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Leaving Our Nets

January 23, 2017

“Leaving Our Nets” Matthew 4:12-23 © 1.22.17 Ordinary 3A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

He had to leave. It wasn’t safe for him in Jerusalem, Bethlehem or indeed anywhere in Judea. The authorities were likely to be rounding up anyone who had been closely connected with John, the crusty, loud preacher now in police custody. And of course that included him.

Time to go. Sell the business, take down the shingle proclaiming it the carpenter shop of Yeshua bar Yosef. His buyer would be here this afternoon, and then the journey back to Nazareth in Galilee would begin.

On his way north, Jesus thought about how he had come to this place. How long ago was it now that he had gone to John to be baptized, then headed into the desert for an arduous forty day retreat? What a time that had been! He had heard a voice from heaven telling him God was pleased. Somehow that sustained him as the hard questions kept coming in that lonely wilderness: Who am I? What am I doing here? What kind of claim does God have on me? Isn’t there any easier way?

Now John was in prison, as we find out later, for criticizing Herod’s choice of mate, that is, his adultery with his brother’s wife. Jesus wondered when the inevitable showdown with the evil king and the Powers That Be would happen for him.

Finally the town limits of Nazareth came into view. When Jesus walked in the door of the old home place, his mother immediately knew something was up. So did his brothers and sisters who happened to be there. It was the far-away look in his eyes. His air of distraction. The slight edge in his voice. The hurriedness with which he drank even a relaxing cup of tea. Finally Mary asked: “It’s time, isn’t it?” “Yes” was her son’s only reply.

Indeed, John’s arrest had been the signal from God Jesus had been looking, waiting, longing for. He stayed a few days with his family, helped out a little, then headed for Capernaum, where he would make a new home. But he wouldn’t set up shop again. He would make do with the proceeds from the sale of his business for awhile, rent a little place, live simply. His priority now was his mission—God’s mission—beginning where John left off. Try as he might, Herod could not stop the word of God that Jesus would speak forcefully and irresistibly. Nor could anyone else. The message of the Kingdom could not be blocked.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” His sermons were cut from the same cloth as John’s. Short. To the point. Today they would make a good sound bite, meme or bumper sticker. And those who would come after him would proclaim the same word. Change your heart, your mind, your direction. Turn around, look, see what’s going on. Open your eyes, your ears, your hands, your soul. Don’t you see? Can’t you recognize it? Don’t you notice the light shining in the darkness where before there were despair and terrible memories of oppression and fear? Something wonderful is happening! An event like nothing else you’ve ever seen. A presence. A power. A promise. Life is forever altered by the breaking in of God’s way into the everyday. God himself is among us, with us. So don’t miss the chance to change. Repent.

But if Jesus had much the same message as John, his methods were different, innovative, even a little odd for his day. John started preaching and got the buzz on the street, the first century version of social media. And people flocked to him, some for the spectacle; most, for a word from God. If you preach it, they will come, we might say.

Jesus, by contrast, went out seeking. Normally, traditionally, disciples came to a teacher, applied to be taught, and hoped the scholar would deem them worthy to learn and be in his company. Not so here. According to Matthew, Andrew and Peter and the others had not met Jesus before that day he came walking by the sea. They weren’t particularly looking for a new life. They did, after all, have a thriving business to run, families to support. But his word was so powerful they dropped everything and followed him. No thought for tomorrow. No explanation given. Not even so much as a goodbye to wives and friends and family, as far as we know from this text. Jesus’ word sought out Andrew and Peter, James and John, and they went with him. Intrusive. Disruptive. Disturbing. Discipleship.

Matthew means for his story to be an example of repentance, the complete turnaround of life. He also intends it as a model for how every believer becomes a disciple. Sought out on the initiative of God. Transformed by a powerful Word. Never the same again.

I wonder if all this bothers you the way it does me. If leaving all to follow Jesus is the way of a disciple, I guess I’m not much of one. I’m no hero. I hate insecurity and risk and unsettled life. I prefer the approach of the Gospel of John we heard about last week, which is a very different tradition about how the first disciples were called. In that story, would-be followers connect through the witness of another. They sit with Jesus, stay, reflect, talk, watch, and learn. I would prefer to be affirmed, as Nathanael or Peter was, and prepare to be amazed. Grow into my spirituality at a quiet, comfortable pace without too much disruption in the routine. Certainly nothing inconvenient that causes me to question my priorities and radically rearrange my life.

And John’s way is a good way. But Matthew won’t let me or anyone off the hook. Maybe we don’t drop everything and get on a plane to Africa like my friend Gerald once did to become a missionary in Zaire. But once we’re caught by Jesus, we can’t wriggle out of the net and go back to our familiar environment, our unexamined existence.

But, this gospel would ask, why would you want to? This Jesus is the one in whom everything God ever promised has come true. The vision he gives for living doesn’t feel like something in the sky by and by, but a plan for living right now. It governs every action, every thought, every word. This kingdom vision makes a fisherman leave his boats, a tax collector his ledgers, even an assassin forsake his terrorist cell. There’s no sense trying to explain it. The call of those by the sea that day and of every disciple since is a miracle, a mystery of God’s grace. In Jesus they and we encounter an authority that must be obeyed, a promise so sweet it captures our imaginations, a project so challenging that it’s worth our energies and commitment. Like some huge stellar body whose gravity overwhelms anything within its orbit, the kingdom of God pulls us toward it. The promise of the new day was worth whatever sacrifice, whatever demands might be made on those new followers of Jesus. And indeed on you and me.

What would be it be like to experience the kingdom right in our midst? Imagine leaving our nets behind, all that has defined our existence, all that we’ve lived for until now. What would it be like to lay aside the past, with its regrets and problems, and instead give thanks to God for his gifts today? What would happen if we began to think of ourselves as loved and trusted by God? What if you or I stopped complaining about what’s wrong in the church and the world and started doing something about it? Suppose we were to smash our idols to dust and started worshipping and glorifying the true God? Yes, we do fall down before false gods. Paul Tillich, a great theologian of an earlier generation, said that whatever is our ultimate concern is our god, whatever it is on which we place ultimate value is our deity. Is it time for you and me to repent?

We can be transformed, made new and whole. Our relationship with Jesus is what changes us. Some believers might be heroes in a crisis, saving lives. They could be dedicated volunteers in some far-off land, helping to heal people or bring them clean water. But most of us will not live out our discipleship that way. We will do it washing dishes or cooking a meal, teaching children or studying for a test, working hard at our jobs or enjoying our well-earned leisure, reading a book or watching a movie, playing music or making art, ministering to the hungry in the community or making decisions on the session, speaking a kind word or showing compassion for the lonely and left-out, and on and on. Everyday stuff. We know that Peter and the rest didn’t become homeless and wander around depending on the kindness of strangers as they carried out their mission. After the story of the call by the sea, Matthew has references to Peter’s house and his mother-in-law and the fishing business. The point is that our daily lives are made holy by the vision of newness, the presence and power of God over all. Whatever we do, whoever we are, we’re called. We’re no less disciples than those fishermen two thousand years ago.

Life can never be the same again, because we’ve met someone extraordinary. On a TV special, the late Katharine Hepburn once reminisced about her life. She took the viewer to the very spot on the MGM lot where she and Spencer Tracy met. Every word, every feeling, even the clothes she was wearing at the time were still vivid in her memory, years and years later. No doubt she had walked over that spot many times before she met Tracy, but for Hepburn, it would be forever special because of her love for him.

In much the same way, when Peter and Andrew, James and John went back to the sea, they could never stand on the shoreline or mend a net without thinking of that day Jesus called them. They could go home or to some other nearby village they had visited, but no place would ever be ordinary again because the footsteps of Jesus had fallen there.

Whatever we do, wherever we go, when we’re living transformed lives, we’re being faithful disciples. If we’re conscious of the power and presence of our Lord guiding us and enabling our ministry, we’re following him. Our ordinary days become extraordinary, no matter how modest our efforts.

The Episcopal priest and author Suzanne Guthrie once put it this way: “My work as a parish priest for a cluster of churches does not at all evoke the adventure of the call of the disciples, who immediately left their nets to follow Jesus into the unknown. My day is filled with too many pleasant people, and I give too much attention to too many things at once while receiving too much thanks for doing too little…. Nevertheless, this is somehow the work of God in the church at this moment in time….[M]y work is not a work of individual heroism; it blends one small voice with an immense choir…. There are men and women who live in daily danger, who do heroic works, who exhaust themselves for God. Perhaps I, too, will be called to be heroic someday, to drop immediately what I am doing to live a more radical life in Christ. In the meantime, I rush around within these small circles of modest discipleship with what I hope is faithfulness” (“Daily Prayer,” The Christian Century, 12.23-30.1992: 1185).

Even if our circles too are small, our lives modest and less than heroic and noteworthy, we dare not, we cannot think of what we do as ordinary ever again. Instead, it’s valuable, beautiful, life-changing if only for one or a few. For we have encountered, been encountered, by Someone whose word is irresistible, who draws us to him so that we follow him. And in the following, we find ourselves part of something that can only be called the kingdom of God.

As the lovely song asks: “What makes the wind blow/ on some still afternoon/ that had no hint of hidden laughter in the air?/What makes the wind blow/beneath a burning sun/to turn an ordinary day into a rare?

“What makes a love bloom/in some poor silent heart/whose empty, bleak horizon suddenly is fair?/What makes a love bloom/out in some desert place/whose beauty once unseen is now beyond compare?

“What makes a dream rise/in some imprisoned soul/a dream that lights a world of darkness and despair?/What makes a dream rise?/Well, it’s enough to know/that there are winds and dreams and love blooms anywhere” (Donald Marsh and Richard Avery, “What Makes the Wind Blow?”).

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