Whereabouts No. 2

The night presses hard, but the sun has risen. The stars have faded now and the black of night has loosened its grip. The shore has been hiding for hours, and the hills have been masked from sight. The sun still lingers behind the cliffs, but only as it waits for the right time to announce a new day and the end of a long night. The breeze is still crisp, and feels colder in the quiet. It won’t be long before the suns warm glow overpowers it.

The night presses hard, but the sun has risen. As the business of the sea carries on, there is a man hard at work by the water’s edge. This man isn’t cleaning fish. He isn’t mending nets. He isn’t in a boat. As the day of the fisherman comes to a close, this man is just beginning his work. This man is John the Baptist, and his work is to teach and preach the truth of the coming Messiah.

About 12 miles from the sea is a small town that Stephen Miller calls “just a dip of a town.”1 Nazareth, he says, is literally “hidden in a large dip eroded into a ridge off the beaten trail.” No one pays it too much attention. Not yet. While the sea teems with life2, a man known as Jesus of Nazareth has walked half a day to the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, to the place where the Jordan river begins to flow out of the sea again. Jesus has come to the mouth of the river with a purpose. Jesus has come to fulfill prophecy and put the full power of God on display.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

As Jesus fulfills the prophecy3, and God’s will, his ministry is brought to life.

The night presses hard, but the sun has risen. The nets are still wet from a long night’s work. The waves are calm now, but they beat against the boat as it rests on the shore. A constant, but subtle reminder that the time is passing away. The men are tired, and admiring the catch, but unsatisfied for many more that got away.

The night presses hard, but the sun has risen.

Perhaps, the most understated act of any great teacher is to identify and empower willing students. Teaching is: one part, what you say, to two parts, how they hear it. It’s much easier, from the outside, to recognize a good teacher by his students. Jesus, shortly after his baptism, goes to the shore to find the men who would become his greatest students.

The calling of the first disciples in Luke, as is typical of the meticulous doctor, is much more detailed than the other gospel accounts. So much so, it hardly looks like the same story.

The masses are pressing in, ready to hear the Word of God. Jesus climbs into Simon’s boat and puts out into the sea just enough to be able to speak and be understood by the crowd. He finishes his message and asks Simon to take them out for a short fishing trip. Simon just got back from a fishing trip. He was fishing all night. He already cleaned the nets. Worse yet, the fish weren’t biting.

All doubts aside, Simon honors Jesus request. Before he knew it, they had fish. A lot of fish. Actually, too many fish. The text specifically says that the nets were breaking. Simon calls for backup, a second boat. When it arrives, they fill both boats with fish and they both begin to sink.

It’s not hard to imagine that these men were thinking that they ought to bring Jesus along a little more often. Ironically, Jesus was sort of thinking the same thing. He tells Simon, “from now on, you will be catching men.”

The work of a fisherman is more than the catch. It’s the preparation. It’s the persistence. It’s skill and knowledge and endurance. It’s patience and determination. However, without the catch, a career in fishing will be short lived. The most profound part of this story is captured in the last six words; “they left everything and followed him.” The night presses hard, but the sun has risen. The afternoon heat is letting up and the cool of the evening is setting in. The day is closing fast, but there’s always plenty to do
on the sea.

The crowds are following Jesus for a sign, or for a word, or a glimpse, and they haven’t let up. After speaking with them for some time, Jesus sends them away and turns to the disciples to do the same. At this point in his ministry, solitude is hard to come by.

As Jesus hikes along the shore and up to a quiet mountain top he prepares himself to pray. He was alone, for a change. He takes advantage of the peace, and of the perspective as he overlooks the sea. Evening had come and Jesus could see the disciples boat struggling against the wind and the waves, they were miles from shore by now. He walked out to meet them. That is as equally ridiculous a statement to write as it is to read. Jesus walked to them, on the water.

As he approached the disciples, they panicked, as you do when you see a person that shouldn’t be where there are. Peter, who truly doesn’t get enough credit in this story, still unsure of what he is seeing, gives this ghost a challenge. Really it was more of a dare, asking that he too might walk on top of the water. Jesus says “come,” and Peter begins to do exactly what he’d hoped. For a minute anyway.

Peter, it says, saw the wind and became afraid. The pertinent question here is, what exactly was he afraid of? The wind? Doubtful, he made his living on the sea. How bad could the storm be, Jesus was just taking a walk on it. The ghost? No, at this point the mystery is all gone, the man is plainly proven to be the Christ. It only really makes sense that Peter was afraid of the power of what Christ could do. When confronted with what Peter has always known (a storm on the sea, the inability to walk on water), he’s frightened to get a glimpse of what he does not know (the ability and power of Christ).

The night presses hard, but the Son has risen.

In the final chapter of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, we see one final scene on the shores of the sea. As the disciples have gone back to what they know in the wake of Jesus death, he finds them fishing. He calls out to them asking about the catch. Then the reply comes, “nothing.” He calls out again, try the other side of the boat. Something any professional fisherman would want to hear shouted at them from the beach. Well, it worked. The haul is 153 large fish. They return to shore to find Jesus has cooked them breakfast. It was a breakfast of fish, but still it’s the thought that counts.

Jesus didn’t go to the sea that day to eat fish, or to cook fish, or to help the disciples catch fish. He went to remind his friends what they’re fishing for.

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

Henry David Thoreau

The night presses hard, but the sun has risen. Power, as with many things, is made known through more than a single expression. It’s on full display all around us, all the time. It manifests through incredible force or physical might, but also through gentleness and mercy. It’s easily visible in authority, and in sacrifice, and by influence. Both the ability and the capacity for action, show power. Sometimes a majority flexes its will, other times mental or moral elevation prove power. It’s meek in some contexts and unbridled in others. It’s in the toolbox of both the general and the diplomat.

The night presses hard but the sun has risen. Sin is ever present, but the goodness of God overcomes. Through the power of influence, our Lord found diligent followers. By the power of his words, the wind and the waves obeyed his commands. The power of his voice brought crowds from all over. The power of his being fulfilled prophecy. His compassion empowered the weak and healed the sick. His power inspired the men who established the church, and penned the letters we’re considering now. By power he rose from the dead, and in power conquered sin. The power coursing through his veins absolved sin, even in his sacrificial death.

He’s the greatest fisherman who ever lived, and yet that has nothing to do with how he changed the world.

Notes & Additional Information

1 Steven Miller, Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible 2.0, p. 414.

2 Of the 27 species of fish in the lake, the best-known is nicknamed St Peter’s Fish. This species (Sarotherodon galilaeus galilaeus) belongs to the genus tilapia. Its Arabic name of musht (comb) refers to its comb-like tail. The nickname refers to the Gospel passage in which Temple collectors ask Peter whether Jesus pays the Temple tax. When Peter returns home, Jesus tells him to go fishing, “go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me” in Matthew 17:24-27. A peculiarity of this species of tilapia is that it is a mouthbrooder. The female holds her eggs in her mouth until they hatch; then, for a time, the immature fry swim back into her mouth when danger threatens. The fish is also known to pick up small stones or bottle tops in its mouth. But not everyone agrees that St Peter’s Fish was a musht. Mendel Nun, an authority on the Sea of Galilee, and a veteran fisherman, says musht feed on plankton and are therefore caught by net, not hook. The fish Peter caught, he believes, was a barbel.

3 In John 1:32-33, John the Baptist acknowledges that he’d been given a sign that was affirmed in Jesus baptism. Jesus is baptized, in part to prove to John that he was the Messiah.

* The Sea of Galilee is one of the lowest bodies of water on the planet, nearly 690 below sea level. Much of the surrounding terrain is rocky and mountainous. Some scholars suggest that Jesus miracle, sometimes called “Healing the Man with a Demon”, took place atop the cliffs. He sent the demons into a herd of pigs and they ran over the cliff to be drowned in the sea, presumably the Sea of Galilee. At this time fishing was customarily done at night. Without refrigeration, commercially catching fish in the day time was risky. The heat of the day could destroy the catch long before it went to market.

Nick Rice serves as the Director of Roots, a non-profit organization serving missionaries working among native Americans and preaches in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He is married to Heidi and the father of Julia and Maggie.