoccupations. Our preoccupations are our idols--the nets we so busily clean, all the while ignoring the kingdom Jesus brings with him. Some of us may be preoccupied with our jobs or the bills that are coming due. Some of us may spend all our time worrying about the way others think of us. We fixate on our reputations. We may be caught in concerns for our families, our children, our brothers and sisters. Or maybe we’re tangled up in religion itself--the shoulds and should-nots, the to-do lists of spirituality.
We live our lives through our concerns. Our souls are shaped moment by moment by our worries and fears and hopes and daydreams. Jesus’ good news demands that our preoccupation become watching for the ways God is reconciling the world to Godself. So, whatever we are doing--whether it be balancing the checkbook, washing dishes, commuting to and from work, eating dinner, changing diapers, praying quietly--we do it to the glory of God. We do it to demonstrate the life God has brought us in Jesus. Then, and only then, will we capture people alive for God’s kingdom.
Cindy and I had a friend in Macedonia. His name was Aleksandar. He was a university student studying business. We met to talk about scripture and faith once or twice, but he was less interested in Christianity than he was in meeting new people.
It wasn’t until he met other young Macedonian believers, university students and musicians and coffeeshop bartenders, that he began to be interested in Jesus. These young people lived their lives as missionaries in their hometowns, praying that their lives would demonstrate Jesus’ good news, even as they studied and worked and played. Some had been rejected by their families for choosing to follow Jesus. Some chose to return to their backwater hometowns instead of pursuing career possibilities in Western Europe or North America.
Aleksandar began spend time with them, meeting them for pick-up volleyball games in a local park. Cindy and I didn’t see him for a few months. Then, at a baptism for some new believers from our house church, he showed up. One of his new friends--these witnesses--was among those getting baptized. He came as support. But as he watched the people wading out into the river, he told Cindy that he wished he could join them. Only months later, Aleksandar emailed us to say he was working with a short-term missions team “worshiping God and sharing the Gospel.”
Jesus brings us good news. We must choose whether to join him in announcing it or to ignore him and go back to our nets.