Sunday, January 26, 2020,

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

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light has shined on those who lived in the land of the shadow of death.

I went out to my mailbox yesterday wearing a very springy blouse. A neighbor walked by and commented on it. “You must be ready for spring!” We haven’t had a terrible winter thus far, though colder weather is still a possibility. It was a little chilly yesterday for the clothing I chose, but I didn’t spend much time outside, so I was ok. She told me she loved the weather we were having. I answered with my usual, “I live in Texas for a reason.” I do not like cold and snow. When others talk about loving sweater weather, I think they should move to where there is sweater weather, and let us enjoy the mild winters.

I have to admit that snow is pretty. I’ve often said I would appreciate it more if God could make it snow only on the lawns and trees. The glistening white of the snow on a clear day after a storm is beautiful. I just hate to have to be in the snow. I hate having to drive on the slippery roads. I hate having to shovel the sidewalks. I hate when my clothes get so wet that they are difficult to get off. No matter how much I hate snow, I can’t deny that it is beautiful, almost miraculous.

I played in the snow as a kid, but it wasn’t my favorite activity. I always ended up with a tickle in my throat and a cough. One of my claims to “fame” is that it has snowed at least once everywhere I go. I visited Tampa, it snowed. I moved to central California, it snowed. I lived in England, it snowed. I moved to Arkansas, it snowed. It even snowed the day we moved into our house in Texas. If you aren’t familiar with these places, they don’t get much snow. The worst snow experience, however, was in Spokane, Washington (where it does snow.) We had a snowstorm that lasted about three weeks, with several inches of snow every day. By the time it was over, the tunnel path I had to shovel to take my daughter to the bus stop was taller than my son, more than three feet deep. The plowed snow along the streets was stacked nearly ten feet high. From that point, I told Bruce we could go anywhere as long as it didn’t snow.

Thank goodness for Texas where snow is not very common. And I have to admit that I do get a little excited on those rare occasions when it does.

As I said, snow can be beautiful. It didn’t snow much in England, but I remember one time when it did. I had a long black wool coat I used to wear all the time. It kept me very warm when it was cold. One day it was snowing while I was waiting for the kids to get out of school. As I waited by the door to pick them up, I noticed the snowflakes falling on my coat. I had never really noticed a snowflake in such detail as I had that day. The flakes landed and stuck perfectly, making it possible to see even the smallest details of each one. It was almost as if someone were dropping confetti on me from heaven. They were, of course, six pointed stars. They sparkled on my coat and I was awed by such simple beauty in God’s creation.

God is so good to put such beauty and perfection in something as tiny and insignificant as a snowflake. If there is so much goodness in such a small part of God's creation, imagine how wonderful it will be to stand face to face with Him. The glory of those snowflakes offered just a glimmer of the magnificence of His Glory! What is particularly wonderful about this is that there is beauty even in those things about this creation that we do not always like or appreciate. Even the snow, that is cold and often inconvenient, has a purpose and a beauty to it. I sing for joy at God's marvelous hand in the world.

If there can be such glory in a snowflake, we can only imagine what we will see when we come face to face with our Creator.

No wonder the psalmist asked to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. There we won’t face the cold damp of winter or the danger of slippery ice. We’ll be in the presence of God Himself for all eternity. The psalmist writes, “One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.” This is what it means to die: to humble ourselves before God. The disciples 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.

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 He’d 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 couldn’t be much farther from Jerusalem, not only in geography but also faith and politics. It was set apart from the rest of Israel, and the people lived their faith as they were able, different than those in Jerusalem. It was there that Jesus went when He began His ministry.

Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob, the sixth son of his wife Leah. He became one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe that eventually settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The name Zebulun has two possible meanings. It could mean “gift.” Leah saw Zebulun as a gift, particularly in her sadness over Jacob’s rejection of her. It could also mean “honor,” and it stems from the idea that Leah hoped that her sixth child would finally bring her the honor due to her from her husband. The people from the tribe of Zebulun were known to be scribes and they are remembered for their sacrificial willingness to fight for Israel.

Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, the second son of Rachel’s servant Bilhah. The tribe of Naphtali settled north of Zebulun, also just to the east of the Sea of Galilee. His name came out of Rachel’s grief over her own barrenness, “with great wrestlings have I wrestled my sister.” When blessing his sons, Jacob said of Naphtali, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” Naphtali had an independent spirit, they were set apart by geography and topography from the rest of Israel. The people from the tribe of Naphtali were fighters, and like Zebulun they gave their lives sacrificially for the sake of the whole nation.

Both these tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. There are still some people who claim to be from the lost tribes, but between the exile and the intermingling of foreigners with those left behind, there is some question to the credibility of that claim. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were located in the same region that came to be known as Galilee, where Jesus roamed and did much of His work. It was home to the Gentiles, foreigners. They were not Jews, and yet Jesus spent time with them. He took His message of hope so that they too might know God’s 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.

Though Zebulun and Naphtali were burdened by the Assyrians, burdened to the point of being lost forever, Jesus went to break the rod. The captivity of the Northern Kingdom would end. Would the tribes return to their homelands and once again build a nation? No, but the people would be freed from an even greater oppression. That which was lost would be found. That which was forgotten would be restored. What was once divided would be made whole again. The wholeness would be greater than just the restoration of Jacob’s sons, it would include peoples from every nation.

John the Baptist was quite a figure in his day. He was well known, even if he was not very well liked. He was odd; he wore strange clothing and kept a strange diet, but there was something charismatic about his presence. Crowds flocked to the Jordan to hear him preach and to receive his baptism. John was visited by all sorts of people, including men of means and power. They did not want to be his disciples; they wanted to keep an eye on his ministry. He was a radical and it was necessary to control the radicals for the sake of the nation. He was eventually arrested and beheaded.

When John was arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee. John’s arrest was probably a serious event in Jerusalem: front page headlines and breaking news. The leaders were looking for more unrest and the attention John gave to Jesus would have made Jesus the next one the needed to watch. We might have expected Jesus to work out of Jerusalem, after all that was the center of religious life in Israel. But Jesus went to Galilee of the Gentiles.

Was Jesus running away? It might seem so when we consider the atmosphere in Jerusalem at the time. Yet, this was all part of the plan all along. The prophecy from Isaiah promised that the Messiah would come out of the area known as Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew recognized the connection when he quoted Isaiah in this passage. During Epiphany, we are reminded that Jesus came to bring the message of hope to all the nations. He came to be a light in the darkness. He came to bring peace between peoples. Zebulun and Naphtali were once tribes of Israel, but they were lost when the Assyrians took them into exile.

Certainly there were Jews in the region around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples had Jewish heritage. We don’t know much about their lives before Jesus called them to follow Him. Were they strictly observant Jews? Did they travel to Jerusalem according to the Law? Did they attend meetings at the temple and synagogues regularly? The disciples in today’s Gospel lesson (Peter, Andrew, James and John) were fishermen, and while the Jews took the Sabbath seriously, did those fishermen really put down their nets for the Sabbath?

Jesus ran into those fishermen one day when He was walking near the Sea of Galilee. According to our Gospel lesson from John last week, Andrew and Peter had already met Jesus, but then they apparently went back to fishing. Jesus found them and called them to join Him. It always amazes me when I see their response to this call. “They immediately left their nets and followed him.” Can you imagine dropping your work and following a man with no notice? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus found two other fishermen, James and John, and called them to join Him. They left their boat behind, an irresponsible thing to do, yet they did so seemingly without thought or concern.

Would the priests have answered Jesus’ 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 didn’t understand? Why follow this rising star that didn’t 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?

We look at these disciples and we are taken aback by their dedication to Jesus’ ministry. Would we do such a thing? Would we drop our work and walk away from everything to follow Jesus? This is a point that is often preached in our churches in relation to this text. But we have to ask, is that what Jesus calls us all to do? 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 believed and took their babies to be blessed but 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? Certainly not.

Jesus does call some to extraordinary ministry, but for most of us, He calls us to live our life of faith in the everyday experiences of our lives. Jesus doesn’t look at education or position. He doesn’t 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. What does He see when He looks at your heart?

The disciples were called out of their ordinary lives to extraordinary ministry. Being a fisherman isn’t all that cushy, but Peter, Andrew, James and John had good lives. It was hard work, but they weren’t 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 David’s. We don’t see that in today’s text, however. We don’t even see Jesus making them any promises, except that they will fish in a whole new way. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” What does that even mean?

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 didn’t pass around the collection plate like a traveling evangelist.

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 holy. 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 can’t speak with charisma. We don’t 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 God’s Word? Were they perfect? No, they were none of those things. They were just ordinary men. These four were fishermen. They were probably dirty and calloused from hard work when they left to follow Jesus, with a scent that wouldn’t draw a crowd. I’m sure they were not genteel, with language that would shock your grandmother.

Yet, just as light shines brighter in darkness, doesn’t grace shine brighter in the lives of those who need it? Jesus could have found some well educated and faithful priests if He’d gone to Jerusalem. They weren’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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; our selfishness and self-centeredness can lead to division in 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 all 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 God’s 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 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 words of the psalmist teach us what it means to die; we are to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. We are all called to live unique lives to His glory. However God calls us to live, let us die to our old life and walk with Christ, sharing the light, the message of the cross, with the world.

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