Lectionary Sermon, January 26 2020 on Matthew 4:12-23 (Epiphany 3)

Although there is no shortage of examples of potential danger in the modern world, there are some situations where unnecessary risk is just plain daft. When we read of a teenager stepping over the warning barrier to be among the geysers at Rotorua, is he brave … or stupid? It is hard to be sympathetic when his stunt goes wrong. Similarly when we read of some dim-witted tourist backing over a cliff edge to get a better selfie we might even secretly smile at the thought that Darwin had the last word. But you know, even if a stunt performer were to scoff at danger with misguided intention to demonstrate God’s power I suspect some of us might still shrug in derision.

My favorite example of a religious show-off was that misguided African Pastor from North Nigeria who (a few years back) decided he was going to show his congregation that as with Daniel, God, would reward his faith by keeping him safe literally in a den of lions. According to the news on Stuff, despite the protests of the keepers at the local zoo (at Nibazon), our modern day self appointed Daniel, brushed past the zoo staff telling them they were enemies of progress and before they could stop him he had opened the gate to the lions’ enclosure – where resplendent in his scarlet preaching robe – he stepped in to demonstrate how his faith would be rewarded. The lions were understandably grateful and did as lions are expected to do as they fell upon him, tearing him into bite-sized pieces.

While we might shake our heads at the pastor’s foolishness, we might also suspect that his was a foolish cause in the first place. A Pastor’s focus should be on the care for the interests of those he or she serves … and not on self-promotion. Remember caring for others is what the essence of Jesus’ mission is always about …and come to think of it, that reminder isn’t just for the religious show-off leaders.

I would think we would need a good reason to motivate us to attempt a stunt like stepping in with the lions. So what then do we make of Jesus in today’s reading. Here he is having just heard his cousin John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas – and what does Jesus do? He heads straight for Capernaum right in the centre of Herod’s centre of control. Surely this was an equivalent of the lions’ den?

But there is a difference. Following a Jesus centred philosophy, genuine feelings for others sometimes means putting one’s own safety to one side to do what needs to be done.

I suspect if Matthew had been updating his gospel and writing about today’s acts of courage I would understand him recording and approving the acts of bravery among the fire-fighters working against almost impossible odds to rescue people (and animals too) trapped in the recent fires in Australia.
We return then to Jesus himself, in all probability outraged at the injustice that had befallen his friend John the Baptist, so regardless of the risk, he was in effect taking over where John the Baptist had left off.

Notice for Jesus going into the territory of the king who had imprisoned his cousin is not entering the lions’ den for the sake of being admired. This is accepting danger because the cause mattered more than personal safety.

From another angle, strategically choosing Capernaum as a base for Jesus’ new ministry made very good sense. As the biggest port on the Sea of Galilee, boats would set out, not just for fishing or trade, but also taking news with them. Jesus’ teaching, to have maximum impact needed to have access to some means of getting the message out there and Capernaum was ideally placed.

Some of you may have noticed Matthew was clearly editing as he went, no doubt well aware of those to whom his message was addressed. He apparently bends the accuracy of his report of Isaiah’s prophecy in order to underline a few points for his readers and listeners. Certainly he wants his audience to be under no delusion that Jesus in this action was acting by chance.

Rather, as far as Matthew was concerned, by going to Capernaum Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. However when he locates 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….” Here Matthew was being economic with the truth about what Isaiah had actually said. The sea Isaiah had referred to was actually the Mediterranean not the Sea of Galilee and although Capernaum could be considered to be the territory of Naphtali it was not as it happens, the territory of Zebulon.

If we take a wider focus we might remember that Isaiah had said in effect that the Messiah was going to appear, not in the central power base of Israel but in the Northern fringe areas where there were larger proportions of the non-Jewish population. For Jesus to see such areas as worthy of his concern should also remind us that we too as his followers should be concerned for those who represent the gentiles in our equivalent situations.

Because Jesus addressed part of his subsequent message to Gentiles as well as Jews, Matthew also appears to be getting in early so to speak when he talks about Jesus fulfilling the mission to the gentiles. Stories such as Jesus’ encounter with the Caananite woman (which occurs in Ch 15 of Matthew’s gospel) or the other stories like Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, or for that matter his later encounter with the Centurion would demonstrate that his message was not intended exclusively for the Jews. Perhaps, in passing, it is also appropriate to reflect that those in our own age who give priority to the exclusive needs of their own faith are not exactly being true to the teaching and actions of Jesus of the gospels.

Although the next bit of the reading appears to assume Jesus’ role as a foreteller of end times, a quick reality check shows us that when Matthew reports Jesus as saying “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” He may even have been talking of his own teaching – otherwise he was at least 2000 years out in his prediction. We might also note that as it happens Matthew appears to be generally following Mark in his account of this same section (Mark 1: 14 -20) yet Mark had Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is near” and Matthew apparently changes this to “the Kingdom of heaven….” and today I will leave it for wiser minds than mine to explain the reason for the change. The only observation I would make is that since Jesus’ words appear virtually identical to John calling for repentance because as he too said the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven is at hand, we should be asking if both Jesus and John had the same basic message in mind.

Although some of John’s disciples were probably looking for some new direction after losing their leader because John and Jesus were very different in style Jesus was clearly not assuming they would automatically change their allegiance. What should strike us as unusual is that when it comes to assembling a likely group of followers, Jesus sets about the task in a way that would raise very serious questions in a company board room today.

Frankly I don’t think Jesus would have lasted more than a day of two at most as a recruitment head-hunter for an HR office today. These days matching skill sets with even the most humble of positions would be the very least we would expect – and without references and a good CV there really isn’t anything worth chasing in today’s job market. When it comes to modern religious leadership we are even more careful, and require evidence of a good standard of basic education, appropriate prior experience – and even then, there are virtually no leadership roles available, let alone the responsibility of taking over from the boss after a few months erratic unstructured “tag-along apprenticeship” without extensive interviews and several years training at an appropriate institution.

On the other hand there may be two significant aspects to learn from in Jesus’ calling of the common fishermen, presumably chosen almost at random. In the style of his call we see virtually the same approach as Jesus set for the location of his mission. Remember in his mission he was choosing to care about, and where necessary heal those who are normally overlooked on the fringes. This is only underlined in his finding room among his disciples for those who others would have passed over.

Since Jesus didn’t seem to discriminate between those who had the theoretical gifts of learning and leadership before choosing those capable of following, then by extrapolation, perhaps this teaches us that becoming deeply involved with the kingdom of God is within reach for virtually everyone.

The second point is that even if his call for discipleship wasn’t dependent on prior significant formal training, it was still a call for significant commitment. In effect dropping the nets to take on something new and unknown was risky then and the equivalent would be just as risky today.

There is a sentence at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading that we have probably heard so many times, we pass over its implications.

What was it Matthew said? “He went around the whole of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and curing whatever illness or infirmity there was among the people.” The point here surely is that Jesus was not just interested in delivering a message in words. He was interested in the situation of each of the people he met and was prepared to help where he could.

I freely admit I don’t pretend to understand the miracle part of Jesus ministry. On the other hand miracles are only one of a myriad of ways of extending help to those we encounter.

True we are not Jesus any more than we are a Martin Luther King or a Mother Teresa. On the other hand perhaps any day now it will come to us that our call to mission is NOT merely to admire Jesus or the disciples who followed. Certainly listening to stories about Jesus and the disciples has its own attractions but surely sooner or later we have to decide if we want to restrict our mission to a retelling of stories in the past. We may not be particularly good at mission – yet moving forwards and attempting to apply the principles of Christian living in a host of contemporary and unfolding situations has more to recommend it than passive and mute admiration of fragments of other peoples’ past memories.

Soren Kierkegaard, the theologian and philosopher spent most of his later career encouraging folk to risk testing their faith in a style and attitude he called existentialism. One of his statements is worth thinking about.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
Are we up to that challenge?

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