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"Practical Wisdom"

The immediate decision Peter and his brother Andrew made to follow Jesus sets a pattern that should encourage us to renew our own commitment daily to be Christ’s followers so we can help transform the world to look more like it will when God’s reign comes in full flower.

Every January marks new beginnings, so it’s timely that the gospel reading from Matthew for this final Sunday in January describes the most important beginning of a ministry in history — the ministry of Jesus.

We discover in what Matthew reports not only a little about the worldly wisdom of Jesus but also about what he understood his purpose on earth to be, the point of his ministry and even something about his leadership qualities. This Jesus clearly had what each of us needs in our life — a clear vision of why we’re here and the decisiveness to make a start on fulfilling our calling even if we can’t foresee where it will lead.

Let’s first notice the practical wisdom of Jesus. After the 40 days he spent in the wilderness deflecting various temptations, Jesus learned that John the Baptist had been arrested. So does Jesus hang around whatever passed for a Starbucks in those days, idly chatting with people about what happened to John? Not at all. Instead, Jesus gets the heck out of Dodge — or at least out of Nazareth — and goes north to Capernaum, a small fishing town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus knows that if John was arrested for proclaiming a message of repentance and the inbreaking reign of God, he’s in danger too, because he planned to echo John’s message in even stronger terms. Jesus decided that if he were to have a ministry at all, he’d best not set himself up for a quick arrest. Arrest could — and, of course, would — come later.

For now, Jesus obviously hopes to launch his startup ministry in friendlier territory, so he heads to Capernaum, which would become an important center for Galilean followers of Jesus, and later, a center of rabbinic Judaism after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.

Once settled in Capernaum — or at least as settled as the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head can get — Jesus knows his new ministry needs some staff, some followers, some disciples. It’s kind of a mystery how Jesus knew to pick the 12 disciples he did. He doesn’t appear to have had a long interview process or any sort of human resources department. And we know he couldn’t post the job of disciple on the internet. Instead, he starts wandering around Capernaum and the broader Sea of Galilee area proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and hoping that this surprising announcement will gain him both attention and followers.

Scholars say that the term that gets translated into English as “kingdom” usually means reign or rule or even authority. And of all four gospel writers, it’s primarily Matthew who connects the life of Jesus to prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. Some of those prophecies had to do with the idea that one day God would create an unchallenged reign “on earth as it is in heaven,” as the Lord’s Prayer says. Even an ancient form of the daily Jewish prayer called the Kaddish says this: “May he cause his kingdom to reign.”1

What both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed was that this reign of God, which was long promised and hoped for, was beginning. Jesus wanted people to know they could experience God’s reign this very day — a reign of mercy, love, justice, love and compassion. And did I mention love?

So that’s the message Jesus announced to launch the work God gave him to do on earth. And it’s the message to which Jesus’ earliest followers responded when he said to them, “Follow me.” Matthew reports that as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew, who were fishing. He asked them to come with him and fish for people, which of course means to help share the Gospel message, the Good News, about God’s reign so that people will want to repent and reboot their lives.

Clearly, Jesus was stunningly and quickly persuasive. Matthew says Peter and Andrew “immediately” left their fishing nets and followed him. It turned out to be a great career move for them. And what I want you to know is that Jesus remains equally persuasive today, but you must take time to hear him call you.

The more you read about him; the more you encounter his words; the more you listen to the testimony of others who have chosen to follow Jesus; the more you are open to the Holy Spirit regenerating your heart, mind and soul — the more eager you will be to respond to Jesus’ enticing call to exit the darkness in which you are sitting and join him in the great light that he brings and that he is.

The living, risen Christ continues even today to say to you and me, “Follow me.” And each morning we get to renew our decision to do exactly that. As morning breaks, we get to decide that this is the day the Lord has made, so we will not just rejoice and be glad in it; we also will tell others about the joy we are living in God’s kingdom today brings to us.

Has God’s around kingdom, or reign, which Jesus said 2,000 years ago was at hand, come yet in full flower? Look. The obvious answer is no. Not with wars and rumors of wars, not with injustice, racism, crime, hard-heartedness, addiction and selfishness seemingly everywhere we look.

But it’s our job to demonstrate in small ways what the kingdom will look like when it is fully consummated. So, we work today for justice because God’s fully realized reign will be marked always and everywhere by justice. We work to house the homeless and feed the hungry because in God’s fully arrived kingdom those problems will be no more. We teach the illiterate, we visit the prisoners, and we care for the lonely now to demonstrate what life will be like when everyone is literate, when no one is an inmate and when not a single person on the planet is lonely.

But first we must respond to Jesus when he says, as he did to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me.” And once we have chosen to become Christ’s disciple, it’s important that we recommit ourselves to this demanding call each day. If we don’t, we are likely, like sheep, to wander away from the shepherd.

That’s why spiritual disciplines are so important — disciplines of prayer, of meditation, of silence, of Bible study, of worship. These and similar practices move us again and again to renew our decision to live as Christ’s followers, as people who this very day can experience something of what the reign of God will be like when, in God’s good time, it comes in full.

Notice that in the gospel passage we read today, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah as saying that the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. At the time Isaiah was writing, people in Assyria, Babylon and elsewhere in the region, including the Egyptians and Canaanites, worshiped sun gods. The people of Israel didn’t worship solar deities because there is, they insisted, only one God. But for the Israelites, light became a symbol of God’s presence among them.

The writer of the Gospel of John picks up on the idea of God’s presence among the Israelites by saying, in the New Revised Standard Version, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”2 It’s a reference, of course, to Christ Jesus and the incarnation. Other translations of that verse say that God “tabernacled” among the people. Or that God pitched his tent among them. Which, of course, means that the light of God dwells with us, even in the dark circumstances of our lives.

Our task, in response to such spectacular grace, is to say yes to the call of Christ to follow him, to share God’s redeeming light in those places in the world that are stumbling around in darkness, where sin and greed and apathy have found homes. By doing that we ourselves are transformed so that we may help transform the world into a more loving place, a more generous and welcoming and merciful place — a place where, when people hear Jesus ask them to follow him and his way, they immediately say yes and begin to love others, whoever they are, wherever they are and whenever they need that kind of love. Which, of course, is every day.

May the yes you may have said to Jesus many years ago continue to be yes today. And tomorrow. And the next day and the next. May your initial yes become a long-term contract to be fulfilled with thanksgiving and love. May it be so.

1 “Kingdom” sidebar article in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2019), 1631.

2 John 1:14.

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