January 26, 2014 – 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Introduction: This passage in Matthew’s gospel follows on the heels of Jesus being baptized and then being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days and nights where he encounters the tempter.
The next thing we hear about Jesus (and we don’t know if this follows immediately after returning from the wilderness or if weeks or years have gone by1)–but Jesus hears the news that John the Baptist had been arrested. Hearing this news, Jesus withdraws and goes to the area known as the Galilee.
As I read the Matthew text I will add some comments as we go along that I hope will help your understanding of the story.
Read: Matthew 4.12-23
(v12) Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdraw to Galilee. (v13) He left Nazareth [the town where he grew up] and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, [Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the twelve tribes of Israel and the territory we hear about is the area where those two tribes were inhabitants in the land. Jesus withdraws to this region] (v14) so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. [One of the characteristics of Matthew’s gospel is the way the writer points to Jesus, again and again, as the fulfillment of scripture. And here in chapter 4, Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9:] (v15) “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–(v16) the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
(v17) From that time Jesus began to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come hear.” [And in this sentence we hear the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.]
(v18) As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Word of God / Thanks to be God.
So we’re at the third of what is really a three-part sermon series. Mark began two weeks ago with the story from Matthew’s gospel of the baptism of Jesus. Last week we celebrated the baptism of Henry and Anna and then heard the story of Jesus’ first disciples, seeking him out, wondering what life as his followers would be about and his response to them: “Come and see.” Which we learned was another way to say, “Abide with me.” An invitation to share in the life of Jesus by joining him.
Abiding with Jesus means life with Jesus. Not just watching him or studying about him. It’s a life we can’t truly know from a distance. We have to set out on the road with Jesus. Even if we don’t have it all figured out or have all the answers–which none of us does and we’d be dead if we waited until we did.
There’s a great phrase from the 11th century monk, St. Anselm. He said it in Latin but I’ll say it in English: “faith seeking understanding.” Or as one of my seminary professors said, “Christian faith is no sedative for world-weary souls, no satchelful of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, Christian faith invariably prompts questions, sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves and our world.”2 Faith seeking understanding.
Last week when we baptized Henry and Anna, their parents made a promise to grow with their children in the Christian faith. That doesn’t mean they will know all the answers. It does mean they covenant to walk the road of faith with their children.
And, you know, we made that promise as well when we said we would guide and nurture Anna and Henry by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of Christ’s church. If we’re going encourage them to know and follow Christ, then we have to be growing in faith as well. We have to be walking that road with Jesus, not to know all the answers but so we know some of the contours of the road, the glorious vistas, the treacherous places, the shape of the hillside and the feel of the air.
In the last few years I’ve heard a lot about Camino de Santiago–the Way of St. James. It’s a 500 mile trail across northern Spain. It began as a pilgrimage in the 9th century to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, to venerate the relics of St. James. People have been walking that 500 mile road for 1200 years. And they’re still walking it. Because there’s something that changes your life in the walking that cannot change your life by only reading about it or watching the movie.3 You make the pilgrimage yourself–with your own body–but you don’t do it alone. It’s walked with others–the people you meet along the way on the days and weeks you’re actually walking and you walk in the presence and the footsteps of those who have walked before you. Generations of people following Jesus who said, “Come and see.” “Abide with me.”
This morning we hear Matthew’s story about Jesus gathering a community of people who will walk the road with him.
Customarily, rabbis (teachers) did not seek out students. A student would seek out a rabbi.4 Last week John’s gospel told the story of disciples seeking out Jesus. Now, in Matthew, Jesus is doing the seeking. And his way of seeking is to say, “Follow me.”
Now, if you were employed, working, most likely, in the family business which would have been pretty customary, doing what your family and community expected you to do, wouldn’t you be likely to say, “I need a little more information before I can give you an answer”? Or even, “I’m sorry. I’ve got commitments here.”
And yet, Jesus says, “Follow me” and Simon, Andrew, James and John immediately left what they were doing and followed him. It reminds me of the creation story. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. The declaration is made and it happens. “Follow me” and they followed. Without any sense of coercion, they left the tools of their trade, not to sit at his feet, but to join Jesus on the road. To walk in the light of God’s coming reign. A light that has dawned. A reign that has come near Matthew tells us through the words of Isaiah.
If you’ve ever gone lake or river fishing on a vacation, you might think of fishing as a rather tranquil, peaceful existence. You wouldn’t think this if you spent a summer on the fishing boats and in the canneries of Alaska or off the coast of Maine. It’s exhausting, dangerous, grueling work. And that was probably true in the first century on the Sea of Galilee.
Warren Carter who writes on Matthew’s gospel says for first-century fisherman (and they probably were all men), their work was tied up in “the imperial economic and political monopoly. Fish were claimed as revenue for the empire. ‘[One early document says, ]‘[E]very rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean…belongs to the imperial treasury.’” Peter, Andrew, James, John and Zebedee most likely had “purchased a lease or contract with Rome’s agents that allow[ed] them to fish and obligate[d] them to supply a certain quantity of fish. They [would have paid] taxes on the catch and transportation” while the wealthy and powerful [who held the contracts] benefit[ed from their labor].”5
Jesus’ call to “follow me” breaks into the systems and structures of our lives, breaking our allegiance to economic and political systems and even family structures. Later in the gospel, we will see these disciples fish again and interact with their families again but I imagine it would be different, having left to follow Jesus. For disciples, entrusting ourselves to Jesus can “come at considerable social and economic cost.”6 At the same time, this group of people that Jesus gathers becomes an alternative community in the midst of the crushing power of the empire, reorienting themselves to the values, and embodying the relationships, found in the realm of God.
Jesus doesn’t start by training the disciples to resist the power of the empire. He doesn’t begin with an intensive seminar on the theory and history of alternative communities. He begins with life together on the road. “Follow me.” You’ll learn as we go. You’ll become who you are meant to be as we travel together. You’ll know what you need to know as the road unfolds.
I bet those guys were nervous. Maybe that first night they wondered if they were crazy. Maybe they were still wondering it several months in. And we know they stumbled and they failed and they didn’t get it. Just like us.
But still they followed. Steadfast even though trembling. In moments of courage. In frightening times. Serving. Growing. Learning. Following Jesus into the world around them, proclaiming the good news of the realm of God, teaching and healing.
So I wonder what is the call of Jesus to you and to us in this day, in this community, in this city? How might we be–and how are we–on the road with Jesus to proclaim the good news, to teach and heal?
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1 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p166.
2 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding – An Introduction to Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p2.
3 Even though The Way (2010) is an inspiring movie.
4 Boring, p169.
5 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins – A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), p121.6 Ibid., 122.