Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23
I thought I was going to get lucky this year. After last week’s calling of the Disciples from the Gospel of John, I thought the lectionary would let us leap right over this passage from the Gospel of Matthew.
Do you remember last week, how the Gospel of John told it? It’s a couple of days after Jesus’ baptism and as Jesus walks by, and John the Baptist turns to two of his disciples that were standing with him and says “There is the Lamb of God.” Then these two kind of slink off and begin following Jesus from a bit of a distance. Jesus, however, sensing they are there and turns and asks them “What are you looking for?” They manage to stammer “Where are you staying?” And when Jesus replies “Come and see” they set out to see where he is staying not suspecting that their lives are about to be changed forever.
I like John’s account because the disciples seem rather unsure of themselves. Curious certainly but not convicted. John has identified Jesus as being someone special, but these two need some time to check Jesus out for themselves before they commit to anything as radical as changing their life for him.
But Matthew, and for that matter Mark as well, they tell a very different story.
The way Matthew tells it, Jesus is out walking beside the Sea of Galilee when he sees two brothers Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fisherman. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first time that Peter and Andrew had ever seen Jesus. We have no indication that they know who he is or that they have any inkling that he is someone special. But when he says to them “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” they do! Immediately in fact. And not just them! But James and John the son’s of Zebedee do so as well. When Jesus calls to them they too immediately leave their boat and their father and follow him.
I wished the lectionary would have skipped this narrative this year because I find it troubling. Try as I may I cannot seem to make sense of these brothers’ action. Why do they follow Jesus just like that? How can they be so sure in a split second of that which the rest of us struggle with for a life time?
And I find this narrative not only troubling but disheartening as well, for if it is to show us what is needed to follow Jesus — if crystalline clarity and conviction are the starting place of discipleship then I am afraid I am not going to make it. I’m afraid I am not going to be on the starting line there with those brothers, but instead back in the boat, mending nets with Mr. Zebedee.
But before we go any further, let us pray. Holy One: may the words that I speak and the mediations of all of our hearts be guided not by our certainty but by your inspiration so that your light may shine in the places of our deepest darkness. Amen.
There is nothing worse than that nagging feeling that somehow there is something wrong with oneself — that somehow one just doesn’t measure up. How many of us go through our days feeling like there is this gap between who we really are and who we want to be? How many of us feel like there are parts of who we are that we have to squirrel away, keep hidden for the pain, shame, hurt that we find there is not something that we want others to see– it’s not something that we want to see even for ourselves.
Instead, we want to see ourselves and be seen as having one’s act together, as being strong and competent. Ready — like Peter, Andrew, James and John for whatever comes.
And why shouldn’t we. After all we live in a time, writes theologian Douglas John Hall, where mastery and unbridled optimism are the name of the game. We are told and have come to expect that with a bit of grit and determination should be able to rise above whatever hardship we face. We have been told and have come to expect that we were made for greatness and that we owe it to ourselves and each other to be great.
And this mastery and unbridled optimism, Hall claims has been sanctified by religion. “Christianity” he writes has become “nothing more nor less than the official religion of the officially optimistic society.” Hall traces this optimism back to our foundational identity as a nation when our Puritan forefathers saw themselves founding a city upon a hill that was to be a beacon of light to all nations. We were going to show the world how it is to be done.
So instead of locating ourselves in that conflicted space of already of having received God with us but not yet living in the full realization of the sweet shalom of God’s promise and instead of helping us find a way to survive in that conflicted space, Christianity, Hall asserts, has done its best to convince us that all is already as it should be. We are, after all, a resurrected people, living in the light of God’s love — Right?
But what happens when things are not right? When things actually go wrong? When a relationship fails, a job is lost, when depression circles round again and it gets harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning, when tears are quick to come, or anger too hot and ready; when in our children’s struggles all we see is our own failings? When darkness comes, we tend to do one of two things. Either we deny it, doing our best to shut it away. Hide it from ourselves and others. Or get into high gear and set about trying to fix it. And if things get really bad, we stop going to church for who can bear such rosy optimism when we have bruises on our knees and scars on our hearts?
I wonder if any of you have had an experience that I have rather often. If in casual conversation with someone that I am just meeting for the first time, that person asks me what I do for a living, I cringe a bit inside before I say that I am a minister. I cringe a bit inside because inevitably there will pass over the face of the person I am with before he/she has a chance re-gather him or herself a range of emotions from embarrassment to a kind of incredulous “really!” “People still do that?”
Has something similar ever happened to you if by chance you happen to mention to someone you do not know well how much your church means to you? Have you seen that look that is somewhere between pity and skepticism?
But it is no wonder really. For if Hall is correct and I think he is, much of what most people have seen or heard about Christianity seems to be for another time, not for this one that we are in. To many, Church does not particularly relevant to our lives today.
Except, of course, that it is!
You have heard me say it before and I will keep saying it for I believe that we are living in a time in which being church has never been more important. We are living in a time where the biblical witness has never been more relevant. The challenge that I believe we are living here as church together in this time and place is to re-experience and re-claim what those first followers of Jesus experienced and claimed.
To experience and claim not the distortion of a prosperity gospel that assures us that everything is alright but the true Gospel that comes to us in our places of deepest darkness. After all the scripture does not say:
the people whose lives were perfect
have seen a great light;
those who did not have a need in the world,
on them a light has shined.
Instead it is in the darkness that the light shines. It is to those who sit in the region and shadow of death, that light has dawned.
Up until this week, I had never considered that Peter, Andrew, James and John may not have been the models of conviction and clarity that I had always thought them to be. I had never really considered that instead perhaps they were the ones of whom the Gospel spoke. They were the ones who sat in the region and shadow of death, sat in darkness.
But isn’t that what Matthew is driving at here by pairing the ancient words from the Prophet Isaiah with the calling of the disciples? Isn’t that what Jesus was doing when he left Narareth and withdrew to Galilee, to the territory of Zebulum and Naphtali? That area held for the people the memory of that time of darkness when the Assyrian invasion decimated the region and held for the people in Jesus time the darkness of fear and deprivation living under the heavy hand of Herod who had just arrested and would soon execute John the Baptist.
Jesus intentionally goes to this place of deep darkness we are told and there he finds Peter and Andrew, James and John. There he will find Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the one who doubts. There he will find them all and there he will find us as well.
For the starting place of discipleship, it turns out, is not crystalline clarity and conviction.
The starting place of discipleship is need. Discipleship starts in the dark when we stand with each other in the midst of our need, not denying it and not rushing to fix it but being present to each other in the midst of it. Discipleship starts when stop hiding our pain, or shame or hurt. Discipleship starts when we stop our frenetic fixing and simply stand where we are. It is there that the light meets us and it is there where we are to meet each other.
A couple of years ago, I was in Zambia, traveling as part of our partnership with Communities without Borders. I remember clearly, one night as I was sitting in the dining area in the guest house where we were staying when the lights went out. I was told that could happen and had been instructed to always have a flash light with me but that night I had left mine behind. Sitting there in the darkness, I realized that I did not know the layout of the guest house well enough to have made my way safely back to my room. In fact, in the darkness I would not really make out the contours of the room and hall way and stairs at all. And so I just sat there wondering what I was to do. It was not too long though before Matthew, a high school student who was traveling with us from a church across town came into the dining area with his head lamp beaming. He had come to fill up his water bottle but sizing up my difficulty, he asked if I needed him to help me make my way to my room. I, of course, immediately followed him out of the darkness without hesitation.
Hall writes “Let us be quite clear: only the light is final. We have no lasting interest in the darkness as such, and certainly no desire to court it. It is necessary to think about it and to enter into it only because it is already there; it is already our condition; and the true light that lightens our darkness can only be apprehended by us rightly as we stand, honestly and knowingly, exactly where we are. For it is known that only as we become accustomed to the night, the deepening gloom, are we able to see the light that is specifically light for this darkness.”
That is the promise of the Gospel and the hope of what it is to truly be church. What we do together here in the light of God’s love, is not to deny our pain and our doubts, it is not to hide our heart aches and fears but instead to share them. We are to stand with each other in trying times when all we see is darkness and the light seems so far away. And through our love and witness, we are to help the light of God’s love shine.
Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John follow Jesus without hesitation that day? Because, “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.” May the light of God’s love call us out of our places of deep darkness and illuminate our walk together. Amen