(A sermon for Epiphany 3A January 23, 2011 Matthew 4:12-23)
I was a young mom when I heard the call to follow Jesus. I had a five year old and an almost one year old, and it was as clear as anything could be that I needed to do this. Well, I’m not sure I knew what “this” meant, exactly. Going back to school, to seminary, to study the books of the Bible and the history of the church and I didn’t know what else.
But telling people felt terrifying. I thought they might judge me lacking…after all, didn’t you have to be a really good and special person to be a pastor? I confided in a few trusted friends, and then, during a summer vacation with my parents at Boothbay Harbor, I took the big risk. I told my mother.
We don’t hear what Jesus’ family thought of what he was up to here in the early chapters of Matthew. After fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, he returns as a little boy and that’s all we know until he appears all grown up, to be baptized by John and begin his ministry. It’s rather sudden. Then, perhaps understandably, Jesus makes some adjustments after hearing John has been arrested. He moves to a safer location, but he also goes out and says the same thing John had been saying to get into trouble in the first place.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
He will talk about the Kingdom of Heaven all throughout Matthew’s gospel. He’s not talking about what happens after we die. He’s talking about God’s Kingdom on Earth, and how things ought to be and could be if not for human resistance, ignorance, selfishness and fear.
But let’s go back. We’re missing part of the story here. Jesus has been baptized, and he has gone out into the wilderness to be tempted. Now that he’s back in the world, he learns that John has been arrested. The words from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah, give us a context. Just as it had been in those days, the people of Jesus’ time are under the power of an invading army. They are oppressed from outside their own people, and in this case oppressed from within, too.
But the light has come, a light that will outshine any darkness. The prophet said so.
We’ll see this all through Matthew’s gospel. He emphatically ties Jesus to the words of the prophets, his way of proving that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah. He’s writing for a Jewish audience, to convince them that Jesus was really and truly the one. The Jesus we will get to know as we work our way through the Book of Matthew over the coming year will be knowledgeable and authoritative about his faith. And so while it may seem a little random to us that Jesus goes from the wilderness to relocating his home base and then seems to immediately go off on a journey that will last the rest of his life, to Matthew it grounded Jesus in the only home that mattered: the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus comes from a people who have organized themselves religiously. And by that I mean they have rituals and rules and practices that they use as a measure not just of a person’s faithfulness but of his acceptability. It doesn’t matter so much today whether a person goes to church regularly or not, does it? Would you refuse to do business with a fellow church member who missed a few Sundays? Probably not. You wouldn’t want to lose that connection at church or in the wider world. We don’t live by one set of expectations anymore, so this may be hard for us to understand. Everyone knew the rules, and the religious rules were the social rules, too.
Jesus came to upset expectations and to reel people into repentance. And he’s not going to do it alone. The Kingdom of God has come near! It’s big news! He needs help to spread the word. So he calls his first four disciples. In doing so, he employs a metaphor.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
He speaks to these men in a language they can understand. They are fishermen, and he invites them to learn to fish for people. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a disciple means only to fish, or worse, that it is a job only for professionals. The metaphor here is not singular, not describing the only way to be a disciple. Here we see the way Jesus will keep talking to people all through Matthew’s gospel, with metaphors and images and stories that make sense in the context of their lives.
It’s a story that says even guys who spend their days on a boat, smelly and mostly naked, have the potential to be used by God in spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of Love and Forgiveness.
And it’s a story that says God will find a way to use us, too, to have us out there doing our version of fishing on behalf of the Kingdom of God. All our gifts and talents come from God, and God needs every one of them. What do you know how to do? And what would it look like to take that practical reality in metaphorical terms and figure out how we can be used in bringing about the world God wants?
We might be good at sewing or cooking or writing or talking or building or painting or selling or gardening or nursing or managing or teaching or knitting. Fishing was an easy metaphor. They brought fish into the nets, and they will bring people into the church, right? But think of the ways we might bring people to a knowledge of God’s love with the talents we have, feeding and nurturing and caring for others, building a community of care, planting a garden of faith, or managing a portfolio of love.
Jesus calls us all to follow.
It’s thrilling, the way they know he is special, and they leave immediately, walking away from not just their jobs but their lives.
The thing in this story about the four fishermen who leave their boats to go fishing for people that makes me hesitate is the way James and John leave their father, Zebedee. How do you feel about that? It always makes me hurt for him that the boat comes first. “Immediately they left the boat…” Oh, and their father. For Matthew’s audience, this would have been a shocking turn in the story. From the very beginning, Jesus is upsetting the status quo. Men did not just walk away from the family, or the family business. Here these men do both, and we don’t even hear they had a conversation about it.
And I wonder about my mother, sitting on that little beach beside the cottage we rented at Boothbay, the place she played with my little boys and heard me say that I felt called by God. I have to do it, I said, and she tried to talk me out of it. You don’t understand, I said. I can’t *not* do it.
When we get the call, we have to go.
In my case it didn’t mean leaving my children behind, but it did mean relinquishing other people’s ideas about who I was supposed to be.
Jesus upsets expectations, asking us to leave our familiar comforts to proclaim the good news. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near! It sounds wonderful until we consider what it might mean for us, really.
We haven’t talked much about the future ministry of this church since I arrived here. I’ve been taking things slowly, getting to know all of you and where things are right now. As we move together through Matthew’s gospel over the coming year, we’ll hear sermons and stories and parables full of wisdom about how to live as if we believe him. I hope we will pay attention to those images and those ideas together and listen to the ways God is speaking to us through them.
The way we live them out will look different, because there are things in this world now no one would have imagined then and things they took for granted we don’t understand anymore. Still, the words and the life of Jesus as told in this gospel contain the essentials for a faithful community in any time and every place. It’s my hope we’ll find in them the ways God is calling us to use the gifts and talents among us, and that this time next year, we’ll be able to claim with joy that we’ve gone fishin’. Amen.