Sermon Seeds: Called Together/Call: A Challenge and a Gift

Third Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary citations
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 4:12-23

Weekly Theme:
Called Together/Call: A Challenge and a Gift

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

John the Baptist “goes before” Jesus in more ways than one: he proclaims the reign of God coming near in the person of Jesus, Herman C. Waetjen writes, but he also precedes Jesus on the path to “rejection and death in Judea” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). There are many indications here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just as there were in the Nativity stories, about where this story will lead.

Epiphany is the season of light, and the first disciples seem to be like Isaiah’s “people who walked in darkness” but now “have seen a great light.” The light seems to blind them to all that has gone before, to their everyday pursuits and previous commitments. Waetjen describes the first two disciples, Simon and Andrew, as poor (they have only nets, no boat), and the sons of Zebedee as more affluent because they have a boat (in Mark’s version of this story, they even have employees; they’re a small family business, and their father undoubtedly needs their strong arms). Thomas Long sees these four disciples as “representative” of those who will follow Jesus in the future: “Jesus summons people from the fabric of family relationships…and from the midst of the workaday world…into a new set of relationships and a new vocation” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

We might wonder how to connect this sort of abandonment of family with today’s emphasis on “family values.” But is it possible that we use our faith or at least our religious commitment to put our lives in respectable, orderly comfort? According to Thomas Long, the Reign of God isn’t about making us “more effective and productive in our jobs. Our work is truly effective when it serves to express the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into the new design of God’s own making.” But Long says that all this disruption is “not to destroy but to renew,” and our lives are transformed in the process (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Perhaps God is still speaking to us in the midst of our efforts to focus on living comfortable, orderly, pleasant lives, in the midst of our attempts to use the gospel, in the face of our expectations that the church undergird such a life. God calls us, each in our own setting, to repent, that is, to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to a radical renewal that may upset and re-orient our neat little, hard-won patterns of comfort and familiarity, the unquestioned assumptions, the privilege we enjoy without even being aware of it. Perhaps this radical renewal will contradict many middle-class, prosperity-driven theologies, for example, that seem to under-emphasize the call to work for justice for the poor. How willing are we to have our lives turned upside down in order to experience this kind of repentance? Jesus provoked many of his listeners with such expectations, but on the other hand, he inspired a number of them to leave everything for exactly such a reorientation and renewal. Their lives were never again the same, and probably not too comfortable, either. (There is an important distinction, of course, between being “comfortable” and being “comforted.”)

For example, consider the backlash the current Pope, Francis, is receiving for his clear and deeply inspiring words about economic justice. But Francis is not just “making this stuff up.” He draws on the gospel itself, the good news that Jesus proclaimed so compellingly, in word, in deed and even in his own person, that people did radical things like walk away from everything familiar and safe to know more, experience more, and perhaps even do more, because of his teachings, because of who Jesus was to them, to his people, and to the world. Perhaps what so many of us find invigorating and even life-changing is the same thing that caused Simon, Andrew, and James and John as well, to leave everything they had (whether it was a little or a lot, it was all they knew) and follow this teacher, Jesus, on a path they could not begin to imagine. A gentle spirit, filled with humility and kindness, can also challenge and provoke those who would rather focus on “other” dimensions of the life of faith. Francis may seem most popular when he’s seen in photographs that show his tenderness to the poor and those who suffer, but the static begins when he questions the things that influence our lives (perhaps even more than the gospel does, if we look honestly): materialism, militarism, unbridled capitalism, classism. What would it cost us, especially in the affluent West, to drop everything and follow Jesus? Francis is a great illustration of the words of another Latin American church leader and theologian, Dom Helder Camara, who said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”

According to F. Dean Lueking, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah to explain why Jesus goes to the land of the two tribes (Zebulun and Napthali, in Galilee) that had first experienced “the wrath of God” in the form of Assyrian oppression (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). In fact, at the crossroads of international trade routes, Galilee knew the heel of foreign armies as they marched through, or stopped to occupy the land. There were many Jews there, mixed with the Gentiles, hungry for good news, and it’s a wonderful image – again – of what is to come as the gospel spreads to the whole world, for all of God’s children. Out of that place of Gentiles – Waetjen calls it “the land of contempt” – comes light for the world in the person of Jesus, and that light is experienced as compassion for the suffering and hungers (both physical and spiritual) of the people (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places and the most unlikely of people. When have you felt that you were a person “sitting in darkness,” longing for light to break forth in your life, longing for something to happen, for someone to come along, that will transform everything? Were you ever surprised by the way God sent help, or the person bringing it? In what ways has your congregation sat in darkness, and then experienced the light of God’s love? What kind of radical reorientation did this produce or require? What new and unexpected things has God done in the life of your church? How do you plan to share it? As you look around your community and around the world, what new works and wonders is God about?

The message that Jesus embodies, Lueking says, isn’t about judgment; it isn’t even about the light. Instead, Jesus is the light: “He is light and will give light, by his teaching and healing, by his suffering and his rising, and through the community of his disciples….” Lueking calls this “a magnificent Epiphany message,” but one that is “news that is both gut-wrenching and glad beyond all expectation.” Commentators agree about the importance then of the community of followers (those of us who have abandoned our nets and boats, and had our lives changed forever) as, in Lueking’s words, “a countercultural force, untamed and raw, summoning us away from all easy ruts to the new life of righteousness” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). This may not be the most popular wording for our congregational mission statements, yet the story continues: light breaking forth in the most unlikely of places, in the midst of the most unlikely people (and for them, too), and light shining even today in the ministry and faithfulness of communities gathered in Jesus’ name. We ourselves are those most unlikely of people, the mostly unexpected sources of help and hope, and good news for the world.

For further reflection:

Helen Keller, 20th century: 
“I must not just live my life; I will not just spend my life. I will invest my life.”

Francis de Sales, 16th century:
“In the quest to know God, may we do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

e.e. cummings, 20th century:
“Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century:
“Alas for those who never sing and die with all their music left in them.” 

John Buchanan, 21st century:
“[T]he world and the church are changing more rapidly than we can comprehend…some things are the same: the world and the church desperately need [our] energy, imagination, passion, impatience, intelligence, and love…one of the great biblical themes is that God calls…all of us to walk into the future without knowing exactly where we are headed, to let go of old securities and certainties and trust the God who promises to be with us wherever we go.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 9:1-4

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.
You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

God is my light and my salvation;
   whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life;
   of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I asked of God,
   that will I seek after:
to live in the house of God
   all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of God,
   and to inquire in God’s temple.

For God will hide me in God’s shelter
   in the day of trouble;

God will conceal me under the cover of God’s tent;
   God will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
   above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in God’s tent
   sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to God.

Hear, O God, when I cry aloud,
   be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says,
   “seek God’s face!”
Your face, O God, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me.
   Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
   O God of my salvation!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 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.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

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 lake—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 he 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.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Liturgical Notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.