“Gone Fishing” Mark 1:14-20 (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) January 24, 2018
An old-timer sat on the riverbank, obviously awaiting a nibble, though the fishing season had not officially opened. A uniformed officer came up and stood behind him quietly for several minutes. “You the game warden?” the old-timer inquired. “Yup” was the response. Unruffled, the old man began to move the fishing pole from side to side. Finally, he lifted the line out of the water. Pointing to a minnow wriggling on the end of the line, he said, “Just teaching him how to swim.”
Mark Twain once spent a pleasant three weeks in the woods of Maine, and was now on his way home. As he was making himself comfortable in the train on the way back to New York, a sour-faced New Englander sat down across from him, and the two struck up a conversation. The stranger asked Mark Twain, “Been to the woods, have ya?” “I have indeed,” replied Twain. “And let me tell you something. It may be closed season for fishing up here in Maine, but I have a couple of hundred pounds of the finest rock bass you ever saw iced down back in the baggage car. By the way, who are you, sir?” The man replied, “I’m the state game warden. Who are you?” Twain responded, “Pleased to meet you. Who am I? Only the biggest liar in these United States.”
Fish stories; gotta love `em. What brings them to mind this morning are today’s readings. The Gospel lesson with Jesus’ call to four fishermen who he says he will make into “fishers of people.” And the Old Testament text from the most popular of all fish stories, Jonah.
I would like to share a few thoughts about the texts and then move on to consider this “fishers of people” phrase and what that might mean for us today.
First, let’s look at the players in today’s Gospel reading. Simon (Peter), his brother Andrew, James, and his brother John are names with which the world has become familiar over the past 2,000 years of Christian history – but, in their own day, just average folks.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “God must love the common people – God made so many of them.” And the selection of these first disciples is just one more affirmation that God uses common people – just like you and me – to get the work of the kingdom done.
If you’re like me, you probably grew up thinking that this story about Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, James and John, to be his disciples was no big deal. One day Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee when he happened to see some poor fishermen who were tired and bored with their work. Jesus invited them to follow him, and they did, because just about anything would be better than sitting around fishing all day.
Now if that’s what you think today’s gospel reading is about, think again. In the first place, these fishermen were not poor. Poor fishermen lived on their boat, or under their boat or in tents on the seashore. Simon and Andrew were prosperous enough to live in a house. And James and John had hired hands that worked for them and their father.
These four men were entrepreneurs with thriving businesses. They belonged to a class in society that was on the lower end of the “haves.” But they were part of the “haves” and not the “have-nots.” And they were probably fierce competitors with each other.
What they left in order to follow Jesus was not failure or boredom or poverty, but prosperity. What they gave up was their livelihood, and in the case of James and John, their family as well.
Now when Jesus said, “Follow me,” he also promised to make them “fish for people.” What exactly does that mean?
First of all, it doesn’t mean baiting a hook and dangling it in front of people so they can be snagged for the kingdom of God. Simon and Andrew, James and John did not fish with hooks. They fished with nets. They threw nets over schools of fish and then dragged the fish to the shore.
When Jesus promised to make them “fish for people,” he implied that they would soon learn how to throw the net of God’s love over whole groups of people and then drag them out of the life they had known up to that time into a new life in the kingdom of God.
To “fish for people” is not to bait them with hooks, but to surround them with the net of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
Now where were these fishermen when Jesus called them? They were at work – catching fish, mending nets – going about their normal routine. Jesus is not limited to buildings.
Jesus meets us in the midst of our everyday lives.
What did Jesus call them to do? He said, “Follow me.” Not worship me. FOLLOW me. In other words, “tag along”; “hang” with me.
There is a very good chance these men had encountered this fascinating preacher before.
- No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened.
- No doubt they had stayed to talk long after the rest of the crowd had drifted away.
- No doubt they already had felt the magic of the presence of Jesus.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this story on how folks become disciples.
- Maybe it is about just being around Jesus.
- Picking up on the things that Jesus thinks are important – seeing what Jesus cares about, and what he gets upset about.
- Learning what the priorities of Jesus are.
You see, the more time we spend with Jesus in prayer, in reading the Bible or Bible study, in a small group, and in worship learning what are those priorities of Jesus? What is important to Jesus? The better disciples we become.
Jesus had a task for them. He told them, I will make you ‘Fish for People.’ What he says to the disciples then, he says to us today, namely: “You have some skills already; now put them to work in the service of the Kingdom!” And this is the primary task of us as Christian disciples today, namely we are to cast the nets, bait the hooks, and reach OUTSIDE of the boat.
I wish I could say that the church through the centuries has taken that task seriously, but we know better. For what it’s worth, the story of Jonah offers some perverse comfort in the realization that a reluctant witness is nothing new. Perhaps we would do better if we analyzed the problem and then found some ways to do a better job and handle this BIG responsibility I mentioned a moment ago.
Now, I am far from being an expert about fishing. But even one who has spent little time with a rod & reel can probably name a few basics about fishing.
For example, you cannot catch any fish if there are none to be caught. Makes sense; and that IS the excuse many folks use for not being “fishers of people.” They often say they do not know anyone who is not already “caught,” already a part of Christ’s church.
Want to know the facts? At least HALF if not more of the folks you know are effectively
UN-churched. Some of these people may have their name on a church roll somewhere, but they have not been to church for months or years for anything other than a wedding, a funeral or Christmas or Easter.
I guess the analogy might be that these people are fish that have jumped out of the boat and need to be “caught” again. No need to worry that there are no fish in the sea. There are plenty.
It also helps to know when the fish are biting. During warmer months, some weathercasters on TV or in the newspapers even give the best times of the day for anglers to be out on the water.
How about the “fish” that Jesus sends us after? One of the best opportunities is at a moment of transition; perhaps a birth or a death, new home, a new job, or even the loss of a job.
You see the dedicated and serious fishermen are ever watchful and sensitive to change. They watch the currents in the water, sniff the air for moisture, aware of changes in weather as lows and highs invade the atmosphere, watch the terrain under the boat looking for habitat that contain the fish. And when the situation calls for it they change, maybe fishing in deeper water, or switching lures when light intensity in the water changes.
Good lesson for those who “fish for people” as well. In other words, be sensitive to the changes in people’s lives that might make them hungry for a word of good news; or a hug, or a listening ear, or a helping hand.
Speaking of hunger, this brings to mind another basic: bait. You have to have something to attract the fish. It might be a flashy lure or some mouthwateringly scrumptious worm (gag), but to expect the fish to just jump in the boat for no reason will not work. Successful “fishers of people” will offer something to attract.
For example, an invitation to “Come to church with me sometime” will rarely work. It is too easy to say “Sure” to that and never give it another thought.
Instead, invite your friend to something particular: a distinctive worship service, some outstanding program, a small group of some type, or a special event. Be creative, but be specific. That way someone must actually make a decision, rather than put you off with a meaningless “Sure.”
Let me offer a little bit of advice for those of you reluctant people-fishers who are afraid you might be using the wrong bait; in other words, saying the wrong thing. Worry not! Remember Jonah in our first reading? There was nothing winsome or attractive about his message to Nineveh, but look what happened – the whole city was converted, was changed.
My point is that God can and does use the strangest witnesses to accomplish the kingdom’s purpose. Let yourself go – bait the hook, cast the net, and reach out in the name of the one who called those first fishermen on the shores of Galilee.
One final bit of fishing advice. Be patient. No one can be successful at fishing without perseverance. Remember God does not work according to our time, even in getting fish to respond to our efforts. If you give up after a few minutes, a few casts, without any bites or nibbles, you will never catch any fish.
It is the same in fishing for people: you have to keep on casting, keep on extending the invitation, and sometimes adjusting the bait. Give your efforts time to make an impact, and then let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
The late Paul Harvey once noted, “Too many Christians are no longer fishers of people but keepers of the aquarium.” Sad.
“Follow me,” says Jesus. Tag along. “Hang” with me. A simple, straight-forward invitation which we can echo. And when we DO, it makes all the difference in the world.
For all the allure of fancy church buildings, and the world’s friendliest congregation, they pale in comparison to the hand of the person who reaches out to their friend, neighbor, or colleague, or anyone and says, “Come with me.”
Or to use the words from last Sunday, “Come & See!” Amen.
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, January, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 1-21-18” name of the sermon.