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Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Isaiah 9:1-5 and Matthew 4:12-23
There are a few group games our youth like to play at Snow Camp. Saturday evening, a week ago, after Myron Blosser’s session, we played two games: one game includes foam finger rockets, trash cans, movement and strategy. The other game takes place in the dark. Youth group members work together to locate the pieces of a flashlight and assemble it before… it’s too late.
My role during the second game is to hide the four parts of the flashlight: two D batteries, the lightbulb and the flashlight casing. I then randomly assign roles, start the game, and serve as a time-keeper until the game is over. Each time we play I’m struck by how uncomfortable it feels to move around in the dark. Humans move awkwardly when their view is obstructed. We shuffle gingerly, arms out-stretched, hands and feet sweeping in front of us so we don’t knock into furniture or walls. Although it takes a few minutes, our vision compensates and, in time, we’re able to see better.
When surrounded by darkness we gravitate toward light. We are drawn to it. This is notable in the game as youth group members search first in the areas of the room that are lighted by exit signs or near windows through which light filters in from the exterior wall sconces. As the game progresses they work collaboratively to assemble the flashlight, hoping their efforts will bring light to the game’s mystery.
As we look at Matthew 4:12-23 this morning, it’s important to highlight that Jesus moved intentionally to a place where things weren’t all figured out.
The text says Jesus withdrew to Galilee when he learned of his cousin’s arrest. A move to Galilee, where historically it was claimed that the Gentiles walked and sat in darkness, could be viewed as a curious decision. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali (sons of Jacob and tribes of Israel), located between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, was considered an impure area populated by many who at the time were considered unclean. As outlined in the book of Judges, these two tribes lived among the Canaanites in the area. And, it was in this territory (“the shadow of death”) that Saul and his three sons, including David’s beloved friend Jonathan, were killed. Zebulun and Naphtali were annexed by the Assyrians in 733 BC, bringing forth the contempt mentioned in this morning’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 9:1.) Yet this is the area Jesus chose. Possible reasons for retreating to Galilee include refuge from fear; cunning wit; even prophetic fulfillment.
It was along this seaward route, while traveling through Galilee, that Jesus met working-people. First, he met Simon and Andrew. Actually, as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus met Andrew (who at the time was one of John the Baptist’s disciples) before his brother. Andrew, then, invited Simon to come with him to meet Jesus.
John’s Gospel includes another two-step introduction. Jesus met Philip. Philip then invited Nathaniel to join them, as Philip and Nathaniel knew each other previously. They grew up in the same hometown.
Notice the recruitment that took place in the first days of Jesus’ ministry by Jesus, by fresh converts and by neighborhood friends.
What might we learn from their example?
From the beginning of his mission, it's apparent that Jesus will be a light for the world, providing hope to people who languish in darkness and the fear of death. It is from here — this geographic location of Galilee — that Christ’s light began to shine.
We see this first in Jesus’ leadership. There are numerous characteristics of good leadership from the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus prioritized face-to-face contact with real people. These verses are often referred to as Jesus’ call to the disciples — okay — but let’s not overlook that Jesus asked each of them, speaking to them face-to-face. Good leaders invite others to join them, for anyone who follows extends the reach of leadership. Followers provide accountability. Followers share their experiences with their acquaintances. Followers are often receptive to teaching and those who are apt students may find themselves to be closest to the leader. Thus they must understand who the leader is and what the leader hopes to achieve. In return, concentrated attention is often given to an inner circle of followers. More so than to anyone else insight and inspiration is given to a select few which will produce tremendous long-range results because followers will continually implement the leader’s objectives in which they have come to believe. Good leaders are in touch with many people, especially through listening to them, but good leaders choose followers who can speak on their behalf; those followers must be truthful and loyal.
It was along this seaward route that Jesus also met James and John, the sons of Zebedee, at work on a boat. Two more fishermen. Actually, within these few verses in Matthew, Jesus has called a third of his core group of disciples. With fore-knowledge he knew many of the disciples would come from the shoreline communities around the Sea of Galilee. Why might that be?
Remember these were working-people, which makes it seem like they had fully matured. They seem to be beyond their years of schooling.
It’s known that Jewish education followed this pattern: children (age 6 to 10) were tasked with memorizing the Torah. That’s right! Their education consisted of memorization instead of subjects like mathematics, foreign language, physical education and geography. At age ten each student was invited to recite the Torah (that’s… Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), and by reciting, I mean, word for word. Students who successfully completed this task were invited to move up to the next level of education. Those students (think, “intelligent”) would continue to memorize scripture with the goal of committing the entire Old Testament to memory by the age of fifteen or sixteen so that they might sit for the second test, pass it, and then be selected by a Rabbi to carry on the oral tradition.
Students who didn’t pass the aptitude tests were denied further education. They were sent home. Instead of further educational opportunities they began learning a trade. Usually, it was in their family’s business. Simon (Peter) and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when Jesus met them. James and John were their father’s understudies. At some point, further educational opportunities came to an end for Simon (Peter) and Andrew; for James and John. They weren’t the most learned. And, no Rabbi had selected them to carry on the tradition.
There is yet another stark difference between Jesus’ call to his disciples and the traditional method of Rabbinic recruitment. Let’s say that Nathaniel — for instance — had been invited by a Rabbi. If this was the case, he would have followed the Rabbi only for as long as it took to attain Rabbinic status. The call of Jesus, however, was absolute, disrupting the lives of potential recruits, promising them… a break from business as usual. There was no halfway; no part-time; no temporary discipleship. Disciples renounced their livelihood, left family behind and followed Jesus completely. The invitation was to remain beside him forever. Accepting the invitation put them in danger.
After all, to live a long life in first-century Palestine, you played it safe, you stayed out of trouble and minded your own business. You obeyed the rules of the empire and its religious subservients, the scribes and the Pharisees. You do what you were told.
Those who espoused revolutionary politics, the Zealots, waged guerilla warfare against the Roman imperial outposts and, when caught, were tortured and crucified. They became examples. So, many people chose to play it safe. The Gospels tell how the disciples learned that Jesus’ actions and teachings were illegal and, in time, realized the implications of their allegiance to him. They could be arrested and executed as revolutionaries — and, yet, as they learned the seriousness of their actions Jesus instructed them to respond without violent retaliation or revenge but instead with love, forgiveness and peace.
What might we learn from their example?
Remember that James and John were at work on their father’s boat when Jesus met them. Two more fishermen. Notice that the text says nothing about casting a net. James and John were mending their nets.
I don’t regularly fish. The times I’ve fished I’ve used a pole with a line, bobber, a hook and bait. Through those means I’ve caught… one fish. It was the size of the banana from my lunchbox. A pole is for sport fishing, for recreation. Nets are used for industrial fishing, for businesses. And, nets need mending often. Tending to them was as important as good casting technique or the knowledge of water temperature and migration patterns. Frequently used nets tore or unraveled at the corners. They needed to be knit together regularly. On a recurring basis.
A few years ago we were gifted this comforter, which quickly became a family favorite. So much so that it now needs some love and attention. Imagine if this comforter was a fishing net. If James and John cast it into the sea, waited the appropriate amount of time, and then retrieved it the fish seemingly caught in it would escape through the hole. It needs mending or its usefulness is limited.
This past Thursday evening Pastor Jennifer, Lonnie Yoder, Mike Brislen and I attended the quarterly Harrisonburg District Delegate meeting. It was held at Immanuel Mennonite Church at 6:30 pm. It included another step in the process of Community Mennonite Church’s reaffiliation from Virginia Mennonite Conference to Allegheny. Thursday evening, Harrisonburg District delegates released CMC in preparation for Virginia Mennonite Conference to do the same on Saturday, February 1st. Thursday’s meeting was unique. It centered around table fellowship. We sat at tables. We ate soup and bread together. We shared communion. We talked face-to-face. Paula Stoltzfus, a member of Harrisonburg District Executive Committee, offered the following liturgy of transition:
Our church family is ever changing.
Loved ones are born into the family
And loved ones come to the end of their lives.
Individuals come and go in our church life.
Congregations come and go in our Conference life.
It is important and right
That we recognize these times of passage,
Of endings, transitions, and beginnings.
Each of us was given grace
According to the measure of Christ’s gift.
The gifts he gave were
That some would be apostles, some prophets,
Some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
To equip the saints for the work of ministry,
For building up the body of Christ,
Until all of us come to the unity of the faith
And of the knowledge of the Son of God,
To maturity, to the measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7-13)
We are grateful for the ministry we have shared together.
With joy we recall what we accomplished with God’s help,
And with sadness those dreams not fulfilled.
We are grateful for your ministry
And for your influence on our lives.
We ask for forgiveness for mistakes made and expectations not met.
O God, you have bound us together for a time
As congregations to work for your church in this place.
We give you thanks for the ministry we have shared.
I’ve abbreviated the liturgy a bit to share it with you this morning. On Thursday, it concluded with moments of silence, collective spoken words and the Lord’s Prayer. Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church, named his deep appreciation for CMC over the course of forty (+) years. He lamented failures of the District and Conference. He hoped that Harrisonburg District churches will find ways to reconnect with Shalom MC and hold onto current relationships with CMC despite our reaffiliation. Afterward, I received words of encouragement, hugs and handshakes. I believe other CMC leaders did as well.
In times of disunity it’s best to remember that Christians belong to Christ. Christ hasn’t been divided! Throughout our reaffiliation process let’s remember whose we are.
In Galatians 3, the apostle Paul advocates over against divisions, which he calls schisma, a noun used in the Gospels to describe a rip in a cloth. Rather, Paul argues, Christians have been united (katartizo) in the same mind and purpose. In essence, Paul is saying that we’ve been knit together for proper use or mended just as fishing nets were mended. Christians are literally woven together. Like a net, we become a functional, flexible fabric — that when cared for and put to right use offers life-giving sustenance to us and those around us.
We’re called to practice the communal discipline of net-mending when our communities unravel at the corners or rip down the middle. Some view this work as reconciliation. Others approach it from a net-working model.
By God’s grace, Jesus invites us, along with Andrew and Simon (Peter), James and John, and so many others to follow the light that’s emerging around us. Jesus does not force anyone to follow him. People do walk away. But, as recorded in Matthew, some choose to follow immediately, responding to the radical discipleship Jesus offered them, even risking their livelihood. Others, after accepting the invitation, extended it to a sibling or a neighborhood friend.
What might we learn from their example? How might we be attentive to our frayed relationships? How might we best be mended together with others both as we re-affiliate with Allegheny Mennonite Conference and as we respond when Jesus asks us, as net-menders, to offer life-giving sustenance to others?[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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