As we journey with Jesus toward Good Friday and the cross on our way to Easter, we are trying to do more than simply remember what happened. We are trying to see ourselves there, imagine ourselves in the narrative. We are trying to live in that story because really it is our story. It is not happening again, but we want to think of the excitement of being in the presence of the flesh and blood Jesus. We want to imagine the response of the people around him to what he said and did.
Last week, we went into the wilderness with Jesus as he was tested and tempted by Satan before beginning his public ministry. We considered how we recognize those temptations and battle them using the tools that Jesus used, namely Scripture.
This week, Jesus begins his public ministry with the same message as John the Baptist’s, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 4:17). The message many sound the same, but the way that Jesus went about it was very different than John. Where people sought out John to be baptized, Jesus calls a small group of people to follow him. And, it begins here. Our featured image today was inspired by Jesus’ calling of the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Our Scripture passage comes from Matthew 4 beginning with verse 12, and we will be reading through verse 22.
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1,2)
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Can you imagine that? A person that you don’t even know calls out to you from a beach while you are going about your daily tasks. He says stop what you are doing and follow me, and you DO IT, right there, right then. It seems extraordinary. We hear the calls of the first disciples, and it sounds incredible. Most people can’t see themselves doing it. We imagine, what faith, what devotion, what trust that they could do that without a second thought. Extraordinary people. Jesus must have recognized that in them, and so he knew that they would be a good fit for the team that he was building.
And yet, I’m going to suggest something very different. Jesus called ordinary people in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things, and he still does. We may think of the disciples as special, but they didn’t start out that way. Even though they did follow Jesus immediately, they got many things wrong and disobeyed him all through their time together. They did not start out as special. They became special because they were chosen by Jesus.
It is actually a more personal form of what God did with Israel. The Israelites were not God’s chosen people because they were special, better, more righteous than the other nations or peoples of the world. The Old Testament is the story of how the Israelites failed time and time again despite being chosen. God remained faithful while Israel were attracted to the nations around them, and their gods. You could even make the case that they were worse than the other nations because they had the knowledge of God and the Law, and they still wanted to be like everybody else. Yet, God continued to regard them as special because he had chosen them. So now, Jesus is choosing individuals for his team, all kinds of regular people from very diverse backgrounds, but only special because Jesus chose them.
So, let’s look at today’s image. It is so very different from last week’s image, not just the style. Last week, Jesus was alone and suffering, under attack, but victorious. This week there are other people around. Peter and Andrew are on the shore, and Jesus is talking with James and John. Jesus has his hand out. Do you think that he is talking with his hands as he makes his invitation, or could it be that he’s preparing to offer it to help them stand up as they accompany him? Or could it be something different entirely? Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus said to the brothers Zebedee. What do you imagine it is? Their father is there looking very intently at Jesus. What might he be thinking about all of this? All of this is very relational and personal. Eventually Jesus will have crowds following him, but that hasn’t happened. Right now, Jesus is inviting a few people to be in a small group with him.
We know what happens just after this. The two men stand up and leave with Jesus. He calls, and they immediately respond, and that’s what seems extraordinary. We can have a hard time picturing leaving everything in our lives just like that. *snap*
In the church, we will talk about “the call.” Those people who go into pastoral ministry or clergy are asked to describe their “call.” We can talk about whether a person is called to participate in a particular ministry role in the church: the worship arts, building care and stewardship, education, administration, hospitality, and so on. Sometimes it is less about what we might think of as a “call” and more about a task that simply needs to be done. But, call can apply to things that we do outside of the church as well.
Despite all of this, most people still associate “call” with the clergy. From time to time, I will talk about how all Christians are called by God. We have all been given talents and abilities, and God calls us, chooses us to use them for God’s glory. But, I have a very important question to ask you, and I will not ask you to raise your hands or anything, but how many of you feel called? If you are typical of most people in a recent study, you don’t feel called. In fact, you don’t see most of what you do outside the church as worthy of God’s attention and interest.
Perhaps, the problem is that those of us who speak from the pulpit connect “call” with some kind of work, job, or duty in the church. It’s not nearly so limiting as that. The study showed that people find much more sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose through their friendships and relationships with other people. Even people who enjoyed the organizations they were involved with still reported that the people they knew there were very important to them.
What does Jesus say to Peter and Andrew? “Come and follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Mt 4:19) or as David Lose puts it “fishers of people.” Jesus does not say come be my emissaries, witnesses of the divine, or even the first Christians. Instead, Jesus invites these people to be fishers of people. They are called not into a job but into a relationship. Then, as they do their “fishing” they will interact and develop relationships with other people.
That is the call that Jesus to each of us, to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way that Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and for the vulnerable, always with the hope of God’s abundant grace. Sometimes this will take us far from home. Sometimes it will be with the people around us every day, but it will always involve people, not merely a job or a role in mission or ministry, but real flesh and blood persons who are in our lives.
Maybe a better way to state it is that Jesus called ordinary people in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with ordinary people all around them and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.
We never know when we are going to encounter that person, or how they will respond. Recently I heard from someone who visited us last July. She was passing through the area and decided to check us out. I would call her a seeker. She found me to be eloquent … I might have to go out and buy a bigger hat. *smile* But, really the most significant impression she received was from you. It was how you welcomed her into our community. It was the love and joy that that you demonstrated to her, to each other, and to the world. She felt it and experienced it through you. She found us to be an oasis in the desert, an outpost of the Kingdom of God in the wilderness. With all of the anger, hatred, despair that she experiences in the outside world, in our midst, she found sanctuary. She experienced the Good News that day. That my friends is what we are called to do. Not just in here, everywhere.
Just like the disciples, you were chosen. That Peter and Andrew dropped their nets, that James and John immediately followed Jesus did not make them extraordinary. It demonstrates the compelling nature of Jesus.
Earlier in our Scripture passage it said that Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17) The very next thing is the call of the disciples. You may have heard before that the word translated “repent” does not mean to merely be sorry and to feel bad for some sin that one has committed, ways that we missed the mark. It is a turning. It is an invitation from Jesus to turn toward and focus or center our lives on God, all the time. It is calling into relationship with God, and it means that we will have to turn away from other things. What we see here with the calling of the disciples is a physical example of the what it means to repent. Their lives were centered on something else. From that moment on they were focused on God.
How did you come to believe? What made you decide to follow Jesus? Or, are you in the process of still deciding? Don’t presume that because someone goes to church that they have come to the decision to follow Jesus. I went to churches for at least a decade as a seeker. At first, it was merely as a curiosity, but I digress. If you do consider yourself a Christian, someone who believes that Jesus came to redeem and save the world from the consequence of sin and give new life, what made you decide? Probably not some doctrinal formula like that.
For some people it comes slowly, like it did with me. Some people it’s almost instantaneous, like we see with Peter and the others. Some people feel like it’s always been there. They can’t remember a time when Jesus wasn’t a part of their lives, but there comes a time for each person when they have to decide if they are going to repent and turn their lives to follow Jesus on purpose. That is when we figuratively drop our nets. It happens to ordinary people just like you and me every day. We are invited into relationship with the living God and be fishers of people, not only to share God’s love with people, but to share the idea that God loves them too.
How can we do that? There are few of us who are going to stand up in front of the crowds like Peter did after Pentecost. We’re not going to stand on street corners and shout at the people walking by. You might be introverted. You might be afraid of offending someone. Guess what? You might. Just ensure that you are being kind, and don’t let the fear stop you. The first place to start is like Jesus did with these four men. Invite people into your lives. It doesn’t have to be a lot all at one time. It can be with the people you are already connected to.
I am introverted. I do better one on one with someone or in smaller groups. I was this close to having a full blown panic attack at the Chamber of Commerce awards banquet a couple of weeks ago. (Thank you to Susan Kost for helping me to avert that incident.) To be truthful, even our monthly Love Feasts can be difficult for me, as much as I love you all. And yet, even I can have an effect, and it comes back to relationships.
As I have mentioned in the past, I grew up in a non-religious household. My parents allowed me to go to church if I wanted to, but they never did, and we never talked religion or faith. The same was true in the households of all of my aunts, uncles, or cousins. Some months ago I realized something extraordinary. A little over 20 years ago, I became a committed follower of Christ. I figuratively dropped my nets, so to speak, meaning I did not quit my job or anything, but I turned my life entirely toward Jesus. Something interesting has happened since that time. As I mentioned, all of my cousins grew up in non-religious households. Now, about 2/3 of them are Christians. What did I do? I honestly don’t know. As much as I am ashamed to admit it, I didn’t try to do anything at all. What I did do is keep the connection and be honest about my life. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but I really don’t believe in coincidences.
We are coming into a time when we are going to need each other more than ever. Whether it is this coronavirus or the continued polarization of society, building and maintaining loving relationships are so so important, especially when we can’t be in physical contact.
We can feel like there is nothing that we can do, but there is one thing. We can pray. The word prayer has been cheapened lately when after every disaster or tragedy we hear people in the public eye offer their “thoughts and prayers.” It can seem like empty words. We can doubt whether they have any thoughts about it or are offering any prayers. But, my friends, there is power in prayer. God is God and is not beholden to us, but God hears our prayers. God can do what we cannot.
So now, I’m going to invite you to do something. Think of someone to whom you are connected. It could be a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance, someone with whom you have some sort of relationship. It could bring you joy, sorrow, frustration, or hope. It doesn’t really matter, as long as they are connected to you in some way. Once you have thought of that person, take a moment now to pray for them. God is using you to make a difference in the life of that person. I will give you a moment to do this….
Remember this person, and try to pray for them every day this week. God is using you to be fishers of people, the people that God has put in your life. You see, Jesus has been calling you, in fact using you to care for the people that God loves for quite a long time. It is just time that you realize that. See yourself in the picture of God’s purpose in your life and in the world.