“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” – Luke 5:10
Again Jesus is preaching the Word. It’s been a running theme over the last several Sundays. He preaches in Nazareth; He preaches in Capernaum. Today He preaches at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, here called the Lake of Gennesaret. Same body of water. Here the synagogue is an informal gathering, a crowd that has formed and is pressing in on Jesus, eager to hear the Word. His pulpit is Simon’s fishing boat which Jesus presses into service. The fishermen were mending their nets after a fruitless night of work, and the boat would provide a little distance between Jesus and crowd so everyone could hear.
Fishing was potentially lucrative and always difficult. Fishermen tend to be superstitious in an almost religious sort of way. If you stop and think about it for a second, you can understand it. You can’t see what you’re trying to catch. You’re at the mercy of the wind, the waves, the seasons, the unpredictability of fish. They didn’t have sonar to locate the fish or GPS to guide them reliably to a location. They had to rely on experience, instinct, and a lot of dumb luck.
The luck apparently wasn’t that good that night. They had labored through the whole night and caught nothing. It’s frustrating, tiring, tedious. You likely have the same experience in your vocation. You work like crazy and have nothing to show at the end of the day, or sometimes longer. I’m sure the fishermen were not in a terribly good mood on the seashore that day as they cleaned their nets for the next night. They were probably just eager to get the chores done so they could catch some sleep. And here is Jesus, wanting to borrow Simon’s boat so he could use it as a pulpit. What’s a fisherman to do?
So they push Simon’s boat out a bit, and Jesus sits down and teaches the people. Luke doesn’t record a word of what Jesus said (don’t you wish he had?), but he tells us that when Jesus finished speaking, He turns to Simon and says, “Let’s go fishing. Put the boat out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” There’s a command and a promise, if you will. Put out the boat, let down your nets. And there will be a catch.
I imagine that the fishermen kind of stopped, looked at each other, and muttered to themselves, “What does He know about fishing, anyway?” He grew up in a carpenter’s house in Nazareth. He’s a rabbi, not a fisherman. Fishermen knew that it’s easier to fish in the shallows rather than the deep. And you wait until nightfall, when the fish come up to the shallows to feed. You don’t cast your nets into the deep water at midday. That’s just a waste of time and energy.
“Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” Interesting word choice there. “Master.” More like chief or commander. “We fished all night, chief, and took nothing.” But Simon trusts the Word of Jesus, and Jesus is teaching Simon to trust His Word. That’s the point of this miracle. Trust the Word of Jesus. “At your word I will let down the nets.” Simon trusts the Word of Jesus over and against his own experience as a fishermen. He has no good reason to let out the nets in the daylight in deep water except for Jesus’ Word. Jesus had healed his mother-in-law of a fever, after all. So why not?
This is the faith point — taking Jesus at His Word. Like the servants at the wedding feast at Cana who filled those clay jugs with water and then dispensed it to the guests. They took Jesus at His Word.
So out go the nets, and what do you suppose happened? The fish swim into the nets like moths drawn to the light! The nets are busting full of fish, and the boats are in danger of sinking under the weight of all of them. And for a moment at least, Simon and the rest of the fishermen must have been thinking, “This is great! The ultimate fish locator. We could be rich.” But Simon Peter looks at all the flopping fish in the boat, and he looks at Jesus, and this big tough fisherman falls to his knees in humility and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
That is faith talk too – recognizing that we stand in the presence of a holy God, recognizing that in Jesus this holy God has become one of us and stands in our midst, that He is the Lord of creation whom the wind and waves and even the fish obey. Simon knew his sinfulness. It wasn’t just a matter of sins, the coarse word here, the fights with his brother, the bickering with his wife, his greed for gain, his discouragement over a fruitless night of labor, or whatever. He doesn’t simply say “I have sinned,” but “I am a sinner.” That’s what he is. That’s what you and I are as well.
Isaiah had that same recognition when he came to the temple in the critical year when King Uzziah died, and he had a vision of the Lord sitting upon His throne surrounded by those mysterious six-winged creatures called seraphim – fire angels. It must have been an amazing vision, not only to see but to hear their eternal worship – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The sound of it shook the foundations of the temple under Isaiah’s feet as the smoke of incense filled the place.
Isaiah knew what it meant for him. “Woe is me! For I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah knew that a sinner may not look on God and live. He knew what he was – a sinner, whose lips and life were anything but pure and holy. And here he is standing in the presence of Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts. But the Lord of hosts is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. A fire angel takes a burning coal from the incense altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. Did it hurt? Isaiah doesn’t say. This is Gospel fire, like the burning bush that did not burn that Moses saw. This is a fire that purifies the unclean, that declares the sinner righteous, that speaks the absolving word “your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.”
This is how a sinner can stand in the presence of the Holy and the Almighty and live to tell about. Your guilt must be taken away, sin must be atoned, paid for. That Jesus standing in the boat on the Sea of Galilee is the atoning sacrifice, He is the guilt-bearer, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Your sin.
We are indeed people of unclean lips and lives. A string of broken commandments is the evidence against us. And all we can do is what Isaiah and Simon Peter did – admit it, own it, confess it. We are sinful and unclean, in our thought, our words, our deeds, in what we do (not matter how noble it might be), in what we don’t know (no matter how justifiable it might seem to us). Sinful and unclean. Simon Peter knew it; Isaiah knew it; you know it too. You know it’s not right with you, whether in your lips or in your lives. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t make it right.
Christ does here for you what He did for Isaiah in the temple that day. He baptizes you with the fire of the Holy Spirit. He burnishes your lips with the hot coal of forgiveness in the form of His body given into death to save you; his blood shed for you as the atoning sacrifice of your sins. He puts the Word of forgiveness, the Word of Absolution, into your ears which are the doorway to the heart. Faith comes by hearing the Word.
By that Word, sinners can not only stand in God’s presence, share a boat with Him and a catch of fish, they can also serve Him in His kingdom. Simon Peter thought he was unworthy. He was right, and he was wrong. In himself, he was unworthy to be in the same boat as Jesus. True. And he was wrong. Jesus made him worthy, declared him worthy to be in the same boat with Him.
This is precisely what Jesus did for us by becoming Man and dying and rising. He got into the same boat with us. Our boat. Though Lord of Creation and the Creator, He became the Creature, Man. Though Lord over the Law, He came under the Law, obedient to death on a cross. To save us. He got into our boat to bring us into His boat, the ark of His salvation, the place where we are kept safe from the Flood of God’s wrath.
It may sound a bit strange, but the image of us in this episode is probably those fish flopping around the boat on the way to their death. They had been caught in an apostolic net, at the command of Jesus Himself, and in some way they couldn’t be safer. They too were in the same boat with Jesus. This is how the church father Tertullian once pictured Christians in their Baptism – little fishes swimming with their great Fish Jesus.
“Don’t be afraid: from now on you will be catching men,” Jesus tells them. Apostles and apostolic church. No longer would they be hunting down fish with nets. Now they would be netting people for the kingdom, fishing for men, casting out the net of Jesus’ death and resurrection far and wide, in likely places and in unlikely places, in the shallows but also in the deep. And trusting the Word and wisdom of Jesus. His way, not our way. His time, not our time. His Word and His ways. Baptism, Supper, forgiveness. Snatching sinners out of the depths to life and freedom.
Don’t be afraid, dear baptized believer. Not of death or life, nor angels, powers, the past, the present, the future, not height or depth or anything in all creation. You are in the same boat with Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,