A Guide to a Disruptive Kingdom - Matthew 4: 12-23

Third Sunday after Epiphany - January 22, 2016

Matt. 4:12-23

"Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made him home in Capernaum by the sea, 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 sea - 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."

One of the things that I love about preaching from the lectionary, is that I get a chance to just sit, and meditate on quirky little passages of scripture that I probably would not have lingered on in my own devotional reading and study. And, one of the things that I love about preaching to all of you, is that those mediations - on these little pieces of this amazing story we call God’s Word - are informed not only by my own questions, but also by what you have shared with me, including (although not limited to) the deeply honest, challenging questions you all wrote down in response to our Advent exploration of John the Baptist’s questions for Jesus.

One of those questions scared me a bit when I first read it, but it turned out to be exactly the right question to ask of the odd little story that we have as our text today.

The question scared me because I felt totally unequipped to answer it. It felt too personal, too individual, and at the same time so profoundly important that I knew it demanded an answer.

This was the question: “What does the Lord have in store for me?

This is a scary question because it is so big, and so vulnerable, and SO FAMILIAR.

I KNOW this question, from the inside. I know what it feels like to want desperately to understand – to have the veil peeled away so that I can see what is coming, and feel secure in it… or at least be prepared for it.

And I feel this question whispering through my reading of this story about disciples who SOMEHOW managed NOT to ask it… followers who dropped everything that gave their lives shape and direction in order to follow someone they barely knew.

I can’t IMAGINE doing that! I might have given up a career to follow Christ’s call to ministry in the church, but that response took me about 26 years, and a lot of preparation, and questions that got answered, and so much more. But just leaving nets and father in the boat? It seems like such an impossible bar for discipleship. I think we all feel the need for a lot more assurance about God’s plan for us than just “follow me.”

But I think this text has more to offer to this question than a really unflattering comparison to our fear compared with the disciples’ faith. I think this text actually offers an answer to this question… not a detailed roadmap, but at least a guide, and some important descriptions of the journey.

The Guide is the most obvious part of the story. Of course, it’s Jesus. That is not the ah ha revelation in this story.

The discovery comes from thinking about the difference between having a guide, versus having a map.

Back in the dark ages before GPS, as I am sure you all remember, the first time you would drive to a new location you used to have to look at a map – find your starting and ending locations and figure out your route. Or maybe the person you were driving to meet would help by giving you directions, with helpful landmarks. “When you see the firehouse on your left drive a quarter mile, and turn right just before the gas station…”

Either way, you knew every turn, and every road name before you even got in the car.

Unless, of course, there was an unexpected detour on the route, or you missed a turn – then you were lost! You would have to find a safe place to pull over, and get out your map, and mark a new route.

And, of course, that is all so different with GPS. Now, we frequently get in our cars, with only an address. We plug them into our all-knowing machines and start driving – with only the vaguest notion of the general direction in which we are heading. We are totally dependent on our electronic guides.

Having a guide is very different than having a map.

On the one hand – it’s hugely helpful for dealing with unexpected detours. “Recalculating” can be a very comforting word.

But, of course, there is a trust involved in that dependence. We have to give over our need to know, our need to have every turn mapped out ahead of time, when we rely on a guide. We TRUST the guide to know what we don’t know – and to lead us right.

Today’s psalm text speaks to that same kind of dependent trust.

“The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Trust is the inversion of fear – it allows us to relax, to find peace, even when we don’t know what is coming – and this is so because trust demands that we recognize our need.

If we think we can get there on our own with the right map, we will never trust the guide.

Because of that call for trust when we follow a guide, it is noteworthy to see the “location” Jesus starts from in this story (It took me a while, but I am finally getting to the actual story). Jesus starts form a particular geographic location, and we are asked by the text to pay attention to that place. So, why should we care that Jesus, the one we are being called to trust, began his public ministry from Zebulun and Naphtali?

Umbrella answer: Zebulun & Naphtali is shorthand for a land of divine gift and promise, that has been repeatedly occupied by foreign powers.[1]

  • This was territory promised to the Israelite Patriarchs and assigned to Joshua during the conquest of the land of Canaan – and this naming evokes those covenant stories.

  • BUT - this is also the area that was overrun by Assyria in the time of King Ahaz of Judah (if you remember the stick puppet children’s sermon from the 4th week of Advent – this area got hit.)

  • In the time of Jesus, this area is again occupied territory. Now by Rome.

So on the one hand – this is NOT a place of strength. It is not the reliable stronghold of Psalm 27.

But on the other hand – this is a place that evokes a very different kind of power than the imperial dominion – a power that makes promises that are kept in totally unexpected ways.

As a point of departure for this Journey with Jesus the Guide, Zebulun and Naphtali are consistent with what Luther calls the “theology of the cross” – this habit God has of showing up where we don’t expect.

Except, of course, Matthew tells us we should have expected this, because it was foretold (something we are going to hear over and over again in Matthew). In fact, we read that foretelling as our first reading today from Isaiah (9:1-4)!

So from yet another angle, and yet another of today’s readings, we are urged toward trust. Jesus is a guide who keeps his promises. We can depend on him.

But what is the content of those promises? Where is Jesus taking us?

All he says to his disciples is that he will make them “fish for people,” which is … frankly weird, and pretty ambiguous. I can't find much for us in that direction to answer our question about what God has in store.

But the story has a different key to where we are heading… or maybe what is heading for us.

We read: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

“The Kingdom of Heaven has come near” – or a better translation would actually be “The Kingdom of the Heavens” (you’ll learn more about that in the coming year, I promise)

But what is this Kingdom?

It’s not a destination. Certainly not in the sense of a place we are going to. This is NOT about the afterlife, or how our Christian faith is all about preparing us for heaven – please if you hear nothing else today, hear that!

Rather, the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens is about the in-breaking of God’s reign, God’s way of organizing relationships.

I say in-breaking, because God’s reign breaks things – it breaks the rules and the structures and the status of the Empire… and not just the Roman Empire. God’s reign disrupts inequality and oppression where ever it exists.

Today's reading from Isaiah is clearly linked to this gospel, and that reading from Isaiah includes the proclamation that the “rod of the oppressor, you have broken.”

Following this Guide into the Kingdom of the Heavens will be disruptive.

But God’s reign also heals things. After the calling of these first four disciples, Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout the region, teaching and “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23).

The nearness of the God’s reign is not about destruction; it’s about restoration of God’s intention – that’s where God is leading us.

One other final note about the answer in this story to our question about what God has in store, when we answer the call to be God’s disciples: we can expect community.

Jesus did not call individuals to a personal journey of faith. In this story, Jesus calls pairs – brothers – to join a community. They did not have to follow alone.

Of course, community is not always easy. Our second reading of the day,[2] challenged the Corinthian church over divisions that prioritized individual loyalties and identities above the gospel, but makes it clear that those divisions are a distraction from following Christ.

And following Christ is what this is all about.

I can’t tell you exactly what Jesus has in store for you. I can’t predict the circumstances of your future.

But this story DOES tell us what we are called to.

We are called to follow a guide who will surprise us, and whom we can trust, absolutely.

We are called into a kingdom that disrupts the world we know, and restores the world God intended.

And we are called together. We have each other for the journey.

In a few minutes we will pray, together, the prayers of the people, and in those prayers we will acknowledge, with each new petition to God, “You Call Us…”

I don’t know exactly what Jesus has in store for us. But I do know that God Calls Us, as a trustworthy guide, to join in the work of the Kingdom, together.

Thanks be to God. AMEN

[1] See Warren Carter’s Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23; www.WorkingPreacher.org.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

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