SERMON FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 7-21-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
Old Testament: 1 Kings 19:11–21
Epistle: 1 Cor. 1:18–25
Holy Gospel: Luke 5:1–11
When you read the Bible and hear it preached to you it’s never just history. The Scriptures are the story of salvation – a story to which each and every one of you belongs. It’s the preacher’s job, of course, to bring you into this story – to guide you - to help you understand - that God’s Word is directed right at you. Both the law that condemns you, and shows you your sin, and also the Gospel which forgives, and makes a Christian out of you.
But those who hear also have a responsibility. For hearing the Scriptures read and preached is not like binging on Netflix or a favorite show. It involves active participation, a humility and willingness to see oneself as part of the story. So a couple weeks ago, if you didn’t recognize yourself as the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son, due to laziness, inattentiveness, pride or whatever, you just didn’t hold up your end of the deal! Or last week, if you couldn’t see yourself as one of those wicked brothers of Joseph, receiving absolution and pardon from Christ who is merciful, then again, well, there’s some room for improvement, when it comes to hearing the Word, to put it politely!
Now praise be to God, there is forgiveness here for us. Myself included! Because no one perfectly obeys the Third Commandment. Not one, save Christ alone, values preaching and the Word of His Father perfectly. So when Jesus suffers and dies for our sins, heaped also upon Him are these sins – our inattentiveness, our laziness and disregard for God’s Word. It is for these sins, and so many others, that we stand in need of His constant forgiveness and mercy.
But the point is that when you listen to the Gospels, when you see Christ working miracles and dealing with the disciples, and the crowds, and the lepers, and the prostitutes, you’re never just a spectator. The ministry of Jesus in and around Galilee and Jerusalem continues now, among us, in even a more wonderful way, because the great work of salvation has been completely accomplished, signed, sealed and delivered! This is why St. Luke, the writer of our Gospel today, begins his second book of Acts with these words: “In my first book, O Theophilus, O lover of God, O Christian, I wrote about all that Jesus BEGAN to do and to teach until the day He was taken up to heaven.” You catch that? In the first book, in the Gospel bearing my name, I wrote about those things Jesus BEGAN to do until the day he ascended to heaven. What’s the point? Well, Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee and Jerusalem, 2000 years ago was just the beginning. He was just getting started! But now that’s He’s ascended and sits at the right hand of God, just look at what He’s doing now! Miracles from pulpits and altars across the whole world. Treasures of salvation pouring forth from the words of absolution proclaimed in His stead, wonders and miracles in His Sacraments, in Baptism and His Holy Supper. The dead being raised by the power of Christ’s forgiveness.
And so life in the church, what joy there is, to be a Christian and to see that the way Jesus deals with troubled people in the Gospels is the way that He deals also with us. That He is Immanuel. That the Lord is with us. Dealing with us. Preaching to us. Not pushing us away but calling us to Him.
So keep that all in mind this morning when we see Simon Peter. After Jesus gives a sermon, He orders Peter to let down his nets for a catch, after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. And before his eyes Jesus did a stunning miracle. Every fish in the lake was swimming into those nets, and filling the boat. So much so that the nets were breaking under the weight - the ships were sinking! It is at this moment, when Peter is knee-deep in fish, that he recognizes who is in his boat. So he throws himself down upon his knees, and prays, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Now, it’s a right prayer and a wrong prayer at the same time. It’s right in that he recognizes that this Jesus, in His boat, does miracles. He’s right to recognize that this truly is the Lord, for he calls him Lord. Peter’s right to recognize also the severity of his sin. To recognize that no sinner can stand in the presence of a holy God and live to tell about it, were is not for atonement, for payment, and forgiveness for one’s sins. But the prayer is wrong, dead wrong, for one important reason. He asked the Lord to depart from him. Lord, go away. I am too sinful to be near You.
Do you remember the prophet Isaiah? Remember when he stood before the Lord, seated on a throne, the train of His robe filling the temple. Remember the seraphim and the angels? Remember the earth shaking and temple filled with smoke? “Woe unto me!” Isaiah cried out before the presence of the Lord. “I am ruined! I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
How did the Lord respond to that prayer? Well, an angel flew to Isaiah with a burning coal, taken from the altar, touched his lips, and proclaimed that Isaiah’s guilt was taken away, all his sins atoned for.
Peter also was well aware he was standing on holy ground. He prayed. He pleaded that the Lord would leave him. Why? Because his conscience was utterly terrified of his sins. You know that little phrase we say every Sunday morning when we gather: “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You. And justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”
Peter isn’t mouthing those words. He believes all that! He understands the law. He’s using it rightly. God knows his shady dealings at the fish market. He knows his secret sins. He knows the infidelities of Peter’s heart that afflict every fallen son of Adam. Faced with death, Peter sees the law in all of its absolute severity, what it brings - death, judgment, and condemnation. And yet in that moment we see that Peter is completely blind to the absolute severity of the Gospel! That he does not yet know.
But he will! Because at that moment of terror, confronted with death and hell, Jesus speaks the full message of the Gospel with these words: “Do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid! Those are words of absolute comfort! In those little words comes the full message of the cross. Those are the words of the angels at the birth of Jesus. Don’t be afraid! Those are the words of Jesus on the day of His resurrection, when He stood up from the grave, having vanquished the power of sin, death, and hell by His atoning death. Don’t be afraid! That was the first sermon He preached on Easter Sunday.
Just as Isaiah’s sins were purged away by the sacrifice and fiery altar that anticipated Christ lying down on the altar of the cross – so are Peter’s sins all put away – paid in full by the death of Christ – and sealed by the empty tomb. Those words “Don’t be afraid” actually create and call to faith all those troubled by their sins.
Dear Christians, what can you learn here? Like Peter, there is a temptation for you to keep your distance from God. Just as Adam and Eve hid from God after the fall into sin, this deadly game of hide and seek goes on. Like Peter, you know your sins. You know the law. You know that the commandments of God don’t describe you. You know what you have rightfully deserved from God because of your sins - His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal punishment. You know that God is holy, and that you, in your sins, are most certainly not. So you’re afraid.
How often you have chosen to keep God at arm’s length, preferring hell to heaven - death to life, like Peter. Praying, pleading, in so many ways, “Depart from me, Lord, leave me alone. My sins are just too great – too much for You.”
Our own consciences bear witness to the severity of the law, but today, bear witness to the severity of the Gospel! Hear and believe that the God you claim to worship, whom you’re so afraid of, says, Don’t be afraid! Believe that the God who can be so terrifying to you and Peter, is in fact, in Christ, nothing to be afraid of at all. Christ speaks to you this morning: Don’t be afraid. Your sins are not too great for Me. I’ve handled them. I’ve taken care of it. I made them all Mine at the cross, so that those sins are no longer yours but Mine. I’ve paid for them all – to rescue you and set you free.
I’ve sent to you preachers and Sunday school teachers and parents to call you to faith in Me. I’ve given you the gift of the Holy Spirit, to catch you alive with the net of My Gospel, to land you in My ship, My boat, the church. That you would have life in abundance.
Notice that the Lord does not depart from Peter. Nor does He depart from you. Instead He baptizes you into His death and resurrection, and then, He doesn’t leave you alone, but instead takes you with Him – from death to life.
See today that the way our Lord deals with Peter is the way He deals with you. What have you deserved from God because of your sins? In the words of the Catechism we pray this: “I deserve His wrath and displeasure, temporal and eternal punishment.” That’s all true! That’s the severity of the law. But then the Christian prays this: Don’t depart for me, Lord. I need you every hour. I trust in you, my dear Lord Jesus Christ, who died for me and shed His blood for me on the cross to save me. Jesus preaches also to me. He says, “Don’t be afraid.” In Him my conscience is at peace. In Him I am forgiven. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Dear Christians, I want you to recall our Old Testament reading this morning with Elijah. We learn that the power of God to save is not in spectacular signs like wind and fire and earthquakes, nor is it to be found in human intelligence and wisdom, as we learned in the epistle. The power of God to save comes in the still, small voice of the preaching of Christ crucified. In worldly darkness the disciples could catch nothing. But in the light of Christ, whose Word was attached to the water, the boats were filled with fish. So it is that in Baptism you have been drawn into the ship of the Church, with Christ as your Lord and Master – the Captain of your salvation.
So true faith, genuine Christian faith, never prays, “Depart from me, O Lord.” But ever and always “Come, Lord Jesus!” – wanting to be near Him, close to Him, and abiding with Him for eternity, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.