A Homily from Matthew 4:12-23
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
January 7, 2002
Jesus, the hope of all humanity, receives word that the prophet John the Baptizer has been arrested. Now would seem to be the time to act. John’s message of repentance and hope has stirred up the people enough that the government has responded swiftly and decisively. John, whose disciples will form the core group of Jesus’ followers, is in mortal danger. His willingness to obey God and prepare the way for Jesus will get him killed.
This is Jesus’ chance to act, to prove his divinity and his importance as the Messiah – the one who would come to rescue the Jews, God’s chosen people. So what does he do? He withdraws, as he will do time and again in Matthew when faced with violent threats. Jesus did not come as warrior, fighting the mighty battles of his ancestor David. His power is of a very different kind, so when danger threatens, he moves.
And where does Jesus, the Jewish savior, go? To Capernaum, which Matthew identifies as a place lost in darkness because of the large Gentile presence there. Capernaum was a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Well away from the more established (and more Jewish) cities to the south, it had nevertheless become an important town in its own right. Located on the border between two governmental districts, Capernaum attracted travelers, merchants, diplomats, and laborers. This, combined with its proximity to other nations, meant that it was not exclusively a Jewish town.
And, as we will learn later in Matthew’s gospel (9:1), it is Jesus’ new home. This is one of our first clues that – to save God’s chosen people – Jesus is going to save all of God’s people. Isn’t that just like God? God had promised the Jewish people their very own Messiah. God have given them the stricter rules, the tough commandments, the high standards. Then it turns out that they have to share their Messiah with everyone, with the whole world, with people who’d never read the prophets or even tried to know God’s will.
Imagine the gall? Making them share. Making us share. Look at this beautifully renovated sanctuary and these lovely paraments. Look at the handsome, gilt-edged Bible. Listen to the beautiful organ music. This is some pretty snazzy stuff we have here. Shouldn’t it be for serious Christians. People of mature faith. People who’ve at least read the Bible and who know all the right answers to the right questions. Isn’t church, isn’t faith, really for people like that, like us? At the very least, isn’t real religion, authentic faith, only for those who are genuinely looking for it.
Nope. We have to share. It doesn’t matter how seriously we take our faith, Jesus did not come just for the serious or the spiritually mature or the ready. The love of God, the mercy of God, is not limited to those who look like they are most likely to deserve it.
2,000 years ago, if someone had been told that the Jewish Messiah had finally arrived and that he had begun to teach and work miracles, where would they go looking for that Messiah? In Jerusalem, the holiest city, the place where the most Jewish people could be found and the place where the Bible’s teachings (including the prophecies of the Messiah) carried the most weight. If anyone deserved to see and touch and hear the Messiah, it was the people of Jerusalem.
But if they wanted to find Jesus, their Messiah, they would have had to walk eighty miles to the north to Capernaum in Galilee. Capernaum. A city where most of the people weren’t even waiting for a Messiah. They lived in a prosperous town with abundant food and generally good lives. They were far enough from major politics that most trouble, including that brought by religious fanatics, passed them by.
Yet there, surrounded by people who did not even know how much they needed him, was Jesus. There he made his home, far away from those who prayed for his arrival night and day. Passed everyday on the street by cosmopolitan Gentiles who dismissed him condescendingly as just another overly pious Jew who dressed and acted funny because of the peasant notion that God really cared what he said or did.
Of course, anyone who really wanted to look for Jesus could have found his new home. If they were willing to look outside of their own neighborhoods, outside of their own preconceptions, and outside of their traditions. It was much easier, though, to keep waiting for the kind of Messiah they wanted then to go look for the real Messiah who didn’t even have the courtesy to make his home among the good people who were expecting him.
We know to look in Capernaum, though, because Matthew told us to. Prosperous trade center that it was, in Matthews eyes it is a dark place. Using the vivid words of Isaiah Matthew identifies Capernaum as a place over which the shadow of death loomed, a place where God’s children huddled in darkness. Perhaps for Matthew that “darkness” was the ignorance of the writings and prophecies of God’s people. There is much pain and terror in those writings, much talk of sin and human failure, but there is also much hope. The central message of the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible is that God has a plan and that God will heal our broken world.
In a land populated with the petty gods of many different nations, few would have heard of that hope. In a place where so many voices vied for attention, ritual and tradition are hard to preserve; and it is those rituals and traditions that God’s people had used for centuries to remind themselves of God’s promises, of God’s hope.
And so, we are told, Jesus’ ministry begins in a place where few if any expect or want a Savior, where hope is absent, and where he is surrounded by the people who are least likely to have done anything to deserve the miracle of his presence, his teachings, and his touch. Sounds like things aren’t much different 2,000 years later. My guess is, if we are willing to take the risk of looking for the presence of Jesus, those sorts of places are still where we’re most likely to find him.
And the message is still the same, “Repent” Jesus says, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The world is already changed, the rules are changing, the world is a different place…and it all begins in Capernaum. So “Repent!” Change course! In the Hebrew it’s “Turn!” Jesus is among us and nothing will be the same again.
That proves to be very true for two young men whom Jesus found standing in the waist-water by the sea shore, tossing their nets into the waters of the Sea of Galilee as the sun goes down. Capernaum is their home as well (8:5, 14), and according to other gospels they apparently had a prosperous business there (Mark 1:20). Fishing was important work, since fish was one of the major staples of the diet in the region. No doubt these two hard-working businesspeople had already planned how they would spend the next few years: raising and providing for a family, building their business, working hard and productively for the rest of their lives.
Nothing wrong with that sort of plan. In many ways, it’s not that different from the American dream. In fact, if these two fish-catchers had done just that, worked hard at their trade for the rest of their lives, they probably would have been remembered fondly by their neighbors and their children. They might have even been held out to younger generations as fine examples of a good work ethic and good sense.
But fortunately for them and for us good sense did not prevail. The two brothers, we learn their names are Simon and Andrew, happen to be in Jesus’ line of sight. Jesus walks up to them and gives them a command, and a promise. The command is, “Follow me.” The promise: “and I will make you fish for people.” On hearing his words, Simon and Andrew immediately set down their nets, and followed the path of Jesus for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps they thought he just meant “follow me home.” Perhaps they thought he meant “follow my teachings.” Since we know the end of the story, though, we know that in fact Simon and Andrew were being asked to go wherever Jesus went, ultimately unto death and then to resurrection.
They were also being asked to follow Jesus away from the safety of their profession, away from the mature and the sensible, the familiar and the secure. That is what it means to follow Jesus. All Simon (whom Jesus will rename as “Peter”) and Andrew had to do was hear Jesus call out to them, and suddenly everything was different. They had seen no miracles. They had seen no signs. They had not heard his teachings. He called to them, and they knew who he was, and suddenly common sense made no sense at all, and their hard-won profession was meaningless to them.
That is, perhaps, a miracle in itself. The conventional wisdom is that real miracles don’t happen in our modern world; but the transformation that Peter and Andrew experienced is no less miraculous because it’s not uncommon. People are changed by the presence of Jesus. We are changed. Not because of what we do, but because of who Jesus is.
The presence of Jesus causes stock brokers to become peace corps volunteers, it draws socialites behind the counters at soup kitchens, is causes normal everyday people like us to put off that CD we wanted to buy because we want to put an extra twenty into the collection plate.
Jesus calls to us, and like those first two disciples we have no choice but to follow. It’s not our actions that make this possible. Only our willingness to listen. Very few of us have to tune out the sounds of a seashore to hear his voice, but there are other lures calling out to us. Most of them come from inside our heads: our goals, our expectations, our desires…even our perfectly healthy instinct for self preservation. But still, beneath it all, is the voice of the one who created us, saying that we were created for so much more than we can imagine in even our wildest dreams. We don’t have to understand what that is. In fact, it would be unwise for any of us to claim to understand what God really wants of us or what it really means to follow Jesus. We are not asked to understand any more than these two young fisherman were. We need only listen.
If we do, then we will follow. And then comes Jesus’ promise. Jesus tells Peter and Andrew that He will make them ones who “fish for people.” This has been a popular image throughout the history of the Church, one so often repeated that even people who can barely find John 3:16 often know this line. As a child, I remember seeing men at our church with little fishhooks on their lapels. It conjured up images for me of lazy fishing trips in the North Georgia mountains. Quiet moments by peaceful streams.
Of course, these images completely ignore the reality of what “fishing” meant to Peter and Andrew. For them, fishing meant time and again throwing large nets into the water and then dragging out masses of heavy, thrashing fish, putting them on the shore, and repeating the process. It meant back-breaking labor and tough, repetitive work.
It also meant trauma and ultimately death for the large quantities of fish they caught. Yanked out of the familiar world for which they were made, the fish would find themselves in a hostile, unfamiliar environment that ultimately kills them. Those of you who are big fans of salmon and catfish may wonder why I feel the need to sympathize with a common food animal, but I would like to remind you of one thing: we’re the fish!
Being caught in the net of Jesus’ teachings, His mercy and His love, we find ourselves (much like Peter and Andrew) dragged out of the comfortable and familiar. As broken people living in a broken world, we are acclimated to breathing in hopelessness, anger, despair, and weakness as easily as fish breathe in water. Jesus yanks us out of that world into one that is vary different. It is a place where meekness triumphs over violence, and selflessness earns more than greed. It is a world where humans, selfish creatures that we are, cannot live. It is a world, however, where those of us who are willing to die to the priorities of a self-indulgent, debauched world, where we can survive on the mercy of God.
We aren’t the only ones caught in that net. Right after Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, Jesus sees two more brothers: James and John the sons of Zebedee. When Jesus calls to them, they too set down their nets and follow him.
And so begins the ministry of Jesus. In a place that wasn’t expecting him, having gathered in followers who don’t even really understand who Jesus is or what it means to follow Him, Jesus goes to the synagogues of the area and proclaims the good news that the world is changed and the kingdom of God is at hand. Matthew tells us that Jesus traveled, curing every disease and every sickness.
Over the rest of the year we’ll look at many of those miracles and the price that Jesus ultimately paid for his willingness to change people’s lives. Today, though, we look at where it all began, where it still begins with each of us. Jesus’ disciples found…find…grace in the most unexpected places. We hear the voice of God in the oddest of moments, and it is faith as well as faithfulness that commands that we act, that we work, to follow that voice, even when we do not understand fully (or even a little bit) what is asked of us.
In the name of the God who called to us in the Garden, who calls to us by the lakeshore, and who will call us into glory, Amen.