Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

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.

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)

There’s a story about a farmer from a rural part of the country. And this farmer comes to visit a relative in a major city. They’re walking down the busy and noisy main street, amidst the clamor and confusion and traffic and general hubbub of the city at rush hour. And just then, a fire truck goes by, siren blazing. And the farmer says, “Listen: I hear a cricket over yonder.”
The relative — the carefully conditioned city dweller — replies, “How can you hear a cricket in the middle of all this?” The chirp of a cricket in the very core of a buzzing city — we can’t hear that, right? But the farmer, unfazed, says, “I figure you hear what you’re listening for.” And with that, he takes the spare change from his pants pocket and drops it on the ground. And at the almost imperceptible sound of a few coins hitting the sidewalk, children stop in their tracks, heads turn, notice is taken.

If we’re being honest, most of us would hear the coins and miss the crickets. “I figure you hear what you’re listening for.” That’s a powerful statement for us as a Christian community. More on this a little later, but first a little history about our texts tonight/today.

The lectionary readings for this week point out how the godly have dealt with suffering. The residents of the northern tribal areas of the Kingdom of Israel were familiar with invasions. Their neighbors, the Arameans, mounted cross-border raids into the Israelite territories, such as Naphtali and Zebulon (2 Kings 5:2). When the Assyrians and Babylonians marched into the Holy Land, they came through the northern tribes’ territory first. The prophet rightly proclaims that there was anguish and the northern Israelites had lived with their neighbors’ contempt (Isaiah 9:1). Histories show these lands were the first to be seized, and the people were the first to be captured or killed by invaders. But these people, who were so used to conquest, were promised that they would trade their neighbors’ contempt for their own glory. The surrounding lands of the north—Galilee, the coastlands and Transjordan—would all share in the glory to come.

This joyous glory was caused by God’s chosen nation expanding. In whatever way the nation expanded, it led to the people, who had become so accustomed to being conquered and abused, to realize a new freedom: As we heard in Isaiah “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4).

No one likes to be last, or weakest or lose all the time. So imagine what good news it is for God to proclaim to the people of northern Israel that they would have peace and the weapons of their oppressors would be broken. “I figure you hear what you’re listening for.”

Several hundred years later, in Jesus’ day, the oppressors’ weapons were still strong. After being baptized and successfully resisting temptation in the wilderness, Jesus came back to the site where John was baptizing people. When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to the Galilee and to Capernaum (Matthew 4:13). After learning that his own family member had been arrested by Herod Antipas, it makes a great deal of sense for Jesus to leave not only his hometown of Nazareth, but to look for some solace in Capernaum (literally, Village of Comfort).

But Jesus didn’t lay low. Instead he proclaimed the immanence of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s reign and rule in old lands of Naphtali and Zebulon fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy that those who lived in the shadow of death in those too-often-conquered lands would see a bright light. That dawning light was Jesus declaring God’s kingdom.

Those who have been made to suffer by being forced to carry others’ burdens are not only given freedom, but they are set free from fear and set free for joyous glory.

God’s Spirit is on the move now as it has always been, and God’s kingdom is advancing now as it has always been. Our call as baptized followers of Jesus is to be the hands and feet of our Lord in announcing freedom and breaking the rod of the oppressors.

This context brought me back to the statement I started with: “I figure you hear what you’re listening for.” Jesus said it another way, in last week’s gospel: “What are you looking for?” And this is the challenge before us today: what are we looking for, who are we listening to, what are we valuing most in our common life together?

These are demanding concepts because they compel us to consider our spiritual priorities. We must discern and decide what is important to us — what will we be looking for, what are we going to listen to, what will we value most in our common life together?

These are questions that require and charge us to consider our past. And these are questions that lead us to a full, honest, and accurate assessment of our current situation. But mostly, these are questions that inspire us to look to our future. And, in today’s gospel, Jesus gives us clear directives about our past, our present, and our future. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms what we are to look for, what we are to listen to, and what we must value above all else.

First, the past — clear and simple, unambiguous and direct, Jesus says it this way: “Repent.” Repent — for we are all of us sinners, all of us together have failed to live up to our true calling, we have made mistakes, we have fallen down. And Jesus says, basically, “Get up and try again.” We are forgiven, loved, and free. And so repent, turn around at the sound of a cricket, try again to hear God’s voice.

And this is not to say we’ve been notoriously sinful or wicked, at least not any more than anybody else. We all of us make choices, and frequently we make poor ones. This is to say that we are human, that we want to do so much better than we so frequently are able, that we want to let go of small annoyances and petty gripes and senseless quarrels among us — and grab on to what is really important.
So, repent.

And that will bring us to the present: What is really important is that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus lived among us, not to predict some future and yet-unachieved utopia, but to proclaim that God’s mercy, justice, and love are already here—manifest, in this place, now. So close we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear—if that is what we are listening for.

This is not to deny the sometimes painful realities of our world—not to forget about hunger amidst so much waste, or homelessness amidst economic vitality, or sickness amidst amazing healing power.

This is to say all of us are sinners, and that we can make a choice whether to dwell on life’s problems or to look for life’s opportunities. Are we going to wrestle with the devil, or dance with the savior? Taste and see, for our God is gracious — and God’s kingdom has drawn near. So, look around for signs of the kingdom, here and now.
And as for the future: Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We are called — as individuals and a community — to bring the light of lights into the world, to proclaim to all people the Good News of salvation, to make known the glory of God’s marvelous works.

Our calling as a Christian community is not to repair the roof, or balance the books, or print up the bulletin. Don’t get me wrong, these things are important and essential to the building up of Christ’s body, because with out this as our foundation then there won’t be a church building or materials to do ministry.

But budgets and reports and achievements—they are not our mission, they are not what Jesus calls us to listen to, they are not what our Lord and Savior commands us to value. When we follow, Jesus makes us fishers of people, ambassadors of Christ, evangelists. When we follow Jesus, we acknowledge and admit that we are marvelously made, and that God’s works are wonderful.

It’s like suddenly noticing a light that has been burning all along, or hearing a cricket that has always hidden underneath in our existence—which is the only thing that changes is our attitude, our perception, our choice.

So this is the charge to us today: “Let it shine.” Repent, and it will shine. Look for signs that the kingdom that has drawn near, and it will shine. Follow Christ, and it will shine. And what will happen if we let it shine? What will we let shine, precisely? Will the bills get paid if we don’t open our mail? Will we continue to have bake sales or a sewing group or a garden guild if no one volunteers to work? Will the copy machine repair itself if we simply pray?—probably not. We need to attend to these things, which we do by supporting the General Fund with our offerings.
But if, instead of harboring resentments, we work toward forgiveness, instead of marking divisions we seek agreement, instead of simply praying we pray simply— then what will shine will be the very light of salvation, the sure and certain hope of everlasting life, the gifts of God for the people of God.

Pray simply, repenting of your past mistakes. Pray simply, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Pray simply, promising, “Yes, Lord, we will follow you.

So, how can we put this into action? Simple, just ask yourself these three simple questions:

  • Am I a sinner? If your answer isn’t “yes,” you are lying—to yourself, to others, and to God.
  • Do I want to change? If you answer isn’t “yes,” you need help—the kind of help that is offered at the holy table of God.
  • And, do I believe?—truly and earnestly believe in my heart of hearts—that God’s kingdom has drawn near? If your answer isn’t “yes,” you are exactly like all the rest of us, everyone here—skeptical that God could love us so much as to allow us to make such important choices.

And then make those choices.

Choose to repent of past sins. Choose to look for signs of the kingdom here in the present. Choose to follow Jesus into the future—and he will provide all we need to fish for people.

  • Repent: that’s not a commandment, that’s an invitation. If you don’t know how, then ask, and it will be given to you.
  • Look around us for the kingdom: that’s not a game of making something happen, but a matter of noticing what has already been accomplished. If you don’t know where to look, then search, and you will find.
  • And follow Jesus: that’s not a quick fix to all life’s problems, but a promise that walking in the way of the cross will fling wide the gates of heaven. Knock, and it will be opened for you.

So brothers and sisters, the challenge is pretty straight forward. Repent; look for the signs around us; and follow Jesus—for God’s grace has invited us, and God’s love shall unite us—to work for the kingdom together and answer our call.


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