Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2008
Text: Matt. 4:12-25
Jesus’ evangelism program would be considered a failure by modern church growth standards. He doesn’t canvas the neighborhood. He doesn’t take surveys to ascertain His community’s felt needs. He doesn’t ask what kind of preaching people want to hear, or what kind of facility will be most attractive, or what programs people desire. He simply speaks the Word of God. “Follow me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19; ESV). And they get up and follow Him. A Word from Jesus is all it takes. They leave everything. And they do so “Immediately” (v. 20). For the Holy Spirit has called them by the Gospel and enlightened them with His gifts. He works through the Word of Jesus. He calls to faith and discipleship through the Word of Jesus. That’s evangelism: Speaking the Word of Jesus. So also when Jesus comes upon James and John, the sons of Zebedee, mending their nets, He simply calls them. A Word from Jesus is all it takes. “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (v. 22).
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” says Jesus. That is how He calls disciples for Himself. That is how He calls you and me. He speaks His Word. The Holy Spirit works through that Word, as He has promised, to call and enlighten us with saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this leaves us with two questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? And what does it mean to be a fisher of men?
To follow Jesus means to be His disciple, to be under His discipline. It means to be devoted to His apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). It means bearing the holy cross. “Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). Jesus goes the way of the cross, so if you are to follow Him, you must expect to go that way as well. The path to Easter always passes through Good Friday. There must be death before there can be resurrection. Following Jesus means suffering, and even dying if necessary, for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel. Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap. Being a disciple of Jesus means persecution. It means disdain from the world, and sometimes even our own friends and family members. It means being faithful to Jesus and His teaching, even when being faithful isn’t easy. It means repentance, confessing our unfaithfulness to God every time we fail, and asking Him for forgiveness. It means a daily dying to self, the baptismal life, the crucifixion of the flesh and the new life in Jesus Christ. If you have ever been under the impression that following Jesus is easy, you have been sadly mistaken. It is hard. Salvation is given to you freely, for Christ’s sake, on account of His sin atoning death, but that salvation always comes with the cross. And this is why not everyone answers Jesus’ call, “Follow me.” They are not willing to leave everything if it becomes necessary, their nets, their boats, their own father, to follow Jesus. It’s just too hard.
The Lord may not have required you to leave everything for His sake. But what if He did? What if He exposed your idolatry and asked you to die to yourself, forsake your earthly comforts, perhaps lose friends, or even family members, or maybe even your life for His sake or the sake of the Gospel? That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Make no mistake about it, it’s hard. And though our Lord may not ask us literally to leave all our possessions as Simon and Andrew and James and John did, He does ask us to forsake them emotionally and spiritually for His sake, so that if there is ever a conflict between Jesus and other things or other people, Jesus should win in the hearts of His disciples every time. He should reign without a rival in your heart. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38). “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
But if following Jesus is so hard, how can any of us call ourselves disciples? How can I call myself a disciple of Jesus when I don’t want to forsake all for Him, when I don’t want to undergo persecution, when I don’t have the strength to bear up under the cross? Beloved, with man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. If you concentrate on yourself and your own worthiness and works, all you will find is sin and death and idolatry. But you do not call yourself to faith. God calls you! You do not make your decision for Jesus. God makes His decision for you! You can reject God. But God never rejects you! Instead He sacrifices His Son on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. He calls you to repentance and He calls you to faith. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who bore for us the load of this world’s sin, your sin and my sin, on the cross of Calvary, and who has also conquered death in His victorious resurrection from the dead, says to you this morning and each time you encounter His Holy Word: “Follow me.” The initiative always comes from Him. The Holy Spirit works through that Word to give you faith. The Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith. Following Jesus is hard, but the Holy Spirit carries you. When the cross seems too heavy, take comfort in the fact that you do not bear it alone. While you bear the cross, God bears you.
Yes beloved, in Christ, whose possession you are, into whom you have been baptized, you have the full and free forgiveness of all your sins, including the sin idolatry that so often hinders your flesh from heeding Jesus’ call to follow. Jesus gives you new life. Every time you hear or read the Word of God, every time you recall your Baptism, every time you are absolved of your sins, and every time you receive the Lord’s body and blood, our gracious Triune God is calling you again, enlightening you, sanctifying you, and keeping you in the one true faith. Which is to say, our God is working through the Gospel, creating faith and giving you strength for each day as you bear the various crosses and undergo the various trials he allows to come upon you. This is indeed Gospel, Good News. For in Christ, all that is wrong with you is made right again. You have eternal life, the promise of heaven and the resurrection, and peace with God. Your will is no longer in captivity to sin. You are disciples, those under the discipline of Jesus. You follow Him.
As a result, you are fishers of men. But what does that mean? It means that you now have the great privilege of speaking His Word, being His mouthpiece as He calls others to be His disciples. You get to point others to Jesus and say, “Follow Him.” It is the response of faith. You do this through your daily vocations as royal priests. Sometimes it means having conversations about the Gospel when the opportunity arises with friends or co-workers or family members or even people you meet on the street or in an airplane or on the bus. Sometimes it means living in such a way that men see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16), and perhaps ask you the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15). It always means supporting your pastor and the ministry he has at this congregation. It always means being faithful in your own reception of the means of grace, the Word and the Sacrament. It always means setting an example for your family and others by faithful attendance at church and Bible class and in individual and family devotions. And it means inviting others to church, where they can hear the Word for themselves, receive the call of our Lord Jesus Christ to follow Him, and receive the gift of Christian Baptism, instruction in Christian doctrine, and the Sacrament of the Altar.
This would not be considered an evangelism program by church growth gurus. They would probably call it a maintenance ministry. But this is the evangelism program of Jesus. And what better program could there be? Jesus doesn’t promise us we will always see the fruit of our fishing for men. We aren’t promised astounding success. Sometimes we fish all night and catch nothing. But then, without explanation, our Lord tells us to let down the nets on the other side of the boat. We don’t understand it. It doesn’t seem like it will work. It isn’t practical. But we do it anyway in faith. And the catch is so big, the nets begin to break. Jesus doesn’t call us to success. He calls us to be faithful in speaking His Word. He calls us to make disciples by baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28:19-20). The results we leave to Him. We cast the net by speaking the Gospel to a world lost in sin. The catch is up to God. And we rest in the same Gospel hope, the same net that caught us, the forgiveness of sins and new life in Jesus Christ. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.