This was a great lesson, full of rich historical symbolism and simple examples of being called. I used David Lose’s idea about having the congregation think of someone and pray for them, and I think it was well received. I was moved by realizing through action the truth of my own words – that God would be working through my prayers for the good of the person I prayed for. Certainly I believed that in my HEAD – but experiencing it in my HEART in the midst of worship, standing at the lectern, was powerful indeed.
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the 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.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Dear people of God, grace to you this day and peace from our good and gracious God, through Jesus who calls us. Amen.
If you were here last week, you may find yourself a little confused about what’s going on in this gospel story. Seems there’s more than one account of how Jesus called his disciples.
Today we are reading from Matthew, one of the so-called “synoptic” gospels or the three gospels that follow roughly the same path. John’s gospel is the outlier, written later and making its own way to the cross.
Such is the reality of studying ancient texts. As I’ve mentioned before, reading them as if we were reading a modern novel just doesn’t work. Our world, our culture, our understandings of literary forms – all are different from these writings of old.
Fortunately, we can benefit from the hard work of historical and biblical scholars. Their ability to provide some markers for context helps us put some flesh on the lean bones of ancient stories.
They tell us that Matthew’s gospel is one whose audience is primarily Jewish, and is steeped in Jewish tradition and practice. So Matthew uses references and ways of telling the story of Jesus that will resonate for them.
Take the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. These are where two of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel settled, near the Sea of Galilee. They are also the first of Israel’s territories to fall to the invading forces of Assyria around the time 740 to 730 BC. Now, if you’re familiar with the Orcs in Lord of the Rings – or perhaps the movies of Quentin Tarantino – then you should know that the Assyrian army easily surpassed those levels of violence and brutality.
When the prophet Isaiah talks about people sitting in darkness, he’s talking about this time of the Assyrian exile. “Shadow of death” is no figure of speech; it’s reality. That exile, along with the Babylonian exile, continues to weigh heavily on the hearts of the people of Israel in Jesus’ time.
For Matthew to locate Jesus as coming out of the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali is to give his audience hope of redemption of that horrible memory. Light has dawned.
I want to point out one other detail that brings this story a little closer to us today. Look at the first verse of the story: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” The Greek word translated “withdrew” is the same used to describe Joseph’s flight into Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Jesus didn’t sit down and think about where he might like to go, he got out of town immediately.
He could see clearly what the power structure was doing to anyone who questioned it. John’s head ended up on a platter, which sounds awfully close to some of the language we hear thrown around today.
But Jesus came among us mainly to preach the good news, to set people free. Maybe he’d like to get some of that happening! So Matthew has him begin that work from Galilee, so that Matthew’s audience sees a redemptive streak in Jesus out of the gate.
I see something else here, though, something alongside Matthew’s careful use of geography and history to make his point.
By bringing Jesus to Galilee, Matthew makes the point that God works with ordinary people in ordinary places to do extraordinary things.
And the ordinary people he begins with are fishermen.
This story, and its parallels in Mark and Luke, have had a spot in my heart for a long time because, as some of you know, my late husband and I were avid anglers.
I believe the colloquial term is “fishin’ fools.”
We didn’t do this for a living, but for fun. Our son Tim fished too, and as a family we enjoyed hours and hours out on the lake or the ocean in a boat.
On our fishing vacations to south Baja, we observed the lives of commercial fishermen as we traveled up and down both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific sides of the peninsula.
It’s hard work.
You’re up at zero dark thirty so you can make bait and get out to the fishing grounds before everyone else. You’re constantly having to repair nets, outboard motors, or any one of a thousand other things.
And you’re dealing with the capriciousness of a large body of water. In south Baja, the chubascos that could whip up at a moment’s notice could be fatal if you didn’t run in to shore at breakneck speed, the wind and the waves trying to trip you up the whole way.
It is these laborers that Jesus calls to join him. People that he knows have the stamina for the rough road ahead.
He calls them from their occupation, to their vocation. From a life that had been prescribed for them, to a life that had no prescription whatsoever.
Ordinary people, in their ordinary lives, called to do extraordinary things.
But here’s where the differentiation between occupation and vocation is seen: Jesus calls the disciples into relationship. Not only with one another, but with everyone they will meet. Because he says “from now on, you will be fishers of people.”
As an angler, I learned early on that if I wanted to catch a fish, I needed to think like a fish. Jesus takes this a step further: fishing for people isn’t a numbers game, but an adventure in getting to know folks. Breaking bread with them, telling stories, and sharing how your life has been changed by an encounter with the living God.
Jesus calls us, too – to be in real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.
Sometimes that call — to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others — will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve people — not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.
Maybe that “ordinary people” phrase should read like this: Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them, and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.
I want to invite you to respond to that call in a very simple way, here and now. Think of someone you know. Someone with whom you are in relationship. Maybe it’s the closest person to you, or maybe a friend or relative. What I’d like us to do is take a moment to pray for them, and hold onto the belief that God is using you to make a difference in that person’s life.
Dear friends, Jesus isn’t just now, just suddenly now calling us to be fishers of people. No, Jesus has been calling us, and using us, to care for those whom God loves for quite some time.
What an amazing picture this is. We are so deeply loved by God that we are brought into God’s love for the world through Jesus, who calls us to embody that love towards our neighbor.
Every time we gave out one of the treat bags we made in Advent to someone – we were fishers of people.
Each week when those backpacks are filled and distributed to children who would otherwise be hungry – we are fishers of people.
Every quilt that has ever been sent from here to warm someone – is a time we were fishers of people.
God is already working through us to care for those close by as well as far away, drawing all of us into deeper, Christ-shaped relationships with those God has placed in our lives.
A Christ-shaped relationship is one that is both vertical and horizontal. Vertical, in that it’s informed and inspired by the love of God for all of us. Horizontal, in that it is most deeply expressed in our regard for one another.
When we fished in Baja, we began the day by making sure whatever fish we kept would be used. There was to be no waste. The health of the fishery was vital.
Being fishers of people is not about numbers, but about depth of relationship. It’s about the health of the fishery, as it were.
And so it is with the last verse of this gospel story: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
The health of the fishery.
Jesus calls you and me, ordinary people in an ordinary (and beautiful) place, to cultivate relationships that open this world to God’s extraordinary love and work in all of our lives.
It takes no special tools or training. Only love. And love grows here, that is certain.
Thanks be to God.