Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23, for Epiphany +3, Jan. 22, 2017.  Audio: click here

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Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
     on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
     Galilee of the Gentiles—
  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.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake–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 throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

In days like these, what kind of people should we be?  It is simple; and it is complicated.  Simply put, we are to follow Jesus.  I remember us singing that song back in youth group, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”  It sounded simple.  It is not.

The way Matthew tells the story, it seems so uncomplicated.  Jesus calls people, “Come, follow me.”  And they do.  They literally leave their nets behind and follow.  They have no idea what is ahead — how could they have?  But they follow.

People Fishing

The only clue that Jesus gives them is that leaving their former trade, they will now start fishing for people.  What could that mean?

Whatever it meant, it had to mean that the goal was to gather people together.  That’s what net fishing does with fish.  Probably that’s where the metaphor stops – after that, it’s not particularly good news for the fish.

But Matthew describes Jesus’ activity specifically as “good news” saying,

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

It is “good news” that the kingdom of God “has come near.”  Why did he say it that way, “come near”?  Come near sounds like it is close, but not all they way present.  What is it about the kingdom of God that can be both close and impending at the same time?   It is that the kingdom of God is only a present reality to people who have had the lights turned on.

Having the Lights On

Matthew tells us that after John had been executed, Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God is near:  What is the effect of proclaiming the kingdom of God is  near?  It is like a light switched on in a dark room.  Matthew reaches back to the prophet Isaiah for a great quote about light, and applies it to Jesus’ ministry:

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.

You could say that when people hear and respond to the good news that the kingdom of God has drawn near, they experience a kind of enlightenment.

What happens when the lights come on?  You see things you couldn’t see before.  You see things far more clearly.  screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-4-38-06-pm

When the lights come on, you see what you could not see in the dark.  You see the pretty colors and designs in the carpet, the carvings in the wooden table legs, and the smiles of the people in the pictures on the wall. Lights on means joy.

On the other hand, it is not all good.  A room can look neat and clean in the dark, but switch the light on and you see how badly the carpet needs vacuuming and all the clutter that needs to be put back into order.  Enlightenment gives reasons for multiple emotions.

So what does it mean to answer the call to follow Jesus?  It means the light comes on for you that God’s kingdom has drawn near, and in the light of that reality, you see things you never saw before — both good things and bad things.  And that’s why following Jesus is complicated.  What do you do about what you see?

People who study the brain tell us that we all have a built in confirmation bias.  We scan for information that confirms the opinions we already hold, and we disregard what does not confirm our biases.

That is why we so desperately need to be in dialogue with people who are different from ourselves.  If we can listen to their stories with openness and respect, then, even if originally we completely disagree with their perspective, we may eventually become enlightened to see what we never saw before.

Scooped into Groups
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What does it mean to follow Jesus?  Many things, certainly, but among the important ones is to gather into groups, like fish scooped up in a net — along with all the other different fish, and to reflect together on what it means for us all that the Kingdom of God has drawn near.  In other words, to imagine together what the world would look like if God ran things.

This part of the Jesus story is Matthew chapter four, where Jesus begins to call people to follow him, scoops them up into groups, and starts teaching them.  In chapter five we get to hear the teaching.  We call it the Sermon on the Mount.  After scooping up the fish, Jesus teaches them:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
“Blessed are those who mourn,
“Blessed are the meek,
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,
“Blessed are the merciful,
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake.”

This must be the teaching of someone enlightened to a reality that is otherwise hidden in darkness, because it does not look at all as though these kinds of people are blessed in in the low lights of our world.

But this is what we see when the lights are on: we see the beauty in the faces of the people we could not properly see before.  We find beauty the diverse texture and colors of cultures and customs, languages and religions.  With the lights on, we see that people very different from ourselves are all reflecting distinct facets of the image of God.  Instead of fearing them, or stereotyping them, our desire is to hear their stories, hear their dreams, and it is a cause of great joy.

But with the lights on, we also see what we were once happy not to see.  We see the disorder that needs to be ordered.  We see the pain.  We see the damage that has been done over the years and even centuries of living in the darkness of exclusion.

We see how much pain has been experienced by African Americans and Native Americans, by women, by people in the LGBTQ community and everyone who has been marginalized or scapegoated.

We hear stories of kids being bullied, or being rejected by their families.  We hear about suicides and  attempted suicides, and it breaks our hearts.  Having the lights on gives rise to multiple emotions, both joy and sorrow.  But that is what answering the call to follow Jesus entails.

Being People for Othersscreen-shot-2017-01-21-at-6-54-59-pm

In days like these, what kind of people should we be?  People who answer the call to follow Jesus, to be scooped up and formed into communities with the lights on,  responsive to Jesus’ teaching, committed to being a blessing to the poor, the meek, those hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.  In other words to be people “for others” just as Jesus was “a man for others,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called him.

Which others?  Matthew started his story of Jesus with foreigners, “magi from the east,” he calls them, coming to honor the baby Jesus.  He ends his gospel with the adult Jesus telling his disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news”, which is that the Kingdom of God has come near.   In between he tells us that the mission of disciples is like scooping people up together into an undiscriminating net.  Where is this story set?  In “Galilee of the gentiles.”

We are an inclusive community because this is our calling.  “Come,” Jesus said, “follow me.”  Follow me by fishing for people and living as if the kingdom of God were truly here.  Live together as if God is king.  God gets to say who is blessed.

This is the way healing comes to people who are sick.  This is how people who have been wounded can begin to heal. This is how our country can heal from the sickness of our divisions.

It is not just taking the talk of unity, as the politicians do, right after they do all they can do to divide us.  No, it is doing the work, being in dialogue, staying with the uncomfortableness of not being in the position of privilege and control.  Taking the long walk on the Jesus path, following the one who called us.

Come,” Jesus said, “follow me.”  This is the path to healing and wholeness.  This is the path of joy because it is good news.  The lights can come on, even for people who had been stumbling around in the darkness.  This is what God is doing, persuading us, luring us, coaxing us, towards love, another name for the light, towards unity, towards the kingdom where God is King.

Come,” Jesus said, “follow me.

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