Sunday, January 23, 2011
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 23, 2011)
“Chosen to Follow” (Matthew 4:12-25)
Seniors in high school have some big choices to make. Many choose to continue their education. Some choose to go to college. Others choose to go to a technical school or a trade school. Once you are there, you get to choose your classes. You may even get to choose your teachers or professors. You try to get the “low down” on certain instructors, to see if they are someone you would like to have as a teacher.
When I decided to study for the ministry, I chose to go to our Missouri Synod seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Before I made the choice, I asked my pastor at the time which seminary he recommended, St. Louis or Ft. Wayne. He told me that I would receive a solid education at both seminaries. Among my reasons for choosing Ft. Wayne was that I personally knew some men who had recently attended that particular seminary. I figured I could call them and get the inside track on which professors’ classes I should be sure to take.
There were no universities or seminaries in first century Judea. You received your vocational training from your father or other respected elders. If you had a desire to further your knowledge of the Lord and to live according to the Law, you sought out a rabbi from whom to learn … sort of like the way college students can choose their professors based on their reputation. Once you chose a rabbi … and he allowed you to be his disciple, his “learner” … you were expected to completely submit yourself to the rabbi, his authority, and his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
With Jesus, it was quite the opposite. Jesus chose his disciples. The first ones he chose were Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. Jesus interrupted their work as fishermen one day and changed their lives forever. This was the beginning of their “seminary education,” if you will. These men, and eight others chosen later, lived with and learned from Jesus for three years.
Jesus still chooses his disciples today. We don’t choose him. We hear his Word of Law which condemns our disobedience to God. We hear his Word of Gospel which tells us that Christ died for our sins on the cross. He interrupts our lives lived apart from him and deserving of his condemnation. He calls us to follow him. We pass through the waters of Baptism and our life is changed forever. And just like the call of Jesus led Peter, Andrew, James, and John to immediately follow Jesus, so too does Christ’s powerful Word work in our hearts today so that we trust in him as our Crucified and Risen Savior and become his disciples. Question 191 in the Explanation to the Small Catechism puts it this way: “Even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own.” Jesus told the Twelve, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world … In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 1:4-5) Baptized into Christ, that is true for you and me, too.
Jesus chooses his followers, and he also pursues his followers. The encounter recorded for us by St. Matthew is apparently the second time Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow him. Last week’s reading from St. John’s Gospel took us to the Jordan River where Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s disciples. Andrew went and found his brother Peter and told him “We have found the Messiah!” and brought Peter to Jesus (cf. John 1:40-42). But now, here we have them back in Galilee some time later after John had been arrested by Herod Antipas. They are back at their jobs, fishing. It seems they resumed their lives just as they were before they met Jesus.
So what happened? Did they get all excited about Jesus at first, but then their excitement waned? Did he not meet their initial expectations as the Messiah? Did they become lax in their commitment to learn from him as their “rabbi”? The Bible doesn’t give us the whole picture, so we can’t say for sure what happened. But without assuming too much, let’s just say that this much is clear: Jesus pursues his followers when their commitment falters. He goes after the sheep who have lost their way and seeks to bring them back into his fold (Luke 15:4-6). Jesus withdrew to Galilee, not because he was afraid that he might be arrested just like John. Jesus went there because he had a plan. He intended to call these fisherman and other men along the way in order to send them out to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of heaven.
Jesus inaugurates the reign of heaven on earth. Heaven is near because he is near. In the presence of heaven, Jesus calls us to repent … to turn from our sins and to turn to him in faith and trust. We repent of our lack of commitment, for our half-hearted following of Jesus. We repent of causing divisions within his church, those divisions that Paul speaks about in today’s Epistle. These are divisions not because of doctrine, divisions which may become necessary when we are not “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). These are divisions which come about because we are more loyal to leaders than the Lord.
Jesus inaugurates the reign of heaven on earth by shining his light upon an oppressed region. The “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” was the first part of the land of Israel to be overrun by invaders from the north, in particular the Assyrians and later the Babylonians. It was a region with a large unbelieving Gentile population. It was looked down upon by those who lived closer to Jerusalem.
Like the oppressed region of Galilee, our world is oppressed today, too. The effects of sin are rampant. The problem of poverty and the dilemma of disease are still with us. The “shadow of death” still looms over us. Unrelenting unbelief keeps people out of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus came to shine his light not only on Galilee, but on the whole world, even today. He showed his power to undo the effects of sin by healing every disease, curing every infirmity, and casting out the devil and his demons. In so doing, Jesus shows that what will happen in all its fullness on the Last Day begins here and now in his presence. (See Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, 215)
Jesus shines his light among us today. He reigns among us today. In our hearts by faith. On our altars and in our mouths with his body and blood. As we eat and drink his body and blood, we have what our Lord promised us … the forgiveness of sins and new life. As his forgiven, recreated people, he sends his Church out to proclaim the reign of heaven on earth. Through the preaching of repentance and the cross, the Lord of the Church continues to call people to follow him and be his disciples.
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus told Peter and Andrew. That became the mission of the Twelve Apostles and now is the mission of the Church’s apostolic ministry. The net of the Good News is cast out from this place, and through that message of the forgiveness of sins in Christ, people are drawn into the boat of the Church.
But this does not mean that only pastors are fishers of men. All Christians have a part to play in this mission. You, too, can cast out the net when the opportunity arises. You, too, can tell the Good News about Jesus. At the same time, each one of you also has a supporting role. Perhaps you’re not the one who is casting out the net, but you are there to help pull the net into the boat. And back on shore, someone needs to repair the net. Each of you has an indispensible role to play in this congregation (See Gibbs, 218). Some jobs are more noticeable and public. Others are behind the scenes, but no less important.
The light of Christ has dawned upon us. We shine his light to the world around us by forgiving one another, by serving others in both their spiritual and bodily needs, and by reaching out to others with the love of our Savior … the love by which he chose us and called us to follow him.