Sermon for January 24th

Old Testament Reading Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Epistle Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Second Gospel Reading: Mark 1:14-20

Sermon: “Fishing Lessons”

When I was growing up, my Grandparents used to take my sister and me up to a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota for a couple of weeks most every summer. It’s a long drive, but we looked forward to it each year. Once there, we would swim, hike and see the sights in the region, but mostly we would fish, several times a day. We would drift fish for blue gill and perch, anchor by the reeds for crappie, troll for northern pike and then most every night, just before sundown, we would head for the lily pads and cast for bass. We had a great time.

As I think back on it, I feel kind of sorry for Grandpa as he was out trying to teach a couple of little kids to fish. He spent a lot of time on our gear in the early years, baiting hooks, untangling lines, changing out lures, taking fish off the hooks, trying to free lines stuck in the weeds, and of course spending lots of time in the fish house cleaning and filleting all those fish. I prided myself on getting as independent as I could as quickly as I could. Still it was quite a while before I got brave enough to take a good sized pike of the hook. Those things have scary teeth!

We learned a lot in those years, though some of you who have fished with me in recent years, might rightfully wonder just where that fishing expertise has gone. The family joke when I go fishing around here is that if Laura wants fish for dinner, she goes to the store! Nevertheless, I have fond memories of those days and I couldn’t help but reflect on them when I read the gospel lesson for this week. It seems that at least a third of Jesus’ disciples earned their living by fishing on the Sea of Galilee. That’s a beautiful place too, ringed by mountains and hills on three sides. It’s green and lush by Middle East standards, though it’s already a couple of hundred feet below sea level, feed by the Jordan river from the snow and rain off mount Hermon.

Jesus found those men at their craft – fishing and tending their equipment. They usually fished with nets instead of hooks and lines, but still there is quite an art to it. When I was there a few years ago, We saw several folks using small throw nets along the shore, but no fish got caught.

The Gospel of Mark’s account is remarkable for its brevity: Mark 1:16-20 NRSV

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. [19] As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Can you imagine? They got up and left, just like that. The text says twice that they immediately left their jobs and livelihood to follow Jesus. James and John even left their Dad sitting there in the boat, no doubt wondering what was going on? The immediacy stressed all through Mark’s gospel and particularly here at the beginning fits right into Jesus’ message that he had begun to preach in earnest after the arrest of John the Baptist: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near”. In other words, this is it, the waiting is over, the time is now! In that brief encounter they gave up being fishers of fish and began the process of becoming fishers of men. Still, as I reflected on it this week, it occurred to me that there are some interesting similarities and contrasts between the two professions. Some of their skills would transfer.

First, let’s think together about some of the similarities between fishing for fish and sharing the gospel – that is, being fishers of Human-kind instead of Fish-kind. Some of the basics are similar: you’ve got to use the right bait for the right fish. They go for different things – crappie like a nice live minnow. Bluegill will come for miles for a nice juicy worm or a leach. Bass are often attracted to motion, so we used shallow running plugs and top water lures for them. Those big sleek pike liked to chase their prey and so we trolled for them with larger spoon type lures – with a steel leader of course to deal with those teeth.

Now I’m not saying that fishers of men need to usually worry about being bitten, but various folks are different from each other aren’t they? What interests one may not work with others – Paul wrote about his experience this way in one of his letters to the Corinthians: (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 NRSV) [20] To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. [21] To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. [22] To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I’m sure this was one of the lessons Jesus had to teach those Galilean fishermen. You cant just go net folks to bring them into the kingdom, you have to approach them with something they’ll respond to.

Another lesson Grandpa taught us about fishing, was this – you have to go to where the fish are. Fishing off a nice smooth sandy beach might be easy – no weeds, no tree limbs, but also no fish bigger than minnows. If you want bass, you have to go around the trees and the weeds. The better fishermen in this crowd can likely give you chapter and verse about the importance of depth of water, shelter and structure to fishing. Making disciples is similar. Jesus went all over the land – into the cities, out in the countryside – into homes – anywhere he perceived the need. Yes, after he was well known, the crowds came to him – but he was the Messiah after all. The disciples couldn’t rely on the same draw and neither can we, by the way. If all the evangelism we do is heartily greet those that walk in our doors of their own accord, we will be sadly disappointed in the catch.

Another similarity is the importance of timing. Fish don’t respond equally at all times and neither do people. Many fishermen like the early morning when the fish are just becoming active. Others fish in the evenings or at specific times. Sometimes they bite like crazy and then …. nothing… for hours. Trying figure it out is the stuff of legend in the fishing world. So, if at first you don’t succeed try – try – try again. Keep at it and your odds go way up. Experts tell us that on average, people have to hear an invitation seven times before they begin to take it seriously!

I remember one of the earliest lessons Grandpa tried and tried to teach us – and one of the hardest to remember – Don’t scare the fish! We used a little 12’ aluminum boat with a little 12 horse outboard motor. When you dropped the tackle box off the seat it made a huge racket. Grandpa would patiently tell us to be more quiet and then we would move off somewhere else since any fish with any sense at all had fled at that noise. When you approach people about the good news – do so with love and care. Don’t scare the fish! Don’t drop a big load of technical theology on them – they will scatter! Don’t present a scary vision of a vengeful God – they will flee. Tell them of the great love of God – who sent his only son in human flesh, so that we might relate to God come to his eternal home. Don’t scare the fish!

Not everything matches up though, there are some very important differences. You’ve probably already been thinking of some. Several are pretty obvious – you won’t get in trouble for going over your limit – there are none! Size doesn’t matter – all are important and valued – particularly the small ones! After all, Jesus tells us that we all must become as a little child to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Now listen carefully, there is no such thing as a bad catch. I remember a few times I caught some really strange fish – once a rock bass, once I snagged a carp, several times a little bullhead. They all got thrown back – Grandpa said “we don’t keep those kind”. Interestingly the carp is a valued food fish in East Asia and highly prized in parts of Europe. Izaak Walton the English author of the 1600’s called them the “Queen of the Rivers” in his famous book “The Compleat Angler.” Thankfully God word tells us that in God’s eyes, all are the same. Nationality, race, sex doesn’t matter – only faith.

Remember the story of Jonah? We read a little bit of that wonderful story this morning. Jonah could definitely use some lessons on being a fisher of men, couldn’t he. He did almost everything wrong you could imagine. First he just flat refused to go. Matter of fact, he ran the other way. When God called him the second time – After the whole affair of being unsavory fish food himself – he went, but he did everything wrong. He offered no hope, no love. He thought the Ninevites vile, worse than any trash fish and wanted God to destroy them. In perhaps the worst sermon ever preached, he walked into the city and thundered : “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Then he stalked back out and waited to watch the fire and brimstone fall. How bitterly disappointed he was when they heard the warning, repented and asked God to forgive them – and of course God did just that.

Here’s the final point – ultimately anyone’s response is in the hands of God. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, opportunities abound and hearts and minds are opened. We are called just as Peter James and John were. We are also sent with the same task – to be fishers for the kingdom. The time is now. The call is urgent. Don’t wait for that really big fish with indigestion. Learn to fish from the master – our Savior Jesus.