Sermon delivered on January 22nd, 2017
Jesus gets some distressing news at the beginning of the Gospel this morning. His cousin John, the man who baptized him, the prophet who roamed in the wilderness telling people to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near, has been arrested. Jesus knows this can’t be good, not for John at least. King Herod owes his allegiance to the Romans, so he isn’t going to put up with anyone challenging his authority, least of all some backwater prophet. John’s days are numbered. I’m sure Jesus knows that.
The reasonable thing for Jesus to do would have been to go back to Nazareth, go back to making tools in his father’s shop, and lead a quiet peaceful life, steering clear of Herod and the Romans. But that’s not what he does. He grabs his stuff and moves a few miles away to Capernaum, a little city on the lake, and he begins to move throughout that region, preaching exactly the same thing that John was preaching in Judea: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Maybe the world got a little darker for Jesus after John was arrested. I am sure that John’s followers were pretty disillusioned too. But instead of quitting, Jesus picks right up where John left off, proclaiming the same message. And the message was this: repent. Change your life. Choose to live differently, because God is not as far off as you think. God is closer to you than you imagine; his kingdom is breaking into this world and you can choose to be a part of it. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
I am sure that some people had a really hard time accepting or understanding this message: Do you mean to tell me that with all of the suffering in this world that God is actually close? With all of the hatred, killing, pain, anguish, with so much darkness in the world, it is hard enough for some people to believe that God even exists, much less that he is actually close and that he really cares about us and what we do, and yet that is exactly the message that Jesus continues to proclaim.
He walks up to two brothers on the lakeshore, proclaims his message and then says to them: follow me, and I will make you fishers of men, and they do it. They drop what they are doing, leave their nets behind and follow him. A little later he says it to two more brothers, and they do the same, leaving not only their nets but their father too. What would cause people to do something so radical as to leave their livelihoods and their family behind to go following after this man?
The gospel writer Matthew found the answer in the prophet Isaiah: the people who have dwelled in darkness have seen a great light. Those fisherman standing by the lakeshore saw something in Jesus. They saw light. They saw in him and in his message a light that they didn’t see anywhere else. It was that light that made them drop their nets and follow him.
I have commented before on how much I think we take light for granted. Most of us never have to deal with true darkness, not for very long. You flip a switch and the lights come on and everything is clear to see. But for most of human history it certainly wasn’t that way. Tonight we are having a candlelight service here as a special event, but for our ancestors every service was a candlelight service, there just weren’t any other options. Now we light candles at every service here, but it isn’t always easy to see them. The only time that you can truly appreciate the beauty of a candle is when you are sitting in the darkness. Darkness makes the light shine brighter.
There are other things that we take for granted too: things like hope, love, meaning, purpose, self-respect, forgiveness. Maybe you can remember a time in your life when you didn’t have one or all of those. Maybe you are struggling to find them now. Living without hope, love, meaning or self-respect, that is a very dark existence. And if you have ever lived that way, and someone came along showed you a light: a glimmer of hope or redemption, you would probably happily leave the darkness behind and follow that light.
I can’t say exactly what was going on in the lives of Andrew and Peter and James and John. They were poor fishermen living in the country. I can only guess that there must have been a lot of darkness in their world. Perhaps they were living without hope or purpose; maybe they felt trapped by their circumstances; maybe they felt that God was distant and didn’t care much about their lives; whatever their individual emotions, they each saw in Jesus and in his message (the message that change was possible and that God was near) something so compelling that leaving everything else behind wasn’t a difficult decision. However difficult their individual lives were, that darkness only allowed them to see his light more clearly, and by that light they were saved. They spent the rest of their lives trying to carry that light to others as well. That’s what it means to be a fisher of men: not to trap people unawares or reel them into church unwillingly, but to carry a light out into the darkness.
People always have and always will complain about how dark the world is. Suffering, pain, grief, hatred, murder, depression, anxiety…these things weren’t invented in the last century, they have always been around. If you want to you can stare out into the darkness your entire life, lamenting about how dark it is, but what good will that do? If you want to do something about the darkness be a light. If Jesus was distressed by John the Baptist’s flame being extinguished, he responded by going out into the world and lighting twelve more candles. If you don’t like the way the world is, if you don’t like the way our country is, then don’t just stare into the darkness and complain; take your light out into that dark world. If you think the world is going to hell, then it is up to you to carry Christ’s light out to those who cannot see it. Don’t worry about the darkness, it only makes the light shine brighter.