“Here’s the Catch” (Luke 5:1-11)

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019

“Here’s the Catch” (Luke 5:1-11)

In 2001 the baptized membership of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was a little over 2.5 million members. In 2017 the baptized membership of the LCMS was slightly under 2 million members. That’s a loss of a half-million members in sixteen years, a 20% decline.

Here in our little congregation, our membership likewise has experienced some decline. This is not surprising. It’s a similar story all across the synod. As the older members have died off, there haven’t been the younger members to replace them. In churches all across America, there’s been a long slow decline over several decades, since the end of the Baby Boom, really.

On top of that, we’re fighting the culture. We’re swimming against the stream. Whereas church membership and church attendance used to be commonplace back in the Fifties and early Sixties, that ship has sailed long ago.

So now everybody is concerned about numbers. Everybody wants the church to grow. Churches tend to be obsessed these days about increasing their numbers and avoiding decline. And sometimes it seems they’ll try anything to stop the bleeding and boost their numbers.

Yes, everybody wants the church to grow, there’s no dispute about that. But “Here’s the Catch”: How? How should the church grow? Well, today Jesus–who, after all, is the Lord of the church–today our Lord gives us direction on how he wants his church to grow.

The first way he does that is by his own example. In our text, the Holy Gospel from Luke 5, we see people pressing in on Jesus “to hear the word of God.” So let that be what people press in on our church for, namely, to find Jesus and to hear God’s word. Now our church may have other things going for it as well–friendly, caring people, a warm and loving atmosphere, camaraderie and social opportunities–those are all well and good. But those are secondary byproducts of what is and should be the primary thing. And the primary thing is that people can come here and find Jesus and hear the word of God.

In our text we see Jesus engaged in the activity of teaching people the word of God. He must think that’s important. And of course, he is teaching the word of God aright. That is very important! To get the message straight. That is what is called pure doctrine. To teach the word of God in its truth and purity.

Some people today, even voices within our own church body, disparage this concern for pure doctrine, right teaching. They accuse us confessional Lutherans of being caught up with “doctrinal purification” at the expense of “missional outreach.” They pit the two against each other, doctrine vs. missions. But that is not Jesus’ way. Jesus would have his church do both: Keep the message straight, pure doctrine, so we have a message worth getting out. And get the message out–evangelism, witness, outreach. These two are not at odds with one another. Indeed, both are necessary. They go hand in glove. This is Jesus’ way for growing his church.

What else would Jesus tell us today about how he wants his church to grow? Now he impresses a lasting lesson on his disciples by way of a fishing expedition. You see, many of his first disciples were professional fishermen, working on the lake called the Sea of Galilee, or, as it’s called here, Gennesaret. Jesus was not a fisherman, but he tells Simon Peter to take his boat and “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Can you imagine that? Here is this itinerant rabbi, the son of a carpenter, and he’s giving advice to experienced commercial fishermen on how to work their own lake! They ought to laugh him off!

At first it sounds like Simon might do just that: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” A reasonable objection. The fishermen used all their skill and techniques, their best practices, all night long and came up empty. And now Jesus wants them to go out and drop their nets again. And at a less favorable time! It doesn’t make any sense.

But there’s something about Jesus that causes Simon to not laugh him off. “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” Jesus’ word possesses authority. And here we see that authority in action. Jesus’ word overrides Simon’s objection. “But at your word I will let down the nets.”

So that’s what they do. And of course you know what happens: Nets full to breaking, full of fish. Two boats full, so many fish the boats are on the verge of sinking. Fish in abundance.

What is Jesus teaching his disciples, soon to be apostles, about how his church will grow? The application is clear: The church will grow, not by human skill or effort or technique, but by the word of Jesus. We may think we have all the knowledge and tips and the latest surefire techniques from the leading church-growth gurus, but here’s the catch: The way Jesus wants to grow his church is by his word. Yes, here is the catch: It may go against our expectations, it may seem strange, but Jesus does want his church to grow this way. And that is how there will be a real catch.

Churches can try all sorts of techniques to boost their numbers: “Oh, we’ve got to have a praise band and contemporary services and screens on the walls!” And some things may work in a surfacey sort of way. The numbers may go up a bit–even though contemporary-worship, church-growth churches also have been losing numbers. But is this real growth? Or is it artificial? Are people coming in, not to hear the word of God, not to meet Jesus, but rather to be entertained? Are they coming because the pastor tells funny stories and smiles a lot? Or the church has a school, and people join in order to get a tuition discount and avoid the public schools. People come because there are lots of programs: Zumba and volleyball, singles, daycare. The people come, indeed, because they don’t have to hear too much about those boring old things like sin and repentance and faith and forgiveness and the Trinity and Christ dying on the cross. Those things make them feel uncomfortable, and above all people today want to feel comfortable. So some churches cater to that mentality, and they water things down in order to increase their numbers. But that is only artificial growth. Our surefire techniques are not the way to grow the church, not the way Jesus wants it to grow.

Jesus would have his church trust in his word to do the job. Simon Peter realizes that he, the experienced fisherman, had absolutely nothing to do with this great catch of fish. He realizes that it all came at Jesus’ word. Jesus clearly speaks with divine authority and power. The presence of the Holy One of God causes Peter to become keenly aware of how unholy and powerless he really is. He confesses: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Can you and I say that also? Oh, yes. I know I am a sinful man, a poor miserable sinner not worthy to have my Lord come under my roof. The problem in the church today is that we don’t trust God’s word to do the job. So let us repent of our doubting Jesus’ word. Let’s repent of relying on gimmicks and techniques and watering down God’s word in order to increase numbers. And at the same time, let’s repent of our failing to actually put out into the deep and go fishing. Have we not even been bothering to tell others about Jesus? Have we not shown any zeal in reaching out to our neighbors with the gospel? This too we should repent of.

Like Peter, I am a sinful man: Who am I that the Lord should use me to catch his fish? But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that all the glory goes to God. Christ shows his mercy in this: He will use our feeble witness, pastor and people alike, to let people hear about their Savior Jesus and lead them to faith in him.

Jesus says to Peter, and he says to us: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Catching them alive. Bringing them into the boat of the church, where people will find life. Fear not, don’t be afraid. Our Lord knows how sinful we are, but he does not strike us down. Don’t be afraid. Our doubts, our objections to Jesus’ word–these are forgiven. Fear not, don’t be afraid. Christ Jesus died for sinners like you and me and Simon Peter. Jesus forgives all his fearful disciples because of the holy innocent blood he shed for us on the cross.

Oh, we may think we know how to run the church. We think it’s our church, that we’re the ones in charge. We’ve got our own ideas of how it should go, of how we’re going to boost the numbers and be successful. But then we labor all night and come up empty. Is it time to repent of such folly? You bet it is. This is Jesus’ church. He will provide the numbers.

Sometimes those numbers will not be what we want. Look at the prophet Isaiah. The Lord called him to be a preacher and then told him that most people won’t listen to him! Just a small remnant. But the Lord sent him out nonetheless. Even Jesus, at the end of John 6–many people left Jesus and didn’t want to listen any longer. Was Jesus a failure? By the standards of the church-growth gurus, I guess he was. But outward success is not the right measure. Numerical growth may happen, but that’s not the goal per se. What the Lord calls his church to do is to be faithful: to preach Christ crucified, to preach repentance and forgiveness, to teach the word of God in its truth and purity. And we leave the results up to him.

So here’s the catch: It’s all about Jesus, and it’s all up to Jesus. The numbers are up to him. It’s not our techniques or programs or entertaining gimmicks that will produce true growth. Rather, it is the word of the Lord.

And so here is the catch: The catch of fish that Jesus promised. Right here, in this church, sitting all around you. We are the catch of fish that the church has caught in her net, the net of the gospel, and brought into the boat. This is a good thing. The church catches her fish alive.

And the net result? The gospel, the word of Jesus, gives us life and rescues us from death and the devil. Christ Jesus gives us eternal life as a free gift by his word of forgiveness, the forgiveness he won for you on the cross. And it is that word, that authoritative word of Jesus, that will calm our fears and truly grow the church.

Published in: on February 8, 2019 at 7:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful sermon, Charlie.

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