Sunday, February 4, 2007

Depart [ ] Me

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Luke 5:1-11

It never really sounded appealing to me. Why would you want to go to a river or get out on a lake and sit there holding a pole with a line that you cast out into the water? Yes, there’s some excitement in catching a fish… but the sitting there waiting, it seemed like a waste of time. So I never had much of a desire to go fishing.

But three of my friends in college loved to fish. So I went out with them a few times. They knew all the tricks and had all the right equipment. They would give me a pole and some line and some bait and I thought, how hard can it be? How is using all that stuff they use and knowing where to cast the line and how to cast it and all the tricks of the trade different from just getting the bait into the water? If the fish are there, won’t they see it and bite?

Well, while I was sitting there waiting for the fish to bite, my friends would be catching fish as if they were coming right out of the water onto their laps. There was a lot more to fishing than I realized. They were good at it because they had taken the time to learn the craft. And for my friends this was just a hobby.

Peter spent his life learning the craft of fishing because it was his profession. He knew the ins and outs and was constantly honing his craft. His professional operation was not quite as simple as throwing the line into the water waiting for the fish to bite. The kind of fishing he and his crew did was hard work. There were no poles. Rather, there were huge nets that were weighted around the edge. Long nights were spent putting the net down in the right place and hauling it up from a big catch. Not only did the fish have to be cleaned but also the nets.

I admire them and their work but don’t envy them and their line of work. They made their living because they were good at what they did, but they also endured times where they saw little results. Now how do you think my friends would have reacted if I had sat there and told them what to do and where to cast the line? They would scoff at me because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

This is how Peter felt when Jesus told him to cast the nets into the water. Jesus, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re professional fishermen. We do this for a living. We know what we’re doing. You may be a very talented rabbi, but you don’t know the first thing about fishing. Peter tries politely to point this out to Jesus. We’ve been working hard all night! If that hasn’t done it, nothing we do now will.

But Jesus doesn’t show up where Peter is fishing to tell him how to do his job. In fact, He got into the boat in the first place because He needed room to do what He was really there for—teaching the Word of God. Peter was busy cleaning the nets but he was hearing Jesus proclaim the Word of God. It’s in this setting Jesus tells him to put down the nets. He even says why, to catch fish. Peter is reluctant but nevertheless says: “But at Your Word, I will.”

Jesus was no fisherman. But He is God. And He is the Savior. Peter had done all he could through the night in his toil and came up empty. Jesus concluded His proclamation of the Word of God with a miraculous catch of fish. What was it that constrained Peter to fall before Jesus and confess his sinfulness? The Word of Christ. It has that power. It brings about what it says. Jesus said let down the nets for a catch, and a catch there was.

If Peter was unable to make a catch of fish like that on his own, being the professional fisherman he was, how much less would he be able to be a fisher of men, being unworthy, a sinful man? How could Isaiah, a man of unclean lips, minister to a people of unclean lips? The Word of the holy God has this effect on people. It brings us to our knees. It flattens us with the realization that we’ve come up empty.

Peter doesn’t even make a confession of sins. That is, of specific sins. His confession is that of Isaiah’s, of utter sinfulness. He is unable to stand in the presence of his holy Lord. If he, a professional fisherman, can’t bring in fish like Jesus, he knows he has no chance when it comes to righteousness. “I’m undone,” Isaiah cried before the holy Lord. “Depart from me,” Peter pleaded with Jesus.

But God would have none of it. Why did He come to Isaiah in the first place? Why did Jesus come to Peter? Not to flatten them but to take away their guilt. “You’re sin is atoned for,” the angel assures Isaiah. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus comforts Peter. And you think a net-breaking catch of fish is something? You will see greater things than these. I am making you into a fisher of men. You catch fish to kill them so they can be eaten. You will catch men so that they may live.

I’ve since learned that there’s more to fishing than just catching fish. There’s something to be said for being out there in nature and just sitting and waiting. Enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. Taking in the peaceful flow of the river. Having time to be away from the cares of the world and the pressures of everyday life. No, I don’t have a passion for it, but I can see why people do. I can appreciate how someone like Peter loved it so much that they want to do it for a living.

You think Isaiah and Peter had a passion now for being fishers of men after the Holy God had called them to that vocation? Were they now going to work each day brimming with excitement, ready to dig in the trenches and call people to repentance and share with them the Good News of Christ? I don’t know. Maybe they had days like we do, where it doesn’t seem all that exciting. Maybe Peter had days where he longed to get back out on the lake and bring in a good haul.

But yes, they did now have a passion for what God had called them to do. But it had nothing to do with any excitement they might have felt, or not, about it. The passion they had now for being fishers of men was something that God Himself had given them in cleansing them of their sin, renewing them in heart and mind, making out of their sinful flesh a new creation.

This is Jesus’ passion. His passion is you and me and every other sinner that has walked the face of the earth. His passion is to come to us and atone for our sins. His one true love is you and me, coming to us not in vengeance but with mercy, His declarative Word to us: “Do not be afraid, I give you new life.” You will now catch men. You will be a new person, one who is as I am.

And is this now because we’re gung-ho about our new calling? Is that what the passion is Christ gives us? No, it is His righteousness. It is He that is our new life. We are no longer our own. Our passion for bringing the Gospel to the lost is not a motivation we now feel, it is Christ in us. The angel took the coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips to cleanse him from sin. From this very altar the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed on the altar of Calvary touches your lips in the bread and wine to cleanse you from sin. When you receive this most precious gift of Christ Himself hear His words also: “Do not be afraid.” Your sin is forgiven.

You are now a catcher of men. It’s true that every day you are able to say with Peter to your Lord, “Depart from me, I am a sinful man.” But hear His Word to you. He does not depart from you. He gives you, in fact Himself. “Depart in Me.” Go in peace. Serve the Lord in this joy. In Him. Amen.

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