Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

The Holy Gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—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.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As 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. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As 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. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 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 Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)


A little over 20 years ago, while I was taking Summer Greek in seminary, I was at an entrance retreat for my Synod and I was asked to talk about my “call,” my belief that God was calling me to be a parish pastor.  I only remember two things about that day—first, I was so nervous that I was afraid I would I pass out.  And second, someone asked me “What have you given up to enter the ministry?”  I managed to say something at least somewhat religious, but the most truthful answer I could have given was, “As a college graduate with a degree in biology & psychology, no employment history and no job prospects; not much…but to my family life; a lot!”  

Years later, I had a conversation about the call to ministry with a person who had worked for a major American corporation for several years. They made a nice six-figure salary with good benefits and bonuses. I said, “For me, “what I was giving up” was all theoretical but for you the change in standard of living will be very real and possibly quite shocking and painful.”

People make all kinds of sacrifices in serving the Lord, not just those people going to seminary. Let’s see what our gospel lesson says about that.


Matthew 4:12-23

This is truly an action gospel! It’s perfectly appointed for a January weekend when we thought the coolest action verbs would be block … tackle … sack … kick … pass … run … score. And they turn out to be arrest … withdraw … fulfill … repent … call … leave … follow.

When Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested and thrown in jail by the Roman rulers for walking around preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”; when Jesus hears that John’s fate is sealed and his head will soon grace a party platter, Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophesy by withdrawing to the place of deepest darkness and beginning his own ministry walking around preaching the exact same thing, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” How surprising is it that God works in such strange and mysterious ways, that God’s promises are to be fulfilled even through injustice and apparent weakness?

Arrest, withdraw, fulfill; our next action verb is repent. Turn away from the shiny, tempting goalposts of sin. 

Turn around, face the uprights that feel impossible to reach but are in fact the sure thing, made of the wood of a cross. As we head down that long field in the opposite direction of friends, maybe even family, we know that in the original Greek this word repent is in the continuous tense, which means Jesus’ command is really, “repent, repent, repent again, keep on repenting”

Next is call. With his promise, “I will make you fish for people” Jesus disrupts priorities and forms new allegiances, radically changing the rules of the game. Jesus’ call is so powerful that Simon and Andrew leave their nets in the sand behind them, so powerful that James and John leave their boat, 401ks – and their father—and walk away.

And now the ultimate, follow. Jesus calls, we leave, we follow. There’s a rawness to this, an abruptness to the call, the leaving and the following, that is provoking and challenging, counter to our traditions of safety, security, family, counter to our culture of trusting in ourselves and familiar institutions.

Jesus’ call is so powerful that as disciples we leave behind what we used to do and how we used to do it. We leave behind scarcity, anxiety and obligation. We leave behind institutional power and strength. Ahead the field is clear as far as we can see. Our holy coach is beckoning, calling us to follow his shocking game plan wherein God freely gives abundance, forgiveness, healing and peace, calling us to follow him down the field unencumbered, uniformed in eternal life.


In today’s Gospel lesson, we see people whose sacrifices were very real. It is probable that these sacrifices were shocking and painful; if not to themselves then certainly to their family members.

 As I read this lesson over and over, and I recalled my questioning and arguing with my own call story I shared in Advent, I wondered, “How can anybody just drop everything and go, on a moment’s notice, just like that?” Especially when to do so is giving up so much in terms of financial security and personal relationships. Yet the Bible tells us that first the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and then the brothers James and John, immediately got up and walked away from their boats, their nets, and their families when Jesus called them to go. Actually, it calls James and John  “the other brothers,” which made me laugh because it reminds me of the Bob Newhart Show, “Hi, I’m Darrel, this is my brother Darrel and this is my other brother Darrel.” Unless these two sets of brothers were as clueless as the backwoods brothers both named Darrel, how could they have made such an apparently thoughtless and reckless choice?  How could they have walked away from a lucrative business in order to follow a carpenter who offered them nothing  but a vague promise to teach them to “fish for people?”

Well, this being the Epiphany season we must make room for the idea that Simon and Andrew, and James and John, had, well, an epiphany—a sudden realization of the truth, in this case a sudden realization of the truth about who Jesus was and as a result, an equally sudden realization of the truth about who they themselves were. Most of us in the modern world aren’t real comfortable with epiphanies and revelations and sudden realizations of the truth.  We are much more at home carefully calibrating the odds and possibilities, gathering together our data, and building a logical case for the truth. But there they were, those hard-working fishermen, confronted by the commanding presence of an itinerant preacher and precious few other facts to go on. 

Maybe they had heard of Jesus? Maybe they had heard about his baptism in the River Jordan, about the dove from heaven about the voice proclaiming him to God’s beloved son and Israel’s Messiah? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know.  

What do we know is this—the calling of the brothers takes place immediately after Jesus was in the desert being tempted by Satan and Our Lord came out of the wilderness a changed man. He had wrestled with the devil and his own vocation for forty days. As a result, he came out of there sure of who he was and what he was to do. He came out of the wilderness and into the world ready to teach in the synagogues and proclaim the good news of the kingdom; to cure diseases and heal sickness. He came out ready to get to work, and he came out eager to recruit some people to work with him. And so he strolled down the beach and he looked this band of brothers in the eye and said, “You, and you. You, and you. Yes you. Come with me. We have work to do.” And they came. 


For us here today it does not matter why those particular people chose to follow Jesus on that day. It only matters to us that they did, for it was through them, and others like them, that the gospel has come to us. What is important for us today is that Jesus has also issued the same invitation, the same call, the same imperial demand to follow, to us that he issued to them.  And you know what?  We deserve it as little as they did and probably understand it even less. The good news for today is that God in Christ has chosen us, every last one of us, to be his disciples, his followers, his fishers of folk.  And God has not chosen us because we are the smartest, or the prettiest, or the richest, or the most popular, or the most likely to succeed.  No, God has chosen us because God is God, and God is love, and God has graciously loved us in spite of ourselves.

When that overwhelming reality suddenly becomes clear to us—all of us then have a moment of epiphany, of revelation, of realization, and we find ourselves in the midst of a great new mission.And the only rational thing any of us can do at that moment is to lay aside whatever it was we were doing that we thought was so important and give ourselves over to God and God’s Kingdom. 

For that is really what “repent” means, to change direction because your mind and heart have been changed. Verse 17 says—“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And the strange thing is, when we do that, when we repent and go in a new direction, God then just turns us around and sends us right back out to do the same thing in the world that we were doing before. But now we do it differently, we do it knowing we do it not for ourselves, not for our own pleasure, or self  improvement, or financial and material gain; we do it for God. 

  • We do it knowing that we are in the world as ambassadors for Christ, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. 
  • We do our work and live our lives knowing that the most important things we do are those things that help others know that they are chosen by God, they are loved by God, they are wanted by God.  

And in the end we will never, ever again think about what we have sacrificed, given up, to follow God. Instead we will wonder how we ever got by without God and God’s love, and God’s work in our lives.

This past week we remembered the life of great man in Martin Luther King, Jr. I was fortunate enough to learn from people who had walked beside him during the Civil Rights Movement. I ran across a quote from him this week that really resonated for me with our lessons. He said “We may have all come from different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Seems simple, but is so profound…because as Christians Christ has called us all into the same boat to fight for God’s love to be given to anyone and everyone as we all fish for people.