A Boat, a Lake and a Big Pile of Fish
A Boat, a Lake and One Big Pile of Fish
February 3, 2019
So, I was thinking about this text this week and remembered something that had been long forgotten. It was the night that the high school basketball team that I was on had lost the state championship. The initial disappointment was over. The coaches had disappeared. We were completely unsupervised (as evidenced nine months later when one of the cheerleaders gave birth—oops!). Those of us who were not involved with cheerleaders did what any self-respecting teenage boy would do: we broke out onto the roof of the hotel we were staying in in Des Moines. It was by far the tallest building around (which probably meant that it was 8 stories high!) The stars were out. The view was amazing. It was sinking in—what happened here was really fun and pretty awesome, even if we lost. Then it happened. One of my teammates turned to me and said, “This is as great as our lives are ever going to be!”
He was elated when he said it. I have to admit that the thought terrified me! Literally, I remember standing there and having a kind of out of body moment of prayer, “Please God…seriously…don’t let this be as good as it gets!” (This might have been my most sincere prayer up to that point in my life other than an occasional mention of a cute girl.) Maybe if I had played more or if I had really liked my teammates more than I did (alas—a story for another day) I might have been more likely to have bought in. If you were a high school basketball player, it was true that the state championship was big. Those crowds do roar! However, everyone has gone back and visited their old school at some point and realized how small those lockers were and how constricted that world really was. It just seemed like that whole world sort of instantly shrank when that final game finished.
I’m not out to bore you with old sports stories today. Rather, what I want you to think about are the times in your life when this kind of a shift happened for you. You are rolling along, doing just fine, working toward your goals. The world is defined. You know your place and then…Bang! Things change. What once meant everything suddenly feels so small and so done and gone. You are disoriented and invigorated and bewildered all at the same time. You’re not quite sure where you are going next but you know that it’s not where you were headed yesterday.
If you can relate to such a moment in life then you can connect to our text for this morning. People’s lives are about to be changed for every and they don’t have a clue. Jesus is on the shore of Lake Gennesaret. A huge crowd is there to hear him. (Again, the crowds are pumped. There is at least a buzz if not a roar. Folks are excited to hear this man who speaks with such authority.) Maybe some of the people in the crowd’s lives changed that day. We don’t know. However, lives are changed in the next few minutes.
When the crowd presses in on Jesus, things get a little uncomfortable. Again, that’s probably a “been there and done that” moment for most of us. I remember a Springsteen concert that I was at. I was standing in the general admission section on the main floor. No one had a seat. That meant anyone could try to press forward through the crowd to get closer to the stage. It also meant that the moment Bruce hit the stage, the crowd was going to surge. People have died in crowd moments like that. That didn’t happen that night though because this was an…experienced…ok…older crowd. People who didn’t know each other exchanged glances and the unspoken words communicated were, “We’re not surging!”
In addition to the security issue at the lake for Jesus, there was also the issue of amplification. People can get mad because they can’t see. People can get mad because they can’t hear. Angry people can quickly turn a crowd into a mob. At this point, I’ve wondered if the angry mob in Nazareth who tried to throw Jesus off a cliff isn’t fresh in Jesus mind? In any event, Jesus does two very interesting things.
First, Jesus sees two boats tied up near shore. The fishermen who owned the boats were off cleaning their nets. Without even asking, Jesus climbs into one of those boats, the one that happened to belong to Simon who would later be called Peter. On this day, though, Simon is just a fisherman doing the least liked task for any fisherman in that day: cleaning his nets. You have to clean those nets or they rot. In the process, you smell bad, get dirty, and generally feel like you’ve been slimed. Jesus takes Simon’s boat, which was an essential piece of equipment in the business of feeding a village and turns it into a pulpit. From that perch, he has enough distance from the crowd to not be overwhelmed. And, the crowd can all see him. In that pulpit, he can teach.
The other brilliant thing that Jesus does when he pushes that boat out onto the water is that he turns the lake into a microphone. Now, if you have ever spent any time on a lake at all, you know this is true. If you are on a lake, even a big lake, and there is not a lot of other noise around (which, of course in Jesus day, would have been true) then the water becomes a giant amplifier. You can sit on one side of a lake and hear the conversation that the folks in the boat half way across the lake are having and they are simply speaking in their normal voices. You hear everything more clearly. God forbid if there are teenagers cruising and banging out music! You are going to be right there banging along with them.
So, Jesus works with what he has available to accommodate the crowd. That’s the first thing that I want us all to see. Things are never perfect. The conditions are never ideal. So much of life is about “making do” and doing the best you can with what you have. If we can just hang in there and be a little creative and consider the needs of the people around us, we just might figure out how to make things work. Jesus was big on improvising. Maybe we should be, too…
Again, though, the point of the story is not that the crowd hears what Jesus has to say and they all convert. The crowd which could have turned into a mob didn’t. Sometimes, that’s a good day in and of itself. However, beyond that, Luke doesn’t tell us anything more about the crowd. Instead, his attention turns to the owner of the boat.
Again, Jesus has already planted the seeds for something here. Without ever asking, he makes use of Simon’s boat. Simon could have said, “Get your sandals off my boat, dude!” However, he doesn’t. He just keeps cleaning his nets. Still, though, I’m pretty sure that Simon has his eye on the guy in his boat the whole time. I think Simon’s silent consent, though, is Jesus—the guy who fishes for people—setting the hook. He is listening and he has helped make this whole Jesus’ moment happen by helping to provide the pulpit and the microphone.
Then, Jesus returns the favor. In return for the use of his boat, Jesus gives Simon a fishing tip: “push out into the deep water and let your nets out for a catch.” Now, this is the real test for Simon. Simon is known as one of the wise fishermen in the area. A whole village eats or doesn’t eat depending on his success or failure. Wisdom said, “This day is over. Time to get off the lake.” So, it would have been entirely possible for Simon to just reject the advice and get defensive: “Who are you to tell me how to fish?” Of course, the second problem is that they’ve just cleaned the nets! The worst job of the day has just been finished. Everything is tidy and in its place. “Really, Jesus…could you ask me to do anything less convenient? Whether we catch fish or not, what you are doing is guaranteeing that I’m going to have to start the whole cleaning process all over again!”
So, in Luke’s hands, this story has transformed from a story about Jesus preaching to a crowd into a story about Jesus and his encounter with Simon. And what we should be hearing is a story that should speak to every one of us. Jesus speaks to Simon and what he says directly challenges what Simon is sure he knows. Simon is sure he knows fishing. Jesus tries to tell him how to fish. What is it that we are sure that we know? What if somehow we realized that who Jesus was and how he lived directly challenged what we are sure that we know. Would we stay open? Would we keep listening? Or would we we turn on our heals and say, “Jesus, you don’t know Jack!” (Haven’t we all done that already when we heard those words of Jesus that spoke to us and ignored them and did what we wanted to do anyway?) Here is the thing though…Simon keeps listening.
Here’s the even bigger thing. Not only is Simon willing to entertain the notion that he might be wrong about something that he is almost always sure that he is right about, he is also willing to be inconvenienced. I think that if we are really honest about our lives and the choices that we make, it is a big deal when we choose to do something that is utterly inconvenient. There is an amazing story told about a seminary. A great preacher preached a sermon to the whole student body about the Good Samaritan and responding to those in need. Then, a person was planted outside the sanctuary who was in obvious pain and need. What happened? The students walked right on by. Some were even discussing the great sermon they just heard. They had classes they had to attend and papers they had to write. They had plans. Who could be bothered with taking care of someone in need? At one point, the guy playing the person in need moved and the students literally stepped over him to get on with their lives. Oops…
God challenges our sense of ourselves and our competency. However, perhaps even more challengingly, God asks us to drop what we are doing and do what we don’t want to do. In Simon’s case, the calling is to fish when he didn’t think fishing was smart and get his nets dirty when he had just gotten them cleaned up. AND SIMON DOES WHAT JESUS TELLS HIM TO DO! (This, my friends, may be Simon Peter’s best moment of all!) Yes, he whines a bit first…but then he does it. And almost as soon as the nets are in the water they are nearly breaking with fish. Simon signals for his buddies to bring out another boat. The two boats are so loaded up with fish that they both nearly sink before they get to shore.
Now, objectively, what you have at this point is a huge, stinky, slimy, pile of fish. They are flipping and flopping and gasping for breath. You and I might look at them and hold our nose and walk the other way. We would do this for two reasons. First, fish might just not be our thing. Sure, a little salmon every now and then is ok. However, it’s not like we’ve devoted our lives to commercial fishing. Second of all, we wouldn’t be all that excited because we don’t live with the pressure of feeding a village. What we have to realize though is that this catch is the prize that Simon and the others have dreamed of every day that they went out. This has been the whole goal all along and it has just happened. And—here’s the kicker—it only happened because they got a tip from a stranger.
To put things in a different way, the men felt awe but not awe for a huge, stinky, slimy, pile of fish. They felt awe for someone who knew what they didn’t know and made something happen that they could never even have imagined. They have caught a glimpse not of a new fishing strategy but of an entirely different way of being in the world. Simon, who like a lot of us can feel pretty full of himself, particularly when what he’s good at is at stake, falls to his knees and feels unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. Yet, instead of humiliating Simon, Jesus invites him instead to come do something that matters way more than a big pile of fish. “Have you ever considered fishing for people? I’d love to show you how.”
That’s the thing we realize along the way in life, we achieve something and we think, “Oops…wrong dream!” It could be a big crowd applauding some high school sports event. It could be a big pile of money. It could be the set of letters of all the degrees that you’ve ever earned, carefully typed after your name. Of course, it is satisfying to have goals and work hard. At the end of all that goal setting and hard work though, it is also possible to stand there and feel pretty empty. That’s when we need to listen for what challenges what we think we know. That’s when we need to listen for what just sounds horribly inconvenient. That’s when we need to be willing drop everything—the boats and the nets and all our plans and say, “You lead, Lord…I’ll follow.”