Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Hunger, the Sign, and the Call

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Luke 5:1-11
Today’s Gospel lesson, the scholars tell us, can be divided into three sections. I’ve given the sections names. There’s the hunger, the sign, and the call. I want to talk about each one of those sections with you this morning.

First: the hunger. We see it in the first three verses of the lesson, in which Jesus is by the lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), surrounded by crowds wanting to be near Him and to hear Him. They hunger for the Word of God.

At this phase of Jesus’ ministry, we learn, from a few verses at the end of Luke 4, His focus was more on teaching than on giving miraculous signs. He was sharing God’s Word with people. That might not seem very exciting to us. Maybe that’s because our lives and conditions aren’t as desperate as those of the crowds who hungered for God’s Word from Jesus even more desperately than many of us are anticipating a certain football game that’s happening later today.

The longing of these people for the Word of God was as strong of the psalmist who wrote nearly a millennium before Jesus’ birth: “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy [or, another translation says, “cry out”] to the living God.”

Often, we go through our lives unaware of our hunger for God. It takes a cataclysmic event for us to realize that, despite all of the things with which we distract ourselves, what we really want and need is God.

The call came to a friend of mine in the middle of the night. It was an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. The friend revealed between sobs that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Was there something his pastor friend could say? He wasn’t looking for miracles; just a word from my friend’s experience with God that could help him.

Once I got a similar late-night call from a colleague. “Mark,” he said. “There is something really evil happening in this church. I don’t know what it is. But it’s ugly. People are gossiping about one another. They’re undermining all the good things that God has been doing here. I know that you pray. Would you please pray for us?” That pastor was hungering for the presence and power of God to work in his church.

The crowds that flocked around Jesus hungered for the word of hope, peace, and strength for tough times that only the God we know in Jesus Christ can bring.

God's Word brings us peace, the assurance that God is in our corner.

I’ve learned that when the hunger leads me to God, He always feeds me. Sometimes that’s an insight that leads me to repent for a sin. But even then, the result is the same: the peace of God that, even in the fragmentation and the chaos of life, helps me feel whole. That’s what the crowds hungered for. It’s what we hunger for. We all hunger for the peace of God that assures us of the presence and love of God in our lives.

The next section of our lesson shows us a sign. Jesus tells Simon Peter and the other experienced fishermen with whom he was in business to go out into the deep and let down their nets. Fishermen there always went out trolling for fish at night. They would come back in the mornings after, clean their nets, head home to sleep, and arrive back on shore sometime before dusk to do it all again.

Simon Peter, a professional fisherman, knew that the fish were swimming so far down in the sea that he and the others couldn’t possibly snag any fish if they lowered their nets again. Yet, when Jesus told them to do so, they took their boats out into the deep and lowered their nets just because Jesus said that they should.

When Peter saw that their boats nearly sank from the haul of fish, he fell at Jesus’ knees and gave Jesus worship. Peter became aware of his sins and of his unworthiness to stand in the presence of One so holy and powerful, Someone He would come to know was not just a man, but also God.

Jesus didn’t leave Peter, even when Peter begged Jesus to go away. He won’t leave you either! Christ’s promise is the same for all who, like Peter, dare to trust Him even when it may not make sense to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Never!

Sometimes it’s only when we venture into the deep places of life, trying things for God that we may feel sure that we cannot do, making ourselves of service to others in Jesus’ Name, or submitting ourselves to Him when calamity strikes and we know how helpless we truly are, that you and I are ready to see and trust in Christ.

Against their better judgment, at Jesus’ command, Peter and the other disciples launched out into the deep, saw God do wonderful things through them, and in Jesus, found themselves in the presence of God Himself. God wants us to have the same experience every day!

But, of course, signs don’t point to themselves. When you pass a billboard on Hunter Street after worship today, it’s unlikely that any of them will have a message like, “I’m a sign. Look at me.” Signs point beyond themselves. That will be true any time you and I see signs of God’s presence and activity in our lives. It was certainly true of the sign Jesus gave when he filled the nets of Peter and the other fishermen with an enormous catch.

That brings us to the final section of today’s lesson: the call. When Simon Peter realized Jesus’ greatness, He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged Jesus to to go away. Our lesson says, “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Now, that phrase translated in our Gospel lesson “left everything” is, in the original Greek of the New Testament, “aphentes panta.” The first word, in its root form, is a word we’ve talked about several times in sermons and Sunday School classes: aphiemi. Literally, it means release or let go. It’s also one of the commonest New Testament words for forgiveness. When we repent and God forgives us of our sins, we are released from the eternal debt we owe to God. When we forgive others, we release them from guilt and we release ourselves from the imprisonment of self-righteousness.

In our Gospel lesson, Simon Peter, James, and John let go of all things to follow Jesus. At the same time, they were released from their bondage to all things in order to follow Jesus.

I once heard a fellow tell about putting together an elaborate play set for his kids. It took him the better part of a day. The instructions were something like twenty pages long. When he finished, on the last page, he noted additional instructions that advised that moving parts should be lubricated every three weeks and all bolts and screws should be checked and tightened weekly. As the spent father read these parting words, a question crossed his mind: “Did he own this play set or now, with all of the maintenance it supposedly required, did it own him?”

How many things—not just sinful things, but otherwise innocent, good things—have us imprisoned? What do we need to release—let go of—in order to heed the call of Jesus to follow?

Our following won’t likely mean that we will have to become itinerant preachers like Simon, James, and John. But Jesus calls us to follow, too. And while that call will release us from enslavement to sin or ventures of secondary importance, it will also call us to do things we might rather not do sometimes.

In first century Judea where Jesus lived, the sea was a dark, foreboding place, even for fishermen who earned their livelihoods from it. The sea conjured up images of the chaos that the Old Testament book of Genesis says existed before God created the heavens and the earth. There, a churning deadly sea was the stuff to which God gave order and peace and life. To God’s people, the sea was a deadly place full of evil and monsters they called leviathan. When Jesus told Peter--and us, “From now on you will be catching people,” He was really giving us our mission as Christians.

After releasing us from sin and futility, Jesus calls us to go into the deep places of life: the places where people work and play, the places they go for employment counseling and looking for jobs or food, the places where they laugh and mourn, the places where they know success and failure, where they struggle with problems and challenges. And it’s into these places that Christ commissions us to fish our friends, neighbors, and family members out of chaos and place them into the waiting arms of the Savior Who died and rose to give all who believe in Him new life that lasts forever. We’re to be the open arms of God, letting all know about Jesus Christ.

And Jesus wants our nets to be teeming! He wants this sanctuary to be filled each Sunday with people hungry for God's Word. You “will be catching people,” Jesus tells His Church, including our church.

On April 6, 2000, Ricky and Tony Sexton were taken hostage in their own Wytheville, Virginia home. A fugitive couple on a crime spree roared into the Sexton’s driveway as Tony stood outside with her dog. Brandishing pistols, Dennis Lewis and Angela Tanner ordered Tony back into the house.

Once inside, the Sextons did something utterly unexpected: They demonstrated Christ's love to their captors. They listened to Dennis and Angela's problems, served them dinner, read to them from God's Word, and even prayed for them and cried with them. During negotiations with the police, Ricky Sexton refused his own release when Lewis and Tanner suggested that they might end their standoff by committing suicide. But the whole thing came to an unusual end: Before surrendering to police, Angela Tanner left $135 and a note for the Sextons that read: “Thank you for your hospitality. We really appreciate it. I hope [Dennis] gets better. Wish all luck and love. Please accept this. It really is all we have to offer. Love, Angela and Dennis.”

Sometimes we wade into the deep chaos of our fallen world. Sometimes it comes through our front doors, unbidden. But no matter what our circumstances, our call to fish for people for Jesus Christ remains the same. Ricky and Tony Sexton knew that. So do we.

God wants our nets to be full. He wants our church to be full! That can happen when we feed others’ hunger with God’s Word; when we allow ourselves to be signs of Jesus’ presence through our service and our love; and when we go fishing, asking others to join us as we follow Jesus.

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