The Third Sunday After the Epiphany – January 124, 2021
One time, when I was a kid growing up in the North Okanagan-Shuswap, Dad gathered my sisters and me into the car, and drove on Mabel Lake Road to the bridge that crosses Bissette Creek. It was just a mile or so from our farmyard. It was September and the time of day was early evening, after milking the cows. We came there to see the Kickininee (land-locked sockeye salmon, smaller than the sea-going kind) migrating from Mabel Lake upstream through the Shuswap River, and upstream further still to the spawning shoals in Bissette Creek.
It was quite a spectacle. The stream was alive not only with the current but now also with these determined, brightly coloured creatures fulfilling their genetic destiny.
And then we were treated to a second drama: a couple of teenagers from Lumby fishing for those Kickininee. They were just finishing up as we arrived, and threw their catch into two gunny-sacks. They tied their sacks together, looped them over a pole that they shouldered between them, and headed back to Lumby … but not on the road; instead, upstream through the creek and then across the farmers’ fields.
Why? Because they had been spearing the fish with pitchforks … and that practice is illegal. They didn't want to get caught!
Jesus came up to Simon and Andrew, two fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
How does God fish for people? And how should Simon and Andrew and you and I fish for people?
How does God catch us?
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
Immediately. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Now, that’s fishing! Jesus’ word to them was so brief – just one sentence – and they just dropped their nets and followed him. They left their vocations, their means of making a living, and followed Jesus. He bid them come and do some catching.
But it looks like they’re the ones who have been caught!
Quite a contrast to Jonah who is featured in our First Lesson for today. God had called Jonah to go and prophesy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah’s response was to run away as fast and as far as he could. His reason? He hated the people of Nineveh! By prophesying to them he would surely be proclaiming God’s judgement – he was more than happy with that part. But if they repented then just as surely he would be proclaiming God’s forgiveness. It was this second part that he couldn’t stomach.
Several times in Jonah’s story he says by his words and his actions that he would rather die than proclaim forgiveness and life to the people of Nineveh. But God persisted. God kept working on that resistant, stubborn man who did not want to be a servant of God’s redeeming will, and eventually God accomplished in Nineveh what God intended: the repentance of everyone, from the king right down even to the lowliest of servants. Even animals were included in the city’s expressions of repentance.
And what about Jonah? By the end of the story it’s not clear whether he is now “in sync” with God. It’s not clear whether the catcher has been caught. The last thing he says is that he is angry enough to die.
So it’s very refreshing for us to read and hear that when Jesus, God’s beloved son, calls Simon and Andrew – and then James and John – to follow him, they immediately drop their nets and follow Jesus. Jesus is, of course, the servant of the Voice that spoke at his baptism. Jesus is the personal embodiment of God’s love and mercy. Jesus is the way of redemption that God provides for all people.
He speaks to four fishermen, and they immediately drop their nets and follow him. What a contrast to the story of Jonah! It looks to me like the catchers have been caught!
In the ancient Mediterranean world, fishing and everything related to it was highly taxed. People who wanted to fish commercially had to apply for licenses for just about every aspect of fishing: catching the fish, off-loading them in the harbour, processing the fish, and then distributing the food throughout the region.
The Roman administration licensed and taxed just about every conceivable phase of that industry, precisely because Rome knew that food and food processing and distribution were essential. As long as there were fish available to catch, there would be a fishing industry and a related business.
But unlike our contemporary situation, where much of the revenue generated from the licensing fees and taxes is used to administrate the industry and deliver services back to it, in the Roman empire the revenue generated from regulation was mostly used for one thing: making life good for the ruling elites, with Caesar at the top of the pyramid.
Meanwhile, shore-fishermen like Simon and Andrew were pretty close to the very bottom, as were the hired men in Zebedee’s boat. Even fishermen who owned boats, like Zebedee and his sons, James and John, couldn’t dare to dream the great North American dream of “getting ahead,” because it just wasn’t possible in that elitist system.
So, here comes Jesus. His way of fishing was very instructive. He didn’t dangle any bait in front of these people. He didn’t make any promises about happiness, self-improvement, financial success, or personal or spiritual fulfillment. The only promise he made was that he would make them fish for people. And on the basis of these briefest of words, the men followed him.
Now, the Bible identifies 3 different methods of fishing: with a trident (a three-pronged fork); with hook and bait; and with a net. In the New Testament Gospels, the only method that we read about is net-fishing. So when Jesus called those first disciples to follow him, and told them that they would be fishing for people, I have no doubt that the image that he and those first disciples had in mind was a net sweeping through the water, indiscriminately gathering in every kind of fish in its path.
Is that the image that we imagine when we think about fishing?
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, from John’s Gospel, Jesus said of Nathanael: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” The Greek word which we translate “deceit” literally means “bait.” When followers of Jesus fish for people their methods will not include bait. We don’t entice people into the faith by dangling something attractive in front of them. We don’t deceive people, even if we believe that in the end the deception would be for their own good.
Rather, we faithfully proclaim what the followers of Jesus have handed down to us from generation to generation, and we trust in Jesus’ authority to produce the catch. Indeed, Jesus has already cast the net and pulled in the first catch!
Jesus had bid Simon, Andrew, James, and John follow him. He told them that henceforth he would make them fish for people. He spoke as if they were going to do the catching – and indeed they would! But the first catch of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ is made up of those whom he calls to do the catching.
We’re caught – all of us! – caught in the net propelled by God’s power, caught together with people of every kind and description.
We will see the truth of this in the coming months as Mark’s story of Jesus unfolds. Ever so slowly, the truth begins to sink in: our only hope for salvation is God’s authoritative Word in Jesus Christ. God must speak with God’s all-powerful word in order for us to be saved. We have to be caught by God. That may offend our sensibilities, but it’s true.
Jesus has arrived on the scene. He comes to forgive sin. He speaks with authority; he changes lives. By his life-changing word, he catches us whom he calls to do the catching … even as he empowers you and me to speak with that same authority, for the sake of faith, for the sake of life.
Follow me … and I will catch you in your act of catching!