You think you know what are problem is. Based on our text, you think our problem is that we don't do enough evangelism, but our problem isn't shown by the part of the text dealing with fisher's of men. Our problem is shown by the words before that: "Repent and believe the Good News!" Not only do these words show our problem, they show the solution too.
Our problem is we're specific when we should be general. We think our problem is a specific sin. We fail to do this good thing, or we do this bad thing. We're not doing the evangelism that we should, or we're being the cold and unfriendly people we shouldn't be. We do the same thing in areas of our life besides church. Our problem with others is that we have a bad temper, or sharp tongue. Our problem with our spouse is that we don't love like we should. Our problem with our kids is that we lose patience easily. Our problem with life is that we drink too much or go to church too little.
Sorry friend, the problem is that you're being way too specific about what the problem is both here at church and in the rest of your life. If only it were as simple as you think. If only it were a case of failing to do the right thing or actively doing the wrong, then the answer would be easy. Just start doing the right, and stop doing the wrong. We don't do enough evangelism; okay, we'll do more. We aren't friendly enough to visitors; okay, we'll be friendlier. I don't love my spouse enough; I'll start loving more. I have a bad temper; I'll have a better one. I gossip; okay, I'll stop talking bad about people.
If only it were that easy! If only we could become better people, a better church by just changing our behavior. If only we had just this or that wrong with us, it would be so quick, so easy to change it. And that's our problem. We think it IS that easy. We think our problem is really so specific, so limited; if we just change that, we'll be all better. But the problem is more general and much greater than any of us can imagine.
Jesus shows us this by saying, "Repent!" Notice, Jesus doesn't say, "Repent of doing this or not doing that." Jesus mentions no specific sin. Jesus lets us know the problem is much more general than we think by calling us to repent of sin in general not just specific ones. Jesus calls us to repent not merely of what we do but, above all else, of what we are.
You who think our problem as a church is this or that sin are missing the big picture. So are you who take stock of your individual life and see just a few problem areas here or there. It's not that I have problems in my life, no my life itself is the problem. It's not that we're guilty of a particular sin as a church, no we're guilty period. Do you see how incredibly huge the problem of sin is? It's not just a matter of fine tuning our church or life. It's not a matter of trimming off the rough edges. We're not radios just a little off the station; we're radios without tuners, speakers, power, or antenna. We're not rose bushes needing a trim; we're thistles from the root up.
The reason why we're prone to thinking the problem with our church or ourselves is this or that sin is because by nature we can't know the true depths of our sinfulness. David had to pray that the Lord cleanse him from sins that he couldn't recognize. God gave us the Law because we can't see our sins without it. Without God's revelation, we think we're basically good people who have this or that problem. The truth is that we as people are the problem.
Isn't this what the Scriptures say? Didn't Jesus tell us that the problem went to the depths of our hearts? 'Out of the heart," says Jesus "come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander." This is how people commonly think: A basically good person kills someone and becomes a murderer; a person, for the most part moral, commits a sexual sin and so becomes an immoral person. An essentially honest person steals something and becomes a thief. No, the problem is much greater and more general says Jesus. The problem is the heart. It's not that we're basically good, moral, and honest until we do something wrong. No, we're sinners who at heart are not good, moral, or honest and that's why we kill, sin sexually, and steal. As St. Paul says, Within our flesh dwells nothing good.
Do you see how big the problem is? It's too big for us to handle. We can't solve our problems as a church or as a person by changing our behavior. We could start casting our nets, but nothing is changed if we're not evangelist's at heart. The same is true of your personal life. Modify your behavior all you want, but you have not really addressed your marriage, family, or personal problem until you've come face to face with your fallen heart.
By now you're catching on. Being good Lutherans you realize that if the problem is this big, than the answer must be Jesus. And if Jesus is the answer, faith must be in there somewhere. This is true, but even here, we have a problem. When we talk of sin, the problem is we're specific when we should be general. When we talk of faith however, the problem is we're general when we need to be specific.
We think faith in general is the answer. We look at Simon and Andrew, James and John and think, "Boy what great faith they had to leave all things and be fishers of men. If I had faith that strong, I could do that too!." Beware of this trap. If you fall into thinking faith in general is the answer, you'll beat yourself up because you don't have enough faith. "If I had more faith, my marriage would work, by job would be better, my children would improve. If I had more faith, then I wouldn't be like this or that. I would be able to change my behavior." When you focus on more faith as the answer to your problem, you always get back to changing your behavior as the solution. And as we saw, that is no solution. If we think a change in our behavior can solve our problems, then we really don't see the immensity of our problem.
In regard to faith, the problem isn't that we don't believe hard enough; it's that we lack specific faith. Everyone believes in something, everyone has faith in someway and often the faith is strong. But "faith," even a strong one, saves no one in and of itself. If faith itself saved, then Muslims who have so much faith they willing die for it would be saved. Then Mormons who have so much faith they donate 2 years of their life to mission work would certainly be saved. Then Tampa Bay football fans would be saved because they've had jumbo faith for years. Faith can excite, motivate, and even comfort, but no one has been saved just because they had faith in something. Faith that saves is in a very specific object.
Our text teaches this clearly. Jesus says, "Repent," that is, "Put everything you are, do, think, and say in one pile and confess to being nothing but a miserable sinner." But He speaks very specifically about what to believe; He doesn't say, "Repent and believe." No, He says, "Repent and believe the Good News." Tampa football fans, Mormons, and Muslims all believe, but they don't necessarily believe the Good News.
Our bulletin translates "Good News." The King James has "Gospel." The word "gospel" was not originally a religious word. It was the "good news" of a victory by Rome's army. Picture this. You're in ancient Rome. Your army is out battling the enemies of Rome. If it looses, the enemy will charge through the gates and you'll be killed or sold into slavery. There's no CNN, nightly news or daily papers. Everyone in Rome waits for a runner from the front. The watchmen would see him first at a distance and announce it to the city. The city would gather at the gates. The runner, weak from his run, would enter the city, and if there was victory to report, he would gasp, "I have gospel!"
Gospel is not just any good news, but good news of a victory. The specific thing Jesus tells us to believe is the good news of a victory. Believe the good news that Christ defeated sin, death and devil. He kept all the laws of God perfectly. He picked up all 10 commandments and was a perfect father, mother, child, wife, husband, and church member in your place.
Jesus did this, not so He could turn around and dump the weight of the law back on your shoulders, but so He could free you from it's crushing weight. Look above you. Do you see the 10 Commandments over your head? If you do, then you haven't heard the Good News that Jesus kept them all in your place. They are no longer above your head because Jesus came and took them from you.
But what about all the times you've broken them? What about the fact that not only have you broken them by your actions but by your very being? Born in sin you were born separated from God. Born in sin your heart was fallen from the moment of your conception; born in sin means you've been sinful since you were conceived: who can give you victory over such fallenness? Only the One who descended to the depths of the human womb to rescue you.
God the Son became a Man in the person of Jesus Christ by descending into the Virgin's womb. From conception on He bore not only the heavy 10 Commandments but the punishment our many sins deserve. This is the very specific thing we are to believe: that Jesus has won the victory over our sinfulness. He has conquered the law and sin, and so has bridged the gap our sinfulness created between God and us.
What changes people is the radical good news, the radical Gospel which declares Christ's victory for us. See how it changed people in the text. Jesus came to fishermen struggling with sinfulness, with difficult lives, with daily work. And He announces to them that things are different. No longer is God's kingdom far away from them because of their sinfulness. It's here! He doesn't say, "It is near," but, "It has arrived." Turn from your efforts to get into God's kingdom by being better, sinning less, or doing good works more. Repent and believe the Good News that Christ has brought the kingdom to you.
And then glory of glories, Jesus promises these smelly, weak, sinful fishermen, they'll be different. He says, "I will turn you into fishers of people." Don't wonder that these men had faith to follow; that's not a wonder. People have faith to follow Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and even the Buccaneers. Their faith is not the wonder; the wonder is that Jesus can turn foul-mouthed fishermen into preachers of the Gospel.
Our problems as a church and as a person are much greater and more general than any of us can imagine on our own. We can't fix our problems by trying harder or being different. And neither is the answer in believing harder in Jesus. The answer is specifically in what Jesus did for us in life and on the cross. He won the victory over what we could never defeat and therefore, He has changed our relationship to God. We're no longer under God's wrath but in His kingdom under His merciful rule.
In God's Kingdom, we're made into what we can't be by ourselves. Some He makes fishers of men, others He makes net tenders, all He makes Christians. But do note, in no case does faith cause the change. Jesus didn't say, "I will make you fishers of men IF YOU BELIEVE." No, He promised to change them; they believed it, and eventually the change happened. This is the path all those in Christ follow. So don't focus on the changes you need to make; focus on the One who promises to change you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany III (1-26-03), Mark 1:14-20