February 7, 2010
Text: Luke 5:1-11
Six years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip in east Africa when I met a teenaged girl from Somalia named Sarah. Sarah’s family had moved to Nairobi, Kenya and they sent her to a boarding school there. She was raised by a strict Muslim family from a strict Muslim culture. But the school where Sarah was sent had many Christian students, as well as Muslim students. Some of her new friends began to share their beliefs with her. They talked about Jesus and His love for the world and she became very interested in learning more about Christianity. Someone gave her a copy of the New Testament and she hungrily read the stories of Christ healing lepers, giving sight to the blind, and preaching good news to the poor. This was a version of God she had never considered previously. The emphasis was on mercy and kindness and forgiveness. Sarah told me that the concept of God forgiving sinners was never explained to her until that time.
During one of her school breaks, Sarah was home with her family and she made the mistake of bringing her New Testament home with her. One afternoon, one of her brothers was snooping through her things and he discovered it in her backpack. Not good. Her brother confronted her with the Bible and asked her if this meant that she was now a Christian. Sarah had never stopped to consider if she was a Christian or not. She hadn’t been baptized. She’d only read the stories of Jesus Christ and found them comforting. But her brother would not relent. He asked her repeatedly, “so are you now a Christian?” Finally, not really even knowing what she was saying, Sarah answered, “Yes, I am a Christian.” And her brother looked at her and he dropped the Bible and he told her that she is then a dog because Christians are dogs.
Sarah went on to describe how for the next several days, her brothers abused her. First they cut off all of her hair. They spit on her. Even her littlest brother who was only five or six years old spit on her. They removed all of her clothes and locked her in a closet. When her mother came home, she pleaded with Sarah to denounce Jesus or else her brothers would kill her. For some reason, Sarah could not bring herself to renounce this Jesus, whom she barely knew, but she knew enough to know that He had done nothing wrong to her so how could she speak against him, even to save her own life? I’m telling you about a tiny little slip of a girl who probably weighed all of ninety pounds and was maybe 17 years old. The girl I met was shy and petite and you could hardly imagine anyone wanting to harm her.
For several days, her brothers kept her imprisoned, naked. They withheld food from her. And they beat her. At one point, one of them took off his shoe and slapped the heel of it into her face until he’d knocked out most of her teeth.
To make a long story short, Sarah eventually escaped and ran naked, starving, with no hair and no teeth, covered in blood and filth and was found by a friendly police officer. At the time when I met Sarah, she was literally hiding for her life on a Christian compound waiting for a VISA to come to America.
I decided to share that story with you today because this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 5 is not about fish. It’s about people, men and women and children like you. And like Sarah. In fact, the world is full of people who need Jesus Christ. Of course, Sarah’s story is dramatic and hopefully it is relatively unusual, but I wanted to illustrate the need that exists. And you do not have to cross oceans and go to distant continents to find them. They live right next door to all of us. They work in our offices and factories. They attend our schools. Perhaps they are members of our own families. People who are trapped in addictions, held in bondage to their sins, afraid to die, worried about tomorrow and the next day or the next. Riddled with uncertainty, paranoid about plagues and wars and economic upsets.
Jesus calls His disciples to be fishers of people. I’m not much of an outdoorsman myself, so the only fishing I’ve done recently is to order the Mahi Mahi with fresh mango chutney. I know some of you are experienced with ice fishing and other techniques. Again, for me, I prefer my ice in the form of cubes in a glass not as a sheet beneath my feet. And yet, I appreciate the skill and patience it takes to be an accomplished angler.
For most of us, if you do have some experience fishing, it’s probably been with a rod and reel. You use a hook with bait and you dangle it or cast it into the water hoping to lure the fish to the hook. Several of Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen by trade. They made their living and supported their families off the sea. They didn’t use rods and reels and hooks and sinkers and bait. They used nets. They didn’t sit waiting for hours to snag a single fish. They used nets to gather the fish in by the hundreds and even by the thousands.
If we look at the story in a spiritual sense, almost like a parable, we can learn a powerful lesson. In a lot of ancient literature, including the Old Testament, deep water or the sea is often a metaphor for death and the grave. Take the story of Jonah, for example. He is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a great fish. He sits in the belly of the fish for three days and then gets belched back up onto the shore. In the New Testament, our Lord interprets that story as a sign of His own death, his entombment in the belly of the earth and His resurrection. The sea represents death and the grave.
The boat represents the Church. Like the ark of Noah which saved him and his family in the great flood. In church architecture, this part of the building where you are sitting, where the pews are located, is called the nave. Nave is related to naval and navy. The boat represents the Church.
If you keep with the metaphor, the fish represent people.
And what are the nets? The nets are the gospel itself, that which saves us, the precious good news of free salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
This episode in the early days of Jesus’ ministry is intended to illustrate that He is on a mission to save human beings from death by gathering them into the safety of His Church. And He calls on us to be participants in that labor.
The official name of this congregation is not simply Redeemer Lutheran Church, but it is Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church. We are evangelicals. Not in the sense that that term has come to be used today by the media to refer to religious fanatics or Christian extremists. The word comes from the Greek language meaning Good News. Or the Good Message.
For various reasons, unfortunately there are lots of misunderstandings out there about what the church of Christ is all about. Some people think of the Christian Church as a highly negative force, an oppressive organization that stifles humanity. And probably there have been instances when this was case. But I’m here to tell you that the Church is a society of hope, a community of joy, which finds lost children, receives the weak, and lifts up the despondent. Jesus Christ is the life of the world and He calls us to Himself so that we may experience abundant life, now and in eternity. Here at this table, in this sacrament, God serves us the very antidote to death. The Body and Blood of His Son.
The Christian Church at large, and this congregation, exists not to condemn the world but to announce the good news of victory over sin and to extend God’s gift of eternal life to all people. Sometimes we do have to curse the darkness and that may make people uncomfortable, especially if they love the deeds of darkness. But we exist primarily to light a candle, to put forth a beacon on a hill, to show the world that God is saving us through Jesus Christ. His death on the cross, his innocent blood atones for the sin of the world. That is the heart of our faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus for the redemption of sinners. Let me be clear that the gospel is not good instructions, not a good idea, and not good advice. The gospel is the announcement of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God Himself is at work in Jesus not to condemn the world, but to bring about a new creation.
This last summer, I was attending a Lutheran youth conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I ran into a friend who visited Africa with me and I asked her if she had any news about Sarah, the girl from Somalia that I told you about earlier. And I am pleased to say that today, Sarah and her husband live in the United States and they are active members of a Lutheran congregation in Houston, Texas. God saved her. That same God saved you.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
February 7, 2010