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  • Writer's pictureKeith Haney

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Embracing the Call to be Fishers of Men

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him Luke 5:1-11

My first fishing trip was a disaster. I needed to prepare for the event. This was my Dad's excellent idea for a Father/Son adventure. It was cold. It started at an ungodly early hour. We went on his boat, and he drove too fast for a kid who did not know how to swim in the bumpiest waves imaginable. Then, we couldn't just use plastic bait; we had to go old school and use live worms. If you still need to pick up on it, I am not an outdoorsy guy. My idea of the perfect vacation is a lovely five-star hotel with room service that is completely bug and people-free. This fishing trip taught me valuable lessons I will share with you in this sermon. And Jesus told Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching men." And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

A loser's lament and a winner's astonishment

Simon's probably thinking about winners and losers this morning by the lakeshore. He sure feels like a failure. Simon and his companions have just finished an exhausting night of fishing. Again and again, they hauled in their heavy nets. Each time, they picked through the netting hopefully but found no fish worth keeping. They've known bad days in the past, but few as bad as this one.

The only positive feature about this day is the scene unfolding a short distance away. Jesus of Nazareth is standing by the lakeshore. Simon has the utmost respect for this man, who has recently healed his mother-in-law. Simon's a bit concerned that the eager crowd, pressing in from three sides, threatens to back Jesus into the water.

Just then, Jesus looks over to him. Their eyes meet in recognition. Interrupting his teaching, Jesus walks the short distance over to the stretch of sand where Simon's boat is beached.

He climbs in and asks Simon to push off into the lake. "Why not?" thinks the fisherman. "The net-mending can wait." He and his mates push off and then drop anchor just a few feet from shore. The crowd closes in, standing at the water's edge. From the boat, the rabbi resumes his teaching.

When he's finished, Jesus turns to Simon and instructs him: "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."

To a seasoned mariner like Simon, this sounds like foolishness. It's far too late for good fishing — which has proven to be a terrible day.

But then the reckless "Why not?" rises to the top of Simon's mind. He beckons to James and John, and they sail the two boats toward the middle of the lake.

The catch is enormous: too big for one boat and even for the two ships together. In all of Simon's years on the lake, he has never seen anything like this.

"Who is this man?" he asks himself. "And who am I to deserve such a mighty sign?"

A cascade of memories rolls over him in an instant. Simon remembers who he is. Regret is piled upon regret. He kneels in the bilge water, bowing his head to the teacher's knees. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

The rabbi's voice is gentle: "Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people." It's not so much an invitation as a statement of fact.

That day, there was a miracle on the lake: a miraculous fish catch. Jesus' other catch is even more miraculous: three Galilean fishermen who leave their nets and follow him.

Who would have thought it? Simon Peter, James, and John are not people you'd think would drop everything and set off on a spiritual quest. But they do, not because of anything extraordinary in themselves, but because of the extraordinary Lord who has come into their lives.

1. Fishing is unpredictable.

To explore this fact, take a trip with me back to Nineveh. A quick reminder. God sent Jonah to warn the King of Nineveh that His wrath was coming because of their wickedness.

2 "Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you." 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord's word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days' walk across.)

But when the King heard the warning, he did something unpredictable, he repented. "…the King of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes.7 Then he announced, "In Nineveh, by decree of the King and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that's under their control!" 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish."

Due to this change of heart, God changed His mind and spared them His wrath. "10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So, God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn't do it."

2. Fishing Takes Total Commitment.

This story of Jesus calling his first disciples has several things to teach us about our own spiritual lives. The first is that Jesus doesn't take volunteers.

That may sound astonishing to anyone who's been around church for a while and has heard those perpetual calls for volunteers. But have you ever read of Jesus saying, "We need a few volunteers ..."?

He certainly doesn't make any such appeal in today's passage. Jesus simply climbs into Simon's fishing boat. Luke does tell us he "asks" Simon to take him out into the lake. But the fact that he's already sitting in the boat shows he's got a clear idea of what Simon's answer will be.

The same is true with his calling of Simon to be a disciple. Jesus doesn't mention, "I'm looking for some volunteers to join my team." He doesn't even have a snappy slogan, like the Marine Corps: "We're looking for a few good men." Jesus turns to Simon, saying, "From now on, you will be catching people."

Sometimes, we in the church depend a little too much on volunteers. When something needs doing, we ask for a show of hands and hope someone comes forward. Very often, those who do are "the usual suspects" — those who typically volunteer for everything.

Yet if Christian service is a matter of God's call, not the goodness of our hearts, then maybe we should stop talking about volunteers altogether. Perhaps we should speak, instead, about God's call. Maybe we ought to say, "We need some teachers in the Sunday school," or "some members for the choir," or "someone to help with the soup kitchen — and we're trusting that God's calling the right person to do that. Maybe the right person is you."

The church is not a voluntary organization. It may resemble the various service clubs that are out there in the community, but those who follow Jesus Christ as members of the church do not volunteer; they are called. Jesus doesn't want volunteers; he wants disciples.

3. Our Journey is Risky

The final thing we can learn from this passage is how to begin our faith journey. Jesus invites us to risk, taking one step at a time.

This is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who resisted Hitler and gave his life for it, knew well. Bonhoeffer writes, reflecting on this story of Jesus calling the first disciples: "Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics. Although Peter cannot achieve his own conversion, he can leave his nets." 2

Whenever we hear that quiet, insistent inner voice suggesting that maybe we are the ones to respond to God's call and meet a particular need, the hardest part of the whole process is taking that first step. How easy and pleasant it is to simply sit and contemplate the wonder of God speaking to us! How attractive it is to call ourselves Christians because of things we believe — while those beliefs of ours bear little relation to how we're actually living our lives! We may resolve, again and again, to take that step and do something for God, but somehow never quite get around to it.

Bill Carter, a Presbyterian pastor and jazz musician, was interviewed once for an article about jazz in the church. He shared an insight he's learned from his music about this whole subject of taking risks in the Christian life:

Playing jazz, like daily life, is an informed risk. Improvisation happens through nimble fingers, serious music theory and form training, and a willingness to jump into uncharted territory. It takes discipline and technical preparation to play this music and the freedom to take enormous risks. You work hard to lift the music from the page and release it into the air. Yet, there is always a safety net of grace. If a musician hits a sour note or flubs a rhythm, it cannot be replayed, only forgiven. There will be another opportunity to play better notes on another day. These essential characteristics of jazz make it particularly congenial to the life of the Christian faith. 3

A jazz musician would never perform a single number were it not for the willingness to risk that first note. When Jesus speaks kindly to Simon in his fishing boat and tells him, "From now on, you will be catching people," Simon could have procrastinated away any response on his part. But he doesn't do that. There's something about that bond, that connection he feels with this man he will soon call "Master," that allows him to take that risk.

That may prove true for you as well. Remember: Jesus isn't looking for volunteers; he's looking for failures, for those who aren't sure they have what he's looking for but are willing to trust him enough to take a risk and see if he will supply what they need.

Maybe Jesus is calling to you today. And today is the time you will get up and follow!

4. The One Who Calls You Also Equips You.

On a recent trip to Haiti, I heard a Haitian pastor illustrate the need for total commitment to Christ to his congregation. His parable: A certain man wanted to sell his house for $2,000. Another man tried to buy it badly but couldn't afford the total price because he was poor. After much bargaining, the owner agreed to sell the house for half the original price with just one stipulation: He would retain ownership of a tiny nail protruding from just over the door.

After several years, the original owner wanted the house back, but the new owner was unwilling to sell. So, the first owner went out, found the carcass of a dead dog, and hung it from the single nail he still owned. Soon, the house became unlivable, and the family was forced to sell the house to the owner of the nail.

The Haitian pastor's conclusion: "If we leave the Devil with even one small peg in our life, he will return to hang his rotting garbage on it, making it unfit for Christ's habitation." Dale A. Hays, Leadership, Vol. X, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), p. 35.

Jesus never says love the Lord your God with most of your heart. Nor some of your mind, nor with some of your strength. The verse reads, "29 Jesus replied, "The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord,30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength." Mark 12:29-30

In other places in the Bible, God clearly expects total commitment. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength." Deuteronomy 6:5

When Jesus called the fisherman, they didn't have time to call a church meeting or a family forum to discuss the options. It was a simple, quick, and all-in moment. Will you come and follow me and become fishers of me? Will you take up the call to change the world? Are you willing to leave everything you know and have been trained to do? Then sit at my feet and produce a harvest and store a treasure in heaven for yourselves. The reader needs to ponder here: what has God called you to accomplish for the kingdom? What has he uniquely gifted you to do? If you stop and think about it, you probably already know. So, what is holding you back from answering God's call to come and follow? Know this: if God called you, He has equipped you and empowered you to do whatever He calls you. Be bold and courageous and follow the Master's call. You have been called, equipped, and empowered to do something extraordinary for God and His Kingdom. Follow your calling!

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