So, How's The Fishing?
You're all familiar with this text. The "fishers of men text." You all know how this text is preached. Jesus wants you to be fishers of men. In Louisiana, we even had a banner showing a fishing net and poles with actual floats attached to them. "You shall be fishers of men," the banner proclaimed. So, let me ask you; how's the fishing? I hate that question. If the fishing is good, I don't want to tell the person, and if the fishing is bad, as it is often with me, I don't want to rehearse that fact.
So, how's the fishing? Does that question make your heart sink? It should if the command, "Come follow Me," and the promise, "I will make you fishers of men" applies to you individually today. Who among you has left all to follow Jesus? Raise your hand if you have moved away from your family, the place you were raised, where your roots are to follow where Jesus called you? Hmm, not many hands raised. But isn't that exactly what the text specifically shows James and John doing? They left their father and followed Jesus. They didn't just give up some family time to serve on an evangelism committee at church. They left their family and went elsewhere. Don't tell me you've ever done what Jesus commands here unless you've left family in order to follow Jesus.
And don't tell me you've followed His command here unless you've given up your occupation to do it. The texts takes pains to show you that's what the disciples did. The Spirit doesn't need to tell you they left their nets and boats, yet He does because that's how absolute the call in this text is. So this is not a call to spend some time making evangelism visits rather than work. This isn't a call to work part time evangelizing; this is a call to give up your work so you can do evangelism all the time. Raise your hand if you've ever done this?
If you think this text, as it’s usually preached, applies to you in the pew, let me ask, "How's the fishing for men been?" Has Jesus done for you what He promised? Has He made you a fisher of men? Yup, you're out there left and right telling people about Jesus. All your neighbors have been invited to church; your co-workers know they have a standing invitation; everyone on your kid's team knows that if they talk to you, they'11 hear about Jesus. You, my friend, are a master angler; you're a theological Bassmaster, so much has Jesus made you a fisher of men.
Why so glum? You look as sad as I do when somebody asks me, "How's the fishing?" Unrelieved guilt, failure, and shame are the results of applying this text to individuals in the pew today because who among you has left your family to follow Christ, who among you has given up your occupation to fish for men? The only way you can live with this text is if you lower the standards; change what Jesus says here. Jesus doesn't mean come follow Me away from family; just come follow Me to evangelism committee meetings. He doesn't mean leave your occupation just give of your time. He doesn't promise to make you a fisher of men just someone willing to be trained to make a few calls every now and then. Applying the command and promise given to Peter, Andrew, James and John to people in the pew today leaves them mired in guilt or pride. Guilt because they haven't done what Christ commanded or believed what He promised. Pride because they think they have done what Christ commanded by serving on an evangelism committee and acted on what He promised by being willing to be trained to do evangelism.
How in the world did I ever come to preach this text as a command and promise made to individuals in the pew today when the text is manifestly about what Jesus did in the 2nd year of His earthly ministry? The text isn't even about what Peter, Andrew, James and John did; it's about what Jesus did. Jesus goes from Nazareth to Galilee; Jesus began to preach the kingdom is near; Jesus sees the brothers; they don't see Him. Jesus chooses them, they don't choose Him. Once the brothers follow, we read nothing more about their fishing for men. We read only how Jesus went through Galilee teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news, and healing every disease. The brothers aren't even mentioned.
How did I ever make this about the disciples when it's all about Jesus? How did I ever make this about fishers of men when it was about the Savior of men? How different this text looks when you look at it from the point of view of Jesus. First, Jesus comes to the most disgusting part of the Holy Land, Galilee. During the 1st year of His ministry, as John reports, Jesus spent most of His time in Judea. True Jews despised Galilee where Jesus set up headquarters. According to John's Gospel, the Jews were sure that, "No prophet was to arise from Galilee," and that the Christ wasn't going to come from Galilee. Even one of Jesus' disciples asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nazareth was in Galilee. Galilee was "of the gentiles" not of the Jews. The people lived in darkness because God’s people had been deported out of there by the Assyrians 750 years earlier. It was the land of the shadow of death because death reigns where the Gospel of forgiveness is not preached.
To the last place on earth the church of Jesus' day expected the Messiah to be, Jesus came, and He called not just Galileans as disciples but the most nasty of them. Or, do you think fishermen in the 1st century smelled better than fishermen today? And Jesus didn't go to them once they were cleaned up, but while they were in the midst of their smelly occupation. Nor were fishermen wealthy. They were the lower middle class. James and John weren't preparing their nets; they were mending them. They had to fix broken nets rather than buy new ones. And none of them were educated in the schools of the Jerusalem rabbis. People in Jerusalem called them "unlettered," and they made fun of the way they talked.
None of the above really means anything except to prejudiced people. But the next thing certainly does matter. These 4 were cowardly sinners. Jesus had already called them a year earlier to follow Him, but they had all returned to their former occupation. Remember how mad Paul got at Mark for turning back from the work of the Lord? He was so mad that he refused to allow Mark to come with him again. But what does Jesus do? He goes and gets these 4, cowardly, unreliable sinners. He forgives their sins. He acts just as if they had not sinned.
Next Jesus takes these 4 sinful fishermen into the land of darkness and death, into the most despised place in the holy land where He preaches, teaches, and heals. The 4 don't go off and form an evangelism committee; they don't plan how to bring the gospel to their community. They go to seminary. They follow Jesus and watch Him confront sin, death, and the devil. Jesus brings the kingdom of heaven to where hell reigned. Where sinners thought their sins were too many or serious to be forgiven, Jesus came teaching that He was the One who carried their sins away. Where people were sure all they had to look forward to was death, Jesus came preaching everlasting life in Him. Where people were under Satan’s boot, Jesus showed He was stronger by healing every disease and sickness.
Look at what Jesus does in this text. See what happens when this text is applied rightly to sinners today. You find out that Jesus works among those the world and organized church considers lost. The Lamb that takes away the sins of the world comes to sinners not saints. The Great Physician comes to the sick not the healthy. The Comforter of priceless worth comes to the comfortless not the comfortable. You’re not the follower of Jesus you should be. You don't do what He really commands, and you don't believe what He really promises you. Do you think those sitting in the land of death and darkness, did any better? Yet, Jesus takes His Church to them. He preaches His kingdom to them. His light is for those in darkness not for those who think they have enough light. His Good News is for those who deserve only bad news. That means it’s for you.
See how this text does apply to you today. Just as Jesus went out of His way to choose what the world and the organized church of His day consider the worst means to spread His kingdom of salvation, so He works among you today. He still puts men in the office of "fisher of men" who are not desired by the world or the organized church. He still calls men to leave their family and roots, their occupation and lives just so you would have the kingdom of heaven here on earth. The Lord is consistent in the way He works. He hides powerful eternal things in weak earthly things. He hides the spiritual things He gives in physical things. He hides the holy things He does in things the world and the organized church considered ordinary or even unholy. The eternal God is hidden in the womb of an earthly virgin. He achieves our physical and spiritual redemption by His physical death on a physical cross on a physical hill. His holy work of redeeming and forgiving sinners was hidden first in the sinful body of Mary; then it was hidden in mouths of sinful fishermen; today, Christ's holy work of redeeming and forgiving sinners is still hidden in the sinful mouths of Gospel preachers.
Now just as Christ succeeded in bringing light to the dark land, life to the dead land, heaven to the land of hell, and health to a sick land through things that appeared weak and even sinful, so you can rest assured Christ has succeeded in bringing life, heaven, and health to you through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Just as Christ first used men to fish for men, women, and children, so He still fishes and catches today. The fishing is always fine with Jesus. He never fails to catch. Just as He has caught you for all eternity with the forgiveness, life, and salvation that have come to you through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, so He wills to catch many more.
Here is a place where Jesus still casts His nets. Here is a place on earth where the kingdom of heaven comes. Here is a place on earth where neither sin, sickness, death, nor devil reign. Here is not a place where you find out what you need to do for Jesus, but a place where you find out what Jesus has done and will do for you. You can go to many churches and find out what you must do for Jesus. Few focus on what Jesus has done and will do for you. Many churches will send you out as a fisher of men for Jesus. Few will tell you that you've been caught by Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday of Epiphany (20230115); Matthew 4:12-23
(See February-March 2023 Te Deum)