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Beginning of Ministry"
It was in the spring of 1986 when I first seriously considered becoming a pastor; and I recall talking to a person who was attending seminary to find out what preparation would be required of me.
It was something of a shock to me to learn that the seminary degree alone would take three years. That seemed like forever. Then I later learned that there were all kinds of other requirements. There were candidacy studies to go through.
There were the steps of ordination, interviews, papers to be written.
But we often forget that Jesus had preparations for his ministry. They began with his baptism, which we might say was his calling to ministry, when God proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Immediately following his baptism was his time spent in the wilderness, concluded by his encounter with the three temptations. Maybe those three temptations are somehow symbolic of the three years in seminary.
By the way, attorneys also spend three years to earn their degrees. I once heard a law student describe law school in this way: “The first year they scare you to death; the second year they work you to death; and the third year they bore you to death.”
I think there is a parallel here with the seminary years. Many seminarians spend that first year in fear and trembling. They are making transitions for which they are not sure that they are prepared.
Many bring theologies that have been untested and unquestioned, and their beliefs can get a bit battered. Many do not make it through that first year. They decide, maybe this is not for me.
But those who get to the second year, after the shock of the first year has worn off, settle in to what school really is: a lot of work. Much reading and much writing. And by the third year, the boredom takes on a form of impatience.
We wonder, “When will it all END?” When can we get out of here and into full-time jobs again?
The years spent in seminary, or law school, or medical school are not only years spent in learning, but also times of testing. Are we cut out to do what we think we WANT to do?
And Jesus time in the wilderness, with his confrontation with the temptations, was his time of testing.
So, is he ready? In the twelfth verse of the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we read, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” Matthew does not tell us the circumstances of this arrest, but Luke does.
In the nineteenth verse of the third chapter, we read that “Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”
So Jesus takes notice. There were no first amendment rights in those days. And even today, some believe that freedom of speech should be limited to agreeing with those with political power.
So Jesus “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.”
For the writer of Matthew’s gospel, this carries prophetic significance. He sees Jesus doing this “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.”
In the first two verses of the ninth chapter of Isaiah we read, “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined.”
But we need some context here. In the preceding chapter Isaiah has said, “I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”
But many have lost their faith, and of them Isaiah says, “They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods.
“They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
These are the people who sat in darkness.
Now, there are a couple of things going on in Matthew’s allusion to prophetic fulfillment. For one thing he finds a reason for Jesus to be located where he is: “Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” Did you ever wonder why you are where you are?
And did you consider that there may be divine providence at work? That you are where you are for a purpose? For Matthew, Jesus is residing in a divinely-appointed place.
But a second aspect of this prophetic fulfillment is important, and that is the nature of the people to whom and for whom Jesus has come: “the people who sat in darkness.” They were people who were without hope, without faith.
They were distressed, they were hungry, they were enraged, they were gloomy, they were anguished.
But even beyond the time of Isaiah, beyond Jesus’ time, across the past two thousand years, even today, there are folks who sit in darkness, in gloom and anguish, who need to see a great light. They need a reason to hope, to believe.
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Do we all know what “repent” means? Sometimes I think it’s like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Well, in the Greek, it means literally to “change one’s mind.” In the Hebrew it means “turn” or “return.”
Eugene Boring, a professor at Brite Divinity School has attempted to capture both the Greek and the Hebrew understandings this way: “Get yourself a new orientation for the way you live, then act on it.”
Now, do you notice what is missing in all of this? There is no value judgment. There is no insistence on sin. This is all, I think, very upbeat. Jesus is telling us, in a very positive way, to rethink our lives.
And there is a reason for all of this: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now, “kingdom of heaven” can also be read as “kingdom of God.” And the word “kingdom” can also--maybe should also--be read as reign. Because we’re talking about time, not place. The reign of God has come near. God is active, and becoming more active in our lives. And Jesus may have been simply referring to himself, his presence, his teachings, his meaning to people.
So finally, his ministry is up and running. But it seems that his preparations are still not complete.
“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.”
Now, we know what is going to happen, but let’s stop right here and think about this. We know that he is going to call them to be disciples. But WHY? What are their qualifications? Do they have any? They fish for a living. So does almost EVERYBODY around those parts. So what’s the point? The point, I think, is that God can call almost anybody to do almost anything. And God frequently calls the most unlikely.
I once read a brief essay that distinguished between “good” ideas and “successful” ideas in the business world. Successful ideas are those that we see in results. They are the end-points of process. They get all the publicity; they have high visibility. But in order to get to those successful ideas, we need a ton of GOOD ideas.
Those are the ideas that make the process possible. I think the church is that way. Although Jesus gets all the publicity for Christianity, he DID have twelve disciples. They were companions, his support group. Most Christians, asked to name the twelve, might come up with only three or four names; but all twelve were nevertheless important.
And when Jesus saw Simon and Andrew, he probably thought to himself, “I need these two.”
“And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
So, is he being cute? Is this just a play on words? No, I don’t think so. I think Jesus is complimenting them. I think he is saying, “I believe you are very good at what you do. You are very competent at catching fish. I believe I can use your skills in dealing with people.”
Now, a career change was probably the farthest thing from their minds. Their father probably fished for a living. And his father before him. And the entire community was probably filled with fishermen.
They have probably never thought of a life that was not centered around fishing.
But Jesus can DO that to us. If and when Jesus gets a hold on us, he makes us think in different ways. He causes us to question what we have been doing, what we SHOULD be doing.
So, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
I’ve often wondered about this “immediately” stuff. It sounds like they don’t even think about their response. But I believe they HAVE thought about it; it’s just that Jesus may have had more to say than Matthew reports.
“As Jesus 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.”
And in these brief verses Jesus has called the disciples who will be most prominent throughout his ministry. We don’t hear that much about Andrew, but Peter and James and John would seem to have been Jesus favorites. They seem to be accompanying him at the most significant moments whenever he leaves the other disciples.
Now, it’s just my opinion, but I don’t consider twelve to be a small group. It has symbolic value, because it represents the twelve tribes of Israel; but significant small groups tend to range in size from three to seven.
And I think Jesus needed a true “small group” to be with him from time to time. And I think Peter and James and John filled that need. In our own lives, how many really “close” friends do we really have?
I think that if we are honest in thinking about truly “close” friends, we can count them on one hand.” So what do James and John do? “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
Briefly, let’s talk about what these two sets of brothers are leaving. I would suggest that they are leaving their livelihoods. Because we never hear of the families of the disciples, we tend to assume that they did not have them. But I suspect that they were all married and all had children. And I do not believe that they abandoned them. “Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
But it took much preparation: baptism, retreat to the wilderness, retreat again to Galilee, and selection of disciples. And in our own lives, when we wonder what God is up to with us, maybe God is just in the process of preparing us. For those who live in faith, those who sit in darkness will see a great light. Amen.
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