January 27, 2008

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1-6
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Today’s Gospel reading is about the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The author of Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum in order to fulfil the words of the prophet 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.”

Later, John’s Gospel will have Jesus identify himself as “the light of the world.” And here, Matthew describes the work that Jesus is about to begin in Galilee as like a light shining into darkness, as like the sun rising for those who are in danger of death.

Jesus begins his proclamation of the reign of God, and it’s like a light has been switched on. The things Jesus says, and the way Jesus acts, and the person Jesus is in the world, help the people he encounters to start seeing things differently. He both pronounces God’s high expectations of each of us, and embodies God’s amazing love and forgiveness for even the least among us. Jesus is the light that reveals who God is, how God loves us, and how God calls us to live in loving relationship with God and with one another.

The Gospel tells us that from that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Greek word that is translated here as “repent” is metanoeo. Literally, its means “to change one’s mind.” But it also carries the meaning of a Hebrew word for repentance, a word that meant “turn” or “return.” The idea of repentance, of changing one’s mind and turning or returning to God is not a concept original to Jesus, or even to John the Baptist (whom we hear preaching a similar message in the Gospels.) Repentance was the standard prophetic and Jewish means of reconciliation with God.

I think that an interesting thing to note is that the word doesn’t refer to sorrow or remorse. It’s not just about turning away from grave sin. It’s not just about putting an end to bad behaviour. The instruction from Jesus to “repent” could be paraphrased as “Get yourself a new orientation for the way you live, then act on it.” Something like that catches both the Greek and Hebrew connotations of repentance. You change your mind and turn your life towards God’s purposes because God’s kingdom has come near. God is in charge.

What follows in our reading is the very first story of people changing their minds and turning their lives towards following Jesus. As the first story of its kind in the Gospel, this story of Jesus calling the first disciples serves as a kind of model or paradigm for how every follower becomes a disciple of Jesus. It’s not a very long story, and it doesn’t have a lot of details in it.

Jesus notices Simon and Andrew fishing. He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately, they leave their nets and follow him. Without a word, they leave their nets and follow Jesus. Remember, these men have never seen Jesus before. They’ve seen no miracles, and they’ve heard no teachings. No explanation has been given to them. They are not told why they should follow Jesus, what following him will mean, or where the path will lead them.

It seems totally unbelievable, even ludicrous, that they would leave their nets, their jobs, their homes, their families, and everything else behind to follow this stranger, just because he asked them to. One commentator suggests that this event is Jesus’ first miracle in Matthew’s Gospel. It doesn’t make any sense that they would leave everything behind to become disciples of Jesus, without any explanation or argument to convince them of why they should do so. Perhaps it is the miracle of Jesus’ powerful word that creates following, that makes disciples.

It’s like the way the author of Genesis describes the creation in the first chapter of the Bible: God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God spoke the world into existence. Likewise, the word spoken by Jesus has a powerful and transforming effect.

But we must remember that the story is not recorded here like this to tell of a historical event in all its detail. Rather, the story is meant to represent what it means to follow the way of Jesus. It is told to help the reader understand the radical change of direction that takes place when one responds to the call of Christ.

If I were to pause and ask you about your own call to follow Jesus, how would you describe it? If I were to ask, “How did you become a believer?” what would you say? Some of you might relate stories of dramatic suddenness, others of slow and painful groping and struggle; still others would hardly relate to the question at all, but would never remember a time when you were “unbelievers.”

I imagine that Matthew’s community included Christians with these same kind of varied stories. But despite their variety and uniqueness, he dares to describe the call of Christ with this one paradigmatic story of call. He says, people become believers by the power of Jesus’ word; they follow him because he has spoken to them, and his word generates faith.

For Matthew, writing near the end of the first century, Jesus’ call was not just to a few disciples in first century Galilee, but the call was to the church throughout history. In and through the words and deeds of preachers, missionaries, teachers, family, friends, and those who serve in the name of Christ, the voice of Jesus continues to speak and to generate faith. And that faith, the gift of God, gives us what we need to repent.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard plenty of stories about really terrible sinful people having a conversion experience and turning their lives around when they became Christians. Although that may be the authentic call experience of some among us, many of us do not turn our lives away from heinous crime, drug dealing, or even self-destructive habits and patterns.

Even before seeing the light of Christ and hearing the word of Jesus, our lives may have been relatively happy, full, and even meaningful. Even at those times when we forget about God, when we don’t pray, when we fail to be active in serving our neighbours, when we don’t look to God for direction and help — even at those times, our lives aren’t all that terrible. We’re not hurting anyone. We’re doing meaningful work. We’re engaging in loving relationships with friends and family.

That’s what it was like for the fishermen in the story too, as far as we know. There’s no reason to assume that they were unhappy or unproductive, or that they were particularly bad or sinful people. The fishermen were already doing something useful and important. They are not looking for a new life. Jesus’ call does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in their lives. Instead, like the call of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, the call is intrusive and disruptive, calling them away from work and family.

I think that, most of the time, that’s what the call of Jesus is like for us as well. It’s not about how terrible we were before and how good we’re going to be now. It’s that God is shining a light that is Jesus, and that light is helping us to see that we need to have a new orientation for the way we live. In Jesus, God is helping us to change our minds, to change our focus, and our priorities. God is helping us to see things from a new perspective, and we are being called to act on it.

It is a disruptive and intrusive call. It comes to us when we’re busy doing other things, when we’re occupied with our work, or our family, or our social lives. Sometimes it calls us to prayer and devotion. Sometimes it calls us to mission and service. Always it calls us to put other occupations aside, and to make our lives about following Jesus and working with him in his ministry.

This call is not something that happens only once in our lives when we become Christians. Instead, it happens over and over, as we continue to listen for God’s word to us in scripture, in prayer, and in the people around us. May God help us, again and again, to change our minds to the mind of God, and to turn our lives to the ways of God, that we may be the faithful disciples of Jesus, sharing in his mission and ministry in everything we do. Amen.