“Obedience” was a sermon preached by Pastor Pam Schaefer Dawson in conjunction with our worship video for the weekend of January 24, 2021 — the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. The text upon which it is based is Luke 5:1-11.
Simon, James, and John were exhausted. They were frustrated. They had toiled all night long with their fishing nets and had caught nothing. As they sat by the lake cleaning their empty nets, Jesus was standing nearby. The crowds pressed in on Jesus, everyone straining to get a glimpse of him and to hear him as he taught. Jesus got into Simon’s boat, asked him to put out a ways from the shore, and began teaching the crowds from the boat.
Have you ever noticed how much better sound carries when you’re on the water? The sound bounces off of the water, and it seems to really travel! In a place where the crowds were so large that they could barely hear him, Jesus used the lake as a microphone and the boat as a pulpit!
Jesus taught the crowds everywhere he went, and his teaching was a huge part of his ministry. Yet, in this story, his teaching gets less than half of a verse out of 11 verses. It just isn’t the main point of our story today. So what is?
Let me suggest a word: obedience. Obedience leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many modern folk. Most couples don’t use the word “obey” anymore, for example, when planning their weddings. When we hear “obedience,” many of us think of being under the control of someone else – of doing exactly what we’re told – of losing our autonomy.
Obedience to Jesus is very different from this worldly view of obedience. It’s not about losing our identity or our ability to choose how to live our lives. It is, rather, bringing our heart’s desires into agreement with God’s desires for us. It’s about submitting to God’s authority and becoming more like Jesus.
I looked up obedience in the dictionary. Sometimes it’s good to do that with words we know, or think we know. Obedience is 1) compliance with an order, request, or law, or 2) submission to another’s authority. I think that the second definition is most useful here.
Right about now you may be wondering what obedience has to do with our Gospel lesson today. Earlier, we realized that teaching is not the main point of this story, since it occupies only one half of one of the eleven verses. I then suggested that the main point of the story is obedience.
Those tired fishermen cleaning their nets after a fruitless night were asked by Jesus to do three things: first, to put Simon’s boat out a little ways from shore so that it could be a pulpit and the lake a microphone; second, to put out into deep waters and drop their nets again; and third, to come and follow and become fishers of people.
Simon was instantly obedient to Jesus’ first request. Granted, it was not a difficult thing: just put the boat out from shore. Still, Simon was exhausted and probably wanted to get home; no one would have faulted him for hesitating or for wondering whether James and John could use their boat instead. And yet it seems he obeyed Jesus immediately.
Jesus’ second request was more difficult for Simon. The idea of going back out on the water and dropping the just-cleaned nets again where there were no fish seemed a little crazy to Simon, and he voiced his objection. He said, “But Master [okay, I added the “but”], we have worked all night long and have caught nothing. Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
This second expression of obedience is more hard-won than the first. Simon struggles with the request – it doesn’t make any sense! Why go back out? There are no fish! Now, I don’t know whether it really happened all in one breath as it seems to in Luke’s telling. Maybe Simon struggled a bit longer. But he did put the boat out again. His words to Jesus can be a lamp for us on our way of obedience. Simon has his doubts. He has his concerns. But in the midst of them he says to Jesus, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Think on this: in times when God’s leading has been unclear to you, or has even felt like something you couldn’t do, have you been obedient to God even in the midst of your doubts, concerns, and fears? Have you been able to say, “But Master, I cannot see the path,” or “But Master, I want to go another way,” and also been able to say, “Yet if you say so, I will…”
Sometimes obedience comes easier than others. Like Jesus asking Simon to put out from shore so that he could teach from the boat, sometimes what Jesus asks of us doesn’t seem hard: to love our families, to love our church family; to lend a helping hand to a stranger, to donate to church and other causes. Though these things, and others like them, can be difficult, obedience on this level is not too hard.
Then, there’s that second level – like going back out with the nets when there are no fish. Things like working on seeing and stopping racism and pride within ourselves; being open to God’s leading in such a way that we begin to get to know and love people who are not like us; working toward justice, liberty, and peace for all… When Jesus calls us to these and other difficult things, do we say, “But Master, I am scared, and I am not sure that I will be able to do what you ask and still be the same me as I have always been; I’m scared that if I speak up for people who aren’t like me, I will no longer be accepted by my friends…” making all of our objections, like Simon did? And here’s the really big question: Like Simon, can we say in the midst of our fears, “Yet if you say, I will…?” This is obedience even in the midst of fear.
And speaking of fear, Jesus puts the words, “Do not be afraid” right into the middle of his third request, although it is phrased more as a statement than a request, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.”
But I get ahead of myself. After Simon obeys Jesus and goes out and lets the nets down, he catches so many fish that even with James and John and their boat they barely manage to haul it in. And Simon bows down, saying to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” And all are amazed.
Then Jesus addresses their fear and tells them their path. And Simon, James, and John leave everything and follow Jesus.
That’s obedience! That’s really big obedience. In the Gospel stories, we hear over and over again of people leaving everything to follow Jesus.
We are generally not called to leave everything – loved ones, homes, jobs – to follow Jesus. We are asked to be faithful stewards of all of these things. And we are called to leave pride, jealousy, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, and gluttony behind every day as they pop up within us. We are called to follow and to listen closely for Jesus’ leading. And we are called to be obedient.
Sometimes, that obedience will come easily; sometimes, we will state our objections to God and then say, “Yet if you say so, I will…;” and every day we will pray for the ability to be obedient to Jesus’ call to follow him and to fish for people, knowing that he walks with us saying, “Do not be afraid.”