Sermon: Net Results
Scripture: Matthew 13:47-52
Date: July 19, 2015
This is the third story in which Jesus was communicating about the nature of God’s Kingdom and He communicated that in three distinct ways. Matthew lumps them all into a three-point sermon which makes it appear as though Jesus told them all at the same time. And it certainly may have happened that way. But it seems to me more likely that Jesus told these stories in different settings. For instance, He probably told the stories about planting and growing and weeds while they were camped in the Jordan Valley, where they were able to watch the farmers at work in the fields. It might have even been approaching harvest time when He told the stories. So the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who scatters his seed across the whole land. On the other hand, He probably talked about the treasure and the pearl while in a commercial area, watching as people bought and sold their treasures in the markets, maybe even in the Temple market. And I can see Him telling today’s story while sitting on the shores of the sea of Galilee watching the fishermen work the nets and bring in the fish. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that net that was let down in the lake and caught all kinds of fish . . .and the fishermen collected the good fish in a basket and the bad were cast away.
I suspect that there were some of the Disciples who still didn’t really understand the stories about farmers and merchants because, even though they had a chance to observe them, those professions were so far removed from their frame of reference. They were fishermen. And so Jesus took these fishermen back to the lake and taught about the Kingdom from a frame of reference that they might understand. They knew about nets and catching fish, and sorting the good fish from the bad, and illustrating the Kingdom from that perspective finally would have resonated with those who were still struggling to get it. When sharing the faith, it is important to do so in language and from a perspective that people will understand and relate to. Jesus was a master at that, but sometimes in the church we forget about that and we use imagery and language that those inside the church might understand, but to those outside the church, it might mean something completely different.
The other day I heard a sermon in which the preacher was making the point that sometimes things happen in church that seemingly don’t have much significance but in the end have a major impact on the Kingdom. And the preacher used the example of the great African missionary, David Livingstone. It seems that many years ago a preacher reflecting on a worship service in which nothing much happened wrote in his journal: “Nothing much happened in worship today. Only little David Livingstone came to the altar to pray.” The implication being that in fact something wonderful for the Kingdom indeed happened as the great missionary began his life of service. But the preacher didn’t explain who David Livingstone was and so, for those of us who knew that, it was a powerful illustration, but for the group of teenagers that was sitting in front of me, the illustration had no meaning or power.
Jesus’ stories were so effective as teaching tools because He drew them from real life and familiar situations. Where the Disciples might not have understood the Kingdom from the perspective of farmers or merchants, since most of them were fisherman, they would certainly understand when Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like that fishing net you’ve handled since you were boys which gathers in all of the fish but then there must be the time when the good fish, “the keepers”, are separated from the bad. The Disciples would have understood that because before they met Jesus, that’s exactly what they had done, every day of the week except the Sabbath. It had been their livelihood. And so for at least the third time, Jesus tries to share with the Disciples about the Kingdom of God, and this time He uses imagery that they should understand.
But this time His story is more focused on the expectations and responsibilities of the Disciples working in the Kingdom then He has been up to this point. Before He had addressed those in more general terms: sowing seeds, acquiring the treasure, etc. But with this story, He conveys more of a sense of urgency and includes a warning about the coming judgment. In fact, the tone of this story seems so harsh, that this parable is one of the least familiar of all of Jesus parables. Preachers don’t preach on it. Scholars tend to ignore it. When I was preparing for this series of messages, I purchased about 10 different books that dealt with the parables of Jesus from a variety of angles but none of them dealt with this story. It seems so out of character for Jesus, all this talk about a fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is too focused on judgment and the idea that there will be those who will go to Hell because of the way they have lived their lives. In fact, this story seems to confirm everything that unchurched individuals believe about Christians and the church. Most today prefer a Jesus who doesn’t stand in judgement of the way I choose to live my life. And so Jesus compares God’s Kingdom to the basic equipment and technique that every fisherman uses to catch fish. And it begins with a net.
Now you know me, I like to think about what might have prompted Jesus to tell this story. And I wonder if, as they were sitting around the campfire on the shore one evening, Peter might have said: “Jesus, when I first met you on this shore, and you invited me to follow you, you said “Fisherman, if you follow me, I’ll make you a fisher of men. I never really understood what you meant by that.” And perhaps Jesus thought about that for a moment, and then seeing the fishermen out on the sea in the moonlight (because the best time to fish on the Sea of Galilee was at night), casting their net into the water, He said: “Well it’s like this Peter, my Kingdom is like that net, that the fishermen cast into the sea, and when he pulls it back in, it comes back full of fish.” You see, I suspect that Peter was thinking too small when it came to fishing in the Kingdom, and I’m afraid we do too. In a few weeks, my family is going to all gather in Colorado to finally place my Mom’s ashes in their final resting place. It’s a lovely little clearing on the side of a mountain that my grandfather bought more than sixty years ago. My Dad has been waiting for her there for several years. So it will be a bittersweet time. Karen and I will go out a few days early and stay a few days after and I’m sure we’ll get in some fishing. Now when I think of fishing, I envision a rushing mountain stream, a pole and a hook, and a worm or some other bait. And so when I think about Jesus calling disciples to be fishers of men, that’s the image that comes to me. Catching persons for Christ one person at a time. We hear a lot in the church today about relational evangelism, in other words, before you can get a fish to bite the hook, you need to have a relationship with them. And I’ll share with you something that I have never confessed before but I have been known to try and talk to the fish when I settle into a fishing hole. I guess trying to establish a relationship with them. It’s more about the hole then the fish. If I just find the right hole, the fish will fight over my hook. Well, I’m sure it will come as a shock to you that I don’t catch many fish that way. But here’s the point. To understand Jesus’ story we have to get that understanding of fishing out of our heads. The Disciples were trawlers which means that their method of fishing was to cast a net into the water and then drag it along until it was filled with fish and then pull it up onto the boat and dump the catch into the boat. It was hard work. Sometimes they would drag the net off the back of the boat. Or if it was a really big operation with multiple boats, they would drag the net between two boats. The key to the catch was the net. The larger the net, the more fish you would catch. “So Peter, you want to know what I meant when I said I wanted you to be fisher of men? Well, the first thing you need to know is that you are going to need a bigger net.” Because, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net that is big enough to catch everyone. All the fish. I suspect that there are times when we in the church consciously or unconsciously place limits on the number of fish that we can potentially catch based on the size of our net. We pick and choose the places where we place our nets, sometimes based on the determinations we make concerning where the most catchable or desirable fish might be located. But this story tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is not intended to be exclusive. As disciples, we are to just keep casting the net without making determinations about what fish are worthy to be caught.
And then, the second thing you need to know, Peter, is that your pond, your fishing hole just got a whole lot bigger. In this story, Jesus intends for the sea to represent the world. Peter had spent his whole life right here on this shoreline, in this little village, fishing this little lake. To put that in perspective, the Sea of Galilee is about half the size of Lake Cumberland. And the likelihood was that Peter had never even traveled all the way across the Sea before he met Jesus. After all, the Sea was bound to the North and the East by Pagan/Gentile land. Peter would have had no reason to go there. In fact good Jews weren’t allowed, according to the Law, to go there. But Jesus was not just going to take him and send him to those places, but He had in mind that the Disciples would go into all the world. So physically, your fishing hole will need to be a lot bigger, Peter. And spiritually, you are going to have to fish in bigger and deeper waters. There is more to faith, Peter, then what you have learned from the Rabbi in the Bethsaida synagogue. It’s a big world out there and not everyone, in fact, most do not believe as you do. But they are still fish worthy to be caught up in the Kingdom’s net. So you must cast your net for all of them and let me worry about sorting them out in the end. You see, the thing about net fishing is that you can’t be selective about the fish you catch. You must haul in everything that is caught. When you fish for men, Peter, you cast out your net and pull in everyone who gets caught in the net. I love this comment by Pastor Bill Bouknight. He says:
The Kingdom of God is the gift of divine blessing and love that God wants to give to all of us so much that He sent His Son Jesus to be the ultimate delivery person to bring us this special message. So when Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God is like,” He is in effect saying “God loves you like . . .” The Kingdom of God is Jesus password for telling all people what it is God wants to do for us
Sometimes the church spends too much time trying to define the parameters of our fishing hole when in fact Jesus intends for it to be unlimited in both size and scope. We make determinations about who we are going to try to reach based upon factors like race and nationality and gender and life style and economic class. When John Wesley first began the Methodist movement in !8th Century England, he did so because the Church of England was making choices of inclusion and exclusion in the church based on those kinds of criteria. And when Wesley tried to get them to see that the pond was much larger than those narrow parameters, they essentially said to Wesley that he was no longer welcome to fish with them. And so Wesley went to those who the church was excluding and he proclaimed: The whole world is my parish. My outreach. My fishing hole. That’s our heritage as Methodists. So many hear this story of Jesus as exclusive and limiting by its judgmental tone. But in truth, it is just the opposite. Jesus is trying to help the Disciples understand that the Kingdom is more than the synagogue, more than the Jewish people, more than that which they are familiar and even comfortable with. The Kingdom of God is not a geographical or political or cultural kingdom. My Kingdom is not of this world, Jesus said. It encompasses this world but is not defined by it. If you are going to be fishermen in my Kingdom, Peter, you’re going to need to fish a much bigger hole.
So, so far so good, Jesus.
Our net needs to be big enough to catch everyone and the pond needs to move beyond that water that we are familiar with. When you are fishing for humanity, the whole of creation needs to be your fishing hole. I think Peter would have been okay up to that point. Probably not very comfortable, but okay.
But then Jesus started talking about sorting the good fish from the bad. Judgment Day. And the story seems to take a darker turn. He seems to be saying that though the Kingdom’s net will catch everyone, there will be many who will be judged to not be “keepers” in fishing terms. There will be a time when the good will be sorted from the bad, and the bad will be cast into the fires of eternal punishment. When Jesus talks about the fisherman separating the good fish from the bad, He is talking about a judgment day. And so, its at this point that many stop listening to this story. But before we do this, there are a few things that we need to consider.
The first is that God does not desire that any of us face final judgment. Judgment became a part of the Kingdom as a consequence of our sin, which is basically the denial of who God created us to be. Judgment comes to us because there is that part of each one of us that rebels against God, that does not want to get caught up in the Kingdom’s net. Scripture is clear that Hell is reserved for Satan and those who choose to follow Him. C.S. Lewis, wrote this of his own conversion: You must picture me alone in a room . . . night after night, feeling . . . the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. (Finally) I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
When I was first learning to fish, I had two different teachers. One was my father, who was a very patient man, who explained to me that when you first feel a tug on your line, it is best to resist the impulse to yank on it immediately because often times the hook is not really set on that first tug. Let the fish run with the line a little to make sure that the hook is good and set and then pull it in. The natural inclination of the fish is to fight against the hook and not get caught and the most successful fishermen use that inclination to help ensure the catch. And so it is with Disciples. My grandmother on the other hand would say, as soon as you feel that first tug, pull hard on the line and flip the fish up on the shore and then take a stick and beat the fish until it was dead. Well when it comes to judgment and the Kingdom, I suspect that most see it in my grandmother’s technique. The way to catch fish for the Kingdom is to surprise them and then beat them with a stick until they comply. Too many on the outside of the church, see the church as the wielders of the big stick, ready to beat them over the head with our religion. Here’s the thing though. When Jesus talks about the fishermen sorting through the catch after pulling in the nets and putting the good fish in baskets and throwing the bad away, He is again describing the common practice of fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. The Jewish fishermen sorted through the catch in that way because according to the Jewish law, Jews were only to eat fish with fins and scales. And so the “bad” fish were the fish that were considered to be “unclean”. That had no purpose as far as the Jews were concerned. It had nothing to do with whether they were fresh or edible. The judgment the fishermen made was based strictly on the law. But in this story, Jesus tells us that Judgment does not come about because of the law, it comes through faith. And so in the Kingdom, it will be the Angels who separate the good from the bad. Based on love and grace and not law. And so the purpose of judgment in the Kingdom is not to condemn, but rather to save. Those who are quick to dismiss Christianity as being too judgmental need to look at the whole of what Jesus said and not just focus on passages like these. One of the most familiar scriptures in all of the Bible is John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Perhaps the most meaningful words ever written but they are made even more meaningful when we place them in the full context of the complete passage because John goes on to say in verse 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Jesus Himself said If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. Now that does not mean that there is not judgment. But what is clear is that God’s standard of judgment is not like man’s. God’s standard of judgment is based on love. not sin. If we fail to give and receive God’s love then we will be judged harshly. I love what one preacher said in a message titled “Judgment Day Is Coming.” (God’s) love forces choices between good and evil. Real love is a wife saying to an alcoholic husband, “I force you to choose between the bottle and me. I will not (turn away from the fact) that choosing liquor will kill you. And then he went on to say this about this story. The doctrine of a final judgment and an eternal heaven and hell are hard doctrines. But without them, God’s hatred of sin is compromised, and our freedom to choose is denied. In the Kingdom, judgment is based on whether we choose to live in God’s love or not. Sin is the consequence of us choosing to not be caught in God’s loving net.
Perhaps this story, in the final analysis, is a story about making choices in the Kingdom. And by placing discipleship in the context of the fisherman’s daily routine, Jesus tells us that as disciples we are confronted with Kingdom choices every day. And we will be judged based on the daily choices we make. In a sense, His teaching concerning judgment is even worse then we imagined because for Disciples it’s not a matter of one day out there when we will be judged based on our whole life, but rather every day we are judged based on the choices we make. But the good news is that God’s love and grace and forgiveness are unlimited. And that’s why Jesus told us in the Lord’s Prayer that every time we pray we need to ask to be forgiven. And it boils down to this–For the Disciples, it was a choice of whether to cast the Kingdom into all the world, no matter who might be caught. But first, it is a choice of whether we’re going to be caught or not in the Kingdom’s net. One writer sums up all of Jesus Kingdom stories in this way:
(After hearing these stories) do you see now the problem with finding or being found by the kingdom? Whether you stumble across it like a poor man in a field or search for it until you find it like the rich merchant in the marketplace or are caught by it like the fish of the sea, if you’re normal at all, you’re not really sure of its joy or its judgment. (But) however you may find the Kingdom in your life, whether you stumble across it . . in an everyday task (or) discover it finally after a life long search or are caught up in it before you know what God has done to you . . . how ever you find the kingdom (or it finds you) . . don’t pass up the chance to buy into it. All it will cost is your life. And it will be the greatest investment in the greatest adventure you’ve ever made. The problem with finding the kingdom? With Jesus Christ it’s no problem at all.
Though life has sometimes been a struggle, I have never regretted that night when Jesus came looking for me with the Kingdom’s net, and I responded “Here I am Lord, catch me.”