By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 4:17-23
One of the most dangerous and disappointing things we can ever do with scripture – next to ignoring it altogether – is to try to bring an artificial homogeneous uniformity to places of difference, distinction, and even contradiction.
If you were in worship last Sunday, you hopefully recall that I preached on discipleship; the same topic as this morning’s sermon. Last week, I preached from the gospel of John the story of how Peter and his brother Andrew came to be followers of Jesus. In the gospel of John, it is these “soon to be disciples” who make the first overture. They initiate the relationship. But, John’s account of how Simon Peter and Andrew became disciples is strikingly different from the story Matthew’s gospel presents about those same two brothers, Andrew and Peter.
Before I get into the meat of my sermon, let me give you a brief outline of this section of Matthew’s gospel because narrative context is essential to this morning’s message.
Matthew’s gospel begins with his version of the nativity. Then, nothing is said about Jesus’ adolescence. In the next segment of Matthew’s gospel, we encounter John the Baptist, we read of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptation, and then Jesus’ public ministry is off and running. Like an effective and consistent campaign slogan, Jesus gives a concise proclamation about his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now, we’ll come back to this repenting and kingdom stuff in just a bit. But first, let’s continue this brief overview. Jesus announces his ministry. He calls disciples (students) to follow him. He does ministry that demonstrates exactly what he announced his ministry would be. And then, as his groupies have become quite a throng of people, Jesus makes his way up a mountain to deliver a huge chunk of teaching known to many of us as “the Sermon on the Mount,” a sermon that will play a critical role in better understanding how it is that these disciples of Matthew’s gospel are moved and stirred to respond to Jesus with such immediacy and commitment.
So, with that overview (and some dangling narrative threads – don’t worry we’ll put them all together at the end), let’s return to this morning’s few brief verses about the call of Jesus’ first disciples. Let me share it with you one more time:
As [Jesus] 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 [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. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.[i]
You know, there are a lot of places in our gospels where Jesus’ disciples really look like a bunch of cowardly knuckleheads. But this is not one of them. Often they get scared and they blurt out something stupid and I can relate to that; been there, done that. But in this morning’s passage, they raise the bar to an uncomfortable height. Going about their day’s work, Jesus passes by, commands them to follow him, and they drop everything and they do. They don’t skip a beat. Wow. That’s impressive. My husband can attest; it’s pretty rare for me to feel compelled to do anything right out of the blue without a good reason. I mean, I like to know what I’m getting into.
Years ago I was an associate pastor at a church in a Chicago suburb. I was in charge of the youth ministry and it was a pretty large youth group. There was a game we played called “Land Mine.” The youth were put in pairs and one of them was blind folded. Meanwhile, in the fellowship hall, pieces of construction paper had been randomly strewn about on the floor. Each piece of paper represented a landmine. The blindfolded youth was on one side of the room. Their “sighted” partner was all the way on the other side. It was their task to verbally direct their blinded partner across the room so that their feet never touched any papers, aka land mines. Now, imagine a large fellowship hall with about a dozen youth on one end shouting out instructions to their blindfolded partner all the way on the other side of the room. “Take a small step right. Now, step left. Wait! Stop!” It was, of course, ridiculously noisy and plenty of bedlam. Every youth was trying to outshout the youth around them and amid that cacophony of voices, the blind one across the room had to pick out the sound of their partner’s voice; focusing on that voice alone and disregarding all the others.
Friends, we live in a noisy, demanding and complex world and some of us may feel like those blinded youth. We have a dozen competing voices shouting out at us: relatives, friends, supervisors, co-workers, teammates. And sometimes, we try to respond to them all. But when we try to do that, it never turns out well. We wear out our bodies, minds and spirits trying to do and be too much; trying to wear too many hats and please too many people.
But there’s really only one voice we need to focus on: the voice of Christ. We need to tune in to Jesus’ voice and follow his call. When all’s said and done, we can’t allow other things – even other people – to take precedence over the voice of Christ in our lives. It’s just too important.
And why is it so important?
Well, here’s where we come back to that repenting and kingdom stuff.
The word for repent, in Greek, means “to change one’s mind.”
Jesus’ ministry begins with his announcement that change is absolutely necessary. Things just can’t go on the same. People with whom Jesus comes into contact will be challenged to change; to change the way they think and to change the way they live. And here’s the reason: the coming of Jesus means the in-breaking, the inauguration (so to speak), of the kingdom of heaven right here in our midst.
Now I worry that people sometimes think “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” is some mysterious and nebulous theological concept. But it’s really pretty simple. Although we don’t have kings anymore, we all know that kings exercised control over the people in their empire. Kings had authority over their territory. So, quite simply, the kingdom of heaven involves that “territory,” so to speak, over which God exercises complete authority. When Jesus proclaims the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven, he is communicating that – in his coming – God’s authority is being revealed in new, bold and glorious ways. But, unlike earthly kings, Jesus does not impose his authority over us. Rather, we’re invited to submit our lives to Christ. We’re invited to allow Jesus to reign over the “territory” of our lives. And when we respond to the voice of Jesus, we join him in manifesting God’s kingdom. And that means real change going on inside of us and around us. Friends: the kingdom of heaven isn’t just pie in the sky by and by when you die. It can be right here, right now, in you, in me, wherever, whenever, however we welcome Jesus to exercise authority over our lives.
So, there’s just one more piece here. Remember; I promised we were going to tie up all the loose threads. Now that Jesus has returned to heaven and he no longer has an audible human voice, how will we recognize his voice? How will we recognize his call? How can it be that we can follow someone who is no longer visible in bodily form? And what will the kingdom he’s inaugurated look like?
Well, it is the Sermon on the Mount that answers that question.[ii] It draws the picture of a changed world if and when we allow God to reign over the territory of our lives. In that Sermon, Jesus says things like:
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil doer… and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you if you are angry with a brother or sister you shall be liable to judgment.”
In that Sermon, Jesus reminds us that God is gracious and generous; he causes the sun to rise every morning upon the evil, as well as the good.
In that Sermon, Jesus reminds us that we don’t need to worry or be anxious about how much stuff we have or how much stuff we think we need. The only thing we need to be focused on is the kingdom. And God will take care of the rest.
In that Sermon, Jesus names the attributes and conditions of greatest value in this kingdom; things like righteousness and gentleness, showing mercy and pursuing peace.
In that Sermon, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Friends: You will know that it is Jesus’ voice you are hearing if you feel called to show kindness even to those who are aggressive toward you. You can recognize that it is Jesus’ voice you are hearing if you feel called to live from a place of trust and not fear and envy. You will know that it is Jesus’ voice you are hearing if you feel called to be generous with others even when it seems you don’t have much to share. That is the voice of Jesus. Jesus never calls us to look out for number 1; to intimidate and overpower those who vulnerable. Jesus never calls us to actions that spring from attitudes of prejudice and fear. Friends we must never lose sight of the fact that the destination of the one who calls us to follow is a cross; a laying down of one’s life for the sake of others. That is the example we are called to follow. That is what is means submit our lives to the authority of Jesus. That is what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
When as individuals and as a congregation we can be forgiving, gentle and generous; when we demonstrate trust in extreme and radical ways, that’s when we’ll see it; that’s how we’ll know it’s Jesus’ voice we have heard; that’s when we’ll know that the kingdom of heaven has come near; that the kingdom of heaven has come here.
[i] Matthew 4:18-22. NRSV.
[ii] Content of what follows can be found in Matthew, chapters 5-7.
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