"Deadliest Catch" is a popular reality show about Alaska fisherman. In 2010 one of the boat captains actually died. In the New England show on the same theme, one of the boats sank. Deadliest catch indeed and often not how you think.
Our text begins with a type of fishing no one does: catching the dead. You've probably seen footage of Red Tide killing thousands of fish in the Gulf or of a blue norther killing them in the bays before they can escape to deeper water. Well, no one catches those fish, to eat anyway. If a fish isn't alive, you don't eat it or fish for it. Not Jesus. He purposely moves into an area named 5 different ways in an 800-year-old Isaiah prophesy: Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along (across) the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. These 5 are then described as "the people living in darkness" and "those living in the land of the shadow of death." Fisherman do fish in the dead of dark night; Jesus goes fishing for the dead dwelling in the dark.
This entire region, named 5 different ways, eventually was designated as one large province, Galilee. The people were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, pagans by and large (Buls, Exegetical, Series A, 25). The entire region had suffered for centuries: heathen influences, subjugation, war, deportation. It was characterized by religious syncretism and spiritual darkness (Gibbs, 204). The Assyrians deported the Jews in 721 B.C.. Zebulun and Naphtali were the first tribes to go into exile. They never came back. Instead the Assyrians brought in Gentiles from other nations. The boundaries of Zebulun and Naphtali hadn't been shown on any map for centuries. They had long ago been forgotten, except by God.
How about you? Is the land of darkness and the shadow of death your address? I think it's a lot of people's, even church goers. I say this because I've noticed the "warm up act", the "opener", the pre-service music for nondenominational, Pentecostal, and some Evangelicals is upbeat, toe-tapping, good vibration tunes. When I got to Detroit in 1987 it was at the start of Advent. The church informed me they had Christmas carol singing before Advent services in hopes of drawing more people. It was dark times in the inner city. Crack cocaine had surged into the area; the Cadillac plant had closed; white-flight had depopulated the neighborhood. If you live in darkness with death casting a shadow, you sure could use a little good news today, but that's not what people try. They go for good vibrations from upbeat lyrics and up-tempo music. Even facing death and darkness people don't want the Good News of the Gospel, they want to feel better.
No fisherman fishes for the dead. Jesus does and He fishes not with good feelings, positive thinking, I'm okay; you're okay self-esteem, but with light. Once Jesus moves to Galilee of the Gentiles "the people living in darkness have seen a great light"; "on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." Ordinary fisherman fish with light too. On the coast they have lighted piers. Even in fresh water fish are attracted to light. Actually, small bait is, then little fish come, then bigger ones for the little. It's so effective in some places it's illegal.
Epiphany is the season of light and Jesus is that light. He says that in John 8:12, "I am the Light of the world; those who follow Me alone will in no way walk in the darkness, but on the contrary they will have the Light of the life." You know the saying "better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." It's attributed to lots of people from JFK, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to Confucius, but Quote Investigator says it was first said by a Methodist pastor in a 1907 sermon (quoteinvestigator.com/2017 03 /19 / candle/). Jesus is that Candle. As God the Son He has always burned as the Eternal Light. Before time, before creation, He was Light. The Light of the World came into the world through the Virgin Mary's womb. The Eternal Light that is unapproachable, blinding, burning took on flesh and blood there and entered the deep darkness of this fallen world and our fallen flesh. He went about living a life of light always in the shadow of death. He lived a life of light with the Eternal Darkness that is damnation dogging His every step because He lived in our place, in our shoes, under our judgments.
And He pulled it off beautifully, never once stumbling, never once giving into dark deeds, dark words, or that dark despair we know so well. But He had to pay for our darkness, for the fact that we who God made to be children of light prefer the darkness, that we think we can keep our sins hidden in the darkness. So in Gethsemane right before the darkness descends on Him with all its force Jesus says to the OT church leaders about to arrest Him for crimes He didn't do but we did: "This is your hour and the power of darkness." And as the lash strikes His bear back strips of light shoot out; when they jam the crown of thorns on His holy head, a spear of light comes from every thorn prick. As the nails are pounded through His flesh, beams of light split the gathering darkness; and when it says Jesus gave up His Spirit, see a puff of light escape from His lips like a sigh. And what do we find 3 days later? An angel whose "appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow" (Mt. 28:3) descends to roll the stone away from the empty tomb. And when the women go in, 2 angels "gleam like lightening" so brightly they have to bow their heads (Lk. 24:4).
These announced that Jesus had risen from the grave victorious over death and darkness. Or as John says, "The Light shines in darkness; and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:5). How different everything looks in the light. The Light of Life, Jesus, sheds a new light on everything. In the light of Jesus we see that it is not death to die. We see that those who die in Christ don't cease living but enter into the joy of their Lord. In the Light of Jesus we see that the Devil is not invincible but a snake with a crushed head. In the Light of Jesus we see that the sin we thought so unforgivable is forgiven and forgotten by Him. In the Light of Jesus we see Death that looked so threatening in the dark, so mean, so hungry, so big, is really a mewling, sniveling, weakling that shrinks away when the Light hits it.
So, where does the Light of the world shine forth in your darkness? Where are you to look to see the Light? Not inside of you, not to your feeling, not to your positive thinking, but to where Jesus says His light shines for you. O if only what we see would match the reality Scripture says is there. If only when we Baptized with Water, you could see the Light of Jesus clothing that child. If only when the pastor absolved your sins, you could see the Light of forgiveness in Jesus' name shooting forth from his mouth and scattering your dark sins from you. If only when you looked upon the consecrated Bread and Wine of Communion, you could see the light of the glory of God shining in the face of the Christ now present. But it is not given to us to walk by the light of sight but by the faith God grants us to see these things.
Jesus catches the dead with light, and they live, and the fishing goes on. It's at this point, while you're basking in the light of your sins being forgiven, your death having been died, and your devils cowering in fear of the Light, that the catch can turn deadly. That's how it is on those shows. Things are going wonderfully. Then there's a sudden turn in the weather or an unexpected equipment failure. This text turned deadly in the 70s. Prior to 1978, this text didn't show up in the appointed reading. Luke 5 where Jesus too promises to make fishers of men did. Concordia Pulpit is a collection of full length sermons on the appointed texts. From 1930 to 1970 there were only five sermons on Luke 5 even though the text came up every year. One of those sermons admonished lay people to drop everything and go out and fish for men. Two sermons said lay people are to use their gifts to support fishers of men in the ministry. The other 2 use the text as a lesson to follow Jesus' word without question rather than human reasoning.
This next is not about lay people becoming fishers of men, or even how pastors, the fishers of men, should be supported. This text is all about Jesus. Jesus moves into the heart of darkness, Galilee of the Gentiles. Jesus is the only one mentioned as preaching. Jesus is the one who calls the 4 to be fishers of men and even after the text says they left all and followed Him, Jesus alone does the acting. "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." This text shows how Jesus insured the catching ministry goes on. Once He heard that John had been put in prison, that's when He starts fishing. And to insure that the light continues to go out, He in-turn calls 4 to train them in the art of fishing for men, and dead men at that.
This text will turn dark, if not deadly, if you hear it, as it's often preached, as a call for every Christian to leave all and fish for men. There were others at the lake that day but Jesus chose just 4. If everybody left their nets and boats who would provide the fish to feed the people? No, this text is to assure you that the Lord made provisions for catching the dead in dark places to go on. Rather than leave you with latent anxiety that you're not doing enough to build the kingdom, fish for men, catch souls, (And who could ever say they were doing enough anyway?) this text is to bring forth thanks that the Lord sent a fisherman after you. Maybe like a bass fisherman has to do sometimes, that fisherman cast the bait of life and light in Jesus' name a dozen times, a hundred times before you, but thanks be to God, you've been caught.
With this truth, rather than walking out of here with the deadweight of a heavy fishing pole in hand, go forth aglow with the Light of Life. That's what attracts other fish in this land of darkness. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday after Epiphany (20200126); Matthew 4: 12-23