© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: January 23, 2011
We have, from the hand of Matthew, two separate scenes from the early ministry of Jesus. They are separate, yet there is something that binds them together.
• The first scene recalls a disaster that had swallowed up the Jewish people by the time Matthew wrote his gospel.
• The second scene seems to shift us abruptly to the call to discipleship of the fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James and John.
First of all, consider the disaster: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. When Matthew wrote his gospel, probably shortly after the year 70 A.D., the Romans had recently run roughshod over Herod’s magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. No legions of angels had interceded on behalf of God’s chosen people. Nothing miraculous had happened. The Romans had done their worst and nothing had been forthcoming from the throne of God. It must have been an awful time. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the fighting within the walls in Jerusalem and the Temple among the Jews themselves was almost worse than the devastation that the Romans wrought from outside.
The rebellion had happened almost by accident. The final Roman procurator of Jerusalem had goaded the people, torturing and killing them, deaf to the cries of the moderate Jewish leaders. Various radical groups began to react in a blind rage, and when the rebels began to occupy strategic points in the city, the moderates – who could see that the end of the battle would mean the destruction of all – were murdered by their own countrymen.
And so the city fell into the hands of warring parties of fanatical revolutionaries who were at least as busy killing each other as they were fending off the Romans, willfully blind to the fact that even a united defense must eventually have failed. Like Ethiopian spears against Italian tanks in World War II, there was no winning against the superior power of Rome. The final walls were breached, and the city was laid waste from one end to the other.
Some in the tiny Christian community of Jerusalem managed to escape before the destruction. Most of these considered themselves Jews as well as Christians. They must have shared the numb feeling that all Jews felt upon learning that the fortifications of Jerusalem, crowned by the Temple, were no more. Many must surely have asked what could be left of faith in a God who could have abandoned his people so completely?
It is a question that for us, hundreds of years later, has perhaps some mild academic interest. Of course we know that the worship of God is not centered in any Temple made by human hands. But then it was a novel thought, an idea that was disturbing and threatening in its raw newness. Could there be life after Jerusalem was destroyed? Could there be faith?
Matthew recalled for his troubled congregation another time when the people of God must have asked the same question. He reminded them of the prophecy of Isaiah (9:1-4):
The Land of Zeb´ulun and the Land of Naph´tali,
Toward 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.
Probably not many of Matthew’s people knew precisely where Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali had been. They had been tribes of Jews that disappeared 700 years before, during another time of foreign invasion and devastation. But any memory of their names would have called forth a feeling of distress, the same feeling they were experiencing over the fall of Jerusalem in their own time, similar to what we might feel when hearing the word “Alamo” or that native Americans might feel in hearing “Trail of Tears.” It is a wounded, humiliated, powerless feeling, even for those who are separated from those events by many years.
It seemed that Matthew wanted to tie together the raw wound of the fresh experience of disaster that his people knew with a former time of disaster, as if to say that even in the face of unspeakable dishonor and sorrow, God’s hope can spring forth again. In the midst of faithless horror, faith can be born.
When no faith is found among the competing factions of Jerusalem, when one person kills another in the name of God, then God may well abandon us to our own horrors, but that doesn’t mean God has given up on humanity. It means that we must look for the work of God in a new, most likely unexpected place. In this case, Matthew talked about going fishing. He asked his people to look to the place where Jesus had begun his ministry. Not in the streets of Jerusalem or among the Temple officials there. He had begun his ministry in Capernaum, among the very people who had moved into the area vacated by the Hebrew tribes of Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali when they were carted off into exile 700 years before. He began his ministry among the mixed races of Gentiles and Jews in Galilee, among gentle, simple fisherfolk.
The end of the first scene in this little passage from Matthew gives us the opening words of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Then, having reminded his listeners of the pitiable devastation that is possible, even for the things we cherish most, such as the Temple, Matthew shifted abruptly to the second scene: by the shores of the lake, he speaks to men who are about their fishing business, a model for emerging faith.
The call of Peter and Andrew and James and John shows at the very beginning what it must have meant for a person of Jewish background to come into the church. It did not involve a simple decision to change from this church to that, one religious outlook for another, choosing to be a Methodist instead of a Presbyterian. It meant the dropping of everything familiar to take up a whole new way of life. We are reminded that there is much to be given up if there is much to be gained. All four of the disciples dropped not only their nets, but their means of livelihood. For James and John, responding to Jesus’ call meant leaving their father Zebedee. Means of livelihood, even family, not to mention loyalty to the Temple, much may have to be left behind by those who choose to follow the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. There are wonderful words about this in a hymn that is no longer included in Presbyterian hymnals. It was pretty rarely sung in our churches because few people knew the tune. But I always appreciated the lyrics, and they are appropriate to pair with our our scripture readings today:
They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisherfolk,
Before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing –
The marvelous peace of God.1
What had been cherished had to be set aside. When God’s spirit works, it often must work in spite of human reluctance, indifference, even opposition. Squeeze a balloon in one place and the air will fill into another spot. For a Jew to accept the fact that God could be working among the Gentiles was as difficult as the decisions of the first four disciples to abandon their way of life on the lake to go fishing for another sort of catch.
Isaiah spoke about those dwelling in a land of deep darkness, and I suppose we don’t have to be Hebrews in exile to know what deep darkness is all about. Those who have dwelt in a land of deep darkness know who they are when the Prince of Darkness taps them on the shoulder. We know who we are and we shudder because the land of deep darkness is the kingdom of annihilation and obliteration. It is the land where creation is reversed, and things that used to make sense begin to dissolve back into their original chaos, the place where the loving hand of God on nature is not necessarily replaced by an evil hand so much as by no hand at all: no guidance, no love, no order, no creation, just deep darkness and chaos.
Anyone who has walked into a room once occupied by a loved one who is now gone, seeing the half-read book on the night table, the pajamas hung in the bathroom, the eyeglasses on the dresser, the medicines in the cabinet, the clothing in the closet, anyone who has had to pick up their life with that kind of emptiness cutting a big hole in the middle of it, knows where the land of deep darkness is. The one who has experienced the falling-apart marriage, the still-born child, the approach of retirement when there seems to be so much more to do, these know where the land of deep darkness is.
To all of us who have visited the kingdom of darkness and dread a return trip, Jesus extends an invitation to go fish. While it may seem like an option, the call to discipleship is not some choice we make among other alternatives, but turns out to be the only alternative to the land of deep darkness, for no other loyalty springs forth from the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called those four fishermen to a new kind of fishing, and in the process of responding they discovered that all other loyalties are temporary, none endures, not family, not Temple, not career, not nation, not even life itself. No, an invitation from Jesus to go fish is an invitation to follow the only one who leads forth from the land of deep darkness toward the great light.
Albert Schweitzer once wrote,
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me.” And sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”2
God give us the courage to rise and follow as Christ calls our names by the lakeside.
1 William Alexander Percy, Copyright 1924, LeRoy P. Percy.
2 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403.
© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved