Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 26, 2014
It was a small pond that sat nestled into a hillside. The water was rarely clear, but we didn’t mind. That small pond was just a short drive from our high school. And every day of our senior year in high school that we could, me and my buddy would drive over to that small pond to go fishing. I should point out that at this time I was driving my infamous 78 pink cadillac. And my buddy was driving a teal green 1966 Oldsmobile 98. We could occupy an entire parking lot by ourselves.
Armed with a couple of cheap fishing poles and a pack of hot dogs, me and my buddy were out for catfish. We were no high class anglers with a fancy bass boat or a fish detection system, we were just a couple of high school kids in vintage cars trying to kill some time. And enjoy the fresh air. And catch some fish.
For those of you who have been fishing, you know that feel. That feel. When suddenly the rod and the line spring to life with that magical jerk. Could it be? Oh yes it is, you’ve hooked one. Duped by a slice of hot dog, that catfish and I were suddenly and inextricably bound together. And so the struggle began. Since we were using those cheap little fishing poles, it took all our skill to land those catfish. If you were too ambitious and tried to reel them in quickly, the line would *snap* and the rod would go dead. And the fish would be swim free. Reeling in a fish is more of an art, than a science. It’s a give and take. You bring them in, and then you let out the drag and let the fish swim to tire himself out. Over and over again, sometimes for long minutes on end. That was the struggle.
When Jesus calls Peter and Andrew to drop their nets and begin fishing for people, I think they know what they are getting themselves into. They are getting themselves into a struggle. Jesus calls Andrew and Peter and James and John to fish for people – but more than, that, Jesus also knows that they will be like fish themselves. Because following Jesus is a struggle.
I know it isn’t very flattering, but in a way, we are the fish in God’s pond. God somehow catches our attention – a sermon, a thought, a dream, a conversation – something happens in our lives and we decide to see what it’s all about. And then we’re caught. That sermon, that thought, that dream, that conversation begins to grow inside of us as we struggle to figure out what it all means. We struggle.
Because it’s when, not if, we struggle in our relationship with Jesus. It’s when, not if, we struggle and fight in our spiritual lives. It’s when, not if, we are being dragged to places that we do not want to go. We are the fish, and God is reeling us in.
Let’s be completely honest: having a relationship with Jesus is not easy. Cultivating a relationship with Jesus is a struggle. If it was easy, then everybody would be following Jesus.
I know this from my own spiritual life. On a busy day with lots of appointments and meetings, it’s just easier to not carve out the time I need to pray. When I am confronted with making the right choice for Jesus, and the easy choice for me – more often than not, I make the easy choice for me.
Churches, in general, do a terrible job of being honest about this. We sweep the struggle under the rug and only talk about how great it is to be a Christian. Churches can easily become communities of intense peer pressure: “have you felt Jesus today?” “Do you have Jesus in your heart?” “I’ve been praying for you.” This type of communal peer pressure is disastrous for our spiritual health because it creates a false sense of spiritual connection. And let’s be honest: I have met very few people, very few, who actually feel that God is close to them every day.
When we are struggling, when God seems distant, or absent, we might start thinking that something is wrong with us if we don’t feel Jesus. We manufacture a spiritual connection so that we aren’t ashamed by everybody else’s supposed piety. We start beating ourselves up because we haven’t felt the Holy Spirit in our hearts. And then comes the shame and the guilt. “If I haven’t felt God, then maybe there’s something wrong with me.”
There is nothing wrong with you. Feelings of struggle and loss are natural parts of a spiritual journey. There is nothing wrong with you if you don’t feel Jesus in your heart. There is nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling to follow Jesus. Remember, God is fishing for us. And by their very nature, fish do not want to come out of the water. For most of us, for the vast majority of us, connecting with Jesus will be a lifelong journey as we vacillate between moments of intimacy with our Lord, followed by long stretches of loss.
And that’s what it all boils down to. Cultivating a spiritual life does not come naturally. Living a spiritual life – praying, worshiping, giving, being connected to Jesus – is not something that just happens to us. In order to live a spiritual life, we have to practice living a spiritual life. And sometimes that practice is hard and will take us to places that we do not want to go. It is all part of the struggle.
Even Peter, the chief disciple who Jesus knows from the very beginning, has struggles. Here’s Peter, willingly dropping his whole life to follow Jesus. Then later, Peter makes that great confession to Jesus – “You are the Messiah!” Then there is Peter, brave Peter, thinking that he will follow Jesus all the way to the end, even unto death. And then there is the real Peter, struggling as he denies his knowledge of Jesus. At the moment of temptation, when it all comes together, at the crucial moment when Jesus is being convicted and condemned, Peter says, “who’s Jesus? I’ve never even heard of that guy.” Then Peter weeps bitterly because he has forsaken his Lord. That is the struggle. Peter vacillates between periods of intimacy with God and moments of doubt and abandonment. If that’s what Peter’s spiritual life was like, then I imagine that few of us will fare much better. That is the struggle.
Now, before you become too despondent, go back in your minds to that little pond where I used fish. That was our pond. In all our days there, we saw nobody else fishing. It was our pond, and those fish belonged to us even if we didn’t catch them that day.
You are in God’s pond and you are God’s fish. And even though you might be running from Jesus, and even though you may not think God is even around, you are in his pond. Put away all of your shame and your guilt. Accept that this life with Jesus is more like a struggle than a stroll. You are God’s fish. So no matter how far away God seems, and no matter how hard you struggle, there is no escaping it. You belong to God. You are God’s catch.