Catch and Release
In catch and release fishing you release the fish back into the water. Jesus often used fishing to speak about His kingdom. At least four of His apostles were fishermen; He provided two miraculous catches of fish; He used the fact a net catches both good and bad things to describe the nature of His kingdom on earth, and we have this text.
Who is this text recorded for? Not for Peter, Andrew, James, or John the 4 fishermen Jesus caught. No, they were there. The Holy Spirit didn't have Matthew record this for them nor for any of the others present. These God-breathed Words are for people who were not there, for all those who would come after, for the Church. But are these words a paradigm? Are they proscriptive of how the church should organize? No, this text is not proscriptive; it doesn't direct us. The text is descriptive; it tells us what happened. Specifically it tells us what Jesus did.
Jesus hears that John's preaching is silenced by his imprisonment. Jesus leaves rural Nazareth for the "big city" of Capernaum. Jesus catches sinners. And the text ends with, Jesus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John are with Him, but Jesus is the One named as going through Galilee, teaching, preaching, and healing. This text is about Jesus' Galilean ministry. It ends with what He did in Galilee and begins with His return to Galilee naming 5 different districts: Zebulon, Naphtali, the land between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, the land east of Jordan, and Gentile Galilee.
Who is this text for? If it's all about Jesus, then it's all for us. This is Epiphany. This is where we revel that God in the Man Jesus is manifest. Here is where we find out what the Almighty, invisible, all knowing God does when He walks among people. The Greeks and Romans loved this theme in their religion. Most of the time when their gods walked among men it was to their determent. People didn't recognize them or mistreated them, and the gods took vengeance. A few times a downtrodden soul would recognize them and be rewarded, but no god of Greece or Rome manifested himself on earth to save people for eternity.
Our text is about God on earth in our flesh and blood, so this text is for us. For you, me, and for whoever hears it. The Holy Spirit recorded it for our encouragement and hope. In Romans 15: 4 Paul says of all Scripture: "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Our confession of faith, The Formula of Concord, uses this Romans 15 passage to prove, "Any interpretation of the Scripture that weakens or removes our hope and encouragement is certainly contrary to the will and intent of the Holy Spirit." There is encouragement and hope in this text when you see that you are one whom the Spirit wants to catch with this passage.
Our text is about Jesus, and what does Jesus do in this text? He catches and releases fish. First let's look at His catching. Jesus fishes in a most unlikely place. Kids do this. With a lake or pond in front of them, they will put their line in the mud puddle behind them. Jesus fishes in Galilee. To the Jews the only fitting place for the Christ to work would be Judea. Galilee was a stumbling block to them. In John the Jews throw up the fact "no prophet was to arise from Galilee." Even the disciples didn't think "any good could come out of Nazareth" which was in Galilee.
Jesus fishes in a poor place and uses even poorer bait. He doesn't fish with friendship, niceness, day care, youth programs, couples clubs, softball leagues, or English as a Second Language classes. These are all ways churches fish today. You know why? They work. You catch people by meeting their felt needs. I didn't say Jesus catches them, but you certainly can. The Mormons have used this model for years. They don't catch with Mormon doctrine but with concern for you and your family in this evil world.
Jesus fishes the old fashion way: with worms. In Psalm 22 Jesus declares He is a worm and no man. In Isaiah 53 Jesus is depicted on the cross as disfigured so badly He didn't look human. As Judy Collins sang of Jesus on His "lonely wooden tower," "But he himself was broken/ Long before the sky would open/ Forsaken, almost human/ He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone." That's right. Our wisdom would say using an ugly, squishy, powerless worm is no way to fish for people who want power, success, and health. But it was the way John the Baptist fished, wasn't it?
He initially caught Andrew and Peter with the worm Jesus. John pointed to Him and said, "That's the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world." He didn't identify Jesus as the One who carries away family problems, sicknesses, or money woes. He identified Jesus as the Lamb who carries sins away. A lamb in order to carry away sins was sacrificed. Jesus fished with worms when He announced that the kingdom of God was now on earth just like John had. With no angelic armies, no power, no flash, no proof both John and Jesus said God's kingdom had arrived.
Jesus doesn't catch many fish, does He? In our text, He catches 4. Has He caught you? Think about this fishing metaphor. Fish are happy where they are. They like the water. They get oxygen, food, life from water, and when you catch them you're taking them away from all this. On your dock, in your boat, on the ground they gasp for breath.
Sinners are just like that. We're happy with not being caught by Jesus. Like the people of Galilee we sure don't think we live in darkness or the land of the shadow of death. This is life to us. Life is without Jesus. What do we need with a Worm? What do we need with a King with no visible army, weapons, or power? Getting caught by Jesus is being thrown up on the dock flopping around gasping for life. Who would want that? Who could choose that? No one. That's why being caught by Jesus is a miracle: it's the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead rising, fish living on dry land.
And you've been caught. The Worm Jesus was cast into your life as the Lamb of God that carries away your sins. Here is the One who had no sin, was a perfect human being, but took on your worminess. He was made to be sin. Your sins were taken off you and put on Him. Your sins, the ones you know, don't know, think He can carry, and don't think He can carry, were all there. And the Lamb who is a Worm carried them to that lonely wooden tower and suffered, bled, and died for them all, right then and there. There is only one sacrifice for sin, and Jesus made it for you.
You're hooked. The Good Fisherman has hooked you and thrown you up on the dock.and what's this? You can breathe! You thought you would be flopping around on the dock, slowly dying of asphyxiation, but you're alive, and as Jesus promised, you're alive abundantly! Now you see what you thought was life was swimming in a land of darkness and the shadow of death. That wasn't life. It's what real water is to your lungs now: death. The cold shiver that goes through you when you think of sinking through deep, dark water, you once thought that was living!
Having been caught by the Good Fisherman, you see your old life for the certain death it was, and you see the kingdom Jesus says is here. You see it: in waters that don't drown but rebirth; in Words that don't put burdens on you but take sins off you; in Bread that is the Body of your King and in Wine that is His Blood. It's like that recent spate of movies where there is a whole other world that only some can see, and it's a fantastic one filled with both wonderful and horrible creatures. So it is with the world you see from Jesus' dock. You see the horrible realities Revelation pictures: the beastliness of false doctrine, religion, and government. But you also see the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. You see sin, death and the Devil drowned by Baptismal waters, banished by Absolution, and yourself bodied and blooded to the King of kings.
You've been caught by Jesus, and you've been released into His new, wonderful, everlasting life. Here's where this can go all wrong. In the text, we read of Jesus catching 4 and calling them to leave all and follow Him to be made fishers of men. You've been caught too and Jesus has called you as well to where you are in life. This is your vocation. He has caught you out of the sea of sin, death and the devil and released you into the Christian life where you are. What's that life to be like? Our Lutheran confessions tell of a church father who asked God to show him a true Christian life. God sent him to ask a shoemaker. The man told him in the morning "he prayed in a few words for the whole city and then paid attention to his business."
Jesus catches and releases people so as not only to give life but hope and encouragement. Do you find either hope or encouragement in being told that Jesus has caught and released you to fish for men by going door to door, by talking to everyone you know about Jesus, by taking every opportunity to share your faith? Don't you instead feel despair, fear and guilt because how often do you do this? Moreover, can you? I know what happens if you tell me I'm must do auto mechanics, computer programming, or art. You throw me back into the sea of hopelessness and despair. You give me neither encouragement nor hope but guilt since I can't do what you're telling me I must do.
Jesus told the 4 He caught that day He would make them fishers of men. I tell you based on this text not that Jesus will make you fishers of men but that Jesus has caught you. You've been caught by Jesus and released into His kingdom. Swim around where He has placed you. Go about the tasks of your everyday calling, knowing for sure that like the shoemaker, you are living a God-pleasing Christian life. Ordinary, plain Christian living where Jesus has placed you is chumming the waters with His encouragement and hope and that's a great light in this present darkness. Enough light for a fish to see the Worm. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday after Epiphany (20080127); Matthew 4: 12-23