Bible Text: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. James Clubine | Series: 2017 Sermons
On June 26, 2016, the village of Ramygala, Lithuania, held its annual beauty contest with an atypical group of contestants—goats. The goat is a traditional symbol of the village. News outlets report that about 500 people attended a parade in honor of the winner, a 16-month-old goat named “Little Spot.” A total of six goats wearing varying arrangements of flowers were presented before a panel of judges before Little Spot was crowned the queen of the festivities. “The only thing we didn’t do to prepare the goat for the pageant,” related the goat’s owner, “is we didn’t polish its nails—because we thought of it too late.”
We live in a merit-oriented world. Whether it be athletics, academics, apparel, appearance, arts, entertainment, politics, music, public speaking, writing, business; you name any category and people measure one another and themselves against a dizzying array of measures. Industry award shows (sports, entertainment) have become television shows. I know of places where I could enter a preaching contest. I once worked on a consulting project doing executive search—let me just say that the multiplicity of measures made you wonder if anyone could qualify for the position.
“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.’” If Jesus had used a search firm to find potential disciples I wonder what the list would have looked like. You could imagine how frustrated the consultant would have been interviewing Jesus—what do you mean you will take anybody? Jesus, you say you are a teacher and you want people to follow and join you in this work so you ought to get some people with some academic ability.
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee …” The picture that Matthew paints is of this man Jesus calling people to follow him wherever he meets them. No contest, no interviews, no resumes; Jesus simply calls them. In giving us the details of the calling of Peter and Andrew and James and John the gospel writer wants us to understand that this was typical of how Jesus conducted his ministry. The gospels show us that Jesus’ disciples numbered more than twelve. Luke tells us that Jesus sent out seventy disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. (Luke 10:1-12) Matthew wants us to see a pattern in the calling of these four disciples—and later on eight more—that is meant to be permanent to all Christians. It is Matthew that records our Lord’s commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus is “walking by the Sea of Galilee,” calling people to come and follow. In the midst of a merit-oriented world Jesus sees people as they are—Peter, Andrew, James, John. No list of qualifications—just the stating of the obvious, “They were fishermen.” The written gospels witness to Jesus Christ. As we reflect on this gospel story Jesus steps forth to meet us. Just as he calls these disciples we can know that he is also calling every one of us. Come, follow me. He calls us in the midst of our work too—at the sales desk, on the construction site, in the classroom, at the restaurant—wherever he finds us occupied. Will we follow?
Stanley Kubrick (1928 –1999) was an American film director, screenwriter, editor, and photographer. (i.e., The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey) He explained his view of life this way: “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. … The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. … However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
If I believed as Kubrick that “life forces” are meaningless then he is correct that the most terrifying fact about the universe is its indifference. Further, I am not confident that I am somehow able, in the darkness of indifference, to supply my own light. If the universe really is indifferent how will I distinguish light from darkness?
The gospel of Matthew frames the story of Jesus launching his ministry to Galilee with a prophetic word from Isaiah. ‘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.” Nazareth, Jesus home town, was in Zebulun and Capernaum, the place Jesus makes his ministry headquarters, was in Naphtali. To this human experience of confronting what seems a vast darkness of indifference and the hopelessness of supplying our own light the gospel asserts that the light of God has dawned in the person Jesus Christ. A great light has come in him.
We should notice that different gospel-writers use a different word for “call” inasmuch as they wish to highlight a different aspect of our Lord’s call. Matthew (and Mark) uses a Greek word which has the force of “invite”; Luke, a word which has the force of “summon.” Matthew tells us there is a winsomeness, a courtesy, a gentleness to an invitation; Luke tells us there is an urgency, an imperative, even an ultimatum to a summons.
Think about this winsome nature for a moment. I think about these four who leave their fishing to follow Jesus. You don’t generally follow someone, with this sort of immediacy and ‘all-in’ nature, who scolds or gilts you into some sense of obligation; particularly fishermen who have been around the block once or twice. Jesus was somehow able to communicate that following him was better than anything they could imagine; to reveal that keeping company with him could deliver far more than the most successful fishing business; to convey a love that assured people he was all for them.
Think about the Samaritan woman he met at the well that day. (John 4) Her life was filled with the pains of a string of broken relationships—she had five husbands and the man she currently lived was not her husband. She comes to well when she expects no one to be there; the condemnation in the stare of others who live in the same village as her is more than she can bear. Coming to the well she is surprised to meet a Jew there; Jews and Samaritans have no time for one another. But it isn’t just any Jew that day, it’s Jesus. After some initial chit-chat Jesus says to her; “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” It’s the winsomeness in his manner—basically Jesus asks, ‘aren’t you thirsty?” To our era Jesus might ask, “aren’t you tired of the darkness? Would you like someone to light your way?
At the same time there an urgency in Jesus call. A “now” to his summons. Think about the rich man who comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. The point of the story isn’t that the man’s possessions have “hooked” him; the point is that he does not believe Jesus when Jesus says, “Get rid of the junk that is cluttering your life, follow me, AND YOU WILL HAVE TREASURE IN HEAVEN.” The man does not believe that following Jesus is rich; so rich, in fact, that alongside these riches his bank account looks like scrip from a game of Monopoly. You see, a major consequence of becoming a disciple is this: in the presence of Jesus Christ SECONDARY MATTERS ARE RECOGNIZED AS SECONDARY. To be a disciple is to be so “taken” with Jesus that everything else pales. To be a disciple is to find Jesus so winsome as to love him, and so compelling as to obey him.
Put together, that call by which our Lord still calls men and women into his company is a winsome invitation which is also urgent, as well as a summons which is yet gentle. On the one hand our Lord does not coerce us into joining him; on the other hand, he does not allow us to think that joining him or not joining him is a matter of whim or taste. His invitation is a summons, and his summons an invitation. He issues his call to every human being. Everyone, without exception, needs to become a disciple, and everyone, without qualification, is welcome. Will we follow?
If we follow, the what; what are disciples to do? Matthew records that these disciples accompanied Jesus as he went proclaiming good news and curing every disease and sickness among the people. Later on when Jesus sent out the disciples on their own he gave the instruction “to proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of God has come near,” to cure the sick, and cast out demons. All disciples are to do three things: we are to announce that the kingdom of God has come; we are to cast out demons; and we are to heal the sick.
To say that we are to announce the kingdom is to say we are to announce that the sovereign rule of God is effectual in Jesus Christ. And because the sovereign rule of God is effectual in Jesus Christ, death has been defeated. The gospels understand death to be an enemy. Humanity, unable to rid itself of this cheerless companion death, attempts to rehabilitate it, treating death as if it were a neighbour not a trespasser. In Jesus Christ death is defeated. Death is not the last word. Deadliness, however evident in our midst, is not the final truth and reality of our lives.
Sickness is a manifestation of death; sickness is death-on-the-way. Yet Jesus Christ has overcome death. Therefore we are to heal the sick as a sign of Christ’s effectual sovereignty over humankind.
Evil is the power of death running wild. Evil is the power of death chaotically disrupting and disfiguring everything that God has pronounced good. Therefore we are to cast out the demons (that is, resist evil) as a sign of Christ’s effectual sovereignty over the creation.
To say that all disciples are to announce the kingdom is not to say that all disciples are to become preachers, any more than the mandate to heal means we should all become physicians. Most disciples will announce the kingdom not by preaching but simply by embodying the truth and reality of the kingdom of God. Most disciples will heal not by performing surgery or prescribing medicine but by being beacons of hope and help in the midst of the life’s wounds and haemorrhages. Most disciples will cast out demons not by performing charismatic exorcisms but by identifying evil and resisting it as it confronts them. We shall do all of this just because we live in the company of him who is resurrection and life. He commissions us to live and speak and act in such a way as to exalt his life, point to his victory, and deny the illegitimate encroachments of that deadliness which has already been defeated and will one day be dispelled. All disciples are ordained to this ministry, without exception.
At the same time, as individual disciples we may be commissioned to individual tasks. The word “disciple” is rarely found in the singular in the New Testament. When it is found in the singular, however, it identifies one particular person and usually identifies one particular task for that person. John is one such disciple. He is spoken of in the singular, and his particular task is to take Mary, mother of our Lord, into his home following the death of her son. Mary was by this time a widow; her eldest son was soon to be dead; her three other sons were nowhere to be seen; she was homeless and penniless. Jesus appoints John to take her into his home for as long as she lives — a specific task for this one disciple.
So it is with you and me. As disciples we are all ordained to that ministry which is common to all disciples. As individuals we may be commissioned to a task uniquely. We may wonder how we discern particular tasks—like a call to ministry. First such particular tasks are found in the course of being engaged in the ministry that is common to all disciples. Secondly being alert to the possibility coupled with prayer our Lord will make evident such things. Will we follow?
Today we read of the promise of God through Isaiah “that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We confessed with the Psalmist, “the Lord is my light and my salvation of whom shall I be afraid? We have been probing Matthew’s assertion that Jesus is that great light Isaiah foresaw.
Think about the humble beginnings of Jesus’ ministry with four fishermen saying yes. Matthew goes on to tell us that “great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:25) It is estimated that there are currently more that 150 million Christians in China. According to experts on religion in China the church is growing such that by 2025 there will be more Protestants in China than in the United States. Indeed people have seen a great light. Our Lord is still calling people to follow him wherever he finds them.
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.”