Jesus Preached in No Man's Land

Last week we started looking at “getting right.”  The gospel stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry are still concerned with orienting us to the historical Jesus - not just another prophet among many, but the particular Son of God – because if we get Jesus wrong, we get it all wrong and if our Jesus is not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we remain dead in our sins.  Hear the word of the Lord:

Matthew 4:12-23

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,  the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,  Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness  have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death  a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers:  Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”   20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.   Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  Thanks be to God.


 (Not exactly as preached)


                Right before our story begins, Jesus had just learned that  his cousin John had been imprisoned by Herod.  On getting the bad news, Jesus leaves Nazareth and travels about 40 miles to the town of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus chose Galilee, but we can guess that since Jesus was going to begin his ministry by picking up where John left off, it was good that Capernaum was about 120 miles from Jerusalem and the Temple authorities who would be certain to interfere with his preaching.


                Capernaum was a little bit like Guymon – The Jerusalem Jews viewed the Galilean town as a backwater, located in a No-Man’s Land.  Like Guymon, Capernaum was located on a main highway – there was a major route that ran through Galilee between Damascus and Egypt – and as a result, Capernaum was a hodgepodge of cultures like we are.   Being so far from Jerusalem, they were not as rigid in their observance of the Temple rules.  And like Guymon endured the dustbowl years, Capernaum had a rough history of its own:  The people in this region of Galilee had been the first to be carried off as slaves into exile.  So by highlighting the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Matthew is showing his readers that the first people of Israel to be enslaved by their enemies are going to have their suffering redeemed by being the first people of Israel liberated by their long-awaited Messiah.


                We are so used to thinking of John as the last prophet of the Old Covenant of God’s Law and Jesus as the Inauguration of the New Covenant of God’s Grace, that we forget is that Jesus’ first sermon was the same as John’s:  “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”   


                So we have Jesus, walking around the neighborhoods and the business district on the shoreline of Capernaum calling out for people to “Repent!” and he comes upon Simon and his brother, Andrew, going about their daily work of fishing.  Now if it was Guymon, we might say that Jesus walked up to a couple of truckers at Love’s Truck Stop, or a pair of cowboys at the feedlot or even two shift workers sharing a ride to work at Seaboard.  They were ordinary men, going about their ordinary workday.


                And the Bible says that when Jesus called out to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” that Simon and Andrew “at once” (without delay)  put down their nets – or we might imagine, parked their trucks, got off their horses or left the parking lot – and followed him.  Then the three of them ran into James and John mending nets on their father’s fishing boat, and when Jesus called out to them, and they too left “immediately” to follow him.  I’m guessing that Simon and Andrew knew James and John pretty well, like most people who work together in small towns.  James and John probably saw Simon and Andrew walking with Jesus in the middle of the workday when they should be attending to their business, and wondered what was up.


                Now you’d think that Matthew would go on to explain the calls of the other seven disciples – but he doesn’t.  Instead, Jesus is far into the first year of his ministry when Matthew writes about his own call, and then simply lists the names of the rest.  So here in the beginning, we might imagine that these first four fishermen who answered his call so quickly, at first found themselves with nothing to do, standing around with their hands in their pockets, looking at each other and then looking at Jesus, saying “Well, now what?”   “What do you want us to do?” 


                We ask the same questions:  “Now what?”   “What do you want us to do, just hang out with you?” 


                Well, yes, we are supposed to “just hang out” with Jesus.  The disciples had to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn what he taught.  Whether we are children born to believing parents or adults when we hear Jesus call, we don’t just say, “I follow Jesus” and leave it at that.  We have to learn to follow Jesus.  Fishermen have to learn how to mend the nets and how to cast them into the water where the fish are.  Believers  irst have to learn who Jesus is before we can work effectively in our new vocation as Christ-followers. 


                So we must bring our children to church and teach them the stories of faith, and when they are older teach them what the stories mean.  If we are adults, we must ourselves come to church, prepared and ready to listen to God’s Word preached.  And being “prepared and ready to listen” means that we read some Scripture – at least a little every day – so that we understand what is being preached.  It means joining with others to read and discuss Scripture so we can go deeper into God’s Word.  It means learning to pray and sticking with it, and if we fall away from it, coming back to it, over and over throughout our lives, until we understand that it is better to stay close to Jesus’ side, than to try to go it alone.


                Jesus said, “I will make you” fishers of people – he didn’t say, “I will give you” anything except salvation by grace.  Everything else requires lifelong training, lifelong discipleship.  Some people complain that they are bored in worship, but boredom in worship is rarely a sign of poor preaching.  Boredom in worship is mostly a lack of skills because of a lack of training.  Church members who wonder why they need training never seem to wonder why an untrained church shoots its own wounded.  And we find it hard to forgive our enemies because that kind of forgiveness is a high-level spiritual skill that only comes through long training.  We need the skills of the faith so we can fight the good fight. [1]


                We need to know the Bible because the Bible invites argument and disagreement.  Jacob argues with God.  Job argues with God.  Jonah disagrees with God.  If you think the Bible always agrees with us, then you are reading it badly and interpreting it wrongly.  Reading this book should sometimes cause us to say, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner,” “help my unbelief,” or even “Are you kidding me?”  The Bible forces us to examine every facet of our lives and beliefs, but you can’t do that by yourself in isolation – you need other Christians to read with.


                And once we have learned the stories and the spiritual disciplines - the rhythms – of life in Christ, then we start to serve others so they will let us tell them, so they can hear Jesus’ call to them. Following Jesus means feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked.  Following Jesus means helping to heal the sick, the wounded, the addicted, the lonely and the dying.  We are not too poor, we are not too small and insignificant.


                Last week I visited the Presbyterian Church in Beaver to moderate their Session meeting.  I think they have only sixteen members, but they were full of stories about how their little congregation served a meal to the community every Thursday; and how they had two worship services on Christmas Eve and 30 in worship last Sunday; and how their choir – they call themselves the “Tabernacle Choir” – not only hosts local hymn-sing-alongs once a month, but they gather in someone’s home every week for rehearsal, fellowship and prayer.  They gave me a T-shirt with their motto for the year printed on it:  “In 2014 the Frozen Chosen Become the Heated Needed – Filling each need through the Holy Spirit” and on the back it says, “The Church Has Left the Building.” 


                I think they’re right – the call of Jesus that caused the fishermen to leave their nets – and the continuing call of Jesus should cause us to leave the building and go into the streets and schools and businesses of Guymon, ready to serve and ready to invite others.   This claim on our lives to grow and learn and serve that has been with us from the start will be with us as long as we follow Jesus – it will not wait until our children have grown up, or until we’re not so busy.  It will not end when we reach retirement age.  It only ends when we die.


                But Jesus doesn’t intend to exhaust us – he wants us to expend ourselves only on the particular things he has given us to do.  Our strength and ability come from him, but we can only access it in the disciplines of prayer, worship and Scripture.  His instructions to us at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel are “Come and learn and follow me and serve and proclaim the good news,” and his instructions at the end of Matthew’s gospel  are “Go and teach and serve and proclaim the good news and I will come with you.”



Let’s pray:    Faithful God we thank you for Jesus, this friend who is closer than a brother; our brother who is the closer friend who laid down his life for us.  Help us to hear his call.  Prompt us to respond at once.  Inspire and enable us to follow where he leads, through your Holy Spirit.  Empower us to be the best disciples and the best church we can be.  We pray this in the name of Jesus, the perfect One.  Amen.   


[1]Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy