Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
We have this morning in two readings an inauguration announcement. One is from Isaiah regarding the birth of a King, perhaps King David. The other in the Gospel of Matthew, about the reign and ministry of Jesus.
Times of transition of power can be times of anxiety and times of hope. They often bring about mixed feelings. In the case of these two kings, however there was a lot of hope, because things couldn't get much worse.
People had walked in great darkness. Literally walking in darkness can be very dangerous, as many of us have experienced just getting up to get a drink of water in the night without turning the lights on. You risk running into something and hurting yourself. If you are outside in the dark, you risk falling into a ditch. There is no light to see what wild animals might be lurking. In the darkness, there are a lot of unknowns.
For Israel, in both Jesus' time and at the time of the writing of Isaiah, there was a lot of darkness. The poor and the needy were being ignored. The rich were actively taking over the farms of the poor and making them their slaves. There had been many bad kings, only interested in their own power, who worshipped false gods. There had been other threatening nations—in Jesus' time, Israel was occupied by Rome. Israel had endured humiliations, one after the other. And the religious authorities were keeping people in the dark, reducing access to God, and increasing their own power.
Some might argue we have been in darkness as well. Some of us have enjoyed prosperity, recently, as jobs begin to come back. And some who have not shared in the prosperity have begun to accuse us of ignoring those who are poor and oppressed. This year was a terrible one in our world for people fleeing war and violence, with millions of refugees displaced. Housing prices are making it more difficult for people to afford to live in their neighborhoods in our area. I know of several families sleeping in their car and one without a car about to lose their apartment. Pollution is causing climate change, and snowstorms have killed our neighbors who have nowhere to sleep except the streets. Illness, both mental and physical have caused great harm. And we've felt angry and alienated from one another for over a year because of this election, with no end in sight.
I know I feel like I am in the dark. I can't see what's coming next, and it's frightening.
Into this darkness comes a sudden burst of light. With King David, it was about military power and the power of God coming together to bring Israel glory, to take away all oppression, and to bring about a triumph and disarmament by the victors.
With Jesus, it is the power of God being revealed in a person. God had always walked among the people and been accessible, but people weren't aware of it. Now that we see Jesus doing his ministry, this presence of God is apparent. The sudden burst of light reveals what was hidden, and what was hidden wasn't some danger, but something very good. Jesus will dismantle oppression, but not military oppression. Instead he will tear down the oppression of blindness, both physical and the kind of blindness that makes us fail to see one another as fully human. Jesus will disrupt the oppression of hunger, of poverty, and finally of death.
Paul warns us against divisions and factions. During times of transition, some of us might divide ourselves based on whether we think the darkness is getting darker, or whether we believe the light is coming. We divide ourselves up by whether to give into despair because things are just getting worse and worse, or whether we have hope and are rejoicing. We couldn't have a more appropriate reading for this morning, when we find ourselves so divided by political party we can barely look each other in the eye, let alone sit down with someone who feels differently than we do and have an actual conversation with them, treating them like a human being.
Whether we feel that we are darkness moving toward light, or that things are getting darker and scarier, we are a people of faith. That means a couple of things. It means we have faith, we have hope. Not in the powers of this world, but the ultimate power in Jesus Christ of love and forgiveness. Whether things are getting better or worse, we have a promise from God who has ultimate power and authority. So we know as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words we may go forward and back, but ultimately, because of the power of God, God is moving us toward justice and peace, not for a few but for the whole of us. That we are people of faith, means that we have unity in Christ.
Factions and divisions distract us from what is central, that is Jesus, that is love. We are co-workers in the Kingdom of God, no matter how different we are. We have to honor one another's humanity and see each other as worthy of God's love and our time and energy. Church should be a safe place to express ourselves, be curious about other people's experiences, to disagree without being disagreeable, and to love and forgive and try and fail and try again to express our diversity of gifts within the unity of the body of Christ that we belong to.
Sometimes we think that unity in the body of Christ, means that we all have to think the same way. Not at all. Jesus told the truth, even when it was hard. We, too, are called to tell the truth. Unity, doesn't mean uniformity. It doesn't mean we have to think alike or that we have to keep our opinions to ourselves if we feel differently than someone else. Unity in Christ means that we can share our differences of opinions truthfully, because we know it isn't going to divide us to do so. Sharing different perspectives together makes us stronger, gives us a greater sense of the big picture, brings a variety of gifts and experiences together, and increases our power to bring in God's Kingdom.
A time of transition of power is a perfect opportunity, not to be fearful, but to be hopeful, to invite conversation about what is most important and what is central, and what are our values as Christians, what are we working for together. In the end, we know God is in charge, and that love wins the day, and new life is given to us through Jesus, a light shines in the darkness and brings a new day.
Jesus is on the shore calling to us. Change is afoot. An inauguration is taking place, as Jesus ministers to all in need. We can keep on fishing as we always have been, or we can go in a new direction, toward experiences that are new to us, but open us to see God working in the world and participate in that life-giving work. We can ignore that summons as we have many times, or we can take that step out of the darkness into the light, being willing to walk among those who are in need.
The Disciples heard Jesus calling them from the shore. How long did he call before they followed? Why did Jesus call these particular disciples? What does Jesus calling these disciples say about the kind of work that Jesus would be doing?
These are fishermen. They are used to working in the chaos. Bodies of water are unpredictable and dangerous. Similar to the people and crowds they would soon be ministering to. They were used to hard work. They did the smelliest, dirtiest work, with few rewards. They were some of the lowest class. They would almost never ask, is this person worthy of my time or Jesus'--except for women, children, and an occasional blind person. Most surprising is that those who came to Jesus for help were not put off by the Disciples and I can't recall anyone asking if they were worthy to heal them and minister to them. These disciples were used to disappointment. When they cast their nets, they didn't know if they would get in quite a haul, or come up empty. The same is true for sewing seeds for God's Kingdom. Sometimes there was a great harvest, sometimes nothing even sprouted. There was no one to blame. That's the nature of their work. We too can be ready for chaos, for unpredictability, for putting away our judgments, and for doing hard work.
Jesus called the first disciples and now calls to us. Jesus calls us to complete focus on God. Following Jesus means letting go of everything that came before, all our security, all our family relationships, our previous work, and placing our whole focus and identity on God. Jesus calls us to repent. Repent means turn in a completely new direction, leaving some things behind and facing a new direction. Jesus is central. Love is central. We get to ask ourselves, what does love look like in this situation?
Jesus has been shouting from the Lakeshore at me for a while. Things were going pretty well for me and I thought improving for people around me, so I ignored him. He called to me when Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile were murdered and I stayed in my comfortable boat. He called me when when 5 polices officers were ambushed and murdered in Dallas and I stayed in my boat. He called to me when immigrants were being deported in record numbers and I stayed in my comfortable boat. He called to me when Native leaders were sprayed with water cannons in subzero temperatures and I stayed in my boat. Sometimes I might throw him a fish or a glance. But now I have to get oriented in a new direction, toward Jesus, toward God. I am repenting. I can see the goal and it is love and it is beautiful and chaotic and scary and hopeful. It is the only direction.
When God came to earth as Jesus, his focus was not on himself. From the moment he begins his ministry he is focused on love. We see where it got him, torture and death, but we see where it got us, new life--that is the new life we are called into right now. Jesus is inaugurating some Disciples. It's our turn turn to get out of your boat, repent and focus on love, and let Jesus give you new life.