The Third Sunday of Epiphany
22nd January 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Last week we heard the Gospel of John’s version of the call of the first disciples, and we spent some time exploring the way John’s Gospel invites each of us to participate in the evolutionary journey that leads to where Christ is.
Today we get Matthew’s version…a version that is bolstered by its employment of the prophetic tradition in order to cast Jesus as the promised Messiah expected by the Jewish people for generations.
Galilee of the nations…Galilee of the Gentiles…Napthali and Zebulon…the land on the north and west side of the inland body of water known as the Sea of Galilee…today that land is front and center in our minds.
It’s the land where Nazareth is located…Jesus’ stomping grounds…and it had a dark history as a part of Israel that was overrun by the Assyrians in the 8th Century before Christ, and whose people were scattered throughout that early empire by way “of the road by the sea” referenced in the Gospel today.
Gentiles settled in that northern land, and as such, it was viewed by many in the Southern Judean leadership as apostate and too far gone for God’s salvation.
But Matthew sees, in the life of Jesus, a light breaking into that dark region.
Matthew sees Isaiah’s promise of a new dawn becoming real because of the call and witness of Jesus.
And while it would have been more apparent to the early hearers of Matthew’s words, but maybe less so to those of us removed from the political climate of the 0-30s, the real darkness of the region was the iron grip of the Roman Empire, and the way a foreign, Gentile power had come to dominate the daily lives of residents of the region.
Rome had control of the trade road by the sea, the Via Maris, which connected Egypt to the Tigris and Euphrates valley and beyond, and which just happened to pass right through the land of Zebulun and Naphtali on its long way to points east.
As such, it was Rome that demanded payment in taxes, it was Rome’s imperial gods which threatened the worship of the one, true God, and it was Rome’s power and exploitation which undermined the lives of everyday Galileans.
Galileans like fishermen who plied their trade on the waters of Lake Gennesaret…who were subject to King Herod and paid for fishing licenses, taxes on their catches and tolls on the waterways…King Herod who commercialized fishing while living a luxurious life off the labor of others.
And every time those fisherman went out on those waters, they would have seen the city on the south western shore, Tiberius…the monument to Herod’s reach and his great foreign patron the emperor Tiberius…watching over them…reminding them constantly of who really called the shots in the region.
So when John the Baptizer…that uncompromising neo-Elijah who spat truth at Herod from the wilderness…was arrested and thrown into prison…the days must have seemed to be getting darker still.
It must have felt like the shadow of death was looming larger than ever, and that hope for anything greater was nothing but a dim pipe dream.
Enter a new dawn.
Enter a man from Nazareth who made his way to the shores of that inland Sea of Galilee and started saying “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Repent…turn away from this dark shadow of economic enslavement that sees you working harder and harder for less and less, while Herod and Rome build lavish palaces and monuments to their glory.
Repent…turn away from the false conviction that your life is worthless and begin really living in the way God intends for you to live.
Repent…turn away from anything less than the love of God and the love of each other, and start to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth among you…because INDEED it has come near.
It must have been quite a call my brothers and sisters.
Because Simon Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and started following him.
It must have struck a chord with James and John, because they left the boat and their daddy with the unmended nets and began following Jesus.
What did he say to them?
Did he have some kind of catch slogan that resonated with them…those forgotten masses?
Did he promise to Make Galilee Great Again?
I don’t think so.
I do not think that the new dawn that Matthew saw in Jesus’ proclamation had to do with a shallow reference to some fictitious golden age in Israel’s past.
I don’t think “fishing for people” was Jesus’ way of saying he wanted to raise up a new army to confront the centurions protecting Rome’s interests and install himself in the place of Herod.
And yet…Jesus’ call to “follow him” most certainly had political implications.
As his movement grew from these four fishermen in Galilee into the thousands who would be fed by miraculous fish on a hillside by those same Galilean shores…he most certainly was a threat to the powers who benefitted from keeping the darkness intact.
As more and more “normal” folk began to believe that life was more than death and taxes, and began to imagine the possibility of a world in which “everyone would sit under the shade of their own vine and fig tree, and no one would make them afraid anymore,” the politicians and power brokers of the Roman Empire took notice.
I don’t think those four fishermen could imagine that the life, death, and resurrection of that man calling their names on the shores of Galilee that day would fundamentally reorder the world… so much so that the same empire would 300 years later officially adopt the worship of him.
But they must have seen something in him that did spark a new world of possibility within them.
A light in the eyes?
A countenance that shone like the first rays of a new dawn?
Something divine, holy, and utterly human existing in harmony?
We will not ever know for sure what it was that drew them.
And we do not need to know what drew THEM.
Instead, we need to be drawn ourselves.
We need to imagine a world free from the exploitation of empire.
We need to believe in the light of new dawn in which our worth and dignity issue from the goodness with which we were endowed by our creator and the content of our character…not from our accumulated wealth, our social status, or our tribe of origin.
Jesus is calling each of us…ALL THE TIME…to leave the economy of the empire and employ the gifts and talents we have honed to build up the kingdom of God within this world in which we live.
What will it take for you to say yes to that call?
Matthew and the early Christ-following community wrote a Gospel to help you say yes to that call.
The weight of scripture and the whole cloud of witnesses from those earliest disciples to the most recently baptized member of the body of Christ exist to help you say yes to that call.
And whatever is stirring inside you in this very moment…that still place or voice that is urging you to hope, imagine and believe again…that is the Holy Spirit’s way of inviting you to say yes to the call of discipleship today.
Saying yes will not take away all your troubles, nor will it mean an easy road ahead…reference the lives of Jesus and his disciples if you don’t believe me.
But saying yes will make you free, and it will make you know what the true meaning of greatness is.
If you want THAT, SAY YES and immediately get to following the light of the world into the everlasting life that no empire can ever take away.