February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

“Caught in Jesus’ Net”

Do you know that feeling of wanting to avoid getting caught? Most likely there aren’t any bank robbers among us, but I expect that every one of us can relate to that fear of getting found out, or caught doing something that we shouldn’t be doing. Whether it’s cheating on a test or on our taxes, sleeping on the job or cutting a few corners to get it done quicker, stretching the truth to make ourselves look better or to avoid conflict, or speeding on the highway to get home, we want to avoid getting caught.

Getting caught will mean facing up to consequences – maybe punishment, fines, or losing our job… maybe the more subtle but devastating consequences of losing our reputation, losing trust, or losing a relationship because of what we have done or failed to do.

Before this week, I had never thought about that sense of “being caught” when I read the story about the miraculous catch of fish. And when Jesus invited the fishermen to join in his work of “catching people” it never occurred to me that they would be finding sinners and “catching them” in their sinfulness.

Although I thought of the image of “fishing for people” as an ancient concept, I only knew the reference from the Gospel story, so I was missing some of the meaning that the fishers themselves would have noticed. You see, in the writings of the prophets, in Jeremiah, Amos, and Habbakuk at least, “fishing for people” is mentioned. But it doesn’t refer to God’s salvation, but rather to God’s judgment. When the prophets write about “fishing for people” they are talking about the unrighteous and the unjust people being caught and pulled up by hooks and nets.

Listen to this message of judgment from Jeremiah, for example: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (Jeremiah 16:16-18)

Pretty harsh, huh? God is watching. God sees our sin and our failings, and we’re going to get caught and punished strictly.

The prophet Amos similarly warns: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:2)

I’ve always kind of wondered about Simon’s reaction to the miracle of the great catch of fish. Rather than rejoicing or giving thanks for the amazing abundance, he suddenly starts stammering about how sinful he is, admitting his failures, and backing away from Jesus.

Most people explain that part of the story by suggesting that when Simon witnessed the power and holiness of God in front of him in Jesus, the contrast made him suddenly aware of his own lack of holiness. It’s similar to the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning, who when he had that amazing vision of God in the temple, he became deeply aware of his uncleanness.

One commentator puts it like this: “Simon is convinced he’s unclean, and unless some seraphim comes along and purifies him, he’d best withdraw in fear and trembling. For after all, what does God do with sinners – but punish them? Dreading the worst, Simon collapses at Jesus’ feet.

And maybe Simon remembered what the prophets said about fishing for people. Maybe that was what came to his mind and scared him half to death when he witnessed all those fish being caught. I wonder if he felt like he’d just been caught like a fish on a hook or trapped in a net, and soon he would be suffering the consequences.

Simon doesn’t know it yet, but we know, and he will soon discover that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn us, but to save us. That’s the way the Gospel of John expresses Jesus’ mission. Jesus came announcing judgment, yes, but also mercy and grace.

With the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus co-opts an ancient image of divine wrath – and turns it inside out. Imagine Jesus saying this to Simon, in the midst of his outburst about not being worthy: “You’re afraid of getting caught in one of God’s nets? Well, I’ll tell you what, from now on you’ll be the one catching sinners! And not so they might be damned, mind you, any more than you’re being damned today. On the contrary, we’re out to catch sinners so they might be saved! Take heart, Simon, and don’t be afraid: the Great Jubilee has begun!”

Although Simon fears it, Jesus doesn’t punish him for his sins. Nor does he merely forgive him. Rather, he recruits him. He calls him to his side. The perfect reversal of expected punishment isn’t simply the absence of condemnation; it’s the presence of communion, friendship, trust, and companionship along the way. It’s saying to someone who’s done you wrong, “Come, let’s work together. I trust you. Follow me.”

The fact that you are here for worship this morning is an indication that you also have been caught in Jesus’ net. You didn’t have to earn your way into the community of Jesus’ followers through great faith, knowledge, or works of service. You were caught in Jesus’ net, just as you are, with all your failings and faults, fumblings and fears.

Every time we gather for worship, we are reminded that God does not wish to condemn and punish us, as much as we may deserve it at times. As we approach God in our opening prayers, we confess our sins and hear an assurance of God’s love and grace.

But we don’t linger in that moment – beating ourselves up for our mistakes, wallowing in the awareness of our limitations. We remember that, like in Simon’s story, God graciously forgives, and then swiftly sends us out to live transformed lives of sharing God’s mercy and grace with others. We are recruited for service, and sent out to fish for people.

The experience on the lake that day had much to teach Simon and the other fishers, and their story has much to teach us today. Perhaps most importantly, we are encouraged to know and to embrace the fact that God works with and through questionable characters like us. No sooner has Simon confessed he’s a sinner than Jesus asks him to join his team!

Can we remember that when someone asks us to get involved in a new ministry role in the church, or to take on a new project that serves God’s purposes in the community? Our feelings of unworthiness and fear, while understandable, are precisely what God wants to dispel. God believes in us, and so we should, too.

And when we do get up the courage and go out fishing with Jesus, can we remember to treat those other fish the way that Jesus has treated us? Can we share our faith, and show our love, and invite our neighbours into the community of God’s family with loving care?

Using a net, rather than a hook. Our goal is to gather, not to maim or to kill. Our goal is to gather them all, not only some. Let us rejoice in the great variety and diversity of sizes, shapes, and colours of those fish. Let us remember that every one is a beloved child of God whom Jesus wishes to gather into God’s family.

Remember that fearful feeling of trying to avoid getting caught? It feels terrible, doesn’t it? And it never stops if we keep avoiding the authorities who would hold us to account for our behaviour. If we keep running, we’ll always be afraid.

The way to find relief from that fear – from that anxiety about being discovered and “found out” is to let ourselves be caught. Stop swimming away from Jesus’ net! Trust that even though God knows absolutely everything about us, God loves us still. God forgives us, recruits us, and sends us out to participate in Jesus’ mission.