Date: 01 Oct 2017
Text: John 21:1-14
Amazingly enough it’s harvest time again; that time of year when we celebrate all the different crops having been safely gathered in. More importantly it’s also the time when we give thanks to God for the abundance of crops and fruit that has been produced and that He has given us. We thank Him too for the efforts of all the farmers around the country who grow and nurture all these crops, food that we can eat. I have to add that it’s also a time that I find very difficult to talk about; simply because you’ve probably heard it all before and so finding something fresh to say about harvest and something new with which to challenge you gets more and more difficult as each year passes. Don’t worry, I’m not looking for sympathy but I’m sure that when you think about it, it is very difficult to remember what else Harvest Festival can be about. However, despite my problems, I have to say that it is absolutely vital that we do give thanks to God and to the farmers for all the food that lands in the supermarkets and then eventually onto our plates.
When thinking about the traditional Harvest Festival we generally only think of those farmers who “plough the fields and scatter”, and then, of course, go out and gather in all the crops that have grown; in other words, those who grow crops such as wheat, barley, flax, rapeseed and so on. Mind you, a lot of what farmers do these days relies very heavily on modern technology. I read an article in The Times a couple of weeks ago that talked of the way that modern combine harvesters do not need an on-board operator; how about that for innovation? They apparently work via a GPS satellite, the same kind of satellite that powers the Sat Nav that many people have in their cars. This machine is programmed with details of where the crop is and then simply brings in the harvest. There are apparently also similar machines that can sow the seed, and they sow exactly the right amount in exactly the right places; no more seeds falling on stony ground! Harvest in the 21st century is certainly a whole lot easier than when it was done with a horse drawn plough and reaping machine and seeds were sown by hand.
It’s not just crop farmers that we should think of as we also need to remember the fruit farmers who produce so much by way of apples, pears, plums and various other soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. The work of picking the fruit is very labour intensive, hence the large number of Eastern Europeans arriving in the UK during the picking season. All of these people also deserve our thanks. Those of us who enjoy dairy products such as milk in our tea or cream in our coffee, milk on our cornflakes or butter on our toast should also think about the farmers who care for the cows who produce the milk on a daily basis. And then there are those of us who really enjoy red meat, or pork or chicken and we mustn’t forget the eggs to go with our bacon. All of the farmers who look after the animals and poultry also deserve our thanks. I could also add those who own vineyards and grow grapes for the wine that we can enjoy; and we mustn’t forget the hops that are used to produce the beer that so many of us enjoy
Most of the farmers that I’ve just mentioned work every day of the week regardless of what day it is and also, and perhaps very importantly, whatever the weather is like. Have you ever watched an episode of All Creatures Great and Small? Or read the wonderful books? The original TV series is being repeated on one of the channels and the programmes are well worth watching. These programmes provide a very good representation of what farmers who care for the animals that we eventually eat, do actually go through. They are out in all weathers and at all hours of the day and night; totally and utterly amazing. All of these people also deserve our thanks.
Without belittling anything that those farmers do, this morning I want to focus on a group of people who also work hard to put food on our plates but are frequently forgotten at harvest time; and that is fishermen. These people really are out in all weathers and because of where they work they can’t just go home for a quick cup of tea whilst the weather settles down. Many of these fishermen are out on the high seas for days at a time; they risk their lives to catch as many fish as they can to meet the demand from customers both here in the UK and overseas. Needless to say, at the moment, all that they catch is in accordance with the EU quotas. I have not been able to find any mention of fish harvest festivals in the Old Testament which is where we learn about how most of these festivals to celebrate harvest were established. Despite that lack, it is fascinating to see the importance of fish in the New Testament. It is important to remember that Jesus actually chose seven fishermen to be among His twelve disciples.
Fish appear in a number of stories in the New Testament; stories such as the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14:13-21 and the feeding of the 4000 in Matthew 15:32-39. There was also the earlier occasion when Jesus first called the twelve disciples. Many of them had been cleaning their nets having been out fishing and catching nothing. Jesus told Simon Peter, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4). I’ll mention this story later; suffice it to say that they did as they were told and caught rather a lot of fish! Jesus obviously knew something about fishing! Those are three great stories involving fish although the one I want to look at this morning comes from the passage that I read earlier which tells us what happened after Jesus’ resurrection and gives us a clue as to just how important fishing was. The disciples were at a loose end and feeling a bit lost without Jesus. They had lost their friend, guide and mentor and had no idea what to do next. Simon Peter was probably the most bored, frustrated and lonely of them all and so he decided to go fishing. Some of the others decided to join him, possibly as a way of passing the time. The climbed aboard their boat and went out to fish all night long. Not for the first time, they caught nothing; not a single solitary fish. If they weren’t depressed before they started then they would certainly have been very depressed after a fruitless fishing session. I have no idea just how many varieties of fish there are in the waters around the UK, although judging by a quick walk around the fish market in Birmingham there are quite a few! On the other hand my research tells me that today in the Sea of Galilee there are at least 24 varieties of fish and they are sometimes found in large shoals. I can’t imagine that it was much different in Jesus’ time and yet despite those large shoals, the disciples were still unable to catch anything! However, as they drifted along feeling sorry for themselves, they saw a stranger on the shore Who shouted to them to throw the nets over the other side of the boat. There’s always one smart Alec who knows better than the professionals! However, they hadn’t caught anything using their own knowledge and experience and so did what this stranger said. He obviously knew something because they caught their biggest catch ever; we’re not talking small fish here but really big fish, 153 of them. The nets were so full that they had problems dragging them in. As they approached the shore they realised that the stranger Who had offered advice was in fact Jesus. He was obviously expecting them because He had already lit a fire and was cooking some fish and bread for their breakfast. As soon as he realised Who it was Peter put his cloak on and jumped over the side of the boat and waded ashore to go and meet Jesus. Peter did go back though and help his friends to drag in their nets before sitting down to eat breakfast. Interestingly, no one asked Who the stranger was as they all knew exactly Who it was. As John helpfully points out, this was now the third time that Jesus had appeared to them following His resurrection.
I mentioned a moment ago that this had happened before. When Jesus first called His disciples He climbed aboard one of their boats, sat down and started teaching them. When He had finished teaching He told them to go out into deep water and put the nets out. Perhaps not surprisingly they had been out fishing earlier in the day but caught nothing. However, they did as Jesus told them and Luke tells us that, “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.” (Luke 5:6-7) At that stage they didn’t really know Jesus yet but still followed His instructions and as a result were successful. As I’ve said on many occasions, Jesus will never let us down.
Let me just go back to that comment in 21:7 where we read that Peter, who had taken his cloak off, “wrapped his outer garment around him and jumped into the water”. Why would he do that? Why put your cloak on to jump in the water? The answer is simple if you are Jewish. Jews regarded meeting someone as a religious act that could only be done when a person was fully clothed, that is, they were wearing their cloak. Peter was undoubtedly preparing to meet the Lord!
In every story in the Bible there are lessons for us to learn, and this story is no different. The disciples went fishing of their own accord. As they were experienced fishermen they followed their own regular ways of fishing relying on their knowledge of the Sea of Galilee to lead them to fish. Sadly, they didn’t catch any! It was only when Jesus told them what to do that they caught anything and when they did it was their biggest catch which was made up of 153 large fish. They had such an abundance of fish and the nets were so heavy that they really struggled to drag the nets in. I sometimes wonder if they followed the stranger’s instructions willingly or reluctantly. Whichever it was it was only when they were guided by Jesus that they caught anything.
As I see it that is a perfect picture of our efforts at outreach. We’ve tried a number of initiatives that followed our ideas and thoughts. Not to put too fine a point on it, just like those fishing disciples we failed! Our way didn’t work and so we now need to do it Jesus’ way; we need to seek His leading and listen to His voice calling out to us telling us where to fish. Just like the disciples we did things for the best of intentions and probably thought that we knew best. Unfortunately we didn’t. Just as there were huge numbers of fish in the Sea of Galilee and the disciples were fishing in the wrong area; so there are huge numbers of people in this community who need to know about Jesus. Without being disparaging they represent the fish that we need to ‘catch’ and bring to Jesus. To do that successfully we need to follow His instructions and do exactly as He tells us. Then and only then will we succeed.
It is only right and proper that at this time of the annual harvest we should give thanks to God for His benevolence and for the work of a huge variety of farmers who work so hard to produce the harvest that we are able to enjoy all the year round. However, we should also remember the hard working fishermen who go out day after day to provide the fish that we can enjoy with our chips!
The disciples, who were experienced fishermen, only succeeded in catching any fish when they did exactly what Jesus told them. At the time that He shouted to them, the disciples didn’t realise that it was Jesus; it was early in the morning and they were a fair distance from the shore. Be that as it may, they did as He said and succeeded in bringing in that huge catch.
We need to think about this event and learn from it. Only by following Jesus’ instructions can we succeed in our own much needed harvest. I’ll leave you to meditate on that thought.