Third Sunday after the Epiphany (B)
January 24, 2021
Text: Mark 1:14-20
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17; ESV). We love that verse, and this story, because it makes for one of the more vivid and exciting Sunday School lessons. And I’ve heard any number of pastors who are experienced anglers use this text as an excuse to tell some whoppers of fishing stories from the pulpit. Thankfully I’m not all that great a fisherman, so you don’t have to worry about that today. But it does happen, as it so often happens with favorite Sunday School lessons, that we are prone to reduce this saying to a moralism. The moral, we might say, is that if you really want to follow Jesus and be a faithful Christian, you ought to be reeling them in for the Lord. You should be always doing evangelism. And if you’re doing it right, you ought to be successful. And if you’re not successful, you’re not doing it right, and you must not be faithfully following the Lord. Now, it is true that you should do evangelism. As individual Christians, and as a Church, you should be concerned with the Evangel, the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you should be intentional about spreading it far and wide. But the moralistic preaching of this text falls into several common traps that I would warn you against.
One is the trap of making this text a simplistic command about a certain activity you ought to do, namely, evangelism. But that is not actually the command here. The command is to follow Jesus.
Another is this idea that evangelism and its results in any way depend on you. They don’t. Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men.” Not, “Follow me, and make yourselves fishers of men.” No, He does it. And He does it His way, in His time, on His terms. And we should never forget that sometimes these same guys from our text fish all night and catch nothing, until Jesus comes along and bids them cast their nets on the other side, and that is when they can hardly haul in the catch (Luke 5:1-11; John 21:4-8). Jesus makes the fisherman, and Jesus is responsible for the results.
And then there is this trap of using a text like this to preach evangelism without ever actually preaching the Evangel. This is what happens all the time at pastors conferences. “Go, get all motivated and excited (and guilted!) about evangelism. Spread the Gospel. Love the lost. Get out there and get busy.” Fine. True. But in that kind of sermon, the preacher never gets around to speaking the Gospel to you. He never actually applies the Gospel as Jesus gives it for you. And you can’t give what you don’t have. The Gospel has a content which is to be handed over in proclamation. And that content is this: The time is fulfilled… The time for which we’ve all been waiting since our first parents fell into sin; God’s appointed time, for the fulfillment of the Promise; the time to which all the Law and the Prophets pointed; that time has come. That is, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Because the King is here, Messiah, the Christ, our Savior from sin and death and hell. He has come. He has conquered. He now rules where Satan once held sway. He is here for you, to save you. Therefore, beloved in the Lord, Repent… Examine yourself. Confess your sins to God. Sweep them out of your life. And believe in the Gospel… All your sins are forgiven on account of the sin-atoning Blood of Christ, who has come to be your Savior, to take your sins away, to put them all to death in His body on the cross, to bury them in His tomb forever, to rise from the dead, bodily, to be your eternal life and salvation, to rescue you from death and condemnation, to raise you bodily on the Day of His glorious return.
That is the Gospel. That is the Evangel of evangelism. And when you hear that, you don’t need to be guilted into getting busy and getting out there. You will live in this reality: A forgiven, beloved, free, child of God and possessor of eternal life. Jesus has made you, fashioned you, created you a fisher of men. So you’ll tell people. And tell them what? This very Gospel. The Good News that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come in Jesus. That He is their Savior. That they should repent and believe in the Gospel, because salvation is an accomplished fact in Jesus.
Sometimes you’ll do this, and you’ll fish all night and catch nothing. What is that to you? Do you really think God is depending on you? Do you really think success depends on your creative and superior fishing methods? Just proclaim the Gospel. God will do what He will do. His Word never returns to Him empty (Is. 55:11). So just be who He has made you to be and speak what He has given you to speak. And who knows? Maybe all at once you will cast the net, and the haul will be beyond your wildest imagination. We should all be praying in these days of sore distress for just such a catch, for a great returning to the Lord, for repentance and faith and the salvation of many. But again, that all depends on Him, not us. We are simply given to cast the net. We are simply given to proclaim God’s Word.
Jesus is the Master Fisherman. Remember, He is the first Preacher to cast the net of proclamation in this morning’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Those are His Words. And that is the summary of the whole content of His preaching, and that is what every fisher of men who follows Him is given to proclaim. In other words, “Here is the Gospel of God’s victory over your enemies. You are now saved. Repent and believe it!” The fish are, of course, men, people, you, and by the net of the preaching, Jesus halls you into the Boat, which is His Kingdom, which here goes by the name “holy Christian Church.” It should not be lost on us that we are hauled out of the sea into the Boat of our salvation. To use a similar, but different, biblical illustration, the Church is the Ark, and we are the beasts. But to get back to fishing, Jesus pulls us out of the sea by the net of His Word. And in the Scriptures, the sea is the place of chaos, the haunt of demons, the swirling abyss. And that is as apt a description of this world and our fallen life in it as I’ve ever heard. See, as the Gospel is preached, Jesus rescues you from that, and brings you into this place of safety, until you reach the shore of that Promised Haven to come.
Now our Lord enlists others to fish… fish whom He’s caught to be fishers of men. He is always the Fisherman behind the fishermen. In the case of the disciples He calls in our text, they are to leave everything for this new occupation. For they will also be Apostles, Christ’s authoritatively sent ones, His messengers, His preachers, to speak in His stead. And they will appoint others for the apostolic ministry, not as Apostles, but as Christian pastors, to leave everything and devote their lives to this calling. This is important, and it is in no way opposed to the work He gives all Christians to do. That is a lie of the devil that pits lay people against clergy, as though they are in competition. Don’t believe it. Both are necessary. Both are gifts of God. Both, together, make up the Church. But our Lord has established a holy Office of the Public Ministry, to preach this Gospel and administer Christ’s Sacraments, that the net may be cast in every place. And woe to those preachers when they refuse to do His bidding. Jonah didn’t want to preach repentance and the Lord’s mercy to the Gentiles in Nineveh. Well, the Lord did a little fishing with him, anyway! Talk about a big fish! Jonah’s whole life, and death, and life again, would proclaim this Gospel. The sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-41), down to Sheol in the belly of the fish, on the Third Day death vomits him up again onto the shore… To proclaim God’s life-giving Word to the Ninevites. And he catches the whole city, and even the pagan king (Jonah 3). So a pastor had better preach, and he better preach faithfully, or the Lord may just throw him into the sea. And that is a very serious thing, to be thrown off the boat and into the abyss. That is what it means that pastors will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). God forbid it should ever happen to this pastor. This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes, “necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). But in the preaching of the Gospel, there is great reward. It is to follow Jesus, speaking His Word, through death and into life again, and in the end, by His grace and blessing, have a whole net full of fish to show for it.
But we usually like to talk about every disciple being a fisher of men. There is certainly truth in this. You may not be called to be a pastor, but you are called to follow Jesus. And you do have a part in the fishing. That is as a faithful Church member. Come to Church. Be filled with the Gospel. You are Baptized into Christ. Jesus died for you. Jesus is risen for you. Jesus loves you and rules all things at the right hand of God for you. And He feeds you here with Himself, His true Body and Blood, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.
And it is to be a faithful Christian in the world. That certainly means speaking the Gospel of Christ to others at every opportunity. But it also means loving your family. Being faithful to your spouse. Raising your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. It means praying for your pastor and your brothers and sisters in Christ, giving an offering, participating in the life of the congregation. Getting up, going to work, working as for the Lord. Helping whoever needs help. Giving to whoever lacks. Paying your taxes. Honoring the governing authority… yes, that is your command in Scripture (Rom. 13). It means living confidently in the grace of Jesus Christ, repenting of your sins, but believing in the Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ. And so rejoicing always. Being patient in tribulation. Constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of Christ (2 Peter 3:12).
And as people hear you speak the Words of Christ, and see you live in Him, they just might be caught up in it. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen