God Is Here. Jay’s sermon on the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 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.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near.” 18 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 sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 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. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 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.

 

            During a hospital visit with a church member not long ago, the conversation turned to Holy Trinity and how grateful we both were for this congregation. This fellow parishioner said of this church, “God is there. I go to church and I just know that God is there.” I couldn’t agree more. Yes, God was in that hospital room. God accompanies us at home and work and school and wherever we go. But it is here at church in a very particular way that God wants to be found. God is here in our contemplation and discussion of the scriptures and our discernment about the Spirit’s call in our lives. God is here at the font and the table to bless, forgive, and renew. God is here in our words of peace and encouragement for one another. God is here in our joining our voices together in prayer and song.

            I am so grateful for the ways that I have experienced God’s loving and faithful presence here with you over the past nine years. As most of you know by now, I will be ending my time as pastor here in a few weeks. While I had imagined I would be here with you longer, my call as parent and spouse is leading me in a new direction. I a m proud of Kristen as she now follows her medical vocation in taking on more responsibilities and leadership. I am excited for her, and I am excited to spend more time with my daughters. Yet, as another church member reminded me this week, two opposing things can be true at the same time. So while I am excited about what’s next for me, I am also quite sad about leaving this amazing congregation. You all are truly remarkable. Your care and concern, your faithfulness, your passion to serve God and neighbor, your willingness to follow Christ even into uncomfortable places is so admirable and inspiring. You sure have inspired me as your pastor. So while I have a mix of feelings about my leaving, there has never been any question for me that God will continue to be at work among you. God is here. This ministry is vibrant and strong, and it will remain so in the years to come. I, for one, will keep praying for you in your ongoing mission because your life as a community and your witness to the Gospel are needed now as much as ever. So let me say thank you. Thank you for loving me, one another, and this world which God loves so much.

            There is still time in the coming weeks to say goodbye; my last Sunday will be February 12. So there will be more to say later. But for now, the Gospel invites us today not to think about endings but about beginnings. Matthew 4 describes not just any beginning but the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. This is a crucial turning point in the Gospel.

            I get the sense from the reading today that Jesus wasn’t exactly ready for this new beginning, or at least the timing came as a surprise. John had been arrested. John, the one who had baptized Jesus, was no longer able to carry out his prophetic work at the Jordan River, as he was now the victim of an oppressive government. So it was time for Jesus to take over. “From that time on,” Matthew says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near.’” Of course, he didn’t just continue John’s work. John prepared the way and pointed to Jesus, but what Jesus did was also something very new. It was time for his unique proclamation. It was time for his unique witness. Matthew draws from Isaiah to describe the significance: “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.” Matthew is wise enough to know that there have been dark times in the past, when it was hard to see the way forward, when it was hard to believe that God was present. There have been deathly times, when there was good reason for fear and sorrow. But in those times there was still a light that could not be put out. Matthew knows that well from his spiritual and theological nurturing. And he saw that light present in a new and unique way with Jesus.

            The light of hope continued to shine. Jesus proclaimed, “Repent!” Literally, turn around. Change your perspective. If you’ve been living in despair, turn to hope. If you’ve been focused only on your own needs, turn to your neighbor. If you’ve been supporting systems of oppression, turn to justice and the flourishing of life for all. Repent. Because while there are a lot of powerful kingdoms and empires at work in the world, it’s the reign of heaven that has come near and invites your allegiance. Serve God’s reign in the world.

            In his message there was hope and there was light. And that message began to spread. But this is not enough to describe the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s not just the message that’s important for Matthew to recount. It’s also the community. Right away, as Jesus begins his public ministry, it’s clear that the reign of God will be proclaimed and enacted in a community of people, with other followers of the way. Like any good community organizer, Jesus began to gather people one by one. He went down to the lakeshore and called out to Simon and his brother Andrew to follow. Then he went and found James and John, the sons of Zebedee who were mending their fishing nets at the time. Matthew stops there, which is regrettable, because then Jesus went out and called some sisters, too. We know that from later in the Gospel, even if we don’t know all their names. He went and called women and men, some with a bit of wealth, many who were poor, people with all kinds of talents and experiences, and he invited them all to follow.

            Now I’ve always been a little skeptical of Matthew’s telling of this story. How is it that those disciples would just drop what they’re doing, leave everything behind, and follow a wandering rabbi toward an unknown destination? To me it’s been a story of blind faith that I just can’t relate to. But what if we listen to the story a little differently? What if it’s not so much about leaving behind comfort and security as it is about their responding to an invitation they’ve been waiting their whole lives to hear? For the first time, they were told their lives had meaning and significance. They had something to offer that had eternal relevance. How could they not leave their Roman-owned nets behind and follow Jesus?

            And so they did, and the community grew. Hope flourished. And when Jesus gathered them together for his Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Yes, there’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, but look around, you are the light of the world.”

            I believe that this is the message he offers to us, his followers today. There is no question about the reality of darkness and shadows of death. Some of you are carrying heavy burdens of illness or grief. The presidential election and inauguration have not just been divisive but have helped many of us to recognize that the racism and misogyny and fear of others present in our nation is greater than we realized. In this shadowy time, look around, you are the light of the world.

            One thing that we hold in common no matter where we stand on any political or theological spectrum is that we all face a danger—perhaps especially in the coming months—of falling into cynicism, despair, and hate. These things cannot coexist with following Jesus in the call to discipleship. Sure, there are times of doubt along the way, but as disciples we need to ask, “where will I find hope and light for the journey?”

            I’d like to suggest that your hope will be nurtured in gathering together with others. Yesterday morning, I was so inspired to see groups of people waiting at the bus stops to join in a peaceful march in St. Paul. Though I couldn’t be there, the photos of the gathering lifted my spirits. It’s not unlike the way I feel gathering in this place with you week after week.

           As I said at the beginning, God is here as we come together for worship. Now the fact that God is with you does not mean that you will always know what to do. It certainly does not mean that you won’t make mistakes. But still God is with you—in your gifts and passions, your foibles and faults—to give you hope and to remind you that the reign of heaven has come near to you. God’s vision for the world can be trusted. God’s promises for you as a child of God can be trusted. That’s our starting point for following Jesus on the way. Thanks be to God.

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