And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (Lk 5:5). We all know that Peter said a lot of dumb things. He often put his foot in his mouth. But these words, recorded in Luke 5, are probably the second best thing that Peter ever said. “At your word I will let down the nets.” This is a great statement of faith. Think about it for a minute. Peter was a commercial fisherman. He wasn’t fishing for fun; he was fishing to survive, to put food on the table. He and his crew had been out all night and they caught nothing. I don’t know about you, but if I had to work all night, I probably wouldn’t be in the best mood by morning – especially once I found out that I wasn’t getting paid. Peter and company toiled all night long and caught nothing. This wasn’t the kind of fishing we like to do – sitting in a comfy boat with our feet up on a cooler full of beer. This was hard, physical, back-breaking labor. All night long pulling heavy, wet nets up out of the water by hand. But even when the sun came up, the work still wasn’t done. Before they could go home and sleep, the nets had to be cleaned, repaired, and folded – more hard work, and all for nothing.
While the men are taking care of their nets, along comes Jesus. To some he is a failed carpenter who abandoned the family business. To others, he’s a homeless wanna-be preacher, an uneducated and self-styled rabbi. First Jesus wants to sit in Peter’s boat and teach the crowd. “Fine. We’re not using the stupid boat anymore today. Help yourself.” But then Jesus wants more, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” (Lk 5:4). Now this is the point where all the frustration of the night before could have boiled over into an explosion. Fisherman are often crusty, and we know that Peter had the vocabulary to use oaths and curses. Peter might have been thinking, “Does this loser who can’t even hold a carpentry job think he’s going to come onto my boat and tell me how to fish? You want us to get out the nets that we just cleaned and put away because you think you know where the fish are? Are you kidding me?” That’s the PG version. Imagine that a stranger came to your place of work and started telling you how to do your job? How would you respond? Peter was a professional. He knew where the fish were. And he also knew that there are no fish out in the middle of the lake in the middle of the day. Peter could have said any number of unrepeatable things. Instead he said, “At your word I will let down the nets.”
What would cause someone like Peter to set aside everything he knows and listen to the foolish word of Jesus? Now that would take a miracle. We talk about the miraculous catch of fish, but what about the miraculous confession of Peter? This is impossible for men. It’s impossible for the carnal mind to trust in the word of Christ. So when you’re faced with a crisis – no fish, no peace, no joy – where do you often run? To your god, of course. We turn to the false gods of entertainment, self-help books, alcohol, or science. Surely, the missing piece in my life can be found in a new relationship. Maybe I should go on a diet. Perhaps it’s time to have another child or start a new career.
Here in the church, we often put our trust in a new program. We’ve got no fish, no new people in the pews. Never mind that Jesus said he would build his church; it’s up to us to do something to catch people. Let’s get rid of the net of the Gospel and instead put something shiny and flashy on a hook. Let’s reel people in with false promises and then we’ll talk about doctrine later. Let’s build bridges into the community. Why don’t we start a community garden? Let’s have free movie and popcorn night. That will bring people in. Let’s find out what people need and then tailor our message to fit. If Jesus had done a demographic study for the lake of Gennesaret, he would have known that you do not catch fish in the heat of the day. There has never been an evangelism program based on the ministry of our Lord. Why not? Because everybody knows that you will never catch fish by preaching the Law and the Gospel. Talking about sin and forgiveness is a real downer. Listen to the experts. They know how to fish. They know how to grow the church.
And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink (Lk 5:5-6).
Sometimes life seems to be a one catastrophe after another with short commercial breaks in between. Just like Peter, you thought your problem was that you didn’t have any fish. It’s a catastrophe! No job. No money. Not enough work. I’m swimming in debt. I need a new car. I want to get married. I wish I had kids. My life’s a disaster! But a short while later, there’s a new catastrophe: Too many fish! We’re going under. My job is killing me. I’m stressed out. I have too much work. I hate my boss. I want a new car. My marriage is falling apart. My kids are driving me crazy. We’re going to drown! And what’s Jesus doing about it? Jesus, I thought you were going to fix my problems, but since you got in the boat, they’re worse than ever.
And then like Peter, as we stand in the sinking boat in the presence of Jesus, suddenly we realize: The problem was never about fish – not enough fish, too many fish – the problem is sin. Sin and death is the reality for all fallen men. You were born already dead in sins and trespasses. It doesn’t matter whether you believe this or not. There is no explaining, no convincing, just sinking. Never mind the fish that are pulling you into the depths of the sea, the weight of your sin is threatening to drag you down into the depths of hell. And all your efforts, all the wisdom of this world, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the pieces of your broken life back together. The experts don’t know where the fish are, and they certainly don’t know how to keep you from drowning in your sin. We have more self-help books than any one person could read in a life-time and you know what? People are more miserable than ever before! We’ve got seminars on marriage, and child-raising, and education and for all that, the world continues to sink deeper and deeper into sin.
Peter looked around at the catch of fish and the sinking boats. He fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Finally, for the first time, Peter recognized his true problem. He stood in the presence of God incarnate, the Light of the world, and for the first time he saw himself reflected in the mirror of the Law. Peter knew and confessed, “I am a sinful man!” What happens to sinners who come into presence of the holy, righteous God? Drowning is not the problem – try incineration! God is an all-consuming fire. Mountains and hills melt like wax before him. Sinners are burned up as the chaff.
Peter cried out in terror, “Depart from me!” This is a horrible prayer, but it makes perfect sense to the carnal mind. When I encounter Jesus, I see what a great sinner I am. It’s unbearable. My sins are weighing me down. What should I do? Well, get rid of Jesus, of course. “Depart from me!” When I come to church and hear the truth of God’s Word that exposes my sin, it makes me feel terrible. It hurts my self-esteem. What should we do? Stop preaching the Law of God, of course! “Depart from me!” These are the solutions of the Old Adam.
Peter was doing so well. He said two good things in the same day, but like some vicars, he didn’t know when to quit. “Depart from me, Lord!” That’s probably the second worst thing that Peter ever said. Peter, if Jesus departs from you, if the Word of God departs from your midst, you will remain in your sin, and you will be lost forever! Thank God that the answer to some of our prayers is, “No.” No, I will never leave you or forsake you (He 13:5).
But what about our sin? Surely, God cannot dwell in the presence of sin and we are sinners! This is true. Then, as sinners, if God will not depart from us, we will surely perish! Indeed, God declares, “The soul that sins shall die” (Eze 18:4). But this is not the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways. His plan of salvation could never have entered into the heart of man – not even if all our experts sat around brainstorming for hundreds of years. Jesus says to you, “Your sin has been taken away. You will not die.” How can this be Lord? “Because your sin now belongs to me. Your guilt is my guilt. Your death will be my death. You will not sink and drown, for I will suffer the bitterness of death in your place.” So Christ stepped down into the deathly water of the Jordan carrying your sins upon his shoulders. The Lord of life was pulled under by the weight of the fish. Down to the bottom, to the depths of hell, weighted down by those whom he caught – Peter, James, John, and also you. As Jesus hung upon his cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). God the Father, who has promised never to leave you, never to depart from you, forsook his own Son instead of you. The holy, righteous anger of God was poured out upon Christ and he was incinerated in your place. The sin bearer was utterly consumed until nothing remained. The wrath of God was exhausted; it was spent, and your sin is also no more. It has been cast into the depth of the sea.
Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5:10b). These are words of Absolution. You need not fear to stand in the presence of God, because your sin has been forgiven. You shall not die, as the Psalmist says, but you shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord (Ps 118:17). Jesus did not come to catch Peter only. He did not die for your sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. Your absolution is also a commission to recount the deeds of the Lord. Those who are forgiven much also love much. This is not a program that the church follows, it’s who we are. Those who are caught in the net of the gospel always become fishers of men. And how do we fish? As our Lord has taught us – without hook or lure, but instead with the pure truth of God’s Word. We preach the uncomfortable gospel where we are not invited in the midst of a hostile world. We fish in places and times where the experts say there are no fish. We preach the Word of God in season and out, and the Lord continues to do what he has done since the day of Pentecost: He adds to the church those that are being saved (Ac 2:47). Luther said, “If I had lacked Your help, O Lord, I would have ruined everything long ago.” These words are true, for unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers build in vain (Ps 127:1). But we do not labor through the night in vain, for Christ is with us in the boat, in the holy ark of the church, and he has promised never to depart. Lord at your word, we will let down the nets. Amen.