Sermon 26 January 2020 Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23
This week the Davos summit has been in the news, as well of course, as the adventures of Harry and Meghan! I was picking up from the Davos summit that we’re at a kind of tipping point globally, mainly around climate change, but also about how we can manage and regulate an increasingly digital world. There seem to be so many conflicting interests. How far can governments take the lead? What part can big companies play? What, if anything, are we called to do at a local level?
Tipping points are key moments in history. Being alert to signs of the times, as the bible calls them, is part of our calling as we follow Christ. In our gospel reading today we see Jesus’ own alertness.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of waiting at the start of an event, perhaps a race of some kind, waiting for the starting pistol, nearly starting too soon, but knowing you can’t start till the pistol goes off? Then, and only then, do you move. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel the starting pistol for Jesus’ ministry is the arrest and imprisonment of JB. That was the tipping point for him. Reading the signs of the times he senses that this may be the trigger to a whole series of events resulting eventually in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. He seizes a window of opportunity – or ‘a favourable time’ (kairos) to use bible language. He moves quickly, with an urgency and a clarity of purpose. His strapline is short, urgent, and identical to John’s; ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. In our OT reading Isaiah recalls an earlier favourable time when Israel had defeated the Midianites, an event leading him to anticipate a similar experience in the future. Matthew is doing the same as he quotes Isaiah’s prophetic hope, but he sees the favourable time as NOW! This is God’s timing. Jesus can now get on and do what he has been anointed to do, and he goes for it!
Matthew further underlines this in the call of the first disciples. Usually pupils chose the rabbi they wanted to follow and then the rabbi would decide whether or not they were suitable pupils. Here Jesus makes the choice; he wastes no time waiting to be chosen. He has spent long days in the desert pondering his call at his baptism, considering what lies ahead and almost certainly considering who might join him. In the light of this he calls these fishermen to follow him.
Following a rabbi was a whole way of life. You lived with them, ate with them, learned with them. The aim was to become exactly like them and do what they did. We see Andrew and the others being invited into this way of life. They couldn’t continue in the family fishing business and be pupils, if you like, of Jesus, though it’s likely that they did some fishing here and there during their time with Jesus.
Why fishermen? Why choose fishermen for those closest to you, those who would ultimately lead the Jesus movement? Why not carpenters, or shepherds, or farmers? As far as I know there are no references in the OT to fishermen being called to anything exalted, or anything at all for that matter. Is this the first sign of God’s upside down kingdom with rather unlikely people holding positions of authority? That may indeed be part of the picture. If so, it’s a reminder that those who might seem unlikely candidates to us can turn out to be a good fit for the calling in question. So, why fishermen?
It’s quite likely that some of them were already followers of John B; in our reading from John’s gospel last Sunday Andrew and Peter were being directed by John B to Jesus. So we might assume that these two anyway were already in sympathy with the announcement about the coming kingdom.
They would have been more available than farmers tied to the land during seasons of sowing and reaping, or shepherds needing to watch over their sheep. They had what we might call transferable skills. Their trading in fish would have brought them into contact with a wider range of people. (There were certainly people from Arabia, Phoenicia and Egypt living in Galilee during Jesus’ time). They were more mobile, and their form of transport – boats – would be very useful in enabling Jesus to move around.
There are also other characteristics of fishermen; they would have been used to working as a team – being attentive to one another, relying on each other, drawing on each other’s strengths, noting when one of them needed help. Their work involved lengthy periods of silent watching and waiting together, punctuated by great physical activity. They had stamina, resilience, patience. They could read the weather.
Now Jesus is calling them to draw on these strengths, but with a different catch in view. How do we feel about Jesus calling them to fish for people? They used nets rather than hooks! Nets catch more fish than hook and line. The time has come, people will be responding to Jesus’ message; perhaps he’s thinking that if these men are used to handling nets full of fish they’ll be ok with crowds?!
So, they may be unlikely in terms of the usual choice of rabbis looking for disciples, but they are a good fit for what Jesus sees lying ahead.
As well as all these reasons for Jesus calling fishermen there is this basic prerequisite of repentance. This message, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near’ is referred to as good news (v23). Repentance is good news?! This may sound a little odd to us. (Picture of Justin Welby in Amritsar prostrating himself as a sign of repentance for the massacre carried out by the British in the 19th century). However, the NT understanding of repentance carries with it the idea of turning away from something and towards something/someone else and this is clear in the gospel accounts of those Jesus called – Matthew, Levi, the rich young man, Zacchaeus. There is a physical turning away from, a way of life, a set of habits, so that they are now facing Jesus. They might have had all the right qualifications for being a disciple, but without this radical turnaround they were nowhere. They could not begin the journey. And it was a journey. They did not become model disciples overnight, if ever. As we read the gospels we watch them, not understanding at times, lacking faith, asking dim questions, and then running away when Jesus needs them most.
And even before repentance there was something else. At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘You are my son, the Beloved’. When Mark records in his gospel Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man he notes that ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I suspect Jesus did the same when he called the first disciples. That look of love he had received, he passed on to his followers. He looked on them and loved them. It’s that gaze of love that draws us towards Jesus and away from patterns of behaviour that diminish our humanity. They could see that he was good news. I wonder if we see Jesus like that?
The disciples were called not only as individuals but also as a working group. It’s the same for us. Individually we turn away from those things, habits maybe or activities or thought patterns that draw us away from God, and consciously turn our faces towards God’s. For most of us this will be a daily activity. We are also called to do this as a group of disciples, as a church. We may want to consider what activities, habits, patterns of thought our church may be invited to turn away from in order to follow Christ more faithfully at this tipping point in our history. What might become less important as we are turned more and more towards Christ? Then, as we remember those strengths Jesus saw in his first disciples we might consider the extent to which we are able to work together. What’s our team work like? Do we work together with some degree of shared consciousness, knowing each other’s gifts, aware of each other’s weak points, attentive to what each of us is doing as our part in a shared undertaking? What is our stamina/resilience like? How good are we at watching and waiting? What resources do we have that may shape what we can offer? What’s our equivalent of the fishermen’s boat? What might be our metaphorical net? How willing are we to share our resources? How flexible are we if, for example, we are faced with a challenge? (eg the disciples faced with 5,000 people needing a meal miles from nowhere!)
Our calling, whether individually or as a church changes over time. The skills, experience, resources we can offer when we are 20 are different from those we might offer at 60. Churches change too as they adjust to changes in their neighbourhood and increasingly now, to global challenges. In his chaplaincy lecture on Monday at the university Neil McGregor asked us what we thought the church should be and do today. He expressed alarm about some of our iconic churches like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s being major tourist attractions for which a hefty entrance fee is demanded. Who is the church for? he asked. Interestingly, there is a similar question being asked at Davos about the global economy and digital revolution; who are they for? And by climate activists about the earth. Who is it for?
Flexibility would seem to be an important feature of discipleship, or going with the wind of the spirit to use bible language. Reading the signs of the times will demand a variety of responses, some of them rapid, some requiring watching and waiting. Are we ready to keep turning towards Jesus, towards the light, to receive his gaze of love and then to respond to his invitation, ‘Follow me’? And, like him move with clarity of purpose? And, will we be able to do that together as a church?