John 21:1-14



According to the book Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Thomas McClure of Detroit, Michigan, has an interesting hobby. Mr. McClure has developed a method for hypnotizing fish. Ripley’s doesn’t give any more details on the story than that. Thomas McClure hypnotizes fish. There are so many unanswered questions to this story. How does one go about hypnotizing a fish? Do you wave a watch over a pond and declare, “You’re getting sleepy, Mr. Catfish, you’re getting very sleepy.” And more importantly, WHY would anyone want to hypnotize a fish? What greater purpose does it serve? And how can you tell if the fish is really hypnotized or not?

It sounds like a pretty big fish story to me. It’s bad enough that fishermen have such a reputation for, shall we say, exaggeration?

One fisherman I heard about got tired of people doubting his veracity. He bought a scale and took it with him to his favorite fishing hole. He insisted on weighing every fish he caught, just to prove that he didn’t exaggerate.

Months later, while at the fishing hole, his wife had a baby. The doctor who helped in the delivery borrowed the man’s fishing scale to weigh the baby. The doctor gasped, “I’ve never seen a newborn baby that weighed 50 pounds.”

Someone said that the difference between a hunter and a fisherman is that the hunter lies and waits and the fisherman waits and lies. Someone else asked, “What happens to lying fisherman when they die?” The answer, “They lie still.”

The Associated Press carried a good fish story from Oslo, Norway sometime back that turns out to be true. The story was about a school of herring that sank a 63 foot boat. The herring were caught in the fisherman’s net and refuse to give up without a fight. When the crew tried to haul in the net, the entire school of herring swam for the bottom. This actually capsized the ship.

The skipper of the ship was quoted as saying, “I have been fishing since I was 14 and I have never seen anything like it.” Crew members tried to cut loose the net but were forced to abandon the capsized ship, which sank in 10 minutes. No one was hurt and the six fishermen were rescued by another trawler. It was not clear whether the fish escaped the net or not.

When I read that story I thought of today’s lesson from John’s Gospel. It was not long after Easter. Some of Jesus’ disciples had gone back to their trade–fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. This particular night they had absolutely no luck. Their nets were empty.

Early the next morning, they saw a figure standing on the shore looking their way. The stranger called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you caught any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

The stranger said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some fish.” Why they paid attention to this stranger we do not know. But they did, and guess what? They were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. The catch nearly sank their boat.

Then the disciple John said to Simon Peter, “It is the Lord!” They knew there was only one man who had this kind of knowledge. It was the risen Christ. Later John tells us that this was the third time Christ appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.

Interesting story–the professional fisherman came up empty, but the one who would call them to be fishers of men knew exactly where the fish were to be found.

Friends, I believe this to be a story about successful living. We could say that the moral to the story is that the disciples prospered because they did exactly what their Master told them to do. “Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” and they cast their net on the right side of the boat and they took in an enormous haul of fish. It is amazing how easy it is to succeed if you do what Jesus wants you to do. Be honest. Work hard. Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Be reliable. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. Show up on time. Return phone calls. Make a quality product.

You and I live in a prosperous land. I can almost promise you that if you live by what has become known as Judeo-Christian principles, you will probably be successful. I didn’t say rich, necessarily. Some of us have chosen life professions that do not lend themselves to becoming rich. Still, if you conduct yourself in the proper way, you will probably do all right.

We all love a good success story, don’t we? Mack Douglas tells a wonderful true story about a young man whose parents sneaked him out of Germany at age 19 and sent him to Rotterdam to catch a boat for America. They were Jewish. Within six months after his leaving, all of his family members were taken by SS troops to concentration camps. None of them survived.

This young man arrived in New York and took a train to San Francisco, where his uncle was a real estate broker. The first day in San Francisco, he went with his uncle to his office. The young man noticed that the agents in the office were calling people on the phone who had German and French names. This was their target audience. If they didn’t get an appointment, they threw the slips of paper with the prospect’s name on them into the wastebasket.

At the end of the day, the young man told his uncle, “I want to start selling real estate tomorrow.” His uncle said, “You can’t speak a word of English. I have enrolled you in a night course to learn English. A year from now, when you have mastered the language, I will train you in real estate. Meantime, I have a job for you at a German restaurant as a bus boy. Let’s go home.”

The young man said, “You go on. I’ll come home later.”

When everyone had left the office, this enterprising young man picked from the wastebaskets the names of the people with German and French names. He could converse with recent immigrants from both countries, because, like many Europeans, he spoke both languages. If he discovered that the people he called could not speak either language, he hung up. That evening he got three appointments for the next day from those names. Then he took the telephone directory and started cold-calling other people with German and French names. By 9 o’clock, he had seven appointments for the next day. To make a long story short, the first month he sold 33 houses and led the state of California in real estate sales. He still couldn’t speak a complete sentence in English.

This is an amazing land with all kinds of opportunities. If you have a strong desire to succeed and if you live by some basic principles of right and wrong, you will probably prosper.

This does not mean, of course, that you won’t experience setbacks. Everyone does from time to time. Setbacks are God’s way of refining us.

Most of you know that I have a passion for the game of football and coaching. Over the years I’ve worked with many football programs. Every once in a while, I will have a coaching colleague try to get me to speak in a criticizing manner about another football program and how they treat their players. Over the years I’ve refused to speak in such a manner. This is largely because, over the years, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, too.

I particularly remember one mistake that I made. A young ninth-grade football player had come up to the high school with an excellent reputation. I decided to see just how tough this young player was, so on the first day of practice, I assigned the freshman the task of blocking one of the seniors. I picked the meanest, toughest senior I had. In fact, that particular senior went on to play professional football. The attempted blocking assignment took place in full view of all the coaches and the players. The freshman was completely run over by the senior. After four or five devastating square-offs, I called off the massacre.

The freshman never came back to another practice. He left football and I lost a potentially really good football player. More importantly, I felt as if I personally had a hand in destroying the young man’s self-image by forcing him to participate in a situation in which the great likelihood was that he would fail. I’ve always wished that I had placed that young man in a situation where he could have succeeded. I believe it was one of the worst mistakes I ever made as a coach.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Everyone has their failures. Everyone has learning experiences.

One of the world’s greatest violinists, Isaac Stern, was in concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto Number Three. Midway through the first movement Stern lost his place. He forgot where he was. What did he do? He stopped playing, walked over to the conductor and asked if the orchestra could start the piece again. Then he turned to the audience and apologized. Stern could have faked his way through the piece. He could have ignored his mistake and continued as if nothing had happened. Few people in the audience would have known, but he knew and he could not give less than his best.

Somebody once asked Winston Churchill what it was that prepared him to lead Great Britain against Germany. Churchill said it was the time he had to repeat a grade in elementary school.

“You mean you failed a year in grade school?” he was asked.

“I never failed anything in my life,” said Churchill. “I was given a second opportunity to get it right.”

One author put it this way: “The difference between average and successful people is that successful people do not waste time arguing for their limitations, they transcend them. They take their fair share of lumps and continue on regardless. Although bruised and sometimes emotionally injured, they pick themselves up and start over again. Like those blow-up clown punching bags, they refused to stay down.”

Maybe you’ve tried starting a new business and failed. Maybe you landed the job of your dreams, but did not make the grade. Maybe you had the dream marriage and it fell apart. Maybe you have health problems or other limitations that have kept you from realizing your dreams. We’re not saying that if you live by the principles of Christ you will succeed in everything you do. What we’re saying is that you don’t have to stay down. Christ himself died on a cross between two thieves. His disciples experienced every kind of setback you can imagine and most of them gave their lives for their testimony.

The essential question is, how do you define success? We can read this episode on the Sea of Tiberias as a success story. The disciples did as Jesus said and pulled in nets brimming over with fish. But, if you were to ask any of them later if this made them successful, they would have said no. Their hungry souls yearned for more than full nets.

That something more is what this story is really about. When their fishing was done, the disciples came to shore and communed with Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Jesus took some bread and gave it to them, and did the same with some of the fish. It was somewhat like the meal they shared with him at the last supper.

This was one of those high moments in the lives of the disciples when they knew that life is more than making a living. Anybody can make money. Finding that something more that Christ has called us to–so that our lives glow with possibilities that transcend success or failure–that is something special.

It’s been more than 50 years ago that I heard a man describe two paintings he said that he had at his home. I have never forgotten those paintings–even though I have never seen them. One was of the figure in Jesus’ story of the rich man whose crops produced so abundantly that he decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones, and he said to his soul, “Soul, eat, drink, and have a great time, for tomorrow you die.” The caption under this painting said: “The Failure That Looked Like Success.” The other painting, the companion painting, was of Jesus dying on the cross, the crown of thorns on his head, his chin drooping against his chest, the crude nails in his hands, and all his friends off somewhere in hiding. The caption under this picture said: “The Success That Looked Like Failure.”

What is success? Success is meeting your responsibilities and doing so joyfully. Success is making a contribution to the lives of the people around you–in your family, in your community, those with whom you work. Success is standing before the Lord at the end of your life and hearing him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Some of you are undoubtedly familiar with a 2003 Tim Burton motion picture, Big Fish. It’s a strange film about a man who told big stories- – big fish stories. His son, William, wants to know what his father was really like, but he finds it difficult to separate fact from fiction, the big fish stories he told from the life he lived.

In the novel on which the story is based there is a scene in which people hear that Edward Bloom, his Dad, is dying. They begin to gather in front of his house. First just a few, and then more and more, until dozens of people are in the front yard. Finally, his widow tells William to ask them all to leave. As they leave, one man says to William, “We all have stories about Edward, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That’s why we’re here, William. We are part of him, of who he is, just as he is part of us.”

So what William discovers is that, whatever his faults, his father was a success because of the people he touched.

What about you? Whose lives are you touching? Are you a success, not just in your business or professional life— are you a success where it really counts, with God?