Sunday, January 22, 2017

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14)
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-25

They immediately left their nets and followed him.

Have you ever noticed how a light shines more brightly in darkness than in light? I have a lamp in my bedroom that I often turn on during daylight hours since my room is not brightly lit. There are two windows, but I generally keep the shades down during the day. A little light gets through, but it isnít enough light so I turn on the lamp. It helps, but the room is still a little dark. That same lamp, however, makes the room seem so much brighter when the sun has set and it is dark outside. Of course, the lamp does not really shine more brightly, but it seems as though it does because it is overcoming darkness rather than light.

A few weeks back we saw that the wise men assumed that the new king would be born in Jerusalem. It made sense; where else would one look for the King of the Jews? They discovered from Herod and his priests that the king would come out of Bethlehem, so they went there to see and worship. Now that Jesus is grown, baptized and beginning His ministry, we might expect that Heíd end up in Jerusalem. He was born both King and Priest, so He should have gone to the Temple to minister and preach, to work with the priests and serve God in His house. He would be in the center of the Jewish faith as well as the politics in Jerusalem.

Instead, Jesus went to Galilee and lived in Capernaum. Galilee couldnít be much farther from Jerusalem, not only in geography but also faith and politics. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob, two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Zebulun settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee and Naphtali north of Zebulun and east of the Sea. These two tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. Though there are some who still claim to be from the lost tribes, those left behind lived with gentiles, mixed in marriage and intermingled their lives. It was a place of darkness because it was a place where Gentiles and Jews lived side by side. Galilee was set apart from the rest of Israel, and they lived their faith as they were able, different than those in Jerusalem.

It was there that Jesus went when He began His ministry. Isaiah writes, ďThe people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.Ē During this season of Epiphany, we think about Christ as the light in so many ways, and we identify with Christ as He reached out to the entire world. Our texts for this week show us how God remembers and fulfills His promises in extraordinary ways.

Why did Jesus go to Galilee when there were so many opportunities in Jerusalem to teach and transform Godís people? Was He afraid after hearing about Johnís arrest? Or was He simply fulfilling the promise, beginning His ministry of light in a place of darkness? See, we would expect the Messiah to focus His attention on the place of power, calling out to the people in authority. How much more can someone get done by going to Washington than they can get done meeting with people on the street corners of a small town? Shouldnít Jesus have gone directly to Jerusalem and convinced the priests and other Jewish leaders that He was exactly the answer to their prayers?

Yet, Jesus chose to go to Galilee. Capernaum was called ďthe region and shadow of deathĒ due partly to the number of foreigners. It was there where God did not shine so brightly. Jerusalem had the bright marble walls of the Temple and the glittering jewels of the priests. The Light who is Christ could be best seen in the darkness. He took His message of hope so that they might know Godís grace. Though the tribes were lost, Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah that people who walked in darkness would see a great light. He was the Light.

The next thing Jesus did in todayís text was to call a few fishermen to be His disciples. This doesnít make any more sense that living in Galilee. He saw two brothers working their fish nets on the Sea of Galilee. He called to them and they left their nets without a second thought. His words, ďCome after me, and I will make you fishers for men.Ē This call evoked an incredible and immediate response. Can you imagine dropping your work and following someone without thought and planning? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus then found James and John and called them to join Him. They walked away from their boat and their life into the unknown.

Would the priests have answered Jesusí call with such trust? I doubt it. Why leave cushy positions in the Temple where everything they needed was readily available for a life that was unknown with a guy they didnít understand? Why follow this rising star that didnít shine the way they thought He should shine? See, it is hard to see the light in a place where the people think the light is shining. The people of Jerusalem looked to the priests and the leaders to teach them about God, to lead them in faithful lives, but the leaders had their own agendas. They were shining a light, but was it the Light God promised? Would we leave our cushy (or our not so cushy but secure) lives to follow someone into the unknown?

Iím not sure that it makes sense to choose fishermen to begin a ministry, though. They werenít unintelligent, Iím sure, but they werenít educated, particularly in matters of faith. There were Jews in the region around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples had Jewish heritage. Were they strictly observant Jews? Did they travel to Jerusalem according to the Law? Did they attend meetings at the temple and synagogues regularly? They were fishermen, and while the Jews took the Sabbath seriously, did those fishermen really put down their nets for the Sabbath? What made those men the right choice for Jesus?

Jesus doesnít look at education or position. He doesnít pay attention to the outward appearance or the worldly traits. God sees the heart and Jesus knew that those fishermen, though imperfect, would follow Him to the best of their ability.

We look at these men and we are taken aback by their dedication to Jesusí ministry. Would we do such a thing? Would we drop our work and walk away from everything to follow Jesus? Does Jesus call us all to drop our nets and leave our boats to follow Him into the unknown?

Jesus had many followers. Some of them actually traveled with Him from place to place and town to town. However, what of the people who stayed at home? What of the mothers who took their babies to be blessed and then returned to their housework? What of the businessmen in all those towns who returned to their shops when Jesus left? Did they have less faith than the disciples who dropped everything? As we study the story of Jesus we see that many of the followers had shallow faith and abandoned Him at the first sign of trouble, but there were many who returned to their normal lives to share Godís grace in their own little corner of the world. As a matter of fact, more than once Jesus told those to whom He ministered to ďGo in peace.Ē

Jesus does call some to extraordinary ministry, but for most of us, He calls us to live our faith in the everyday experiences of our lives.

The disciples were called out of their ordinary lives to extraordinary ministry. Being a fisherman isnít all that cushy, but Peter, Andrew, James and John had good lives. It was hard work, but they werenít hungry and they had families that loved them. What was Jesus promising them? They might have had some expectations, especially if they believed that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that would free Israel from Rome and establish a renewed Golden Kingdom like Davidís. We donít see that in todayís text, however. We donít even see Jesus making them any promises, except that they will fish in a whole new way. ďCome after me, and I will make you fishers for men.Ē What does that even mean?

There are those who would love to drop everything to go fishing. As a matter of fact, thatís the dream of many businessmen. They look forward to the day when they can walk away and sit for hours on a lake in a boat. Most of them donít really even care if they ever catch a fish. They just want to get away from it all. However, fishing for men will certainly not be that relaxing. They knew so little about Jesus. They hadnít seen Him do any miracles. They might have heard Him speak or heard rumors about Him, but they really didnít know Him. They left their nets and their boat so they knew they were following Jesus to do a different kind of fishing, but they had no idea what the future held for them.

What would happen today if we walked away from our homes, jobs and families to go out on the road preaching the kingdom of God? People would call us foolish, they would call us freaks. If we do it well, we might gain a following. If we are eloquent in speech or have some sort of shtick, we might succeed and live well enough. But Jesus did not call the disciples to go out on a bus tour to earn fame or wealth. Though the scriptures tell us that Judas carried a money bag, I am sure there was only enough to meet their needs. Jesus surely didnít pass around the collection plate like a traveling evangelists.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were not called away from a life of security for a life of fame and wealth. They were called away for a life of sacrifice, sharing a message of hope that would be rejected by most. The message was even more mysterious and difficult to understand after Jesus died, because it was foolishness to those who were perishing in this world. It is a spiritual message that does not look at all spiritual. A man dying on a cross is far from spiritual. It is horrible, a gross injustice and seems lacking in love. Death on a cross seems more like darkness in the midst of light rather than light in the midst of darkness. Yet, Peter, Andrew, James and John did not turn back. They left their fishing nets and boats immediately, without a second thought, and went into a life of uncertainty to follow Jesus.

We make all sorts of excuses. We canít speak with charisma. We donít know the scriptures well enough. We are imperfect. We are just ordinary people. But who were the disciples? Were they charismatic? Were they well versed in Godís Word? Were they perfect? No, they were none of those things. Most of they, they were just ordinary men. They were fishermen. They were probably dirty and calloused from hard work when they left to follow Jesus, with a smell that wouldnít draw a crowd. Iím sure they were not genteel, with language that would shock your grandmother. They may have had faith, but were they obedient and observant Jews?

Yet, just as light shines brighter in darkness, doesnít grace shine brighter in the lives of those who need it? Jesus might have found some well educated and faithful priests if Heíd gone to Jerusalem. They werenít all callous, self-centered and self-righteous. There were even a few who risked everything during the Passion to help Jesus. Jesus chose those ordinary men because they could be taught and led down the path God intended.

Jesus didnít call the ones who thought they were divinely called to shine the light to the people; He called those who were living in the shadow of death. He calls us out of darkness into His light, too.

As we ponder why Jesus went to Galilee and why He chose ordinary fishermen, we are reminded that it is never about us, our geography, accomplishments or abilities. The focus is always about God; He is the One who does the work. He is the One who shines. He is the One who forgives. He calls us to join Him in the work, using our gifts and our resources for His purpose. Unfortunately, we donít always remember that it is about Jesus. We think highly of ourselves, a lot more like those priests and Jewish leaders than the humble fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

We run into trouble when we make ourselves the focus, we end up dividing the church. The Church in Corinth was a mess; some of the followers were focusing on the evangelist from whom they had heard the Gospel, rather than the message. They were loyal to Paul or Apollos or Peter; Jesus was getting lost.

Paul brought the focus of the Corinthians back to the work of Christ. Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter) were most likely great preachers. From the stories in Acts, we can see that they all were quite convincing in their arguments and adept at sharing the Gospel message. We can also see that they all had a slightly different vision of the future of the Church. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. They reached these different people in different ways. Peter used the Old Testament witness and the experience of historic faith; Paul reached out to a wider, more diverse audience.

Despite their differences, Paul, Apollos and Cephas were united in the same mind and the same purpose, to share the message of the cross. But the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is spiritual, but seems so far from spiritual. The message of the cross is that all men are sinners unworthy of Godís grace, but the Son of God, the Word made flesh, came to die so that we might be forgiven. To accept a message such as this, we must accept that we are sinners in need of a Savior. To believe it is to die. This is why the message was foolishness. The Jews believed they were made right with God by their acts of worship, by their sacrifices and their offerings. The Gentiles had no need to be made right with God for they were good by nature. How many today still think righteousness is either earned or innate? Too many people believe this, even in the church.

Paul was calling the people in Corinth to a life following Jesus Christ, not man.

The psalmist writes, ďOne thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Jehovah, and to inquire in his temple.Ē This is what it means to die: to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. God calls us too, inviting us to die to our old life and walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, so that His light might shine through our lives and His grace be experienced by those who still dwell in darkness.

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