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The safest place in all the world to be

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 4:18-25

A “conundrum” is an intricate and difficult problem. For instance, what 11-letter word is pronounced incorrectly by more than 99 percent of Ivy League graduates? “Incorrectly.” Care to try again? I’m sitting at a table. Ten flies are on the table. With one swat, I kill three flies. How many flies are left on the table? The three dead ones–the other seven already flew away. Now aren’t you glad you came to church today?

We’ve been studying biblical images of the church, the world’s only hope. Last week we learned that we are the only salt and light of our decaying, dark world. Today we learn that we are called to be “fishers of men” in that world. I’m interested in what Jesus calls us to do. But I’m even more interested in the fact that he calls us to do it, that great theological conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

If he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why does he need to call these men? Why cannot he order them to follow him? Do they have freedom to decide whether or not to follow him? If they can refuse his will for their lives, how is he the Sovereign Lord of the universe?

Does everything happen in life the way God intends for it to? “Everything happens for a reason,” we’re told. “It all works out for the best,” we hear. Is that true? Did God intend for Hurricane Dean to decimate the Yucatan peninsula and the eastern coast of Mexico this week? Did he intend Michael Vick and his accomplices to torture and execute dogs in Virginia? Is the ongoing war in Iraq part of his plan and will? More than 3,700 of our troops have died there. More than 655,000 people, most of them Iraqis, have perished in this conflict.

Will God’s will be done in the upcoming presidential election? Will his will be done for your children away at college or at home in school? With your health and finances and marriage and family? Is the will of God always fulfilled, for Peter and Andrew and you and me? The question is crucial for our lives today, as we’ll soon see.

Hear his call

Our text begins: “Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee” (v. 18). “Walking” in the Greek syntax expresses contemporaneous and continuous action–he was constantly walking around beside the Sea of Galilee, as though he was looking for something or someone.

The Sea of Galilee is a small lake, roughly 13 miles long by six miles at its widest part. It was and is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on earth. But it was one of the least likely places for a rabbi to find new students. Those who lived and worked in this hill country were far from the training schools with their famous rabbis down south in Jerusalem.

These men were no less intelligent than those in the rabbinic schools. But they clearly had chosen lives of labor and business, not academics. MIT doesn’t usually recruit doctoral candidates from the ranchers out in the Davis Mountains. That’s not what ranchers are interested in doing.

Nonetheless, Jesus walked up to “two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.” They were working at the time, “casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” They were using the “amphiblaistron,” a net thrown from a boat or shore. It was nine feet across, weighted with lead around its circumference. It sank into the sea, then was drawn up with fish inside. This was hard manual labor–nothing automated or technological about it.

Going on a little farther, he saw James and his brother John “in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” They were mending them, washing them, setting them out to dry for the next day’s work.

Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me.” His words meant “become my students” or “enroll in my school.” In Jesus’ day, students chose their rabbi. A rabbi never went soliciting students. But Jesus called these men specifically to follow him. He did the same with James and John. And all four agreed.

Understand why he calls

The Bible says that “by Jesus all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). He made the Sea of Galilee, and the fish swimming in it, and the men who were fishing for them.

One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). If he is indeed the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why did he need to walk the beaches of the Sea of Galilee looking for these men, then call them to follow him and wait while they decided?

If he is truly the Lord of all that is, how can anything happen contrary to his will? But if everything happens according to his will, does this mean that God wanted a hurricane to decimate Mexico and the economy to become a roller coaster and average incomes to fall each of the last five years in America?

By definition, God must either cause or permit all that happens, or he is not God. His perfect or permissive will must be done. Nothing about Hurricane Dean surprised God this week. The fact that you’ve come worship this morning was not news to him. He created time and transcends it, so he knew before time began that you and I would have this conversation today.

In the world he created, everything happened as he intended it to happen.

Adam and Eve could walk in the Garden of Eden with no fear of predators or disaster or disease. When there’s a new heaven and a new earth, that will happen again: “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

But in the meantime, you and I live in a world decimated by sin. This is not the way God intended his creation to work. One day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). But until that day comes, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22). In this fallen world we must deal with hurricanes and diseases and disasters.

God permits the world to operate according to laws he set in place. That’s why we have gravity, so you can sit in your pew rather than floating around the sanctuary as if you were in outer space. But in this fallen world, that same law of gravity causes bridges in Minnesota to collapse. God must permit the abuses of his natural order, or there would be no natural order. He could abolish gravity so that planes wouldn’t crash, but then they could never land. Life as we know it could not exist.

The good news is that his holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. He wants to redeem the hurricane in Mexico as those devastated turn to him in faith. He redeems disease and death as we turn to him for strength.

I spoke recently with the Methodist bishop of Louisiana. He told me that God has used Katrina to bring revival and renewal to the churches of the Gulf Coast, as they have stepped forward to be the hands and feet of Jesus to so many suffering people.

So God permits natural disaster in a fallen world. What about human disaster? What about Michael Vick’s dogfighting guilt and terrorists attacking our troops and plotting against our nation? Does God cause the decisions we make? If not, how can he be the Sovereign Lord of humanity?

Some say that all events and all decisions are predetermined by God, that we really have no free will at all. I suppose it was foreordained that I said the last sentence, and the next. Of course, 2 Peter 3:9 seems clear: God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

1 Timothy 2:4 adds that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” But theologians who deny human freedom say these verses apply only to the “elect,” those chosen by God for salvation. But nothing in the texts indicates that.

This is a very complicated theological subject, a debate which has raged for centuries. To me the answer is simple: God has chosen to limit himself at the point of human freedom. He created us to worship him; worship requires a choice; so he has given us freedom of choice. He has determined to honor that choice, even when it is not his perfect will for us. It is no denial of his sovereignty to say that he has chosen sovereignly to honor the freedom he has given to us.

He chose Peter and Andrew, James and John to be his disciples and eventually his witnesses. They chose to accept his call. However, he also called the rich young ruler to “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). But the man “became very sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (v. 23). When Jesus entered the Holy City on Palm Sunday, the Bible says that “as he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41) because it had refused his message and ministry.

God calls us all to be “fishers of men,” to use our influence to bring all we know to know Jesus. To pray for the lost by name; to be sure they know that we follow Jesus; to speak a spiritual word to them; to invite them to church; to share our faith story. As we saw last week, we are God’s only salt and light in our decaying and dark world. We are the world’s only hope.

But we have a choice in the matter. We can choose to make fishing for men the purpose of our lives, or not. We can choose to surrender each day to the Spirit, to begin the morning by meeting God in his word and prayer, to find and use our spiritual gifts in his service, to live every day for Jesus as our Lord. We can follow him, or not. He has given that choice to us all.

Why choose for him? You’ve heard all the reasons, all the famous scriptures and statements which answer the question. Follow him because the omniscient God of the universe knows the future better than we know the present, and has a “good pleasing, and perfect” will for our lives (Romans 12:2). He has plans to prosper us and not harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

The safest place in all the world to be is the center of God’s will. He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. They’re truisms because they’re true. Because Peter and Andrew, James and John followed Jesus, we’re still talking about them and celebrating their faith 20 centuries later. We can’t say that about anyone else fishing in the Sea of Galilee that day.

They teach us that following the purpose and call of God is the best, smartest, wisest way to live every single day.

Conclusion

Last weekend, Janet and I left our youngest son at college and started back to Dallas. Driving along, we began to look back over 27 years of marriage. I’m 49 years old, and I’m finally starting to realize that it’s really true, that following Jesus is the best way to live every day.

I have enough life experience to remember the times I have refused the will of God and paid the price in personal frustration, grief, and insignificance. I can look back on those times when Janet and I stepped out by faith into the call of God and have been blessed beyond measure as a result.

Now Jesus has come to our Sea of Galilee. He has found us in our boat, preparing our nets for tomorrow’s work. He wants us to follow him–to surrender to his will and leadership with every day, to belong fully and only to him. In turn, he wants to use us to influence our community and world for his Father. Those moments in life come when we either say “yes” to the call of God, or we stay in our boat and miss all he plans for us.

Today is one such day for you. Will you follow him out of this boat, to go where the fish are? Will you fish for men? Or must he call another?