In the darkness, they had toiled all the night. It didn’t matter how hard they worked, how rested they were, how strong, how well dressed, how prepared. They had brought their best, but in the darkness their nets were empty. There was no power or skill in these men that could force the fish into the nets— as anyone of you that has tried out fishing surely knows —especially if you were hungry. You can’t make the fish bite the hook…and no fish wants to bite the hook, get stuck in the net, get filleted, and cooked. Perhaps their spirits were crushed, they toiled and took nothing, they worked what they knew best, but they cleaned the nets with nothing to sell, nothing to eat, nothing to show for a long night at sea.
The enemies of God love the darkness. The devil, the world, and our own sinful nature wage war against the church and the church is rightly called the Church Militant. You confess the faith of the Church that is at war. They attack, they swarm, they surround, and they accuse. Our own sinful nature is an accomplice. The world is all around us. The devil is breathing his foul hot breathe upon our necks. The struggle is real. The darkness of sin cast upon the whole of creation. In the darkness, they attack, and in the darkness, we sin. Oh, the things we would have locked up in the depths of darkness so that no one will ever know. Our sin is a stench, it’s a terrible mark, a weight to bear. And it would drive us to an eternal death.
And then in the midst of our struggle and attack, a peculiar and frightening thing takes place. Here you are so desperate to hide what destroys you and God comes standing in front of you. In his mercy, God becomes a man to live with you, to die for you, and to rise again to life to resurrect you. But what does your sinful nature do with Almighty God that stands in your presence? It knows that sinners deserve the wrath of Almighty God. It knows that you are a sinner and that the God that stands in your presence should destroy, lay siege against you, and shower you with wrath. Almighty should terrify you.
At first, Peter is polite. The Lord taught with authority. Peter listened and looked on while he cleaned his nets. Jesus sits in his boat to keep the crowd at bay in order that he could be heard, for the people were pressing down upon him. “Put out a little from the land,” Jesus told Peter, and he taught from Peter’s boat. When he was finished he commanded that the nets be let down. The nets that were being mended and cleaned, Jesus ordered to be let down. They’d have to be mended again, cleaned a second time, and for what?? They took nothing after toiling all night, in the darkness. But Peter puts out to the deep and lets down his nets for a catch. “At your Word, I will let down the nets.”
He expects nothing. We expect nothing. Our reason and experience tells us what to expect. This rabbi knows nothing about fishing. We know about fishing. [Insert here our own expertise.] We toiled all the night and caught nothing. We’ll let down the nets to be nice. We toil all night and all day. We struggle and we sorrow. We weep and we hurt. For you and me, appearances are everything. All this pain, all this suffering, all this everything, and we have nothing to show for it. Friends and family see your life and know your work and your words and still don’t care about Jesus or their faith. What about your faith? Is it where you think it should be? Have you tried to work out your salvation and still have nothing? All for what? This Word on a page. This recitation of ancient script. A little bread and a little wine. It’s anticlimactic.
Just another man sitting in Peter’s boat. A teacher who thinks he knows something about fishing. And at Jesus’ word, Peter let down the nets, but unbeknownst to Peter, Jesus commanded the fish into his net. He commanded an abundant number of fish into his net. So many fish that the nets began to break. So many fish that the other boat needed to come and help. So many fish that both boats began to sink. Appearances had failed Peter and they fail you, too. This man is God. This man, Jesus, commands the creation with authority and power and he commands your heart and Peter’s heart and everything because he is God Almighty. And this terrified Peter.
Peter knew that sinners can’t stand in the presence of Almighty God and live. So he does the thing we are so good at. He writes his own absolution like the prodigal son (I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me one of your hired servants). “I am a sinner, depart from me!” “Woe is me!” Oh, no! You caught me, God. This is what I want you to do: just leave. Go away and depart and I’ll save a few minutes or days, maybe years. Depart for I can’t be here now.
Yet, Jesus will have nothing to do with your made up absolution. He refused to depart. To depart would mean that Peter would go to hell. In his terror, in our passion, and our present predicaments, we bid Jesus depart so we can live the life we have designed for ourselves. So that we can wallow in our sins, enjoy our passions, eat, drink, and be merry according to our design…all the while forgetting that we are part of Jesus’ design. He is the creator and now he is the redeemer.
Instead of departing, he says, “Do not be afraid!” It’s as if he said, “You won’t be destroyed. I come to save you, rescue you, love you, and keep you. I have come to fight for you.” It’s the same thing that Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid!” It’s the same thing Jesus says to the disciples when he walks on water, “Do not be afraid!” It’s the same thing that the angels say to the Marys at the Easter tomb, “Do not be afraid!” Our God becoming a man, the incarnation, is just this: Don’t be afraid. I have become one of you in order that I might save all of you.
And with that Jesus gives Peter a new place to toil. “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men!” Jesus’ words give comfort and peace. The absolution God gives has depth and seriousness. Now the disciples will toil in the day. They will preach the Word of Christ to the far ends of the earth. Men will be sent to speak. Their power will not be driving fish into nets or other great signs and wonders. Their power will be in Jesus’ Word of absolution. He will compel men into the nets of his Church. He will be the one that forgives and gives life. He is the one that will refuse to leave you. So appearances will fail the world, but this God Almighty comes here to dwell with sinners. Like unto Peter’s boat, he may not look like the God that created heaven and earth, but he is that God, the same God that became man and was crucified (taking the weight of our sin) for the salvation of the world, for you! This is the same God that rose again to newness of life to live with you, fight with you and for you. Yet, the war has been won. The victory belongs to Jesus and if the victory belongs to Jesus, then it belongs to you. You confess the faith of the Church that is at war, but you also confess the faith of the Church that has won that war: the Church triumphant.
Salvation and life are gifts from Christ! Stop your worry! Sometimes we gain nothing by our work, and that is okay. Jesus sends his Word to you. In that Word you gain everything. Rejoice with the angels. You’ve been caught in the net of the Church, compelled there by Christ’s command. Rejoice in the giving of heavenly gifts. The Lord’s mercy endures forever. That will shelter you in the storm and bring you home. The Lord compelled you here. He sustains you in his peace. The boat must sink, but every Christian is pulled from the water by the hand of Jesus. Harmony is Jesus given for sinners. Peace is Jesus given for you. Don’t be afraid.