An Encouraging Fish Story


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It was March 1975. I was sitting in my friend's car on the banks of a river in Michigan. We were trying to keep warm as we watched our fishing poles. Suddenly my pole flies into the air. Helplessly I watch as it lands in the water and heads downstream. Soon it submerges never to surface again. Such are most of my fish stories. Sad tales; not encouraging. Our text is different; it's an encouraging fish story.

Simon is a discouraged man. He has worked hard the entire night before but caught no fish. And he's not fishing for fun. He's fishing for a living. He's a commercial fisherman. He fails to catch fish and not only doesn't his family eat fish, they might not eat at all. Now it's morning and the nets have to be washed, dried, put away for that night's work. If everything went just right he could get home in time to catch a little sleep.

O yeah, I forget to mention. This is the Simon whom the Lord Jesus had called a year earlier. You remember that, don't you? Jesus told him, "I will make you a fisher of men." Well that year hadn't went so well. Read John's Gospel. You'll see Simon and the other apostles doing a whole lot of misunderstanding, little fishing for men, and no catching to speak of. So, Simon is back doing what he grew up doing, what he knew how to do. He came home discouraged at not being much of a fisher of men, and now look, he isn't much of a fisher of fish either. How discouraged he is!

And so it is with us. Life doesn't go right; church doesn't go right; the world doesn't go right, and we aren't right, are we? We try to be good Christians, but we're not. Didn't the Collect get to you where we prayed that we may love God with our whole strength and heart and do those things pleasing in His sight? But what do we find? Failure, failure, failure. And not only doesn't our Christian life go right, neither does our life. It amazes me how discouraging ordinary, everyday things going wrong can be when the weight of your sins is on you. Cracks in my walls, a problem with my car, a hassle with a store can discourage me to the bone when I feel like a spiritual failure the way Simon does here.

At such times, the Master's Word doesn't cut it. Look at the text. The crowd is pressed in so anxious they are to hear Jesus' words. Simon's not one of them; Simon's washing his nets. He's heard it all before. Jesus drones on; Simon washes on till suddenly without asking, Jesus gets into Simon's boat. Then Jesus does ask Simon to put out a little from shore. You can't go on washing nets while you're putting out from shore. How discouraging this is. Now Simon who really needs to catch fish later that night, can't get ready. Jesus has him tied up helping Him. You've felt this way, haven't you? Burdened by your spiritual failures, burdened by the daily difficulties of life, and the pastor wants you to do something for the church. Come on! Look at all you've got to do!

Here's the picture. Jesus sits crossed-leg in the teaching position of the rabbis. He's teaching from the boat, but Simon isn't listening. When you consider yourself a spiritual flop, when life slams you with one discouraging thing after another, you don't care for the Words of your Master. You can only hear them as pointing out yet more areas in which you fail. Simon isn't listening, but Jesus doesn't stop teaching. Jesus doesn't "finish speaking" no, He, as the KJV translates, "leaves off" talking to the people and speaks directly to Simon. He is going to teach Simon personally now.

The Master orders, not asks, Simon to put out into the deep and He orders, not asks, Simon to let down into the water those freshly washed nets which were all ready for that night of fishing. There's two things "wrong" here. Two things to make a discouraged man like Simon even more so. First, you got a rabbi trained as a carpenter ordering a commercial fisherman in front of other commercial fishermen when and where to fish. Second, the Carpenter orders the fisherman to fish at the wrong time, day not night, in the wrong place, the deep not the shallows.

However, the orders are Gospel not Law because Jesus promises Simon, who is discouraged because he can't provide for his family like he used to, that He will give him a catch. Yet, Simon hears these words, as Law, as commands from a Master. He doesn't agree with them, but like the slave he feels he is, Simon does them anyway. And so do we. We go through the motions. We come to Church not to be served by God but because He commands us to. We give money that we need because we're suppose to not to confess that Jesus not money gives us all we need. We go to Communion not because here is forgiveness, life and salvation but because He commands us, "Do this often." Discouraged people expect no gospel, feel no gospel, hear and see no gospel because all they can see, hear, or feel are their sins.

Simon is so discouraged that the Words of his Master can't cut through it. "Yeah, yeah," Simon's heart goes to Jesus' words. The Words of his Master don't do it, but the actions of his Lord does. In response to the Law, Simon does what his Master commands. Simon doesn't believe he will catch a thing. But what happens? Literally it says "they enclosed a multitude of fish many." The picture is them dropping their nets right on a huge school of fish. Now Jesus is speaking to Simon in a language he knows. Peter had seen Jesus heal dozens of people including his mother-in-law. He had seen Jesus drive out demons. But none of those miracles spoke to Simon as loud as this one did.

Simon sees that the unbelief and despair in his heart weren't able to stop Jesus from giving him these fish. He sees that what he couldn't do in an entire night, probably nights, of fishing, Jesus easily did by just a Word. And now Peter sees his sins. He sees how wretched his discouragement is. It is nothing but unbelief. All the while he felt so pious, so humble for being discouraged at his spiritual and material failures, he was nothing but an unbeliever. All the while he had been feeling in some twisted way that it was right for someone as sinful as himself not to listen or take to heart the Words of Jesus, in reality, he was sinning all the more against his Lord.

Now Simon becomes the rock that Jesus said he was. For the first time Luke calls Simon, Peter. When Simon sees his sins and his Lord, like a rock he falls at the knees of the still seated Jesus. It's quite a confession to fall at the knees of someone in a sinking boat. Peter thinks not about the fish, not about drowning, but about his disgusting sins and the holy Lord. And Peter's confession is simple, "Go away from Me, Me, Me, Lord because a sinful man I am, I am, I am." O how wrong, sinful and childish he had been, thinking he had reason to be discouraged, thinking the Lord couldn't deal with his problems, thinking he was right for giving up on Jesus!

But what does the Lord do? Respond in power, in might, in just judgment? No, Jesus forgives. He tells Simon, "You don't need to continue to be afraid." And then Jesus promises even more than He did last time He had called Peter. He doesn't promise, "I'll make you a fisher of men," but, "You will catch men." Jesus pulls Simon's eyes off himself, (It's always discouraging to look there.) and Jesus puts the results not in Simon's hands but in His own. (If it's not up to us to say whether we're winning or losing, why should we be discouraged?)

And so it is with us. You get discouraged by your sinfulness as if Jesus is discouraged by it too. You mope around sure Jesus is through with you because you're such a worthless sinner, not realizing that moping is sinful in itself. But what does Jesus do? Jesus keeps breaking into your life the same way He did into Simon's. You think it burdensome, you think it bothersome that Jesus won't let you go, but Jesus doesn't come to you to get something from you, but to give. And He gives and gives and gives to you despite your sinfulness, despite your moping, despite your profound discouragement.

Eventually, Jesus will break through that cloud of discouragement hanging over your head. Ultimately, you'll see that though you've been despairing of Him, He hasn't despaired of you. Jesus really did go to hell and back for you. All He had to do is let your sins go, let you drop into the flames of hell, and instantly the cup of God's wrath would've been knocked over; instantly He would've popped off the cross; instantly His suffering, bleeding and dying would've stopped. Though Jesus was abandoned by God's grace, He didn't abandon saving you but fulfilled every jot and tittle of God's Law and Prophesy to save you. So, don't think your deep discouragement at God being able to love a sinner like you will discourage Jesus.

It hasn't; it won't; it can't. Jesus isn't going to depart from you though your sins say He should, though other say He has, though your own conscience says He certainly will. Jesus will do for us what He did for Isaiah and Peter when they at last saw just how sinful they really were. He will forgive our sins. Rather than depart from us, He will call us to Himself saying, "Come back to your Baptism where I put to death your sinful nature and bring to life your holy one." "Come to Absolution where I forgive your sins as surely as I forgave Isaiah's and Peter's." "Come to Communion where My Body and Blood is present on earth to forgive sinners, to feed sinners, to encourage sinners."

You know why this is an encouraging fish story? Not because Simon caught boatloads of fish, but because Jesus caught Simon while he was in a free fall of discouragement. He's here to catch you too. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Epiphany V (2-8-04); Luke 5:1-11