The Best Fish Stories
I have a plague which reads, "Early to bed, early to rise, fish all day, make up lies." Anybody who's fished for any length at all has stories. You think the best stories are about fish: The one that got away. The one that broke your line. The one you fouled hook. Nope those are not the best fish stories, but I can tell you, you're about to hear the best one because the text begins with that solemn Hebrew expression in Greek: "And it came to pass." Only used by Dr. Luke, this introduces: the angel appearing to Zachariah; Elizabeth's pregnancy; the unborn John leaping for joy in his mother's womb; the naming of John; the Christmas Gospel; the shepherd's decision to find the newborn Savior; Mary and Joseph finding the boy Jesus in the temple; Jesus' Baptism, and the next "And it came to pass" is here. Get ready for the best fish story ever.
To tell a fish story you have to start with the setting. As I told my boys, the devil is in the details of a fish story, but that doesn't apply to the setting. Details are necessary to set the ambiance, to establish the mood of the moment. This fish story takes place in the 2nd year of Jesus' ministry. This is not the first time Jesus called Peter to be a fisher of men. That takes place in John. Jesus has already called Peter. Peter has seen demons cast out, his mother-in-law healed, and water turned into wine. Yet Peter has returned to his native work: commercial fishing.
But, as they say, it wasn't going good. They had fished all night and caught nothing. Now they're washing the nets to put them away, so they could go home, get something to eat, get some sleep, and forget this useless day. Remember this is not like when I go fishing. No fish doesn't mean no eating, no income. Sure, it cost money for me to go fishing, and any fish I do catch actually cost more than fish I could go buy. But Peter's in the business. He has to catch more than he spends. And to not was unusual for the Sea of Galilee. It was noted for it's abundance of fish. The towns on it's banks testify to the fishing industry. Bethsaida, where Peter was from, means "house of fishing". Magdala means "bulwark of the fishes" whose Greek name is Tarichaea means "salting installation for fish". Yet, they "worked hard all night and hadn't caught anything."
This is the setting Jesus picks to teach? The crowd is gathered about Jesus to hear the Word. They keep on coming and crowding so Jesus gets into a boat and starts teaching from there. And He picks Simon's boat. The dog-tired, dejected, worried Simon. There's other boats there, but Jesus picks Simon's. Note two things. Luke always calls him by Simon not Peter, the special name Jesus gave him which means rock, except for one time. Two, the text says Jesus sat down. In the Synagogue and Early Church too the hearers stood the teacher sat.
This is a lot of detail. Here comes the whoppers in this fish story. The devil is in these details if you give them. Someone asks, "How'd you do?" Say, "Alright" even if you caught two and brough home none. How many did you catch? Enough, How big was it? Hold up one hand saying, "About this big." First, whopper. Jesus steps without asking into the boat of a worn out commercial fisherman. Watch "Deadliest Catch" or "Wicked Tuna", I don't think Peter's disposition was different from theirs. Jesus does ask, and not as superior, not a rabbi to a disciple, but as an equal, for Simon to put out a little. And then Jesus sits down to teach: O boy, thinks Peter this isn't going to be quick. Then Jesus doesn't "finish speaking" as the insert translates. He leaves off; He pauses. And He now speaks directly to Simon. Now He's teaching just him and whoppers keep coming.
Jesus, a carpenter by trade, rabbi by calling, commands an experienced fisherman to put out into the deep and let down His nets into the deep. This is the wrong time of day to fish and the wrong depth to fish at. Everyone knows early morning, evening, or night is the time but not midday and in shallow or middle waters not deep. And Jesus doesn't just command where and when to put down the newly washed nets which will now have to be rewashed. He promises a catch. Simon is to put the nets down literally "into a catch." Watch the fish shows. They all have fish mapping, locating, marking, technology. These promise the fish are there. Not in Simon's day. They fished where they thought they were. Only God knew for sure.
Simon's answer is another sort of whopper. He answers, "Master" not Lord, not Rabbi, but Boss. Okay, that's a bit harsh; Simon seems to answer in faith. Though we've just got done fishing all night and we caught nothing: Nevertheless, on the basis of your Word "I will let down the nets." A couple things: Jesus commanded them plural to put out into the deep and let down the nets, but Simon replied: I will let down the nets. He's in charge. He's the captain. And only KJV concludes Simon's statement about all night work with no catch with "nevertheless". This is that little Greek word de I speak so much of in Bible class. I think KJV is right. Simon doesn't think he's going to catch a thing. He's doing it on a Master's Word of command, but Simon uses the Greek for an active Word spoken by God. Simon's where we're at so often: I believe but I don't. And can you believe the whopper Luke tells? Two boatloads of fish enough to tear nets and sink boats. But what's really emphasized is that they didn't do anything. It doesn't say they caught but "were enclosed a multitude of fish many."
Now comes the best part of this fish story. Peter had been called to preach by Jesus; had followed Him a year, saw miracles firsthand. Yet he returned to the sea. Now he falls at Jesus' knees. This means through all the melee, Jesus is still in the sitting position. He's still teaching and Simon now is called Simon Peter. The humbled, repented, broken Simon is once more the rock Jesus named him. Simon hadn't been listening when Jesus taught on the shore; he hadn't been listening when Jesus taught from his boat, but Peter hears Him now. He had given up on the original call to catch men because he experiences what we do: poor results. We fish with a crucified God. We troll for fish with a hook of the Law that accuses and with a Christ who kept that Law in our place but still is crucified because that's what we deserve. We chum the seas of our world with this, and this chum stinks. That's what Paul says: Christ is an odor of death to those who don't believe (2 Cor. 2:16).
The world's answer to stinking bait is to change bait or bait and switch. Fish with "good vibrations", bait with "you'll feel better serving others." Bait with childcare, youth groups, single's groups, or Bible studies that study everything but that. Or only bait with these and switch to Christ and Him Crucified. Get people in the door with the language, thinking, and ways of the world, and bam! Here is your God: crucified in your place. Beaten, tortured, damned, and dead to ransom you from Sin, Death, and the Devil. This is the truth, but when you don't lead with it but to switch to it, it's not what you or your church is really all about. And what you win people with, that's what you've really won them to.
It's a grave sin to conclude God's Word and Sacraments don't work. It's a grave sin to conclude God is weak because you think more should be happening. It's a grave sin to give up on your calling whether it be pastor, parent, husband, wife, child, or disciple because you're not getting the results you think you should. This teaching hits Peter between the eyes and he crumples at Jesus' feet saying, "You must go away from me, because a sinful man I am, not Master, but Lord". The only hope, help, health for sinners is the God-Man who saves sinners, but when we see our sins for all the ugliness they are, then guilt and shame make us unforgivable, unsaveable, irredeemable, and we sin against the only cure. This dreadful wakening happens to all either in life or at death. The rich man in hell isn't repentant, but he awakens to the fact of what got him there.
It was too late for him, but not for you, or Peter. Peter hears from Jesus what you do each Sunday you confess your sins: "You can stop being afraid." That's a Gospel command whatever sin has you fearing the Savior: you can stop it. Jesus already knows about it. Has suffered and died for it, and He can still use you. He doesn't command after this, "Now get out there and start fishing for men, like I called you to do over a year ago!" No, Jesus promises from now on you will catch men, and here the word is "catch alive". It's used in 2 Tim. 2:26 "to take alive" and the Greek translation of the OT uses this word for saving persons alive from danger (Marshall, 205). You've got to see this in your minds eye. Fish fill the hold of the boat, all but sinking it. They're flopping everywhere. Jesus is seated. Peter is kneeling before Him amidst stinking, dying fish, commanding the Lord to get away from him because he's a sinful man: I didn't believe You could do as promised. And Jesus commands his fears depart and promises Peter will give life to others.
The best fish stories are about fish and fisherman. The best one is about the Fisherman, Jesus. He does not let the Devil, the World, or our fallen Flesh deter Him from keeping on casting His forgiveness, life and salvation out into the world even when we're discouraged, disheartened, defeated. Again and again He casts in a hundred different ways, when suddenly we're caught. And when you're caught by this Fisherman, you're not reeled in fighting, you willingly follow. Imagine a fish swimming to you at the boat and jumping in.
We're in the season of Epiphany where the focus is God in Man made manifest. Since I've been a pastor, the church has made this about us fishing for men rather than about Jesus the Fisherman, the God who takes on flesh to catch men. True enough He fishes through others. But all the fish ever caught through Jesus' Means of Grace hang on His wall not ours, alive forever, not dead. Caught fish are never about the fish but the fisherman. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20220206); Luke 5:1-11