Third Sunday After Epiphany
“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.” Matthew 4:22-23
On Thursday and part of Friday, I was facilitating a retreat for people who are preparing to be pastors and deacons, along with the committee members who accompany them through that process. This time together each year gives us all a chance to connect more deeply, to laugh and pray, and to wrestle with some hard questions about the challenges of ministry. I had persuaded my friend Anthony to do some icebreakers at the beginning of the retreat. He’s really good at those, and pretty soon we were moving around and having fun and learning more about each other.
During one activity he kept having us form groups of different sizes and then answer some questions. At first the questions were easier – What’s something that we have too much of in our homes that we’d be willing to give away a big portion of? (My family will be sorry to hear that I did not say “books”!) But as we kept going, the questions got harder, and Anthony eventually asked this question: “What would you do if you knew that you wouldn’t fail?”
I’ve heard that question before. You probably have too. But for some reason it caught me off-guard this time. It’s like I was realizing for the first time how hard it is to imagine such a thing. I crave certainty. I want to know at the outset of any endeavor that it’s all going to turn out well, and it’s going to go just as I imagine, and I’ll feel successful and satisfied.
But we all know that isn’t how it works. It doesn’t matter what age you are. We don’t head out on the playground with a guarantee that we’ll never skin our knees. We don’t take an algebra quiz with the certainty that we’ll make a 100. We don’t enter a relationship with assurances that it will never be hard – or that it will never end.
I say all this to point to something that I always find fascinating about this gospel. These four fishermen – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John – drop their nets, leave behind the only life they’ve known, wave goodbye to their families, and follow Jesus. They do this after Jesus does nothing more than call out to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus makes no elaborate sales pitch. He does not explain what the life of a disciple will be like or offer any guarantees that it will be easy or successful. There’s no fancy brochure or the promise of a 401k or any details at all. Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” And they do, apparently with no idea what they’re getting into.
You might be thinking: “Well, that’s all well and good for four fishermen. I’ve got many more responsibilities to juggle, and I can’t just drop everything to think about what Jesus wants me to do. There are bills to pay and children to raise and that laundry is not going to do itself.”
True enough. But remember that all of those things – the work we pursue to pay the bills, the caring for children, even the laundry – those are all versions of vocation, different callings – places to which Jesus summons us to use our gifts for the sake of the world. We get a little more of a job description than the first disciples did, and we receive that call in our baptisms: the call to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace. Whatever we do each day – the work for which we are paid, the relationships we form, the care we give and receive, the civic engagement we pursue, the help we bring to those in need – all of that is a response to Jesus as he says: “Follow me.”
We are reminded in today’s gospel that Jesus fulfills some ancient promises. Jesus shows up with the light that was promised by the prophet Isaiah – a light that breaks through all pain and suffering and brings hope to the most despairing of places. The disciples will see it all unfold – the teaching, the proclaiming of how God wants the world to be, the healing of the sick. They’ll eventually learn to do those things themselves, not perfectly (not by a long shot) – but even their stumbling, imperfect efforts will share the love of Jesus and will keep bringing people together in Jesus’ name.
Many years after the day that they dropped their nets and followed Jesus, when the early church was first emerging in fits and starts, the disciples could look back. When everything seemed uncertain and overwhelming, when success seemed impossible, they could remember that bleakest of nights, when Jesus hung on a cross, bleeding and dying, and they thought it was the end of the road. It had been a good run, but surely this was the ultimate failure.
Except it wasn’t. Resurrection was around the corner. New life breaking in. A new beginning. And in all the centuries since then – from the first Easter morning until this Sunday morning, resurrection keeps happening. Life keeps breaking through. Hope keeps showing up.
Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Collins, and what a joyous day it is! We look at her sweet face and her family gathered here to be with her – and all of us, her extended family now, ready to pray for her and teach her about Jesus and support her as she grows in faith. We can’t help but smile. We’re trying hard not to think about all the things we can’t be certain about. There’s so much about the future that we just can’t know or control. Matt and Amy, I encourage you to talk to the folks here who have had four-year-olds in their family. Or twelve-year-olds. Or sixteen-year-olds. Or thirtysomethings. They’ll all tell you the same thing. I had no idea what would happen. There was so much that felt completely out of my hands. There were times when it seemed like everything was spinning out of control faster than I could fathom.
When that feeling comes, remember this: In these waters of baptism God claims us and holds us forever. God holds us in this unshakeable, life-giving love that not even death itself can change. In a life where so much is uncertain, that promise is the most certain thing that we can name. And some days we have to hold on to that like it’s a life raft.
Follow me, Jesus says. And so we do, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Nehemiah 8:9b-10a
It was a time of deep political upheaval, when enemies were [all around] and questions raged within the country about who really belonged and what it meant to be patriotic…Ideas about what faithful adherence to traditional religion looked like [seemed to be constantly changing]. Charismatic leaders stepped forward, some arguing one way and some arguing another, but all claiming God was on their side, until many people were confused.[i]
That’s how Professor Cory Driver sets up his reflection on this week’s readings. His description, as we will see, provides an accurate backdrop for today’s First Reading and for today’s Gospel. But isn’t it interesting how much it sounds like our own time? Political upheaval. Changing religious practices. Leaders arguing. Widespread confusion.
The book of Nehemiah comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we usually call the Old Testament, but Nehemiah not a book from which we read very often on Sunday mornings. Today’s passage is set in a time when the Jewish people have returned from exile. Decades earlier they had been conquered by the Babylonians, who separated them and sent them away from their homeland. The Babylonian king and his armies had also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Having been scattered far and wide, having lost the center of their communal worship life, the Jewish people endured a difficult period of dislocation.
By the time of today’s reading, some things have changed. The Persian Empire has defeated the Babylonians, and the Persian king has allowed the Jewish exiles to return home and to rebuild the temple. Imagine how it would feel to return to a homeland you had been forced to leave, reunited with neighbors and friends and loved ones. What would you want to do first? Probably gather for some meals together. Share stories of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Talk about what you’d been through. Remember those who died while you were in captivity.
One of the things that the people want to do is hear from the Torah, the law of Moses, the holy scriptures that have shaped who they are as a people from the very beginning. Ezra, a priest and prophet, brings the law before the people gathered in the town square. Everyone is there at the Water Gate – men and women included – as Ezra dives in. He reads for hours – from early morning until midday. Think about how hard it is on some Sunday mornings to focus on listening to all of the readings, which takes only a few minutes. Could you pay attention to the reading of scripture for hours and hours? It would be a challenge.
But notice how the people respond to that public reading of God’s holy word. They stand up. They cry “Amen! Amen!” They bow their heads with faces to the ground. They weep. They weep. And not just a couple of softies in the crowd. It says: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Who knows what prompted the tears? Maybe it was the joy of being together again for worship after so long. Maybe it was the memories that surfaced while hearing these sacred stories read aloud again. Maybe it was the realization of how far they had fallen short of how God wants us to live. I suspect it was a combination of all of those and much more.
But notice what happens next. The people are told to let their grief and struggle turn to joy. To go out from that time of hearing God’s word to eat good food and drink sweet wine. And then what? To share that food and wine with those for whom nothing is prepared. In other words, be fed with the scriptures and be fed with an actual meal and then make sure you share what you have with others who don’t have as much.
If we were to read a couple of verses beyond today’s passage, we would hear this: “All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” They celebrated together, and they shared their abundance with those who needed it the most.
Scripture does something to the people who gather to hear it. It transforms them from a traumatized community struggling to make sense of the political upheaval they have experienced to a rejoicing community that takes care of those in need.
Centuries later Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown and unscrolls a different part of the scriptures, this time from the book of Isaiah. The Persian Empire was now a distant memory, but living in the time of the Roman Empire wasn’t all that different. There were still power struggles all around – and obstacles to being able to worship together in peace.
Jesus could have picked any part of Isaiah to read as he looked into the faces of the people who have known him since he was a little boy. But he chooses this passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of that long-ago promise. The regular synagogue-goers have heard those words from Isaiah countless times, but on this morning Jesus tells them that he’s there to make sure it actually happens – release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus is essentially saying: “The word of God is a living Word, and it is standing right in front of you.”
We’ll hear in the coming months how Jesus’ embodiment of those words from Isaiah will unfold in his earthly ministry. As we know, he’s not making empty promises here. And we’ll hear more next week about how the people reacted to what Jesus says. For now let me just say that there are many different responses, all of them passionate.
What is true in Nazareth in the time of Jesus is also true in Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s word provokes a response. People may feel confused and overwhelmed, they may find themselves in difficult political and economic circumstances, but they do not remain neutral. The words of scripture summon them to act on behalf of those who are in need, especially those who are crushed beneath power structures they cannot control.
I have a little homework for you. I encourage you to read the first four chapters of the gospel of Luke between now and next Sunday. You can do it a little bit at a time – a chapter a day, perhaps – or you can do it all in one sitting. Parts of these chapters will be very familiar; they include the Christmas story, for example. Other parts will be less familiar. Don’t worry about understanding every detail. But ask yourself these questions as you read:
- What do you notice as you read? What stands out?
- What questions do you have? What are you curious about?
- What might God be saying to us today through these scriptures? How might God be asking us to respond?
What do you notice? What questions do you have? What might God be saying to us? I’ll put those questions on our Facebook page and in the Weekly Word, and they’ll be in the sermon when it’s posted on our website so you’ll have access to them throughout the week.
We have this gift of God’s word. God uses it to teach us, to shape us, to move us to act in the world.
And so: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I have adapted this opening from Cory Driver’s lectionary blog entry for this Sunday as posted here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/01/lectionary-blog-what-scripture-does-to-and-for-us/ I have also drawn on his reflections throughout the sermon. I am also grateful to Bishop Mike Rinehart (https://bishopmike.com/2019/01/20/epiphany-3c-january-27-2019/) and Debie Thomas (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2060) for their reflections.