We find ourselves today in the twenty-first chapter of John. According to the text, the disciples are on the Sea of Tiberias. The locals called it the Sea of Galilee. Seven of the eleven remaining disciples are present. Judas Iscariot’s vacancy has not yet been filled. According to verse four, it was early in the morning. The workday was over for the disciples. Ancient fishermen normally fished at night. It must have been a long night, because not a single fish had been caught. To rub salt in their wounds, someone calls out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” They respond with a single word answer, “No.” Feeling like failures, they almost missed the significance of the moment. The one who had inquired about their labors was Jesus himself. He stood on the shore, unidentified by the disciples. The Master encourages them to try again. This time on the opposite side of the boat, the right side. Exasperated, yet showing restraint, the disciples cast their net one more time. They were glad they did because they had the catch of their lives. Their net, which moments earlier had been empty, was filled with fish. It is only then that “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, John, identifies Jesus. The story ends by telling us there were 153 fish in the net. Miraculously, the net never tore, and a fortune was made. On that day, at that moment, the disciples must have felt like successes. Money has a way of making us feel successful; money also has a way of making us feel like a failure. This is the question for today: How successful are you?
If you ask the internet highway the question, who are the most successful people in America, it will automatically take you to the richest people in America. According to Money, in a January 16, 2018 article, these are ten richest and, I guess, the most successful people in America. Let me give them to you in reverse order.
Rob Walton ($47.9 billion)
Charles and David Koch ($48.6 billion) ((Since that time David has died.)
Sergey Brin ($53.3 billion)
Larry Ellison ($54.7 billion)
Larry Page ($54.9 billion)
Mark Zuckerberg ($77.5 billion)
Warren Buffet ($87.2 billion)
Bill Gates ($93.3 billion)
Jeff Bezos ($109.9 billion) (Now, he is worth $138.5 billion
By the way, the same article tells us Bezos is the richest person in history, so that makes him the most successful in history. You may want to check with his ex-wife.
If you consider these people to be the most successful people in America, then you must consider the approximately 600,000 Americans who filed for bankruptcy protection last year the biggest failures. Do you know anyone who has filed for bankruptcy protection? Have you ever filed for bankruptcy protection? Many believe that label of failure is unfair, because the number one reason people file for bankruptcy protection in America is due to medical expenses. So, let me ask you the question again, how successful are you? That is a complex question, because there is more to being successful than having money. If you do not believe me, just ask Bill Cosby.
The other day it was announced Bill Cosby (born 1937) would not be released from prison due to the pandemic because he was considered a sexual predator. Everyone agrees, Bill Cosby is not considered successful. However, for many years we did consider him successful. At one point in his life, Bill Cosby had a net worth of approximately $450 million. You know his story. He has lived his life in front of a crowd. He started as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco in the early 1960’s. Then, he landed a starring role on a television show called I Spy. I remember watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. He knew success. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1977. Later, his sitcom, The Cosby Show, was a hit in the 1980’s. At one time, he was the most trusted face in America. He was the spokesman for Jello, then he became the spokesman for the Ford Motor Company. By any worldly definition, Bill Cosby was a success. He even earned his Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts. Then, the stories started to come out. To date, more than fifty women have accused Cosby of various forms of sexual misconduct. Cosby denied everything, but now is a convicted sexual offender. His story is hard to believe. At one time, Bill Cosby was a success! Do you consider Bill Cosby a success today? There is more to success than money. However, our Bible story is not about financial success. It is a story about spiritual success. How successful are you spiritually?
My favorite preaching story comes from a United Presbyterian minister by the name of Tom Tewell. Years ago, he was the Preacher of the Week at Lakeside. He influenced my preaching greatly. I was there when he told this story. I have never forgotten it. You may remember it too. I have told it to you several times. It haunts me because it makes me think. When Tom Tewell was graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary, he was being interviewed for ordination. He sat in an empty church in the middle of the week, being questioned by his superiors. As the day rolled on, he felt good about his answers. He handled all the details of Calvinistic theology. His interviewers seemed satisfied with his answers too, and announced they only had one more question for him. It came from the oldest man on the interview team. (I think he was sixty-two.) It was the first, and only question, he asked the entire day. He looked at Tom Tewell and asked, “Tom, do you think you are making any progress in the Christian faith?” Tom said, he opened his mouth to respond, but not a single word came out. He did not know how to answer the question. How do you answer the question, are you making any progress in the Christian faith? I have asked myself that question, are you making any progress in the Christian faith, countless times. It is a difficult question to answer, but this question is even harder:
How successful are you spiritually? In the Christian faith, success is not a monetary issue. Just think about it for a moment. The scriptures never tell us Jesus owned anything of earthly value, yet we consider him to be the greatest life that ever lived. Through the eyes of God, success is not achieved by money. Success is being like Jesus, who loved and forgave everyone. He had a perfect relationship with God. Through the eyes of God, we become more successful, the more we become like Jesus. We consider the disciples to be spiritually successful because they became more like Jesus. If we want to be spiritually successful, then we must do what the disciples did. So, what did they do? What is it we must do to become spiritually successful? The disciples’ model for us how to become spiritually successful. So, what did the disciples do?
First, the disciples listened to Jesus. Look at the text with me. They fished all night, but they caught absolutely nothing. They must have been discouraged, but, in the end, they were successful because they listened to Jesus. This is the question you must answer:
When was the last time you positioned yourself to listen to Jesus? That is why the spiritual disciplines are so important. There are eight: prayer, meditation, fasting, Bible study, simplicity, submission, solitude, and service. Each one of them, and a combination of them, puts you in the best possible position to listen to God and to listen to Jesus. When was the last time you positioned yourself to listen to Jesus?
Second, the disciples obeyed Jesus. Look at the text with me again. The disciples listened to Jesus, but they also obeyed Jesus. Verse six says, “He (Jesus) said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” Here is the key: They did not just listen to Jesus. They obeyed Jesus and reaped the benefits. The disciples obeyed Jesus.
Do you obey Jesus? How many people do you know who listen to Jesus, but they do not obey Jesus? Or, they only obey selectively. Do you know of anyone who knows what the faith teaches, but they do not follow the teachings? Let me give you a few examples. We know we are to love unconditionally, but we love selectively. We know we are not supposed to judge, but we judge regularly. We know we are supposed to give sacrificially, of our time, our talents, and financial resources, but we give sparingly, out of our surplus. There is a world of difference between knowing and doing. Look at it this way. How much influence does Jesus have on your daily life? Do you obey Jesus?
Third, the disciples never gave up. Look at the text with me one more time. Consider this with me: The disciples fished all night. They were tired. It would have been easy to call it a day, but Jesus tells them to try one more time. They do, and they hit the jackpot. The Christian faith is not a one-hundred-yard dash, it is a marathon. The disciples spent the rest of their lives serving Jesus. How many people do you know who have walked away from Jesus, because their life got hard? You must never give up!
Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) had a wonderful life. He was a theoretical physicist. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Oxford and his graduate work at the University of Cambridge. For thirty years, he taught at Cambridge, influencing young minds and advances his field of research. He was a genius, and no one can question his brilliance. In 1963, he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but that never seems to slow him down. When Stephen Hawking spoke through his electronic device the world listened. His net worth at his death was $20 million. However, what was more impressive than his net worth is the location of his grave. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abby, along slide the other greats of British history. No one can question the fact that Stephen Hawking was a success. He only failed in one area, his spiritually. With everything Stephen Hawking knew, there was one thing Stephen Hawking did not know, Jesus. I hope my research is wrong. I am told Stephen Hawking died an atheist. I find that to be very sad. Francis Chan (born 1967) is an American author and teacher. He once said, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Through the eyes of God, how successful are you?