LEAVING HOME; LOVING GOD
Matthew 4: 12-22
In the John Calvin commentaries—the commentaries on God’s Word written by the Father of Presbyterianism—Calvin wrote the way he preached: he preached and wrote in an expository fashion. Expository preaching is when the preacher goes line by line, explaining what is happening in Scripture and what the meaning and message of each line is. Calvin, you may be aware, preached to crowds that did not each have a personal Bible. Most Cathedrals had a large Bible in Latin, but a few other Bibles were available. Most people had to just trust their priests for the sermons they preached, and they had no easy way to check if what was being preached was being properly offered. Calvin decided to include not only interpretation in his sermons, but also the Bible sentences from which he was preaching. It has gone in and out of style over the decades, but I plan to use it today to model the style Calvin often used. Today I am not convinced that people in our age are much more Biblically well read than our forebears were. We have Bibles, but sometimes they go unread! So today I will give a Biblical sermon with Biblical examples. By contrast, the famous Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Charles Stanley, has a son named Andy Stanley who is the pastor of the giant North Point Church in the Atlanta area.
He was once asked this question:
What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?
Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that.
So be it. But today we will join Calvin in his method of preaching!
Today hear the Word of God from Matthew chapter 4 beginning with verse 12. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee.” What did that mean? John, in this case, was John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. John was the forerunner, the one who announced, and prepared the way, for the one who was coming after him. John knew he himself was not the light as I told you last week; he bore witness to the light, who was Jesus himself. John had a ministry of baptism and of repentance. It was important. Jesus believed Baptism was so important that he himself got baptized as an example. Have you considered baptism? Or have you ever found your baptism certificate, looked at it, and thanked God for those who led you to that special day? Remember: your certificate is not an insurance policy: it’s a commission! You are the eyes and hands and heart of Jesus because you have been baptized in his name! Jesus also proclaimed John’s message of repentance. He said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At least that’s the way Matthew recorded it. Matthew, you see, was one of the 12 followers of Jesus, but he was also a Jewish man by birth. Jews never used the name of God in prayers or in conversation out of respect for God. Luke and Mark and John did not have that concern. So wherever Matthew says, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the other Gospel writers would say “the Kingdom of God.” It was not a message about “going to heaven” at all. It was a message that in Jesus, God was breaking into the world in a distinctive and unmistakable way. So Jesus said, in so many words, “It is time,” and left his dusty hometown of Nazareth and went to a town that became his second home: Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Do you understand the meaning of that line? He was leaving home; and he was loving God by starting a ministry that would make him be tested and derided, thanked, and appreciated. Next is verse 13: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” What does that mean? Do you recall what Cara read in the first lesson? It was Isaiah chapter nine! When do we generally hear Isaiah chapter 9 each year? Astute ears will remember it is read on Christmas Eve, picked up and made famous by Handel in his magnificent “Messiah.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, upon them has the light shined! For unto us a child is born! Unto us a son is given!” Is it coming back to you? Hold on to your seats and hear this: Isaiah said those words 700 years before Christ! So are we sure Isaiah was talking about Christ? Here is where knowing your Bible matters. The verses before those famous lines in Isaiah are almost never read. They are: “But there will be no gloom for those who are 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.” Did you hear it? These places—Zebulun, Naphtali and the region of Galilee—are being changed by God from being places of gloom and nothingness, to become the new hometown of the child who has grown into a man, beginning his ministry where Isaiah said it would begin! You may know that Zebulun and Naphtali were regions to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee divided into twelve territories named after 11 of the sons of Jacob. The other son, Levi, did not get territory; he was in charge of the priesthood. So Jesus is setting the stage for the next events that God has planned for that land, that he claimed for himself, when he sent Abraham there from his own hometown of Ur.
Next Matthew quotes Isaiah, the passage that Cara read. Jesus left his home and settled in a new place, just as Abraham had done; just as John Calvin had done when he left France for Geneva, Switzerland; as John Knox had done for a time when he left Scotland and went to study with Calvin in Geneva. And Martin Luther, born in Eisleben Germany, also left his home to go to school in Magdeburg and Eisenach, Germany, and later to become a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Leaving home opened their hearts to the message and ministry God had in store for them.
What did Jesus do after he relocated to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee? You know because you have Bibles! He began calling men to follow him. He saw them fishing according to verse 19, and he, with a turn of a phrase, said: “Follow me; I will make you fishers of men (or of people we might say today.) Would you imagine these rough fisherman might have said to one another, “How do you fish for people? What a strange idea!” But Jesus meant what he said! He called Simon, who he nicknamed “Peter” (which meant “the rock.”) He also called Simon’s brother Andrew, who to this day is the patron saint of Scotland and is associated with the sea. Of all the things that might have been going through your mind, or my mind, it is humbling to read how these rough fishermen responded. Verse 20 tells us: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Wow. Let’s pause in honor for a moment. Even the Virgin Mary had a question for the angel before agreeing to bear the Son of God. Even Zechariah questioned the angel telling him about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and he was mute until the naming of John. Many ages before, God had approached Abram and they talked. After a brief time, God took Abram outside and said “Look toward the heaven, and count the stars if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord.” “Immediately” is not the response we usually give when we are asked to move, or drop our employment for something untried and untested to follow someone like the man who stilled the waters and calmed the sea. But to the credit of Simon Peter and Andrew, they did. And because they did, the discipleship ball started rolling: James and a different man named John (who were brothers) signed on. And they too, verse 22 tells us, “Immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.”
One more time, let’s take that in. First fishermen left their nets. Nets don’t grow on trees, they cost money! Yet Simon and Andrew left their nets. And we know how much money a boat costs, and yet James and John left their boat, but at least their father was there. Wait! They left their father with no plan to do so? Like rural farmers in our day, losing two strong sons would leave their father in a bad situation; it would be received as disrespectful and unthinkable. It was expected to happen when was getting married, but not when another man asked them to literally “jump ship!” What higher purpose was being worked out in those amazing first days of Jesus’ ministry! What amazing higher power was reaching into the soul of at least four men and changing their lives forever! That is the power of God! That is the power of the call of Christ. People in our day, and in ages past, have often left their parents to be trained, not only in colleges, but in seminaries, or monasteries, or in convents, or in Divinity schools They sought to know Jesus and to make him known. But today, you have been in a kind of Christian school for these few minutes too! You, with your heart, your experiences, and with your life, can do many of the things that others spent years learning to do! You can commit yourself to learn about Jesus and to know him, if you don’t already. John Calvin’s Christian schools started empowering people to learn about the Bible and Jesus. You can do it through Christian Education classes we offer, or by listening to preachers you trust, or by your own study. There is a great tradition of learning for Presbyterians! Be informed! Come to know Jesus as you Savior! And once you do, make him known! Witness to others with your life, as well as with your lips. Listen for things that Jesus might be calling you to do! And then instead of saying “No! Not me!” You might come to a point of saying:
“Here I am Lord. Send me.”
As we move to our hymn, let me tell you about it.
The text comes from the life of the Iona Community which had a practice of sending youth volunteers to live for a year or two in impoverished parts of Scotland, supported only by welfare payments and working out their discipleship in hard places. At the end of their agreed periods of ministry, there would be a farewell ceremony, always held in the house where they had been living and from which these authors would create an appropriate song. This was such a song… In stanzas 1-4, the voice of Christ calls a person to a life of service and witness; in stanza 5 the person answers affirmatively. [Glory to God: A Companion, by Carl P. Daw Jr., JKP, 2016.]
Let us now sing this song of the Iona Community, a community formed in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 22, 2017