Hosea 6:1-6, John 21:1-14
April 20, 2008
How many here like to fish? As I said, last weekend I was up at Camp Kirkwood for the opening day of trout season. And I had a wonderful day. (Annie did too!) Only this year I didn’t fish. Last year I went to all the trouble to get a fishing license – with a trout stamp. And take a guess how many fish I caught?
So this year I thought I’d just go up, relax, and just watch the other people fish. And that reminded me of an old “Beatle Bailey” comic. Beatle was sitting on the ground next to a stream, with his back up against a tree and his legs stretched out in front of him, his eyes closed, and his fishing line in the water. And Sarge came up to him and said, “Beatle, you’re doing that all wrong. You’re not even watching. You’ll never catch a fish that way.” And Beatle said with a smile coming across his face, “Sarge, sometimes the point of fishing is not to catch anything!” The idea was he was relaxing and enjoying the day and having a nice rest! Catching fish would have interrupted all of that!
Well, that’s what I was doing up at Kirkwood! Sometimes the point of fishing is not to catch anything! And I think perhaps the same was true of the disciples in our story. Or so it would seem! Because they caught about as many fish as I did! None! As I’ve thought about that, I wonder if the whole point of their “going fishing” was actually fishing! And was it about something other than the simple enjoyment and relaxation of myself and Beatle Bailey?!
First of all, it was Peter who said to his friends, “I’m going fishing.” And remember, what was Peter’s trade? He was a fisherman! So, he was going back to fishing. And I think there’s two things we can observe about that. One is that Peter may have been thinking this chapter in his life with Jesus was over. Sure, it was great, it had it’s ups and downs, it had terrible tragedy near the end. And of course, it had finished on a huge positive note with the Resurrection. But now it was “over.” Now it was time to “get back to his life.” And notice here, he didn’t say, “Let’s go fishing.” He just said he was going. The other disciples merely followed. (After all, he was in many ways their leader!) But, would there be for Peter, a life as it was before?
The other thing to observe here is that, in going fishing, Peter may have been shifting the orientation of his life back to that which was important before. He may have been thinking once again about the importance of the boats, the sails, the nets, and the need to earn a living – however meager that may have been in those days. He may have been thinking about reorienting his life toward those things. And Jesus asked him about that.
I once heard it suggested that the question, “Do you love me more than these?” may have included, not just the other people there, but also the trappings of his trade. “Do you love me more than all this fishing stuff and what it represents?” “Am I more important than all of that?” Not that those things were unimportant! We all have work in our lives, and that’s important. We all have the need to function in this world. We all have the need to be responsible citizens. But Peter was being asked to think how important all that was in comparison with his love for Jesus and his kingdom. And so are we. “Do you love me more than these?”
God’s people have always struggled with that question. And they’ve not always answered it very well. Our Old Testament reading is a wonderful passage about that very relationship between God and his people. But it’s a tragic telling of how they had forgotten their love for God, and the importance of his kingdom.
I’m glad for these wonderful words of the prophet Hosea! Because here move out of the realm of the “intellectual” – the practical side of the relationship between God and his people. Here we see some of the heart side of that relationship. Here we even see some of the emotion of God! Hosea gives us a deeper insight into what is truly a love affair between God and these people. This word translated “steadfast love” – the Hebrew word “Hesed” – carries with it such deep meaning of loyalty and intimacy that it’s hard to put into just one or two words in English! It is an eternal, abiding, divine love that God has for us!
Well, in the time of Hosea, that relationship between God and his people was terribly strained. They had “wandered away” from him. They had worshipped the idols of other gods. They had been listening to the many other distracting voices in their world. And because of that, they had all but fallen to the army of the Assyrians. Now, Israel had forsaken her God, disappointed that in their time of hardship he had not rescued them. (And is that not true of many people who, when in bad situations, look for and fail to see any rescue from God?)
In response to all of that, we find the prophet pleading for the people to return to the Lord. Hosea’s message was one of the divine love of God, who, though the people had abandoned him, still had deep feelings for them, and still longed for their return. In these words we see how God’s heart was in anguish. He ached for the people to come back to him – like the father of the prodigal son.
I love this passage because of that. It is so full of the emotion and the anguish of God, “What shall I do with you. O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.”
That’s how they blew it! You see, these people were still “religious.” I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. They hadn’t abandoned their “faith.” But their religious life had become one that was merely about the “mechanics” of faith. They “performed” the proper rituals, they gave the proper sacrifices, but there was no relationship. They had forgotten the words of the very scroll that they all had fastened to the doorposts of their homes, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord! And you shall love the Lord your God” How? “With all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) They had forgotten that love. They were like the Church of Ephesus in the book of Revelation, to whom God said, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love [for me that] you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4) Do you ever feel like you’ve lost that “first love” you had for God?
God was in anguish about his people’s loss of that love. Listen to how he says it a little later in Chapter 11. Here we see even more how God is torn between letting these rebellious people go, and his desire to draw them back to him. God’s cries out in anguish, “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. [Yet] How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? …My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:7-8)
The more I think about that, it seems to me that there may have been that same turmoil in the heart of Jesus when he asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” And notice that he is “Simon” again. He’s not Peter, the Rock. There was now disappointment and abandonment (and a lot of other things) that stood between the two of them. Peter, who had once pledged to die with Jesus, had become merely Simon again when he abandoned Jesus and fled with the rest of the disciples. And then in Jesus’ darkest hour, he had denied that he even knew who Jesus was!
So here by the sea, we find deep emotion and heartache. This was God and Hosea agonizing about that lost relationship with the people. Here, Peter is “grieved” when Jesus asked him the third time, “do you love me.” I’ll bet he was! There’s no doubt in my mind that the three repetitions of that question were given to remind Peter of his three denials. I’m sure Peter was very well aware of that! And Peter’s answer becomes more interesting every time I read it! He says, “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!” How well did Peter know that Jesus did know everything! Peter was very aware that Jesus knew before it happened that he would deny him!! And there’s no doubt that “prediction” was much on Peter’s mind! “Lord, you know everything…”
So, what’s the message in this for us? What’s the lesson we can learn by reading these two stories? What could Hosea and Peter tell us if they stood here before us? Perhaps Hosea would give us his words from verse 6. God says, “I desire steadfast love, and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.” He might ask, are we more concerned with the “things of faith” than we are with our relationship with God? Perhaps Peter would tell us of the hard lesson he learned, and how our love for God needs to be above “all these.” Perhaps the Apostle Paul would warn us by telling us about those who hold to “the form of religion” but who “deny the power of it”? (II Timothy 3:5)
Maybe the message for us today is that very message of God from Deuteronomy 6? And remember, the theme of the book of Deuteronomy is “Remembering” all that God has done. Do we need to hear those words again (and again,) “Hear O Israel – Hear O Eddington: the Lord your God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength!”?
That love of God, that knowledge of God, that relationship – that walk – with God, is the most important thing in our faith. Jesus looks at all the things around us, the things of our job, our home, our friends, our family. He even looks at the trappings of our faith, and the beliefs we hold near and dear to us. And he asks us as he asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”
Lord, help us to love you with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength. Help us to grow in our knowledge of you. Help us to understand your steadfast love for us, and to learn our steadfast love for you. Restore to us “the love we had at first,” and help us to know, more every day, the joy we have in you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.