Scripture: Luke 5:1-11
Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time a dear brother in Christ named Trace Embry. Some of you know Trace. He created and runs a wilderness therapy school for troubled teenagers called Shepherd’s Hill Academy. It’s off Highway 17 in Martin. Young people from around the world get placed in this program. Among other things, these kids get a first-rate education… but they receive that education without having access to any “screens,” or smartphones, or devices of any kind. No social media. They are segregated by gender. They live in cabins in the woods, with no electricity, no indoor plumbing—and only a wood stove to keep them warm… And by the way, they have to chop, split, and dry their own firewood themselves. Counselors, of course, live with them and work alongside them the whole time. On the weekend, these students are responsible for cooking their own meals over an open fire.
And many of them receive the gospel of Jesus Christ while they’re at it.
Research proves that Trace’s program works. And thanks to the generosity of Toccoa First, I was able to hand Trace a check in the amount of $25,000.
I spent time last week listening to Trace’s story—about the improbable way the school came into being—and the many improbable events that happened over the years—including the many obstacles that had to be overcome—in order for this school to grow and prosper. When I asked Trace questions about his life and his ministry, he would start to answer it and then interrupt himself: “Are you sure you want to hear this, because I could go on all day about how God worked this miracle, or how God did that amazing thing.”
I especially liked the way he referred to one problem that he was currently facing in his ministry. He said, “We’re in the middle of a miracle right now.”
We’re in the middle of a miracle? Wait! “I thought you were describing a ‘problem.’” Why are you saying you’re in the “middle of a miracle”? Sounds like “being in the middle of a miracle” is a euphemism for having a problem. That makes having a problem sound like something good…
But I think Trace is onto something, biblically speaking… When you’re in the middle of a miracle, according to Trace, that means that soon you’ll be on the other side of that miracle. And when you are, you’ll be able to look back on all the powerful, supernatural things God has done to bring success, to overcome obstacles, to accomplish his plan and purpose… and when that happens, Jesus Christ will be getting all the glory!
In today’s scripture, Peter, James, and John are in the middle of a miracle… Literally… They fished all night, and they didn’t catch anything… And these are professional fishermen, after all. If they don’t catch fish, they don’t make money, they can’t feed their families. The stakes are that high! So you can imagine Peter’s frustration when Jesus offers him some free fishing advice in verse 4, telling him, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish,”1
I would not have blamed Peter if he had said, “Jesus, aren’t you a carpenter by trade? Stay in your lane. Leave the fishing to me. I’m the expert on this subject. I know how to do this.”
But to Peter’s credit, in spite of his misgivings, he speaks these remarkable words of faithful obedience: “But at your word I will let down the nets.”
So Peter obeys… as do James and John… And in one fell swoop they catch more fish than they’ve ever caught at one time in their entire careers as professional fishermen!
Look what Jesus can do… when we hear his word and obey him!
So when Peter, James, and John fished all night without catching anything, when they were frustrated because it seemed like all their efforts were in vain, they were really in the middle of a miracle without even knowing it!
Do you think that Jesus performed this miracle simply to help Peter, James, and John’s fishing business? No… He is enabling his disciples to live out a parable. Usually Jesus just speaks parables to his disciples; today they’re living a parable out.
So in today’s sermon, with this in mind, I want to discuss four things that this “living parable” has to teach us when we find ourselves “in the middle of a miracle”—otherwise known as facing a problem, a challenge, or a crisis.
And the first thing is this: when we are in the middle of a miracle, we are not qualified to handle it, to solve our problem, or to figure out what we’re supposed to do on our own. Not even close!
God called Trace Embry into ministry 30 years ago. And Trace was absolutely confident of that call. He knew God was calling him to go somewhere and do something for the gospel of Jesus Christ… But he had no idea what it was.
Well, that’s not true… he had an idea: he assumed God was calling him to be a pastor, that he would preach the gospel, that he would work at a church. Anyway, this call from God brought him from Chicago, his hometown, to Toccoa Falls College and later to a nearby seminary.
He had no idea back then that the main feature of his call into ministry would be doing what he’s spent the last 25 years of his life doing, running Shepherd’s Hill Academy.
While he was driving me around the property on his ATV and showing me the place, I asked him, “How did you know how to do any of this stuff? To create this. To run this. To manage this… These are not skills you learn at Bible college or in seminary.” He laughed and said, “Are you kidding? I didn’t know how to do any of this.” He said he was not qualified to do what God called him to do at Shepherd’s Hill. He said that what matters is not our “qualifications,” what matters is that when Jesus tells us to do something, we say “yes.” We obey.
Likewise, Peter was not qualified to do what Jesus called him to do.
You would think that having the biggest catch of his life would bring Peter incredible joy. You would think the first thing Peter would do, once he and his partners dragged all these fish to shore, would be to give Jesus a big hug, or a high five, or a fist bump and say, “Lord, please don’t go anywhere. We want you to stay right here with us… so we can do this again tomorrow. We want to make you a full partner in our fishing enterprise.”
Instead, he says what? Verse 8: “But when Simon Peter saw it”—that is, saw this miraculous catch—“he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”
Isn’t that strange behavior?
Not at all. It’s precisely the same behavior of the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah chapter 6… Isaiah is in the temple when God calls him. And Isaiah has a very close encounter with God. Shouldn’t that make a prophet of God happy? No, because you can’t get close to God without getting close to God’s holiness. Which is terrifying for us sinners. God’s holiness literally destroys sinners. So, like Peter when he falls down at Jesus’ knees, Isaiah shouts, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”2
When Peter falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs for him to leave, it’s because he senses, perhaps for the first time, that when he’s close to Jesus, he is dangerously close toa holy God… Because Jesus is God in the flesh. And like Isaiah, Peter is afraid he’ll die.
To say the least, because of his sinfulness, Peter is not qualified to answer Jesus’ call…
But Peter is in the middle of a miracle, and he doesn’t know it… But Jesus does. Because Jesus knows that within a few years he will take all of Peter’s sins—past, present, and future—and suffer the penalty for each and every one, and through Peter’s faith he will have forgiveness… he will be made a child of God… loved by his heavenly Father every bit as much as God’s Son Jesus is loved by the Father. That’s a miracle. And after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter will be on the other side of it!
Besides, we see Peter’s lack of qualifications in other ways… After all, if it were up to Peter… if Peter trusted in himself, his own skills as a fisherman, his own experience, his own expertise… rather than trusting in Jesus… well, Peter would have missed out on what, up to that point, was the highlight of his life, and certainly of his career!
What blessings do we miss out on because we trust in ourselves rather than in Jesus?
Why do I have such a hard time believing that Jesus knows more than I do? Why do I find it so hard to trust in him, rather than trusting in myself? Why do you?
This brings us to point number two… Point number two, I hope, will help us answer the question I just raised: When we’re in the “middle of a miracle,” it’s often hard to discern or imagine or perceive all the powerful things that God is doing in our midst. Without faith, it’s hard. It wasn’t hard for Trace Embry because had faith. But without faith, it is usually not obvious that God is doing anything. And that’s our problem. We need faith to see God’s hand at work.
If you don’t believe me, consider this hypothetical scenario: If Jesus wanted to, he could have commanded these hundreds of fish to leap out of the lake and flop down into the boats of these disciples without requiring Peter, James, and John to lift a finger to help him. Forget about the nets: if he wanted to, Jesus could have bypassed the work of these three fishermen entirely. But that’s not typically how our Lord does things. He involves us in his supernatural work. Not because he needs to, but because when we respond to him in faith and obedience, it brings him great pleasure and joy and gives him great glory. And it makes us deeply joyful and satisfied in him—the way we were created to be.
And it’s great that the Lord uses us in this way, except… we can so easily get confused. Because the Lord asks us to cast our nets and haul in fish, we can begin to think that we’re the ones responsible for our success… that we’re responsible for all the good things that we accomplish. We can say, “Look what I did! Look what I accomplished! Look what I achieved! Aren’t I worthy of glory!”
Even in today’s scripture you need faith to see the miracle… This passage is usually referred to as a “miraculous catch of fish,” but suppose you were in the crowd on the seashore. You see these fishermen go over to a certain place, cast their nets, catch a bunch of fish! You might think, “Good for them,” but it wouldn’t be any kind of obvious miracle… just a lucky break! Nothing here defied the laws of physics. The water above the fish didn’t glow with an unearthly light. The fish didn’t fly up out of the water into the boat. These fishermen still had to cast their nets! They still had to haul the nets in. They still had to exert a lot of energy to make this happen! And it’s easy to imagine people on the shore running over to Peter, James, and John after they haul these nets to shore, patting them on the backs, congratulating them, saying, “You guys did a great job! You are some outstanding fishermen!”
It’s easy to imagine that success going to their heads! It’s easy to imagine their pride swelling up!
And suddenly they forget about the One who made all of this happen in the first place…
Without faith, that would be easy to do… Sure, Jesus saw a school of fish off in the distance and said, “Go over there and cast your nets.” Sure, it’s unlikely that there would be this massive school of fish that would be so dumb that they would be lured into the nets in broad daylight in such large numbers, but, hey… coincidences happen, right?
But I’m reminded of something William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury back in the 1950s, said: “When I pray, I find that coincidences happen frequently. When I don’t pray, they stop happening.”
Brothers and sisters, there are so many scriptures that remind us that, yes, while we have a role to play in accomplishing God’s will and purposes, God is the One who is ultimately in control. He’s the One who makes our efforts succeed. He’s the One who gives us the victory. He’s the One who gives us every other good thing that we enjoy in life. It’s all from him! It’s all from him! He’s worthy of all the glory… Not us!
Consider just a few scriptures:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Psalm 127:1.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9.
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. Proverbs 21:31.
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17.
And just practically speaking, this truth about God’s sovereignty should come as a great relief! If God is in control the way scripture teaches… then suddenly the weight of the world is no longer on my shoulders, or yours. What a relief!
By all means, we should let doctors treat anxiety using whatever medical intervention is warranted. The Lord can work through modern medicine. But please let’s also add another treatment: let’s let Jesus our Great Physician treat our anxiety with his promise that every hair on our heads is numbered, his promise that not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father—and we are worth more than many sparrows3… his promise that all things work together for good… his promise that he’s always on our side… his promise that nothing ever separates us from his love…
So here’s point number three: When you’re in the “middle of a miracle,” you can have peace. God’s got this! He’s in control. There’s nothing happening to you right now that God hasn’t already enfolded into his plan for your life. He’s using it for your purposes. He’s bringing something good out of it!
But notice it takes humility to trust in God this way… to believe that I am not qualified to solve my problems, that I am not so powerful and important and wise after all… that what’s most important is not anything that I do, but what God does.
It takes humility to do what the disciples do in verse 11—to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. You can be sure that a part of that “everything” that these men left behind included their own quest for personal glory. From now on, they were going to strive to glorify Christ! They were going to live for his glory, not their own!
Chuck Swindoll makes this point in his commentary on this text, and it’s worth repeating: He says that being a disciple of Jesus isn’t like being an apprentice to some master craftsman. If you’re an apprentice you start your career by depending on your master or your mentor… for everything. But over time, as you learn the craft, you become increasingly independent. That’s the goal… to no longer depend on the master, until you become a master yourself.
The Christian life works exactly opposite of that: We start out believing that we’re independent, that we’re in charge, that we’re the king… that we sit on the throne… and over time we learn, however slowly, to surrender more and more of our lives to the one true King… to Jesus Christ. Living a Christian life is ultimately a movement from independence to increasing dependence.
In fact, living a Christian life means that we can’t tell the story of our lives without talking a lot about Jesus. If we are Christians, it simply wouldn’t make sense to try to tell our life’s story without talking about Jesus!
Listen, I’ve said a lot of nice things about Trace Embry in this sermon. He inspires me, it’s true! But don’t misunderstand: As good a man as he is, I didn’t walk away from my time with Trace thinking, “What a great guy! What a remarkable man! Look at all that he’s done. Look at all that he’s accomplished. Trace is amazing.” No, I walked away from my time with Trace thinking, “What a great God we serve! What a remarkable Savior we have in Jesus! Jesus is amazing! Look what Jesus has done for him… and who knows… maybe Jesus can do the same for me!”
No, I didn’t walk away from Trace thinking, “What a great guy he is,” because Trace didn’t give me that option. He was too busy telling me how great Jesus was and all the things that Jesus was doing in his life and ministry… Praise God!
Jesus is the recurring theme of the story of Trace’s life! Trace’s life doesn’t make sense without Jesus!
Maybe I’m morbid, but I’ve been thinking hard recently about funerals and eulogies—specifically, I’ve been thinking about my own: When I die, if anyone cares to offer a eulogy for me at my funeral—please God—I hope the person says something like this: “Brent’s life made no sense without Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t real, if Jesus wasn’t God’s Son, if Jesus didn’t die for our sins, if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead, then Brent White wasted his life.”
I would love for people to say that! I would love for them to say, “I can’t even explain who Brent White was, when he was here on earth, without also explaining to you who Jesus is. Brent must have loved Jesus because gave up everything for him. He didn’t hold anything back from him. He was all in for Jesus.”
When I die, I hope that people can’t talk about me—what a boring subject—without ending up mostly talking about Jesus! What did John the Baptist say in John 3:30? “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I hope that by the time I die, my own role in the story of my life will have become very, very small, and Jesus’ role will have become very large.
I’m not there yet… God knows. But by God’s grace I hope to be. How about you?
And this is my fourth and final point: When we learn, like Trace Embry, to reinterpret the meaning of the challenges we face in life… the problems we face in life… when we learn to see by faith that this problem, this challenge, this crisis simply means that we’re in the “middle of a miracle”… When we see things that way, guess what happens? We cannot help but witness! We cannot help but do the work of evangelism! We cannot help but make Jesus Christ look great to everyone who will listen to us, to everyone who knows us, to everyone who spends any time with us. Because it’s going to come straight from our hearts. It’s not memorizing a script! It’s from right here [point to heart]. That’s what I want for you at Toccoa First United Methodist Church!
I want our faith to be attractive to others… to be contagious to others…
Indeed, I want us to begin to do what Jesus says all his disciples are supposed to do in verse 10: “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people… you’ll catching them in the net of the gospel of Jesus Christ!”
Listen, last year our church recorded seven professions of faith—seven young people received Christ as their Savior and Lord and were born again. I praise God for them. But I’m not satisfied with that. I am not satisfied that we as a church have done nearly enough in response to the word of the Lord to “cast our nets” and fish for “men and women and boys and girls.” Are you satisfied with our fishing efforts?
Listen, I said this at the Trustees meeting last week, and to my surprise I didn’t get into trouble for saying it—I hope. But it’s important, and I need to say it to all of y’all. Even though it scares me a little to talk about it.
You know we have this piece of property called the Rock House, right? Next to the youth building. And nobody seems to know what to do about it—tear it down, refurbish it, renovate it, sell it. There are legal issues to deal with no matter what we do. But it took me three years as your pastor to learn this, but I think I finally figured it out: the Rock House is like the “third rail” of Toccoa First United Methodist. There are strong, passionate convictions on all sides of this issue. And I appreciate that passion: it’s an indirect expression of your great love for this church, of your desire to be good stewards of gifts that God has given us.
Personally, I hope you’ll forgive me when I say I am not passionate about the Rock House, one way or the other…
But I am passionate about “fishing for and catching men and women and boys and girls” with the Good News of Jesus Christ. I am passionate about fulfilling the Great Commission. I am passionate about our primary mission as a church to make disciples.
And here’s what I believe with every fiber of my being: Whatever value the Rock House has—$200,000, give or take—it is worth infinitely less than the value of even a single human soul. And as I speak these words, you and I both know that there are thousands upon thousands of souls in our city, in our county, who need to be rescued from their sins, who haven’t yet heard or responded to the Good News of Jesus Christ. And unless they do, unless they say “yes” to Jesus and his gift of eternal life, then Jesus warns us repeatedly that they will be separated from God forever, in hell!
You know that, right? You know that what I’m saying is true!
We know that…
And yet… I have had dozens of people share passionate opinions with me about the Rock House. Yet no one has come up to me and said, “Pastor Brent, I’m bothered that we only had seven people make professions of faith last year. I believe we can do better. I believe we have to do better. I believe the Lord is calling us to do better! How can I help? What can I do?”
I know you might feel that way without telling me, but gosh, I’d much rather talk about how to solve that problem than how to solve the problem of a building that certainly won’t make any difference in light of eternity—at least not until we get our priorities straight!
We have work to do when it comes to evangelism and witnessing… and we’re not where we need to be… We’re not satisfied with the results of our fishing efforts at Toccoa First… We have a problem doing the kind of “fishing” that Jesus describes in today’s scripture…
Or… maybe it’s not a problem…maybe our current lack of “fishing success” just means that we’re in the middle of a miracle. And if or when we reach the other side of that miracle, won’t it be wonderful to see dozens, hundreds, of people crowding into this church to hear God’s Word, to repent, and to be saved!
Dear Lord Jesus, make it so. Amen.