Location, Leaving, and Light - A Call to Discipleship
A sermon on Matt. 4:12-23
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.)
Immediately following worship today, our community will hold our annual congregational meeting. (pause for cheers of excitement!)
Yes! This meeting is actually really important – not only because it is constitutionally required in order to elect Council members, and pass a budget, and otherwise do the “business” of the church.
But more essentially, this is our chance, as the community of God called together in this place, to think together about what exactly it is that God has called us to do and to be as a congregation.
What is our collective mission?
Why do we give our time, and our energy, and our resources to this church?
Where is God leading us as we move into a new year of ministry?
Given this immediate context, I’m thinking that a gospel story about Jesus calling his disciples might be relevant to us. Also given this context, I’m thinking you all might appreciate a shorter sermon today. So, I am going to focus on just three key words that can highlight some important questions for our congregation as we look ahead to the discipleship work to which Jesus is calling us.
The first word is LOCATION
Today’s reading begins with what might seem like some rather inconsequential details about Jesus’s travel arrangements: (After hearing about John’s arrest), “Jesus withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matt. 4:12-13). Now, the specifics of these locations may not meant much to us, but there are some important details:
First, Matthew draws our attention to the fact that Jesus withdrew… but not to his hometown of Nazareth. When Jesus got the news about John’s arrest, news that reminded him of his own vulnerability as a proclaimer of God’s kingdom… he didn’t go back home where he could feel safe. When faced with a challenge – a threat, even – Jesus didn’t pull back to what was familiar and comfortable. Instead, he began his work. He went to Capernaum.
Capernaum was in a region with a history, as the quote from Isaiah reminds us. This was a region that had known occupation and oppression under the Assyrians in the time of the prophet, and now it was firmly under the thumb of Rome. This location is significant because, as one commentator observes, “as a Jew in Roman-dominated territory, Jesus is located among the marginal, with the rural peasants not the urban wealthy, with the ruled not the rulers, with the powerless and exploited not the powerful.” The location where Jesus chose to begin his ministry was on the margins, with the people whom no one else saw as important.
But his message to these “unimportant” people was about a different kind of location: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” God’s work in the world, the in-breaking of God’s power and God’s will for the restoring of humanity was near to THEM, to the people on the margins. To the people who had no power of their own.
So, in pondering the things this story tells us about Jesus’s LOCATION, how should we pay attention to location in our congregation’s call?
Maybe we should ask about how we will respond if we are faced with challenges in this coming year: Will we pull back into our comfort zone, or will we get on with our work?
Or maybe we ask what are the places on the margins – socially, economically, or otherwise – that need to hear a message of the nearness of God’s kingdom?
Or maybe we need to ask if we trust that the kingdom really is near? Can we live in the confidence that God is actually moving and working now, through us?
This gospel invites us to ask thoughtful questions about where our mission is located.
The second word is LEAVING.
This is the part of the story that can sound hard, even inconceivable. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him… Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” (Matt. 4:20; 22).
Who does that? Who abandons their livelihood, and possessions, and family to follow someone they have only just met?... And is that really what God demands of disciples? Well, a call to sacrifice is one way to interpret all of this leaving in the story, but there are other ways. One source I read this week suggests that “no-one ‘drops their nets’ and walks away from everything they know without being good and ready to do so, without some kind of deep, pre-existing dissatisfaction, some longing for a different kind of life.”
And think about what they left… nets! A tool that is specifically designed to catch and hold, to entangle. Maybe Jesus’s call to follow didn’t sound like a call to sacrifice to his disciples… to the people who were so ready to leave things behind. Maybe that call was an invitation to freedom… to leave behind the things that had them all tangled up… to leave the kind of life and priorities that left them frustrated or unsatisfied, with their deepest longing unmet.
Maybe the LEAVING in this story invites us to ask questions about what Jesus is inviting us to leave behind:
Are there things, or commitments, or ideas that have entangled us? Things we need to let go of, in order to answer Jesus’s call?
And if so, can we experience this leaving, this letting go, not as a demand that we sacrifice for God, but rather as an invitation to discover a different kind of life for which we have been longing?
This gospel invites us to ask thoughtful questions about how leaving can free us for our work as God’s church.
Finally, the third relevant word I find in today’s gospel is LIGHT.
Now, I need to first make a comment about the way that the language of light and dark functions in our particular cultural context. In Matthew’s gospel, and also in Isaiah’s prophecy, this language is clearly talking about illumination… about the way that light makes it possible to see. But in our cultural context, it is an unavoidable historical reality that the language of light and dark has been used in racialized ways to reinforce a narrative of light-skinned = good, and dark-skinned=bad.
This use of language is sinful, and it has caused deep damage to our society. The church needs to actively, and forcefully reject this twisting of language, and we need to reclaim the liberating meaning of the language of light and dark.
When Matthew quotes from Isaiah’s gospel, describing light dawning on the people who sit in darkness, he is not saying that all darkness equals badness … he is describing the coming of Jesus as a sunrise… as an illumination that allows the people to see the world in a new way.
Because that is Jesus’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That word: repent - metanoéō (μετανοέω) – means “change your mind,” recognize a new reality… the reality of God’s kingdom, here and now.
The light that Jesus brings is a light that helps us to see everything differently. To see the world and our own lives illuminated by the nearness of God’s kingdom… by the experience of God’s love and presence in our lives. As our Psalm today affirmed: “The Lord is my light… whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1)
And so, the dawn of LIGHT in this gospel story invites us to ask questions about what that light illuminates for us:
How is Jesus calling us to see the world in a new way?
From what old patterns of thinking do we need to repent, so that we can recognize God’s kingdom at work?
What fears can we release when the Lord is our light?
This gospel invites us to ask thoughtful questions about how the light of Christ illuminates our call to be the church.
So there you have it: Location, Leaving, and Light. These three words certainly don’t capture all there is to say about discipleship, or about how we, as a congregation, hear Christ’s call to follow him, but I hope they do give us an orientation.
I hope they call us to think in new ways about where we locate ourselves, and where we expect to find God already working.
I hope they give us courage to leave the things that entangle us, so that we can find the fullness of life in discipleship.
And I hope that they open our eyes to the dawn of Christ’s light that helps us to see our world, and our work in it in new ways.
Because of this I am sure: The congregation of Abiding Peace is called to follow Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
 Cited by D. Mark Davis: https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/