Filling the empty nets (Luke 5.1-11) [sermon 01-22-2017]


January 18, 2017 by jmar198013

Sermon manuscript for Sunday, January 22, 2017. From our ongoing series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Scripture readings for Sunday: Psalm 90.14-17 and Luke 5.1-11.

A rough audio is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

Chased out of his hometown, but others begged him to stay

When we last left off, Jesus’ neighbors had run him out of Nazareth. They even tried to hurl him off a cliff, but he gave them the slip and was on his way (Luke 4.30).

At first, they’d loved Jesus’ preaching. He told them everything they wanted to hear. God had sent him to proclaim good news to the downtrodden, release from oppression, the return of the Jubilee year. How God was acting to save the people. Fulfilling the vision of the prophet Isaiah. They ate that up. What enraged them enough to kill Jesus was when he told them he wasn’t planning on staying there and only offering God’s salvation to his own people. God’s mission was to extend salvation to those outside the house of Israel. Just like God had sent Elijah to feed the Canaanite widow. Or sent the Syrian leper Naaman to Elisha to be cleansed.

And his neighbors—the people he’d known his whole life—really hated that. So they chased him out of town.

After being rejected in his hometown, Jesus went out into other areas of Galilee—preaching, healing, casting out demons. A man showed up in the synagogue oppressed by an unclean spirit. Jesus freed the man from the demon, just by ordering it to leave him alone. Then his friend Simon’s mother-in-law was afflicted by a dangerous fever. Jesus rebuked the fever, just as he had the demon. And the result was the same: she was released from the grip of the illness. Everything he did and said showed that he really was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me (Isa. 61.1). Everywhere Jesus went, Jubilee was in bloom. The people heard good news. They were set free. They were healed. They found rest.

Back home, his neighbors had chased him out of town. By contrast, throughout the rest of Galilee, people were chasing after him, begging him to stay. Grabbing at his ankles like children who can’t bear to be left behind. But he said to them, “I must preach the good news of God’s kingdom in other cities too, for this is why I was sent” (Luke 4.43). Notice here that the good news that Jesus has been sent by God to preach to the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the oppressed; is about kingdom of God. That’s important, because it gives us solid clues to what Jesus’ sermons might have sounded like. He would have been telling the people on the margins—the poor, the sick, those with mental and emotional disturbances, women—that they were welcome in God’s kingdom. Jesus would have been extending God’s hospitality to people who had been made to feel unwelcome. He would have been telling them they would be right at home with Father God. And the healings and exorcisms proclaimed the good news just as loudly as his preaching did. Probably even louder.

A fishing tip from a carpenter

So our lesson today picks up one morning on the Galilee coast. Jesus preaching to yet another standing-room-only audience. The crowd is packed all the way to the shoreline. Jesus looks around, sees some fishermen washing up their nets after a hard night’s work. He knows these fishermen. One of the boats belongs to his friend Simon. The one whose mother-in-law he healed. He climbed into the boat that was Simon’s and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Sitting there, using the boat for a pulpit, he taught the crowd.

Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught the crowds, but it’s probably safe to assume it’s what we’ve overheard so far: God is acting to save the people. God has declared a Jubilee. The kingdom of God welcomes you.

But right now, Luke is more interested in what happened after Jesus finished preaching from his friend Simon’s boat.

When he finished teaching, Luke tells us, he said to Simon, “Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch.”

Imagine this. Simon and his business partners—James and John, sons of Zebedee—are professional fishermen. Fishing is their trade, their family business, their life’s work. They’ve been trained to fish by their fathers, just like Jesus was trained as a carpenter by Joseph. So here’s a carpenter telling a fisherman how to do his job.

Put yourself in Simon’s place for a minute. Would you maybe be tempted to tell Jesus, Look, I don’t tell you how to build a roof truss! Anyway, nets are for night fishing!

Simon protests a little. Mostly from frustration, I suspect. Last night’s shift was a total bust. Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow, he tells Jesus. I bet having to confess to Jesus that they hadn’t caught any fish was downright humiliating. They’re professionals, after all! Probably all they really wanted to do was go home and sleep off the burden of their failure until the next evening.

But it’s Jesus. The one who tells demons to scram, and they do. The one who told his mother-in-law’s deadly fever to cool it, and it did. Simon has to give him that much. So, reluctantly, he decides to shove off when Jesus tells him to shove off. But if you say so, Simon sighs, I’ll let out the nets.

If you say so. Spoken like someone with nothing left to lose.

“If you say so”

If you say so is not exactly a bold affirmation of faith, is it?

Imagine if someone came forward this morning to be baptized. What if I asked them where you all could hear it: Do you confess that Jesus is the Son of God who saves us from our sin?

And what if they replied, Well, if you say so … ?

What if it was a wedding? What if, instead of a confident “I do”; the bride or groom took their vows by saying, If you say so … ?

If you say so … It’s sort of … noncommittal … isn’t it?

It’s the kind of thing you say when you’ve run out options. Or when you don’t really believe the other person knows what they’re talking about, but you’re too spent to argue with them about it.

You know what, though? Simon was worn out. He’d been working hard all night, and sat through a sermon. Simon was discouraged. They’d worked all night for nothing. But if you say so is all Simon had in him.

And it was good enough. Because there was enough … if not faith, exactly, at least a willingness to try something new … There was enough whatever it was behind Simon’s if you say so to lead him to let out the nets.

And no sooner than the nets were let out, Luke says they caught a huge haul of fish, straining the nets past capacity. They waved to their partners in the other boat to come help them. They filled both boats, nearly swamping them with the catch.

It wasn’t because Simon and his partners were such excellent fishermen. They may very well have been. Although you wouldn’t have known it from their empty nets that morning! Still, I suppose they were good enough to keep the business afloat.

But this catch—which threatened to shred their nets and sink their boats—had nothing to do with their skill as fishermen. It was because Simon was with Jesus. Simon learned that the One who could could chase away demons and fevers could also chase boatloads—literal boatloads!—of fish right into your nets.

And all it took from Simon was a half-hearted, If you say so—because half a heart was all he had to give. All it took from Simon was the willingness to push out into deep water and let out the nets. Even if the whole time he was telling himself, This is crazy! It will never work! Whoever heard of fishing in the daytime?

And Simon was right. Of course it was crazy. It shouldn’t have worked. The point of the story isn’t that Jesus was a better fisherman than Simon. The point is that Jesus did something absolutely unexpected and wonderful with Simon. Even though all Simon had to offer at the moment was an empty net, and just a shred of … faith? Hope? Desperation?

Whatever it was that that made Simon say: If you say so, and let out the nets.

And it’s at this precise moment that Luke reveals that Simon is the one we’ll come to know better as the apostle Peter. Oh so subtly, Luke slides in the new name. He’s now Simon Peter.

“From now on, you’ll be fishing for men and women”

Simon Peter surveys this ridiculous catch of fish—tearing at the nets, threatening to topple the boats.

Anyone with any manners would have said, Thank you! to Jesus. But no—Peter told Jesus to go away. Master, leave. I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness.

Never mind the fact that they’re on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, and he hadn’t seen Jesus walking on water yet. What exactly did he expect Jesus to do? Dive out of the boat and swim back to shore?

Why did Peter call himself a sinner? Why did he think he couldn’t handle Jesus’ holiness? I think a lot of it was, he’d probably been told he was a sinner his whole life. Back then, the Jewish elite in Jerusalem tended to view all Galileans as tainted. Galilee was overrun with Gentiles, and half-pagan. Galileans often couldn’t—or at least didn’t—come to the temple in Jerusalem for worship and festivals. They didn’t always have the means to make the sacrifices so they could be ritually clean. So they were just written off as sinners. I wonder how much Peter calling himself a sinner was because he’d internalized the religious establishment’s low opinion of Galileans?

I think that’s why Jesus reassured him: There is nothing to fear. “Sinners” shouldn’t fear Jesus. And they shouldn’t fear his followers, either.

Jesus had come, not to overwhelm Peter; but to overwhelm the emptiness, the frustration, the feelings of failure in him. Just like he overwhelmed his nets and the boats with fish. Jesus had plans for Peter: From now on you’ll be fishing for men and women.

Peter had always caught fish to be fish sold, cooked, and eaten. That meant the fish he caught had to die. But the word Jesus used here actually means, to catch alive. In other words, Jesus is calling Peter to join him as he snags people from sin and shame and fear and despair and disease and death, and draws them into abundant life. That’s what Jesus was already doing all around Galilee. And he’s inviting Simon Peter to help him cast out the net and save more people.

Luke tells us that Peter’s business partners, James and John, also decide to come along and fish for people. They pulled their boats up on the beach, left them, nets and all, and followed him. And just like that, Jesus got his first three disciples.

Right after they netted their best catch ever, Peter, James, and John left their fishing careers behind. Boats and nets and all. I like to think they also left the fish behind, and their neighbors all got free lunch for a week.

Luke ends the story with Peter, James, and John leaving behind their business on the day of their greatest success. Docking their boats and hanging up their nets, to embark on a new adventure with Jesus.

Push out into deep water

In the weeks ahead, we’ll see where this new adventure led Jesus and his disciples. But today, church, we need to pause and ask ourselves: Where’s this story leading us?

I think Luke wanted people who heard this story to identify with Peter. Peter was empty that morning when Jesus saw him. His boat was empty. His nets were empty. But most of all, I think he—Simon Peter—was empty. And Jesus spoke to his emptiness when he told him: Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch.

I think a lot of us have an emptiness in us. Some frustration. A longing unfulfilled. A dream deferred. A sense of our failure or inadequacy. I even suspect that the church itself can become full of emptiness. And I think this story leads us to acknowledge that feeling of emptiness. So we can hear Jesus’ invitation to us. Personally, as disciples. And collectively, as a church. Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said:

Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes … The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets … Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible. [1]

I don’t know if we can quite call it faith, whatever it was that drove Peter to obey Jesus that morning. But here’s what we do know. When Peter obeyed Jesus, Jesus began to fill his emptiness. After all, it was the nets bursting with fish that began to create faith in Peter. Because he knew that this catch wasn’t because he was such a great fisherman. It’s because he obeyed Jesus.

You know, even with the fullness Jesus had given him—the net bursting with fish, Peter could still only see his own emptiness at first. I’m a sinner and I can’t handle this holiness!, he said. But Jesus told him: There is nothing to fear. From now on you’ll be fishing for men and women. He refocused Peter’s vision on the nets full of fish. Bursting at the seams. Rocking the boat. It’s like he was telling Peter: See how I filled your emptiness? There are so many empty people out there, feeling like you. Come with me, and help me fill them with grace and hope and life. Just like I filled your net.

In the same way, this story turns our eyes from our own emptiness—our sense of failure or frustration or inadequacy—to Jesus’ fullness. Like Simon Peter, Jesus calls to us. As his disciples. As his church. Jesus calls us to push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch. That means following Jesus obediently into the depths of discipleship. It means turning the other cheek, giving the extra garment, going the extra mile. Loving our enemies. Welcoming people who aren’t like us. Forgiving seventy-seven times. Loving each other like Jesus loves us.

Jesus calls us to follow him into the deep emptiness of our world and our neighbors. Stretching out the net of his saving love. And even though we must acknowledge—like Simon Peter—that we are often imperfect fisherfolk, we trust when we push into the deep, it is Jesus who will fill the nets. Just as he did for Peter that morning.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: MacMillan, 1955), 56.


One thought on “Filling the empty nets (Luke 5.1-11) [sermon 01-22-2017]

  1. […] we left off last week, Jesus had just got his first three disciples. The fishermen: Simon Peter, James, and John. After a […]

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