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Leaving The Nets Behind

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church,Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 22, 2012.

Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

Many of you know that I have been closely involved with an organization called the Transforming Center for the last five years.  This past week I spent several days in the frozen tundra of Chicago helping construct a new Transforming Center program called the Transforming Church™ network.  I’m very excited about this future network of churches and ministry organizations, all dedicated to discerning and doing the will of God through the ongoing spiritual transformation of their members and their organizations.  In fact, I’m hoping our church will be a charter member of this network, but that’s a conversation for another day.  

One task I helped with last week was writing “executive summaries” of different features of the network.   These summaries were challenging to write because complicated concepts had to be distilled into a few, well-chosen words that would clearly communicate the essentials of the network.

As I read the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, I realize I am reading an executive summary of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.   The evangelist Mark does the seemingly impossible, compacting conversations, actions, and concepts so tightly that in the space of 20 verses he explains how Jesus came out of nowhere to spark a movement that would change the world. 

Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” because that’s the way everything happens in his gospel.  John the Baptist bursts on the horizon to pave the way for Jesus, but fades away just as quickly when he’s thrown into prison.  Jesus is baptized by John, then driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan, then launches a preaching ministry in the region of Galilee, then invites four Sea of Galilee fishermen to leave their nets behind and follow him.  And they do…on a moment’s notice.   And if Mark’s account seems like a bare-bones summary that leaves out lots of details, that’s because it is.   

So today, I’m going to draw from other gospels and even my own imagination as I expand Mark’s account a bit.  Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary.  He grew up working as a carpenter in his stepfather Joseph’s shop. For thirty years Jesus quietly lived and labored in Nazareth, all the while deepening his relationship with his Heavenly Father.

Then at the divinely appointed moment, Jesus left the carpenter shop and his family and his former life in Nazareth behind.  He sought out his cousin—a prophet named John the Baptist—and asked John to baptize him in the Jordan River.  As Jesus came up out of the waters, the Spirit of God came down from heaven to bless and affirm God’s son. 

From the Jordan River Jesus was escorted by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was harassed by the Evil One over forty long days and nights of fasting.  Satan did his best to sabotage Jesus before Jesus had even begun his ministry, but to no avail.  Jesus was on his game and gave Satan no quarter.  So Satan threw in the towel and retreated to fight another day.  

When Jesus returned from the wilderness to Galilee, he soon crossed paths with John the Baptist, who loudly declared that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the Son of God in whom God was well-pleased.   In those days John had several disciples following him, one of whom was named Andrew.  Andrew and another unnamed disciple (probably a fisherman named John) were so impressed by their master’s description of Jesus that they decided to follow Jesus and check him out. 

Soon they met Jesus face-to-face, and Jesus invited them to hang out with him for the best part of a day.  We don’t know what happened, but clearly it was life-changing because Andrew ran to get his brother, Simon Peter.  Andrew wanted Simon to meet the man he was convinced was the true Messiah of Israel.  When Jesus met Simon, he changed Simon’s name to Peter, and began transforming Peter’s soul on the spot.  Peter, Andrew, and John must have talked among themselves and with John’s brother, James, for hours on end about that day with Jesus that changed their lives forever.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John would have more opportunities to be exposed to Jesus as he began preaching all over Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.   The bible says nothing about the impact of Jesus’ preaching on these four.  But in my mind I can imagine it was similar to an experience I had many years ago attending a conference for church leaders.  I remember a speaker I had never heard of rose to preach, and I braced myself for a boring sermon.  The next thing I knew tears were rolling down my cheeks because every word God was speaking through that preacher was penetrating my heart and soul at a deep level, stirring something in me I didn’t even know existed.  And my life was never the same.        

I’m guessing every time Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard Jesus speak, they felt that same kind of stirring deep in their souls.  I’m guessing they found themselves falling in love with the God Jesus loved to talk about. 

I have no proof that these four ever read Psalm 62.  But being good Jews who were raised on the learned the Psalter, I can imagine they not only knew this psalm, but after meeting Jesus were increasingly transformed by its words of hope and trust.  As Jesus talked about God, they knew they could trust this same God as implicitly and completely as that king named David who penned these verses:

            For God alone my soul waits in silence,

                        For my hope is from him.

            He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                        My fortress, I shall not be shaken…

            Trust in him at all times.

In their moments of silent reflection, Peter, Andrew, James, and John pondered the words of the ancient King David and the new king Jesus.  They heard Jesus describe a new way of living under the rule of God.  They heard Jesus’ challenge to repent, to change their minds and their ways, to leave behind their old assumptions about what was important and what made them secure. 

And they embraced his invitation to believe in the good news so completely they would place their trust in Jesus, and in Jesus alone.  They would do whatever Jesus asked, whenever he asked it, and trust him for the results.  A change this drastic didn’t happen overnight, of course.  But over time these four were becoming new people.  And Jesus noticed the change. 

Then came the moment of truth.   One dayPeter, Andrew, James, and John were plying their trade on the Sea of Galilee.  Andrew and John had been disciples of John the Baptist, but the Baptist was in jail now, and they had returned to fishing full-time. 

That is, until Jesus called. 

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets, and followed him.  As he went a little farther, he saw James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him (emphasis mine).

Our first impulse as we digest this remarkable passage is to dwell on what these four gave up.  But before we focus on what they left behind, notice what Jesus is offering.  When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is offering these four quality time in which to develop intimate relationships with him, the most intimate he will have on this earth. And with that intimacy comes instruction, teaching without equal in which Jesus will impart to these four and eight more the Wisdom of the ages. 

And with this intimacy and instruction comes an invitation to a mission, the most thrilling mission any one could imagine.  Fishing for fish could have its moments of excitement, especially when the nets overflowed with floundering fish.  But imagine devoting the rest of your life to fishing for people, drawing people to Jesus so their lives could be changed from the inside out, so they might have life, abundant and etenal!   Imagine working with Jesus to make broken people whole, hungry people satisfied, lost people found. 

Imagine!

Many interpreters have said Peter and company left their nets behind because they had nothing to lose in the first place.   But that theory doesn’t hold water.  James and John were evidently in a family that had been fishermen for generations, and the business was prosperous enough to employ hired hands to help.  We know Peter was married and had a home.  We know he had a mother-in-law who may have lived with him, and for that matter may have had children.  We know Peter’s home would eventually be used as a house church for Jesus’ new church. 

In other words, these weren’t people with nothing to lose.  When they followed Jesus, they were leaving a multitude of loved ones and responsibilities and resources behind.  Imagine how stunned Zebedee was to see both his sons lay down their nets to follow Jesus.  Imagine how Peter’s wife reacted when she got the news her husband had walked away from his job and wouldn’t be home any time soon.

Why would these two sets of hard-working brothers do something so apparently rash and irresponsible?  Because their exposure to Jesus had triggered a spiritual transformation at the deepest levels of their souls.  Because they had a God-implanted desire in their hearts to be intimately connected to the one who made them.  And a desire to invest their lives in something bigger than they were, something that would outlive them and make a difference in the world around them.  And because their deep trust in Jesus empowered them to lay it all on the line for him.

So they left their nets behind.  And their boats behind.  And their businesses behind.  And for a season, their families behind. 

That’s not all.  They left the old assumptions and the old ways of doing things behind.  And their old security systems like money and possessions were replaced by God, and God alone.  They weren’t against money and possessions.  They just knew better now than to ever place their security in them. 

One more thing.  These four were willing to put their mission over their own comforts and needs.  From now on, reaching people for Jesus would trump every other agenda.  Obviously, these four weren’t perfect, and over the next three years they would mess up many times.  But the day would come when Jesus would hold the keys of the kingdom over to them.  And they would proceed to change the world. 

None of it would have happened, of course, had Jesus not been willing to leave to leave his carpenter shop behind.  And the fishermen had not been willing their nets behind.   

These days I’m thinking Psalm 62 and Mark 1 should have new meaning for our congregation.   If what Chris Gambill has told us these past two weeks is true—that the world has changed but the church has not—then we stand at a major crossroad.  We have a window of opportunity that won’t last forever to let go of some old nets so we can begin fishing differently.  The fact is, more and more churches are bringing in less and less fish.  For some time now the nets have been coming up almost empty, and so are the churches.  

It’s a very different world out there than it was 140 years ago when this church was born, or even 60 years ago when this church had over 3,000 members.  We can bury our heads in the sand, and keep fishing the old ways, hoping our luck will change. Many churches will do precisely that because it will be too unsettling to change  anything.  And many of those churches will likely not survive.

I’m convinced that these days we are hearing the same invitation Peter and his friends heard from Jesus 2000 years ago.  “Turn to me, trust me, follow me, only me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Now the question is, will we be willing to leave our nets behind—our agendas, our preferences, our assumptions, our pride?  Will we be as teachable as the disciples, as willing to listen and learn new ways, God’s ways for the 21st century?

And, are we willing to drop our nets, not 10 years from now, or 5 years from now, or even 1 year from now!  The evangelist Mark would say we need to be ready to drop them immediately!

What do you say?