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"Follow the Leader "

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          February 22, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Last week I began a new preaching series: Encountering the Real Jesus. My plan is to examine many of the encounters that Jesus had with people in his own day. From these we'll learn both who Jesus was in history and how we might have a life-transforming encounter with him today.

Last week we looked at Jesus' hometown debut in the synagogue of Nazareth. As he completed his first sermon there, at first the people were impressed. But their amazement soon turned to anger, and they even tried to throw Jesus off a local cliff.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Jesus didn't remain in Nazareth, but made his way back to Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee, or, as it is sometimes called, the Lake of Gennesaret. There he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and healed many who were sick. As Jesus' popularity grew, the crowds gathered to hear this one who taught with unique authority.

This brings us to our passage for today, Luke 5:1-11. Listen to God's Word.

Scripture Reading: Luke 5:1-11

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,   2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.   3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.   4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."   5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."   6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.   7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.   8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"   9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;   10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."   11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Unwelcome "Experts"

In my senior year of college I competed for a Danforth Fellowship which would pay for most of my graduate school education, if I won, of course. Round one of the competition involved an interview with a committee composed of several members of the Harvard Faculty, none of whom I knew personally. In the course of the interview I mentioned something about Christian love and ethics. One member of the committee, a professor named Ralph Potter, perked up.

"You said something about love," he began, "I'm wondering what you meant by that."

"Well," I responded, "I'm not talking about love in the trivial sense. Christianity actually has a very profound understanding of love."

"Ah," the professor said, "I see."

"Yes," I continued, and proceeded to lecture him and the rest of the committee for a couple minutes on the uniquely Christian understanding of love.

After the interview Professor Potter approached me. "I liked what you said about love," he stated.

"Thanks," I said. "Is this an interest of yours?"

"Actually, yes. I teach ethics at Harvard Divinity School, and love is an area of special expertise for me. I've written quite a bit on the subject and am teaching a class on love and friendship right now."

"Oh," I gulped, realizing that I had just lectured on love to one of the world's experts on the topic.

Thank God, Professor Potter was gracious to me. In retrospect, I imagine he found the whole episode to be rather humorous. The novice instructing the expert! What a joke!

Simon's Fishing Lesson

I wonder if Simon Peter felt anything like Professor Potter when Jesus told him to go out and let down his nets into the water. After all, Simon was a fishing professional. He'd been fishing the waters of the Sea of Galilee for years. He and his partners had been fishing all night, but without any luck at all. There just weren't any fish in the waters off the Plain of Gennesaret that day. But, nevertheless, Jesus said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch" (5:4). I wonder if Peter felt a bit amused, or perhaps even bugged. After all, Jesus was no fisherman. Yet he, a novice, was telling an expert how to fish.

In spite of his apparent skepticism, Simon did what Jesus said. Why? Why did he take instruction from one who had so little experience in catching fish? To answer this question we need to back up in the text a bit.

In Luke 4 we learn that Jesus had been preaching and healing in the village of Capernaum. This was a town along the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Though it's called a "sea," it's really just a moderate-sized lake, about one-fourth the size of Lake Tahoe.) The population of Capernaum was fairly small - maybe around 1,500 people - yet it had its own synagogue. There Jesus had amazed the people with his authority as a teacher and an exorcist (4:31-37). He showed special interest in one of the men of the synagogue, Simon Peter, whose home he visited and whose mother-in-law he healed of a high fever (4:38-39).

As Luke 5 begins, the people were pressing in on Jesus as he preached beside the lake. Spying Simon and his partners cleaning their fishing nets, Jesus asked Simon to take him out into the water so he could better address the crowd. As you may know, sound travels much better over water, so Jesus' position in a boat would have allowed him to address a large group with ease. He taught the people from Simon's boat while Simon sat and listened.

It was after he finished his lesson that Jesus told Simon to "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch" (5:4). Simon's response shows that he was less than enthusiastic about this order: "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets" (5:5). You can imagine the subtext here: "Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing. And we're experienced fishermen. We know these waters. If there aren't fish out there now, there just aren't any fish. And, c'mon Jesus, we've been fishing all night. We're exhausted. We just want to wash our nets and get home for some sleep." It sounds at this point almost as if Simon is hoping Jesus will change his mind about his impractical "let down your nets again" plan. But Jesus stood his ground, and so Simon followed his instructions.

Responding to the Impractical Jesus

I want to pause for a moment and consider Simon's response. He did what Jesus told him to do even though he didn't have much confidence in the result. As a practically-minded fisherman, Simon no doubt questioned Jesus' logic. But he followed Jesus even when it seemed impractical to do so. Why? Perhaps it was because Jesus, an impressive teacher and godly man, deserved respect. But I think there's more going on here than this alone. After all, Simon had seen Jesus' unparalleled authority over the things the matter most, the things of God. Jesus had shown himself to be worthy of obedience, even if his counsel didn't fit with the conventional wisdom.

How often we find ourselves in a position just like that of Peter! We read the gospels and come across all sorts of instructions of Jesus that seem terribly impractical. He tells us, for example, to walk a second mile with one who makes us walk a first mile, to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, and, believe it or not, even to love our enemies. This sounds well and good in the safe context of a Sunday School class. But in the real world? In your place of work? When a colleague is stabbing you in the back? When a pesky neighbor is asking you to trim your tree when you really don't want to?

And how are we to take Jesus seriously in a world that's so litigious? Does Jesus really want me not to defend myself if I've been wronged legally? How can we be expected to take Jesus seriously when so much of his counsel seems so idealistic, so impractical?

I can't answer all of these questions today, that's for sure. But I do know that there are times in life when we need to choose to obey Jesus even when it doesn't make sense to us. Even when the world tells us to do exactly the opposite thing. Even when we don't want to do whatever Jesus commands. There are times we need to respond to harshness with gentleness, even when we'd love to go on the offensive. There are times we need to offer kindness to those who have attacked us, even when every instinct within us demands a harsh response.

I've watched with wonder how Mel Gibson has responded to so many of his critics, especially some of the outspoken Jewish leaders who have accused him of all sorts of terrible things, including, of course, anti-Semitism. One prominent Jewish spokesman actually attacked Gibson for being a bad Christian! Yet Mel Gibson responded to this particular leader with grace, listening to his concerns, honoring his feelings, and failing to point out his egregious errors. Can you imagine how hard this must be, especially when it's happening in such a unfriendly public arena? I thank God for Mel Gibson, not only Mel Gibson the filmmaker, but Mel Gibson the disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to follow Jesus even when its impractical.

Is Jesus asking you to do something these days that doesn't make sense to you? Is Jesus telling you to let down your nets once again, maybe in your marriage, or in a broken relationship with a brother or sister in Christ, or maybe in your life plans, or your finances, or . . . you fill in the blank? Will you be like Simon, and take Jesus at his word, even when it seems so impractical?

Responding to the Presence of God's Holiness and Power

Of course Simon's decision to obey Jesus' turns out to have been a very good business move. He didn't catch just a few fish, but more than two boats could contain. Now this was an impressive catch, a marvelous miracle! It's no surprise that Simon and his colleagues were "amazed" (5:9).

I can relate just a bit to this amazement. For over thirty years I've fished in Lake Gregory, a small lake in the San Bernardino mountains. As a kid I spent probably hundreds of hours fishing in this lake, and my net take of fish numbered less than five. There are some fish in there, but I was never in the right place at the right time. And if I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I lacked the skill required to snag a few fish.

One time in the early days of our marriage, Linda and I decided to go fishing in Lake Gregory. We both understood, of course, that fishing was simply a ruse. We really expected to enjoy a nice morning bobbing along in a rowboat, nothing more. Catching fish wasn't part of our game plan.

Rowing out to a spot where I'd seen other fishermen gather, I dropped anchor, baited Linda's hook, and then began to get my own hook ready. But before I finished, Linda shouted with delight. She had a fish. Amazed I took the fish off her line, put it on our stringer, re-baited her hook, and then finished with my own. A fish, I thought, a real fish! Go figure!

But almost instantly I felt a tug on my fishing pole. In a few moments I too had a fish, which we added to our stringer. Then Linda caught one. The I did. It was unbelievable! Almost miraculous!

After about an hour Linda and I checked to see how many fish we had caught. Seventeen! All of a sudden I remembered that there are laws in California governing the limit of fish one can catch in a day. But I had absolutely no idea what the limit was because this had never been relevant in my lifetime as a fisherman. Just to be safe, Linda and I headed for shore - with, as it turned out, seven fish beyond the limit. I'm thankful the warden wasn't around that magical day!

Simon's response to Jesus was more than mere astonishment, however. Luke says that he "fell down at Jesus' knees, saying 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!'" (5:8). Why did he respond like this?

Even though Simon had witnessed Jesus' miracles before, the astounding catch of fish struck his heart. He realized, as never before, that he was in the presence of something more than a mere "Master," some wise teacher and healer. Simon knew he was in the presence of a holy man, one in whom God himself was present. He had glimpsed a spark of God's holy power, and in that moment Simon saw himself in his unholiness, in his sin, in his unworthiness. Even as common folk couldn't enter the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple because that's where God was present, so Simon realized that he didn't belong in the presence of Jesus.

This response to Jesus may be hard for some of us to understand because we tend to humanize our heroes, even to trivialize the awesome holiness of God. Whereas Hebrews says that our God is a "consuming fire" (Heb 12:29), we often imagine him to be a cozy little campfire by which to warm our hands. We have turned God the roaring lion, into God the purring pussycat.

Yet there are times when Jesus breaks through our presumption. We experience the holy presence and power of God in a way that propels us to our knees in repentance and worship. One of these times happened in my life about eleven years ago. It's a story some of you know, but it's worth telling again.

We were in the midst of my first capital campaign at IPC, hoping to gather enough money in pledges to build this sanctuary. We knew that we needed to receive in pledges far more than we had ever received before, though the required amount was still being determined by the Finance Committee. As the campaign came to a close, the target figure was finally unveiled. To go forward with the building we needed pledges of $1,353,000. If we reached that figure, we would go ahead with the plan. If we didn't, we would return to the drawing board.

As the campaign concluded, over 300 church members submitted their confidential pledges. We planned to announce the results in worship two weeks after the campaign concluded. On the Friday before the announcement was to be made, I checked with our business office to find out the pledge total.

"Well, how has it come out?" I queried.

"I have good news," the campaign secretary reported. "Our total is $1,353,000."

"No," I responded. "That's not the number I need. I'm wondering about how much people did in fact pledge, not how much we need."

"I gave you the pledge total," she responded with a smile. "It's $1,353,000 on the nose."

"But isn't that exactly how much we needed?" I asked, thinking that I had confused my numbers.

"Yes, that's the exact amount."

This was obviously more than a coincidence. God had given us exactly what we needed, not a dollar more, not a dollar less. The precision of our need and God's provision overwhelmed me. For months I'd been saying, genuinely, that this whole building project and capital campaign was in God's hands. But at the moment I received the official report, what I had been saying all along penetrated my heart. God was really present. God was really in charge. God was really powerful. In my awe, I stumbled back to my office, shut my door, and wept both out of gratitude and repentance. I had to confess how little I had trusted God, how much I had been afraid. Like Peter, I fell before the Lord in humility, confessing in so many words, "I am a sinful man." And yet I did not say "Go away from me, Lord." As one who knows God through Jesus Christ, that's the last thing I'd ever want.

Following Jesus

Even if we were to tell Jesus to go away because we're sinful people, he wouldn't do it. Later on in Luke 5 he explains that he came "to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance" (5:32). Jesus approached Simon, fully aware of his sinfulness, and fully convinced that Simon was the right person to become one of his closest followers. Far from going away as Simon had asked, Jesus replied to him, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people" (5:10). And then Simon, along with his partners, dropped everything and followed Jesus.

Notice that Jesus didn't argue Simon out of his initial hesitation by lowering the bar of his holiness. Jesus didn't say, "Oh, don't worry, Simon. I'm nothing all that special. I just got lucky with the fish and the nets." No, Jesus understood that God's holy power was present in him. But even though Simon had drawn near to the consuming fire of God in Jesus, Jesus told him that he didn't have to be afraid. Overwhelmed? Yes. Humbled? Yes. Awestruck? Yes. But afraid that he'd be burned to crisp? No. In fact, in due time the very fire of God would fall upon Peter himself, not to consume but to empower him.

Jesus, fully aware of Simon's sinfulness and foibles, nevertheless called him. And Simon followed. Why? Why did Simon leave his whole life behind to follow Jesus? Surely not because he understood what Jesus' ministry was really all about. He didn't get this right until after Jesus' death and resurrection. And surely not only because he was impressed with Jesus' teaching. No, Simon followed Jesus because of his encounter with him - or, I might better say, because of his encounter with God who was fully present in Jesus. Although Simon really had no idea what he was getting into, his experience of Jesus had been so powerful that he was willing to leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus.

So, let me ask you, would you be willing to follow Jesus this way? If your answer is something less than positive, why? If you're thinking "Because I'm too sinful" or "Because I'm not worthy," then you must now realize that you're exactly the sort of person Jesus is apt to call. But if you're hesitant to follow Jesus for others reasons, and we all have plenty of other reasons, then you need a deeper and truer experience of Jesus. Following him isn't something we do because we should. Rather, it's something we do because our experience of Jesus compels us to. Once we've encountered the real Jesus, we want to be with him and to follow him more than anything else in life.


My friends, Jesus is calling you to follow him today, to join him in the people catching business. But, even before you hear and respond to this call, Jesus is offering himself to you. He wants you to know him, to experience his power, to be awestruck by his holiness, to be engulfed by his grace, to be transformed by his love. He's saying to each of us, "Don't be afraid. Come and be with me. Know me. And then you will follow me."

Dear friends, may you encounter the real Jesus, the living Christ, today!

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