Fish Stories Told Here
Everyone loves a fish story. Well, that's not true. For 25 years, I've had a figurine in my office of a fish holding a sign that says "Fish Stories Told Here." Not once as anyone asked to hear one. Though no one's asking, I'm telling one. No, I'm telling two fish stories; maybe three.
A good fish story starts with defeat written all over it. You fish all day and get nothing. Sometimes not even a bite; you don't even lose your bait. In New Orleans they'd say they went shrimp drowning.' Shrimp being the live bait they were using. Others would call it a bluebird day. That was a day perfect for fishing, not too hot, cold, or windy. A bluebird day is a day you were sure you were going to get your limit. But again nothing.
A good fish story starts with defeat written all over it. Can you see it in the text? Peter says they fished all night. Actually he says, "Through the whole of the night having toiled." That's fitting; Peter is a commercial fishermen not a recreational one. Fishing is work. It's how he puts bread on the table and a roof over his family's head. Yet what does he have to show for a whole night of hard work? "Nothing we did catch." And what is Peter doing now? Washing his nets. He's not cleaning fish; he's readying his equipment for that night's work. It's one thing to clean up after you've caught fish; it's another to do it after you've gotten nothing. And once more note the difference between me fishing for fun and Peter quite literally fishing for food, for family, for finances. I'm competing at best in a fishing tournament; Peter's in the Hunger Games.
There's another fisherman on the scene. Disappointment too is written all over his outing. Well, over one key part. Jesus has caught a boatload. People are crowding around Him not to be healed or to have loved one's freed from demons but "to hear the Word of God." Jesus retreats into Simon's boat; interrupting his necessary work of net washing, and sits, the teaching position of a rabbi, to teach the crowd. So while the crowd was there to be taught God's Word, Simon is there because he has to be to wash his nets. He's not there to hear God's Word. And when Jesus asks him to put out into the deep, Simon, not Peter the rock, not the new man Peter, but the same old Simon, says, "Master even though we've worked all night and caught nothing; on the basis of your word I'll do what you say."
By the Word of the Lord, the heavens were made, the dead raised, sinners forgiven, devils defeated, and lightning bolts sent. By the Word of the Lord, the shattered are made whole, the mournful comforted, and the hopeless made hopeful. But that's not the Spirit, Simon speaks out of. Simon is the ticket punching Christian. He might be you. Because God says so, I come to church, sit here, stand when told, say what I'm supposed to say, and listen to whatever comes out of that guy's mouth. Church membership is a sandwich club to you; as you leave, you your ticket punched for another's weeks' worth of Christianity done. Some of you get your ticket punched every week, some once every couple of weeks, others once every so many months. The irony here is no amount of ticket punching gets you into heaven. Ticket punching is sinful as Simon came to realize.
Well, that didn't work. I got here too fast. I told you the end from the beginning. Back up with me. Aren't you tired? Aren't you discouraged? Haven't you worked all night at this being a Christian thing? And are you any better, any different, and by the way, where are the fish? The Word of God is droning on in the background of your life as you do the work of your life. You wash your nets tired out from the work before. What's this? Jesus is saying something to me? No, He is commanding me to "put your boat out into the deep" and "You must let down your newly washed nets." He commands you put off the old man and put on the new. He commands you, "Do this often in remembrance of Me." He commands you, "You must hear the Word of God and keep it." He commands you, "You must repent and see the Kingdom of God is here." He commands you, "Teach your children well." And Simon-like, Igor-like you say, "Yes Master."
A good fish story has despair, defeat written all over it, but it has miracle written all over it in the end. There's the day that started out with forgetting to put the plug in the boat and sinking it at the launch that ended with limiting out. There's the day of a howling thunderstorm that ended with fish just the same. Then there's the bluebird day where we drowned several dinners worth of shrimp but caught nothing. Throwing the bait overboard we see a jack crevalle of better than 2 feet darting in to get the bait. My 10 year old son wants to try for it. I say you'll never catch it. He throws in a line of 12 pound test to try to catch a fish that regularly strips all the line off much bigger reels. I don't think he'll hook it anyway, but hook it he does. I don't think there is any way he will get that fish in the boat. But way beyond all hope, and certainly every expectation, he does.
Simon is already in the boat of the real Fisherman, but he's not really. He's in the boat of the Master punching a ticket. Then Jesus pauses teaching the crowd. He has not "finished speaking." He leaves off for moment teaching the crowd to continue teaching Simon. And the teaching is sharp, maybe harsh. Maybe not to the level of Yahweh teaching Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac whom you love; and sacrifice him to Me on the mountain I will show you" but pointed just the same. He, a rabbi, trained in carpentry, tells a commercial fisherman, to put out into the deep; you don't fish in deep water with nets. He tells him to dirty his clean nets in midday when every commercial fisherman knows you fish evening, night, and morning not midday! And Simon is to do this in full view of his fishing partners and all the other professional fishermen gathered on the shore that day. "Yes Master, even though we just got done fishing all night at the right time and right place without catching a thing, because You say so, I'll dirty my nets again."
Simon doesn't believe he will catch fish any more than your sinful flesh believes anything happens here today; Simon doesn't believe the Master will give him anything but a dirty net any more than your sinful self believes that God gives you forgiveness through the words I speak to you. Simon thinks all he is doing is punching his ticket one more time, just as your Old Adam does every time you come through the line. Hear the hole punch click as you leave and think, "Well I'm good to go for now till next week; maybe till the week after, or even a month or two from now."
Simon hears the ticket punch but then is overwhelmed by a net-breaking load of fish. And Simon is reconverted to Peter. That's what the Holy Spirit tells you. "Simon answered, Master', but "Simon Peter fell at Jesus' knees saying, Lord, Yahweh, God of the Old Testament in flesh and blood, You must depart from ME because a sinful man I AM.'" Peter is hooked; the Old Adam is no longer ruling this man. The New Man confesses his sins falling down at His Lord's knees, Jesus has remained seated because He is still teaching. And Peter knows what Isaiah does and may we all know: "Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips."
When you least expect it, the grace of God comes exploding into your life. You realize despite your disappointment, your sinfulness, your unbelief, misbelief, and other great shame and vice, God because of Jesus holy life and His guilty death in your place, is still mercying you. He's treating you like you treat a child who is acting a toot, acting like you're doing nothing for them, acting like they deserve whatever you do for them. God for Jesus sake continues to richly and daily supply all your needs of body and soul. He gives you in the Baptism you haven't thought much of forgiveness of sins, rescue from Death and Devil, and eternal salvation. He gives you today His Body and Blood that was nailed to Calvary's cross not just for forgiveness but for life now and eternal life forever.
This is the sense that Jesus wants you woken, not to this or that injustice in America, but to what He has been doing for you in Word and Sacraments day in and day out. While you been going through the motions punching your church ticket, He's been giving you His good gifts and Spirit. Though you know you have deserved not just eternal punishment someday, but temporal punishment, that is punishment today, though you know you deserve death, sickness, despair every day for your sin and sinfulness, God Almighty gave these to His own dear Son instead. You came to the Master saying, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." And beyond all hope or expectation, He "forgavest me the iniquities of my sin". So, Jesus says to you what He said to Peter, "You can stop being afraid."
Simon Peter is at Jesus' knees in a sinking boat having realized how greatly he sinned by his unbelief, by his slavish obedience, by regarding His Lord, Savior, and Redeemer as Master. Seems to me like Simon Peter has a whole lot to be afraid of. O the Old Adam Simon does, but not the New Man Peter. Just as you're Old Adam is to fear God always. But that's not all we say is it? We always say, "We should fear and love God." You're New Man, your New Creation is in Christ and therefore knows there is no condemnation, not some, not a little, but no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.
A good fish story puts you there. You hear the fishing reel sing;, you see the rod bend; you see the fish break water. The Holy Spirit would put you in the boat with Simon Peter. He would show you how you go from being just Simon to being Simon Peter; how Jesus is more than your Master. He's your Lord who wills to overwhelm you with His gracious gifts. And may you with Peter say, "I'm going to need a bigger boat." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20190210); Luke 5: 1-11