“Sitting in Darkness Waiting”
22 January 2017
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
West Walworth: Zion & East Rochester United Methodist Churches
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
As a pastor and as an educator,
I’m always looking for new techniques
To help people study, think critically, and engage others
In Biblical, Theological, and Spiritual development.
I’m always on the prowl for that new tool for your toolbox;
That educational wrench that assists you
To unlock understanding
Of scripture, commentary, or academic discourse.
The more you and I can learn about our God and sacred texts,
The closer we draw in our relationship with God and one another
And the better we understand God’s will for our lives.
I learned a new tool this past week.
Many of us have annotated Bibles,
Complete with cross references and section titles.
This tool is pretty neat:
Read the text,
Go back to the section title
And cross it out.
What would you rename the section, and why?
Today’s section titles in my New Revised Standard Version are
“Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee” and
“Jesus Call the First Disciples”.
The first section I would rename
“Those Who Sat in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light”.
The second section I would title
“Building the Fellowship”.
What would you call these two narratives from our Gospel?
Jesus had most recently spent the past 40 days and nights
In the Judean wilderness being tempted by the Devil.
He was in the rugged, wild, mountainous territory
East of Jerusalem,
Between Jerusalem and Jericho,
Deep in the lower Jordan Valley,
In the vicinity of where John had been preaching and baptizing.
We begin on an ominous note;
John is arrested
And Jesus, hearing the news,
Retreats 90 miles North to Galilee.
Yes, Jesus begins his public ministry in retreat,
Immediately following his baptism and temptation in the wilderness.
But where he starts his ministry is vitally important
To understand the deeper meaning of the text here in Matthew.
Jesus left Nazareth where he had been raised as a child …
… he moves out of his parents basement, if you will …
And moves to Capernaum, 30 miles away,
Located on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee,
In the tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Remember the 12 tribes of Israel?
Isaiah had prophesized about Zebulun and Naphtali,
And Matthew repeats it here:
“the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
(Isaiah 9, Matthew 4)
In our age where we don’t think twice about summoning light
… we flick a switch or tap our phone …
It makes one wonder why
Zebulun and Naphtali sat in great darkness.
For crying out loud, someone flip a switch,
Download a flashlight app,
Light a candle, or something.
Indeed the darkness was all encompassing and complete.
The people of this region
Had become victims of repeated invasions and defeat
At the hand of foreigners.
Violence, death, prison, and exile had visited every home.
Geographically at the crossroads of three continents,
Babylon was the aggressor and occupier in the time of Isaiah.
Prior to Isaiah,
Zebulun and Naphtali
Had been conquered by the Philistines,
The Egyptians, and Canaanites.
The peaceful kingdom of David,
Lasted only for a period of about 70 years
… a thousand years before Jesus.
The Davidic kingdom was the only respite,
The only light,
The people of Zebulun and Naphtali would experience.
Pharaoh and his Egyptians flowed back in a violent expansion of their empire.
In time, the Assyrians swept through the land
And ruled with an iron fist.
The Babylonians occupied the land
Until Cyrus the Great of Persia took control
And allowed the exiles to return home.
In generations prior to Jesus
Alexander the Great and the Greeks,
Ptolemy and the Seleucid dynasties
Traded punches and rolled through
With military might and horrific violence.
Most recently, is was Rome,
At the hand of Pompey the Great,
Who had brought darkness once again to Zebulun and Naphtali.
Up to the time of Jesus making his home in Capernaum,
There was only a thousand-year-old faded memory of light
In a land of utter and complete darkness.
Jesus moves to Capernaum
And light has dawned.
That’s kind of how it works with Jesus.
Let him move into your life,
His light shines,
And darkness is no more.
Which is not to say darkness, sin, suffering, and death
Are forever vanquished from your present or future.
The darkness of this world
And the darkness of Satan
Are like predators lying in wait, ready to pounce
At the first sign of personal weakness,
At the first symptom of waning faith,
At the first inclination of growing distance between yourself and God.
Make room in your life for Jesus
And allow yourself to fall in love with him.
That’s what vanquishes the dark.
That’s what grows deep the faith.
That’s what gives strength for the journey.
As I mentioned,
I’d title the second section of our Gospel
“Building the Fellowship.”
I refer to the disciples of Jesus as a fellowship
With a tip of my hat to one of my favorite fictional trilogies,
“The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The first book is dedicated to building a fellowship
Of individual, diverse characters
Dedicated to the purpose of saving the world.
Kind of sounds like what Jesus was doing, doesn’t it?
Building a fellowship of individual, diverse characters
For the purpose of saving the world?
Our Gospel narrative from Matthew
Describes the calling of two brothers,
Both fishermen on the Sea of Galilee,
Peter and Andrew.
Jesus went from there and called
A second set of brothers,
James and John, sons of Zebedee.
The two brothers and their father
Are in a boat mending their nets.
Jesus calls together his fellowship of fishing brothers
With the invitation,
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
- Matthew 4:19
The word “immediately” is used in the case of both invitations.
Immediately they left their nets …
Immediately they left their boat and their father …
… and they immediately followed him.
Quick. Clean. Decisive.
That’s the way I like to do my shopping.
Much can be speculated about what caused
Peter and Andrew,
James and John,
To make such an immediate
Life changing decision to follow Jesus.
Was it the invitation to fish for people?
Perhaps we could stop people on the street
And invite them to join us in fishing for people.
If it worked for Jesus, maybe it will work for us, too?
If this were true, our church would be packed every Sunday
And we’d be preparing for a building addition.
Was it the way Jesus looked? Or how he approached them?
Perhaps each of these four brothers
Had been asking themselves the deeper questions in life.
Perhaps they had been searching for answers.
Maybe they had been looking for direction.
I mean, fishing, day in and day out,
Under a hot sun or in a tempus storm,
Kind of gets old after a while.
While feast may be the up-cycle,
Famine was certain to visit every fisherman on occasion.
We might never know
What caused Peter and Andrew, James and John,
To drop everything and to follow Jesus.
Perhaps a different tack
Might shed light on the question:
What is it about Jesus that drew YOU to him?
Perhaps it was the witness of another?
Or a similar invitation to follow him and fish for people?
Maybe you, like me, are filled with deeper questions
About life, death, suffering, love, sin, evil, and God.
Perhaps Jesus rose to the top of your vat of questions
And provides the only reasonable answer that resonates with you.
I’d suggest two other possible answers why you and I have decided to follow Jesus.
First, we have a natural need for a divine companion.
I can’t tell you why,
Nor can I back up my opinion with data,
But it is my observation
That few of us want to go through life alone.
Others might provide friendship,
But only God incarnate is capable of providing
The necessary presence
That will take us through this life
And into the next.
Secondly, I suggest you and I have decided to follow Jesus
Because this is God’s will for our lives.
As one standing in the Wesleyan tradition, known as a Methodist,
I would call this Prevenient Grace.
God knows our need before our awareness.
God meets our needs prior to our needs are made known.
In other words,
Perhaps it is God that brought you along the path that led you to Jesus Christ
Because God knew you needed Jesus.
You need Jesus
To be the center and joy of your life.
The invitation to join the Fellowship of Jesus
May have been the whisper that
Resulted in you coming to your baptismal waters.
There is one, last, thought I’ve been chewing on this past week
About this passage I’d title “Building the Fellowship.”
Many times we focus on the question,
What did Peter, Andrew, James, and John see in Jesus
That led them to abandon their lives and to follow him?
Turn the question around, and let’s ask,
What was it that Jesus saw in these two sets of brothers
That led Jesus to believe
That these were the ones
He needed to build his fellowship?
It’s pretty obvious
Jesus didn’t start building his fellowship
With the same strategy
A new president would use to build his cabinet.
Jesus didn’t go directly to the smartest, most powerful, elites of his world.
Jesus didn’t go to influencers, politicians, or the wealthy.
Jesus bypassed the seminaries and schools,
Temples and thrones,
The marketplace and every other institution of power.
To start building his fellowship
Jesus chose to go
With simple fishermen.
Did Jesus see within Peter
His characteristic of opening mouth and inserting foot
As a beneficial character trait
That he needed for his group of disciples?
Maybe he saw within Peter
The potential for becoming
An effective preacher, witness, and leader
In the first generation church?
Perhaps Jesus knew that the genesis of his church
Needed to expand into modern day
Turkey, the Balkans, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia?
… and Andrew was just the right person to do it?
Quite possibly Jesus knew that James was the one he wanted
To bear witness to his Transfiguration?
Maybe Jesus considered all the rest
But decided that only James could bear the burden
Of being the first to be martyred for his faith?
Maybe Jesus looked upon John,
And knew that he would be the one
He could count on to comfort his mother
As she witnessed his crucifixion?
In a similar way,
I’d suggest our Gospel asks us today
“What is it about YOU
That inspired Jesus to call YOU to join his fellowship?”
Is it your willingness to witness?
Is it your willingness to preach?
To open prison doors?
To collect and distribute food to the hungry?
To make friends and build houses for people without four walls and a roof?
Is it your capacity to love, and to be loved?
To get on the floor with a toddler
And play and laugh with joyful abandon?
What is it about YOU
That led Jesus to claim YOU
As his own?
Invite Jesus into your life,
To make his home in your heart.
Let his light shine
And chase away all darkness in your life.
Look to Christ.
Listen to his call.
Respond with confidence and determination.
Take part in this fellowship Christ has called together
Known as the East Rochester / West Walworth: Zion
United Methodist Church.
The Lord has had his eye on you.
You are being called to do great things.