Below is my sermon from the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website. The manuscript is also included below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
Today’s Gospel passage represents a pivotal moment in our lectionary cycle.
For the last few weeks our Scripture passages have been focusing our attention on answering the question “Who is Jesus?” As we approached, prepared for, and celebrated the incarnation – the birth of the Messiah, the Word becoming flesh, we have been building a foundation that rests on the answer to this question: For everything in our lives of faith stems from our understanding of who Jesus is.
Last week this revelatory process reached an important milestone. As we read from John’s Gospel, as we heard the proclamation of John the Baptist, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” we witnessed Jesus beginning to establish his community. Last week we heard John’s version of what we hear today from Matthew. We heard Jesus calling out and inviting Andrew and Peter to “come and see.” We were reminded of the invitation to discernment, the invitation to deeper relationship with this Jesus we have come to know.
Next week, we will read from Matthew just a few verses beyond what we have heard today. Next week the question will no longer be, “who is Jesus,” but “what is Jesus doing?” We will encounter Jesus living into his earthly ministry as we hear the words of that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount.
But where does that leave us today?
Today’s passage from Matthew sits between last week and next. It sits between coming to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and what Jesus is doing.
I wonder if while you listened to the Gospel proclaimed this morning you found yourself doing a double take? I wonder if you found yourself thinking, “didn’t I just hear this?” If this or any similar thought crossed your mind, fear not, your ears were not deceiving you. This morning’s passage from Matthew begins by quoting Isaiah, in fact is it the very passage from Isaiah that we also read this morning. By quoting Isaiah, Matthew is making a clear statement of who he understands Jesus to be.
This passage is one of Isaiah’s beautiful and poetic Messianic prophecies. The Israelites are living in a time of war, and the Assyrians have annexed their communities. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali have been taken and transformed into Assyrian provinces. All of the anxieties and fears of war are being felt by the people of God.
In this prophecy Isaiah is making clear that this is not God’s will for God’s people. God’s purpose is to turn humiliation into liberation. In the midst of war, Isaiah sings a song of liberation into the darkness; a song of the God who lifts the burdensome yoke under which the people are trapped by raising up a ruler who will drive out the oppressors, unify Israel, and initiate a time of “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (9:7).
What Matthew is doing here, in quoting Isaiah, is one of the most important motifs in Matthew. Fourteen times throughout this Gospel we hear, “so what has been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” Fourteen times Matthew quotes from the prophet as a means of showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of these long expected prophecies. In doing so Matthew makes the claim that Jesus is the new Moses, that Jesus is beginning a new and expanded covenant between God and God’s people that is available for all people.
So in this moment, by quoting this passage from Isaiah, Matthew is boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the one who has come to lift this burdensome yoke from God’s people.
With this understanding of Jesus as the great liberator established, the passage shifts and Jesus begins his earthly ministry. He goes “throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” But, before Jesus goes off, he calls four people to join him in this kingdom building work.
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, two fishermen going about their daily lives. He called out to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The two men did not ask any questions. They stopped what they were doing, dropped their nets, and followed Jesus. As they continued to walk along that Galilean beach they came across more fishermen – James, John, and their father Zebedee. Jesus calls out to James and John. They too stop what they are doing, and immediately begin to follow Jesus. The invitation Jesus offers to Andrew, Peter, James and John, is not an invitation to discernment – it is an invitation to discipleship.
The call of these four men is not filled with a lot of flourishes or detail. In many ways it has been stripped down to the essentials.
Jesus sees them.
Jesus calls them.
There is immediacy to what they are doing. They do not sit around, form a committee, or begin to debate the details of their job descriptions. They just get up and go.
Take a moment to imagine what that scene must have been like.
Imagine how profound that encounter must have been for them to leave everything behind to follow that perfect stranger.
Imagine being aware of something so wonderful in the midst of the ordinariness of life.
Somewhere within their being, these men had a desire – a longing – to being part of this new reality of God. I wonder if when St. Augustine wrote, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” if he had these men in mind. I wonder if their immediate, unhesitating response to Jesus is the result of this innate desire to be in relationship with God. What else could be the reason behind their great risk?
In immediately following Jesus, these four left everything they knew behind. They have done what many would deem absolute foolishness. They have left their communities to be part of a new reality. They have left their families to enter into a new relationship with God. They gave up their livelihood so that they might have the bread of life. These disciples chose the road that the world labels as failure and death, and discovered that it is the way of victory and eternal life. They did all of that in one instantaneous decision.
When Jesus invites them using the words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus is inviting them to share in the very work that Jesus is doing. No longer will they cast their nets for fish, they will now cast the inclusive message of God as far and wide as possible. They will share this message with whomever they encounter with the hopes that they too will join in this work of following and fishing.
By putting together this understanding of Jesus, based in Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, and Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, Matthew is making the connection that ultimately what these disciples – and all disciples – will do is take up the mantle of Jesus. They will – we will – be the ones to preach; to teach; to heal; to restore; to be beacons of light in the midst of darkness; to remove the burdensome yoke from the people of God. When Andrew, Peter, James, and John accept Jesus’ invitation to fish for people, they become our models for discipleship. After all, the same Peter who is called today is the one who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah and Lord – he is the one who will restore people to health and wholeness through the power of Jesus’ name – it is through him that Jesus builds his Church.
Just as Jesus invites these four to become his disciples, we have been issued the same invitation. And like them, we are called to respond in the same way: immediately and without hesitation. While we may not be called to leave everything and everyone we know behind, we are called to reorder our lives and our world. We are called to participate in the work of building the kingdom of God today so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to take risks in the name of following Jesus. This is not easy.
There is a deep and real cost to discipleship.
Andrew, Peter, James, John and the rest of the disciples came to know this cost. As the second verse of our closing hymn almost hauntingly says, “contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.” They will walk with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry and come to see the cruciform reality of the love of God.
The risks of discipleship are real. The demands are many. But if we choose to follow, to allow our actions and motivations to be moved by the restlessness of our hearts as they search for God, we too will come to know the fullness of this loving, life giving, and liberating God. For as we follow what Jesus does, we come to know fully who Jesus is.