Did you hear about the fisherman who had sat by the river all day, and nothing was biting. It seemed like a waste of a day, but on the way home he called into the fishmongers and asked the shop assistant to throw a couple of fish at him. The assistant looks at him and wonders what he’s at - he says, ‘It’s so that when I get home, I can at least say that I caught them!’
In our Bible reading today, Simon has had a night like that. Except, he wasn’t just sitting by the riverside enjoying a packed lunch and some peace and quiet. He was a fisherman by trade - out in the lake of Gennesaret (Galilee), working by boat all night, dragging along the huge nets, trying to catch the fish. It’s been a disappointing night. They’ve caught nothing.
They’ve given it up for a bad job, and so Simon and his colleagues are washing their nets, checking them over, making them ready for the next night. As they’re doing this, Jesus comes along. As usual, the crowd are following him, listening in as he teaches, but they’re pressing in. Jesus gets into Simon’s boat, asks him to go out a wee bit, and from there, Simon’s boat becomes a pulpit. Jesus teaches the crowds.
When Jesus finishes, though, he says something strange: ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Let’s go fishing. Now imagine that I, a self-confessed townie, were to land on your farm to try and give you advice on lambing or milking. Or if I were to tell you how to do knitting or patchwork, despite never having picked up a knitting needle before. Or how do you think it would go if you were to ring up Ryan Giggs to give him some tips for his next match?
You’d tell me to run and jump. You know more about it than me. It would be like trying to teach your granny to suck eggs. So when Jesus tells Simon to let down his nets, you can see the reaction on his face. This carpenter teacher, who could heal his mother-in-law, ok, but what does he know about fishing?
‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ There’s a reluctance - he thinks it’s stupid, a waste, even more effort after a night of useless work and a morning of cleaning the nets. Even so, however reluctantly, he still calls Jesus ‘Master’, he will obey. ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’
In what seemed like a clear lake, completely empty of fish, suddenly, the net can’t contain them - ‘they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.’ Even when they call for John and James to bring their boat over, there are still too many fish! They filled both boats (these were probably twenty feet long and six or seven feet wide) so that they began to sink. This is a lot of fish! A miraculous catch of fish. An amazing sight.
But Jesus was catching more than fish. Jesus was catching Simon. Simon has heard the teaching before - he was probably in the synagogue from last week. He had watched as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But now Jesus is in his boat, in his world, the place he knows best - and Jesus displays his power and authority.
Simon Peter falls at Jesus’ knees and look at how he responds: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ Jesus shows the control he has over his creation - in guiding the fish (and so many) into the nets. He reveals in this incident that he is no less than God - and Peter is suddenly exposed in the presence of God.
Did you notice the change in how he spoke to Jesus? Earlier it was ‘Master...’ but now it is ‘Lord’ - not just respect, but submission. He recognises that Jesus is God, and uses the same word used of God in the Old Testament. Lord.
Face to face with God, Simon’s first reaction is not how great it is; or how wonderful the fish will taste. No, his first reaction is his awareness of his sin. He wants to hide, to get away from God. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ It’s the same reaction of Adam and Eve in the Garden as they hid from God when they became aware of their sin. Or think of the prophet Isaiah when he sees the Lord seated in the temple - ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips...’ (Is 6:5)
I wonder if you have been caught by Jesus? Simon already knew Jesus, but in a moment, he saw him in a new light, and was convicted of his own sinfulness. You’ve heard Jesus’ teaching; you know about him, but then, in a moment, you see him for who he is, the lights come on, you realise your sinfulness in a way you’ve never imagined before. At the very same time you’re drawn to Jesus, and yet driven to flee. It’s as if Jesus has caught you in his net, but you’re trying to get away.
What will Jesus say? How will Jesus respond? Look with me at verse 10: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ Where Simon is afraid, captivated by Jesus’ power, Jesus speaks a word of peace and comfort: ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s the same word of peace he speaks to us when we are convicted of sin; when we are afraid of the consequences. Do not be afraid.
But that’s not all. Jesus was catching fish; through that he was catching Simon. Now, he gives Simon a new job - to catch people. No longer will he be catching fish - his days in the boat are finished. Now, having met with Jesus; having seen his power revealing him to be God; Simon is to retrain to catch people.
It’s a great picture of what it means to be a Christian, isn’t it? Catching people and bringing them into the kingdom. Gathering them to hear and receive Jesus as their Master and Lord. Just as Jesus gave the miraculous catch of fish, so Jesus will give the catch of people as Simon and James and John leave the boats and nets and fish behind and follow Jesus. Just think of the first day that Simon Peter goes fishing - on the day of Pentecost, when 3000 people are ‘caught’ and added to the kingdom. Or the countless millions who are still being caught as the word is proclaimed, and they meet with Jesus.
How are we doing as a church in fishing for people? Are we bringing people to meet with Jesus in his word? Or are we content to just look after our own wee patch and keep things ticking over? Someone once said that we’re not called to be keepers of fishtanks and aquariums, but to be fishers of people - out in the world.
As Jesus demonstrates in those last verses, he is willing to make those who come to him clean - but how will they be saved if they don’t come? Are we bringing Jesus to them and them to Jesus?
When we see Jesus for who he really is - the Lord, God in control of all he has made - then we will seek to follow him, and do as he says. Perhaps we as individuals, and as a church family, need to keep listening to Jesus, and following as he catches people. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd March 2013.