Bible Text: 1 Kings 19:19-21, Matthew 4:17-22 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | There’s a women’s lib joke that says, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Today’s scriptures are oddly similar. Elisha does not need his oxen or plow to be Elijah’s follower, so he cooks the animals, uses his farming equipment as firewood, and throws a barbeque to feed others. Likewise, fishing boats and nets won’t be useful for Peter and Andrew in the deserts and cities where Jesus will peach, so they leave them behind. James and John even leave their father sitting in the family boat all by himself. The people in today’s stories abandon practically everything to follow God. Elisha says goodbye to his family first, true, but he burns his bridges. The farming equipment his family requires for its work is torched, and Elisha uses twelve of the family cows to throw a massive cookout. To put that in perspective, twelve oxen was more than most ancient Israelite farmers ever hoped to own: this isn’t killing the fatted calf… but butchering most of the herd. Elisha is a still dutiful son who properly stops to kiss his parents goodbye. But his leaving deprives a family of much of its wealth, a large chunk of its future income, and a beloved son. Similarly, the four disciples we see today abandon families and incomes to follow Jesus. Imagine the emotions going on within the father left at the boat: it’s all the pain of a child leaving home for the first time hitting you in one giant instant, twice over.
But what gets me in these scriptures… is how quickly everything happens. Jesus walks up to some fishermen at their nets, asks them to follow, and they immediately get up and go. And Elijah tosses his cloak onto Elisha, a symbolic gesture declaring Elisha his successor, and Elisha drops his work to chase after the wandering prophet. One barbeque later and Elisha is on the road. These heroes instantly responded to God’s call. … … Where’s the committee meetings? The job interviews? The planning stages? The heart-to-hearts with mentors about whether this career move is right? Elijah doesn’t even ask to see Elisha’s references! These Biblical heroes leave everything behind to follow God’s call, burning many bridges behind them, and they do it all… at the drop of a hat. Do we ever see something like that in today’s world? I’ve spent more time on choosing pizza toppings than these guys do on their careers. If we saw any of our friends or family making split-second major life decisions like that, what would we say? If we’re honest, we’d most likely tell them: “Slow down, Pete and Drew. Jesus, can you give them a moment to consider everything? Peter, Andrew, James, John- think this through slowly and carefully before you make this decision. How do you imagine it will work out?”
And that’s the other thing that always strikes me in these stories. Elisha gets no promise of success when Elijah throws his mantle over him, but he takes off running. The disciples have no guarantee this Jesus thing is going to pan out for them. Jesus just says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”… and they go. Jesus chose his words well: following the Lord is a lot like going fishing. Do we have many fishers in our congregation today? My dad and I fished a lot when I was growing up, and whenever we caught nothing, he’d remind me that the worst day fishing… was still better than the best day working. And that’s the thing with fishing: you set out to catch some fish… but have no real promise that you will succeed. You do everything to prepare, but ultimately you simply cast your line into the water and wait to see what turns up. No guarantees, no sureties: just cast your fishing line and hope. And yet, fishing is fun in part because of the uncertainty. So too is a life following God.
Theologian John Howard Yoder summarizes my point nicely when he says, “The ethic of discipleship is not guided by the goals it seeks to reach… but by the Lord it seeks to reflect.” … … The ethic of discipleship is not guided by the goals it seeks to reach, but by the Lord it seeks to reflect… Put differently, we as Christians are not called to be effective… but faithful. We hope faithfulness produces effective results… but we are aware that few things in life turn out as we expect. What comes out of our faithfulness is not as important as faithfulness itself. Trusting in God and following just like the disciples did, that is what is truly important: the results are secondary. Returning to the fishing analogy, God doesn’t care if you make a record catch or come home empty-handed: God is pleased simply… if you go fishing with him.
This news is both wonderful and mildly troubling. If success is not the purpose of our lives, even success at being a great Christian, but rather life is all about faithfulness… that means that we may follow God’s calling to the utmost of our ability… and still meet difficulties. It means being faithful to God may get us in trouble. It means being faithful to God may make us look like failures in the eyes of the world. It means being faithful to God may at times be hard or frustrating or a struggle or discouraging. If following Jesus is like fishing, we need to be honest with ourselves that sometimes we catch the big one… and sometimes we come home with only memories. God doesn’t care what you catch when you fish with him. God only cares that you go fishing in the first place. Whether a good day of fishing or bad, it’s the fishing that matters, not the catching. And it’s your faithfulness that matters, not your effectiveness. Jesus makes no promises to us that life will be easy. Jesus simply asks us to follow.
However, this is also incredibly good news, because it liberates us as Christians from the need to prove ourselves. If the point of Christianity is faith and not some accomplishment of religiosity, then chasing after Christ in faith is enough, period, end of story. Jesus says he will make the disciples fish for people, but it is God who does the teaching and God who provides the fish. Our supposed successes and failures as a congregation have little to do with us and everything to do with God. What we can do is accept Jesus’s invitation to go fishing and see what the Lord will do: more than faithfulness, it’s beyond our power. Of course, we should still try out best to be effective. There is another old joke about a woman who desperately wanted to win the lottery. She prayed night after night that God would let her ticket be a winner. Finally, one evening at her prayers, the woman heard a faint voice telling her, “If you want to win the lottery… you need to buy a ticket…” Being faithful doesn’t mean being willfully ignorant. We should take steps to be wise and effective throughout our lives. But even then we need to remember that success… is not our main objective as Christians. Being faithful to God… is.
Let me share an example. In the 1800s there was an American missionary named Samuel Zwemer. In his thirty-eight years of missionary work across the Middle East, Samuel’s efforts led to only twelve conversions in the end. Nearly four decades of preaching, witnessing and serving people overseas, and only twelve joined the Church. In the eyes of the world, Samuel was a failure. Even in the eyes of well-meaning and supportive friends back home, some feared Samuel Zwemer was wasting his time, that perhaps he just was not cut out for this work. Samuel knew that was not what God was all about, and he had this to say: “The chief end of missions is not the salvation of men… but the glory of God.” In other words, Samuel said the point of his missionary work was not to get the most conversions or greatest missionary stories: the point of his service was glorifying God by faithfully doing what God asked of him, whether or not it panned out or not. And the funny thing is that, though his personal missionary work was not very fruitful, history shows that hundreds were inspired by Samuel’s writings to become missionaries themselves. Samuel went fishing with God, and though he didn’t catch much himself, Samuel’s faithfulness changed the world through all who followed his example of faithfulness.
Where is God inviting us today to cast our fishing lines? Where is Jesus calling us to follow in faith, not knowing whether we will succeed or fail but trusting that God is good? Perhaps it’s letting go of pride to admit when we’re wrong, even though it worries us. Maybe the Lord is calling us to reach out to old friends we haven’t spoken to in years. Or if we are discouraged and about to give up, whether in our spiritual struggles, careers or family lives, maybe God is encouraging us to keep our fishing line in just a little bit longer. If we feel like our efforts only lead to more disappointments, maybe God is reminding us that life is ultimately not about whether we win or lose but about love, the love we share with God and the love with each other. Just like fishing, we get no promise from Jesus that this life will be easy, but we do have the promise that wherever we go, God goes with us. Or as the great philosopher Forest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.” All we mortals can do is respond to Jesus’s invitation to follow… but in the end, that is all we need to do.
May God go with you this day and always. Happy fishing, and amen.