“Drop What You Have in Your Hands…” Matthew 4:12-23

I have puzzled over this story.   What makes those disciples drop their nets and follow Jesus?

          What would prompt you to walk away from your boat and your father?

          As I’ve looked over how I have preached this story in the past, it is run the gamut of thoughts.

          I’ve looked at it romantically.   With starry eyes, I’ve speculated on the faith and trust of Peter, Andrew, James and John how they must have just known, sensed somehow that Jesus was someone special and so were willing to lay down their former lives to follow.

          I’ve looked at the story through the lens of Jesus’ power and charisma.   I’ve thought about how powerful a speaker Jesus must have been, how convincing, and imagined him to have perhaps those blue, piercing eyes so often portrayed in the movies.  They were compelled by his charm, his confidence, his abilities to tell stories and to intersect with their lives and to lead.   That’s what makes them drop their nets by the shore…they were simply mesmerized! 

          I’ve looked and considered the story from an economic viewpoint.   Fishing was not all that great a job, at least not at this time in history when the Roman Empire was extracting fish from the Sea of Galilee in great quantities to make their coveted Garum fish sauce for shipment back to Italy.   The lake was being depleted.  We know that from historical records and from the Gospels themselves, where astounding catches are rare and finding full nets are seen as a miraculous event.    They followed Jesus because fishing for people seemed a better prospect that tending smelly nets, and they just were not catching much anymore.

          And, I believe that those approaches to this story each have their merit.

          Certainly there is something that stirs in the hearts of the disciples that compel them to follow, but I find that harder to see as a motivation for me.

          I’m just not feelin’ it, Jesus.   Not after 2000 years.  I want to follow you, I really do, but you understand, I have responsibilities.   I have to make my living, care for my family.   Peter, Andrew, James and John could leave it all behind maybe, but I can’t.  I can’t follow Jesus out of some romantic sense of wanting to be with Jesus.

          And, while I still find Jesus Charismatic and compelling, a powerful idea and an influence, I have to say that I’m not able to follow where Jesus calls just because of who he is!  

I live in the real world where there are competing viewpoints of Jesus’ charismatic appeal.   My heart burns sometimes when I perceive the Word, and at other times, I have to say that I struggle with his teaching and commands.  

I want to follow, I really do, but I just can’t hold the excitement the way perhaps those who walked along side of him on the lake shore could because he was near.   I feel the nearness of Jesus… sometimes.  

          At other times, not so much, and so when I try to lean on a “feeling” for following Jesus, I often find the feeling is brief, momentary, or I find myself easily distracted by the next “shiny” thing that catches my eye.

          And as for that economic viewpoint?   Well I’m a little skeptical here too.  I believe that following Jesus does bring me blessing upon blessing, but not in the “prosperity gospel” kind of way, where following Jesus will give me earthly comfort. 

          It has (in fact) been my experience that faithful people often struggle to put food on their own table and make decisions that are not in keeping with the accumulation of their own wealth and comfort.  They do so because they feel Jesus calls them to deny their own self comfort in order to follow and to serve others.

 And, I find that those who are wealthy and who tend to accumulate more wealth often struggle with how to follow Jesus in the midst of having “so much.”      

          In fact, some have argued that one of the interesting points of this story is contrasting Peter and Andrew with John and James. 

          Peter and Andrew are casting their nets from the shore, which would indicate that they are likely “dirt poor.”   They can’t afford a boat, and all the accompanying gear to go out to where the fish are now.  So, when Jesus calls for them, they drop their nets and follow because… meh… they’re not walking away from that much, why not try fishing for people?

          Contrast that with the call to James and John, who are in the boat… with their father… mending their nets. 

This is a family business, with inventory, overhead, and equipment!

If anything, James and John are likely raking it in selling their fish to the Garum merchants and undercutting the shore fishermen like Peter and Andrew, much like huge corporate trawling operations undermine the smaller fishing villages to this day.  

When they answer the call to follow, they are walking away from being set for life!  

          So, what happens in the call to “follow me and I will make you fish for people” is an invitation that appears to be appealing both to those who are poor, and to those who are very rich. 

That viewpoint dovetails with what we learned about John’s ministry, how all the Judean countryside were coming out to be baptized, both those of meager means and also the leaders and well to do.

          While economics might play into the call to follow Jesus, it’s not so clear cut as the poor follow and the rich don’t, at least not in Matthew’s Gospel.

          Which brings us back one again to the mystery of this call story, does it not?   What does prompt them to drop their nets and follow, if it’s not romantic notions, or the charisma of Jesus, or the economic realities of their own plight or situation?

          There is one other possibility and it is the one thing that is central to the story and at the same time the one thing we most often do not want to consider.

          Maybe they drop their nets and follow Jesus because of his vision of a changed world.

          “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

          “Repent” – turn around, change your life, go a new direction.   That’s the invitation from both John and from Jesus.

          From John, it is the invitation to simply examine your current life.   Come, get washed up, prepared for where the Messiah may lead.   Deal with all the things you have on your hands right now, look at them, see if they are worth holding on to in the presence of the Lamb of God.

          From Jesus, the invitation comes to actively work for a different kind of world.

          “Repent, for the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is a different vision of how the world should work.

          In the Kingdom, the poor will blessed and the mourning find comfort.

          In the Kingdom, the rich will be sent away empty and the hungry will be filled with good things.

          In the invitation to the Kingdom there will be an invitation to do things differently.  To “fish for people”… to put relationships above profit, and community above taking care of yourself.

          This is what we underestimate, or dismiss as unrealistic, or “not the way the world works.”  

          Of course, it’s not the way the world works!   

          It is the way the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven works, and what Jesus is saying in the Gospels is that the Kingdom of God can work here – right now!

          But here is the thing, in order to get there, to have that Kingdom of God, that Kingdom of heaven right now, you have to be willing drop whatever it is that you have in your hands, right now!

          Make no mistake, this is the moment that is operating here.

          Jesus, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel has withdrawn to the region of Napthtali and Zebulun,  — those two tribes of Israel who settled in the good and fertile area around the Sea of Galilee and who then discovered what it meant to have the “good stuff.”

          Zebulun and Naphtali, lands who dwell in deep darkness, Isaiah says, because they are perpetually set upon by folks who want what they have, and who strip them of its plenty.   If any area knows how this world works, it’s this area, beset with violence and unrest and injustice for centuries!

          It is to the dangerous place that Jesus goes, the place that needs to hear of a different way of living than the one that has been experienced so far.   Here Jesus begins to speak of the Kingdom.

          It is here that Jesus says, “if you have two shirts, and are asked for one, give it to that person asking for it.   Hey, and while you’re at it… give him your coat as well.”

          Here Jesus says, “you know how the gentiles are, how they lord authority over one another, and how the Pharisees choose the best seats at the table?  It shall not be so with you.   When you are invited to a banquet, choose the lowest place.”

          Pick a teaching of Jesus, and invariably what will make you scratch your head about that teaching is how different his teaching works than the way that we experience the world!

          Nobody invites the poor, the lame, the indigent to their banquets and fundraisers!   You invite the folks with the money, the folks with the connections, people with the power and influence to help you get what you want.

          But in the Kingdom, those who are left out are put at the head of the table.

          You have to see this!

          What Jesus is offering fisherman beside the sea of Galilee, the rich and the poor alike, is a different world from the one they currently live in.

 But to get such a world, such a Kingdom?  You have to drop what you have in your hands right now.

          And so. they drop their nets.

          They walk away from what they have in their hands right at this moment, their livelihood, their privilege, the company business… all of it…on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, the world doesn’t have to stay the way it is right now.

          Maybe God is about to do a new thing!

          Maybe, the Kingdom of God is about to begin right here, right now, and might just happen, if we let go of what it is that we’re holding on to so tightly at this moment.

          So, I ask you, “What do you have in your hands that you will need to drop to let the Kingdom of God come in?”

          Is it your power?

          Your privilege?

          Your political viewpoint?

          Will it be your sense of how the world ought to work? Your sense of justice?  Your anger or your own self-righteousness that you hold to so tightly? 

Will it be your grudges, no matter how well founded?  Your own security that comes at the expense of someone else?

          What do you need to let drop out of your hand so that someone else could have enough, or a portion, or a measure of the abundance that God has placed in this world for all?

          You see how scary this gets now?  

How hard it is to believe and follow Jesus, because if I’m right, Peter, Andrew James and John didn’t just drop their nets because of some starry-eyed romantic notion about Jesus.

And they didn’t drop their nets because Jesus duped them with his charismatic charm.

And they didn’t drop their nets because they weren’t all that good a fishing in the first place or weren’t making any money at it, or didn’t like the smell.

No, they drop their nets because they are ready to change the world.

They see Jesus as the one who can lead them into a different way of living and being.

They drop their nets because they are sick and tired of seeing their own people begging on the street corners while others live in luxury in their palaces and laugh because the world is stacked in their favor and always has been and will never change.

They drop their nets because here is someone who says God’s Kingdom and will is for all to live in health, wholeness, and joy… the world can be changed, help me bring it about!

They drop their nets because Jesus gives them a vision of a better world that is within their grasp, if ALL would but drop what they are holding on to so tightly and learn how to care for one another.

Teach us how to live like that, Jesus!  

“What? So What?” Matthew 3:13-17

One of my favorite professors at Seminary, David Tiede, used to tell us that anyone can do good biblical scholarship of any bible passage if they will apply just three little words to a passage.

          Those three little words are, “What?” and “So What?”

          “What?”  What is happening in this passage?  What’s the story being told?  What characters are involved and what do we know about these characters?  

If you ask the right “What” questions you’ll soon have a clear picture of the events, the people, the circumstances and the outcome of the story.

          The second question drives us to application.  “So what?”   How do these events, how does this story affect me in my daily life?   Speak to me still?  Challenge me, or comfort me?

          The baptism of Jesus is an excellent story to which we can apply Professor Tiede’s questions.   We get this story in some form every year right after Christmas, as Jesus begins his earthly ministry.

          So first, let’s ask the “What?” question of this story.    What is going on here?           

 “What” John is doing out in the desert is very unusual.  He is baptizing Jews, for repentance.  He’s saying that even though you are covenant people of God, you need to get “cleaned up” to be made ready to come into God’s presence.   When Messiah comes, and God’s presence is clear in our midst, you want to be seen as acceptable. 

John is telling his own people to get cleaned up!    So “What” John is doing is unusual enough to attract crowds and skeptics.

The “What” gets even more unusual when Jesus shows up and desires to be baptized.  You get a sense of that when John in his confusion asks Jesus, “Do you come to me?  I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you!” 

What is going on here?  If John is baptizing for repentance, what is Jesus, the one who knows no sin, doing getting dunked?  John is perplexed, which is a pretty good indication that we ought to be perplexed as well! 

What is going on here?   When asked by John why he has come, Jesus replies, “let it be so for now to fulfill all righteousness.”  

Well what is that supposed to mean? 

It sounds like Jesus is here to do this just because it has to happen?  That’s not a very satisfactory answer to me, particularly as a Pastor.  I mean, I have a hard enough time convincing folks that baptism is any kind special event.  Many people today view it as some arcane ritual to “have done” to the kid to make Grandma happy. 

This talk about “let it be so….” isn’t helping me any in that department!  

Jesus shows up to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”, to be baptized just because its something that has to be done???  

And just when we are most frustrated with the “What’s going on” of this story, something really weird happens.  

John does to Jesus what he has done 1000 times before, to everyone else who has ever come to him to be baptized.  John tips Jesus down into the river and when Jesus comes up out of the water “what” happens next is something that no one has ever seen happen before!

The heavens are opened.  The Spirit descends like a dove, and God speaks out loud, a voice booming from everywhere at once, “This is my Son, the beloved One, with whom I am well pleased.”

Which is, by the way, something akin to God with all this fanfare saying, “Good enough.”

“So What?”   Are you ready for that question? 

So What?   God comes down when Jesus is baptized, as if God was the “Publisher’s Clearinghouse Prize Patrol” suddenly showing up on your door?  Jesus comes up out of the water and there is God with the balloons and the big seal of approval.  “You’re my boy, and I like you!”

Big deal.  Why didn’t that happen when I was baptized?  Where was God then?

Or is this the point of the story?   That this is precisely what happens when you are baptized.

Is this the reason why it must be done?   To show us what is really happening in baptism?

This is an “Epiphany” event, a special manifestation of God.  Here God is showing us God’s face, revealing God’s presence.   In the thing that “has to be done,” we find out that God shows up!  

That is the point!  

That’s why Jesus says John must do it “to fulfill all righteousness.” 

The reason Jesus comes to be baptized is to show us what really happens here in this ritual of water and words.

And what really happens is this:   God shows up! 

Jesus comes to be baptized in order to give us this unique view, his insight into what is taking place.  He takes the wraps off of it all and through his eyes we get a glimpse of what happens in the cosmic sphere. 

Through the eyes of Jesus, we see that God’s spirit descends when the Water and the Word are combined every time a baptism takes place. 

This is what happened to you.  God came down and gave you God’s own seal of approval, God’s blessing, called you child and gave you all that God has to give, God’s very Spirit.

That may come to us as somewhat of a shock.  You mean this happened to me? 

When I was brought to the font and the Words were spoken, the water poured, all that happened to me?   The heavens were opened, even though I didn’t see it?   A brand new connection with God was made, the old barriers the separated me from God were torn asunder, and God came down and said he was pleased with me?  Could it be?

Here is the “So What?”  In the baptism of Jesus we glimpse what happens to us.

You are the one that the Spirit descends upon.  Can you feel it?  It is a remarkable thing really, and it is still there.

I had a friend in college, (Burke Peterson) who was a magician on the side, and he had these trained doves that he would use in his tricks.  Magicians need to practice, so he would sometimes bring his doves to the cafeteria and produce them out of thin air when people least expected it. They were so tame and gentle that they would just come and land on you, on your shoulder or your head. 

It was a remarkable experience. 

He’d do a trick and these things would really come out of nowhere, out of thin air, and land on you to tickle and prick with their tiny feet, and suddenly be there alive, and somewhat disturbing. 

It really is a good description of what God’s Spirit is like when it falls on you.  It can be at once unsettling, and yet gentle.   It can feel a bit prickly and at the same time disturbing, but it is not the kind of thing that you want to just brush off or dismiss.

That happened to me?  Happens to me still?  God’s Spirit comes and lands on me?  

Is that why I still feel the prickles and the giddiness and the warmth when I let myself think about it?  When I allow myself to take notice of how God comes still into my everyday life?

In revealing to us that God “shows up” in Word and Water, Jesus is inviting us to look at the world around us in a different way.  

What if God is showing up still, in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things, things the seem “let it be so for now.” Things that when we aren’t paying attention just feel like what you’re supposed to do?

Does that change how we view such things?

I’m giving you an assignment this week.  I want you to think about the question, “Where do I see God’s Spirit at working in daily life?”  

This is an “Epiphany” kind of question. 

If you enter this week thinking about this, trying to identify where you think you God showing up, I guarantee it will change your mood, your outlook, and your perspective!

That’s what this story is all about.  

Here Jesus pulls back the cosmic veil to show us what really happens when God comes in Water and Word. 

God does indeed show up like the “Prize Patrol,” but it is not earthly winnings that God comes to convey.   God instead hands you the balloons and the check that is written out with your name on it that says, “These gifts are yours, — Everlasting life, the Forgiveness of Sins, and Salvation.”  

These are the promises made to the one with whom God is well pleased, and that, my child, is you!

So what? 

So now get busy living as one who has been given this great and gracious gift!  

God shows up when you are around!   Because of the Water and the Word of Baptism, God has promised to show up with you…. wherever you are, and makes the same promise to all the baptized!

Feel the gift of being pleasing in God’s sight prickle and tickle you in the coming week.

Open your eyes to see what God has blessed you with, and what God does through the blessings of others who live out their baptismal identity around you. 

With your bulletin today you should have gotten an “Epiphany Card.”   It’s roughly pocket or wallet sized, so here’s what I want you to do with it.  

I want you to hang on this this card this week through the week and every time you see something that looks to you like God is at work through you, or through someone you meet, jot it down on the card.  Just a little description to share or remind yourself.  It’s your tool to keep the question handy, “Where do I see God’s Spirit at work in daily life?”

Then next weekend, when you come back to worship, bring your card with your notes on it, and we’ll have a place for you to pin it up in the narthex.   Share with one another where you saw God’s Spirit at work through the week. 

Help us have an Epiphany together. 

          Begin to see that being accepted here, and being found pleasing to God, is the start of a ripple through the waters of this world. Every Baptized one who knows that they are pleasing God with their actions is also bringing in God’s kingdom, just a little bit more.

“Power to be Children of God” John 1:1-18

I totally get it, prologues are hard.   I mean, I love the poetry of the beginning of John’s Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”   It is beautiful and it rolls off the tongue expressing something profound and mysterious, but….

          But after a little while of listening to John, my eyes begin to glaze over a bit at the twists and turns of the language.

          It sounds pretty, but what does it really mean?

          I have the same difficulty reading through the prologues or introductions of books, often written in glowing prose as a tribute to the author or by the author.  

I know that the prologue sets up what is to follow.

I know that what is found there is often a really good summary of where the author is going to be taking us.

But I get impatient.  

I just want to get INTO the book!   Let it catch me on its own merits and power!

          Very few people read a prologue and find themselves riveted by what the prologue has to say, they want to hear the story itself.  We often view it as “optional” material.  

          But an argument could be made that you will not understand John’s Gospel if you lightly skip over the prologue, because here is the meat of it all, and it comes just as our eyes are starting to droop and glaze….

           He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God

          John is saying that God was right here, and we did not recognize it!  We didn’t know God, even when we saw God in our midst.

          God came to us, and we did not accept God, nor did we welcome, invite, listen to or acknowledge the very God before us.

          So, if you can’t tell who God is by sight, what are you to look for?  How then to recognize God when God comes?

          For John, it has to do with power, but not the kind of power we are accustomed to in this world.

          We think of power as that which excludes.

          The power to reject.

          The power to enforce.

          The power to do something, to have something, to obtain something, to get by force or by any means necessary.

          If you can walk into a store and pull out a card and buy anything you want, that’s power… or so we think, by the standards of this world.

          If you can prevent something from happening, get your own way on a policy, block legislation, stop actions by means of the court.   Man, that is power!   We see that wielded on a daily basis anymore.

          If you can be arrested for offenses and not serve a day in jail, but be out on parole, bail, have your sentenced lessened because of who you are, or the color of your skin, or your connections, man that is power! 

          By the measures of this world power is a finite commodity, and if I have it, it is because I have successfully denied it to you, and so I will keep my power at any cost and by any means necessary.

          This is the world into which “The Word” enters. 

          This is the world that God comes into to make God’s presence known, and because the only thing we can “see” as children of this world is such “power” wielded in the sense that I have just described, we do not see God. Even when God is in our midst, nor do we accept God, because God simply isn’t behaving in the way we think God should behave as the “all powerful” one.

          No, instead God comes as a baby, born in a manger.  “The Word becomes flesh, and dwells among us.”

          And what is it that a baby does?

          Well, none of the things we expect of one who “gives power!”

          Babies don’t even have the power to control their own bowels, but they do have a peculiar kind of power.

          They have the power of relationship.

          They have the power to make our hearts melt, and our arms want to hold, and make our usual erudite utterances become all “sing-songy, baby wabie -e”

          “Who’s the precious one!   Who’s the little snookies?  Who looks just like his daddy!”

          This is the power of a baby, the power of Christmas, the power of the one who comes to take on flesh and dwell among us.

          And, John says, to those who receive the Word made flesh and who believe in his name, God gives —POWER.  

But it is this kind of power, not power such as the world recognizes or gives.

The Word made flesh give the power to connect and to love.

The power to hold and to be received.

The power to see potential, or likeness, or something that transcends the way we think of power in this world.

The power to become Children of God.

Oh, and it doesn’t happen the way that power as we think of it in this world asserts that it should, would normally happen.

You are born into it.. but not by blood!  It’s not about some birthright conferred, some special standing you have based on who you were descended from, or who you were connected to like a lineage.

This birth as a child of God is not a matter of the “will of the flesh”.  It’s not something you earn on your own or scrape and scrap to get the way you do power in this world, clawing over others to attain.

It’s not about the “will of man” – as if someone here declares you can have it, or decides you can have it, as if it is some favor to be conferred on to you, a title bestowed upon you because you are privileged in some way, different from everyone else.

No, becoming “Children of God” is strictly a matter of power freely given by God.  It is what God decides to do, and what you are left to recognize that you have!

God claims you, and what is left out of the picture entirely is any sense of this working the way power usually works in this world.

Which is, of course, again, why we miss it, why we can’t see it.

If you want to see who the Word becomes flesh, see and behold the gift of becoming a Child of God, then you look to Jesus!

If you want to claim this power freely given to be “Children of God,” then you model your own actions on the actions of Jesus, where you will see how this power is exercised.

John will then lift up seven “signs” of this power to become Children of God, in the actions of Jesus.   It is not that we “mirror” or “do what Jesus does” so much (none of us are turning water into wine or walking on water!)

No, instead look at what the signs that point to Jesus as the Word made Flesh’s concerns are in this world.

Look at where the power is made known, and what it is made known through, and how it claims people.

Water into wine, the first of the signs, is all about providing hope where it looks like all gladness has all run out.   The Children of God recognize that when it looks like the party is over, God can move to provide and turn around!   Vessels can be repurposed, and the best can be saved for last!  Expectations can be upended!

Who to heal?  Not one’s friends only, but the servant of the Centurion.  Children of God are called to love outside the lines of friend and foe.  There is power in loving the enemy and praying for the persecutor instead of repeating the cycles of this world’s power, where the powerful exert their will and suffering continues for all.  There is power in moving and acting to help and to heal whether it is appreciated or even expected at all!

Who to help?   Those neglected and powerless, the paralytic at Bethsaida who cannot make it on his own power to the healing waters.  The Children of God have the power to see with compassion those who are left out of dealings of this world, and find ways to bring them what is needed, desired, and hoped for.

The fourth sign is the feeding of the 5000.  The Children of God have the power to imagine a world where the hungry are fed and where those who have no means are provided with what is needed for life.

Walking on the water is the fifth sign.  The Children of God have the power to imagine a God who commands both wind and wave, for whom nothing is impossible, and in whose presence one can only stand in wonder and awe! 

The sixth sign of John’s Gospel is the healing of the man who was blind from birth.   The Children of God have the power to look at things differently.   The question is not “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” as the disciples at first assume. There is no power to be found in affixing blame! 

 No, the power comes in those who can see the Grace of God for what it is, an upending of assumptions and an end of things having to be as they always have been?

The power to become Children of God is one of radical inclusion.  You can be one too!  Even the blind, the skeptic, the Pharisee, the parent, and the lost one who was minding their own business begging before the power came their way and changed everything!

The seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, where the Children of God behold that the dead can live again, and that even in the face of such a sign, the powers of this world will continue to oppose and want to put the light to death, and plunge into darkness again.

But those who believe, who are given the power to become the Children of God, they will know that death is not the final word.    Though darkness tries, it cannot in the end overcome the light that has come into this world!  

All of this is set up in the prologue, in the promised power to become Children of God.   You won’t look at Jesus in the same way once you know what kind of power you are being given!

You won’t look at this world in the same way, once you begin to see how differently God’s power is used and freely given.

This is the kind of power that Jesus, the “Word made Flesh” comes to give!

The power to connect and to love.

The power to hold and to be received.

The power to see potential.

The power to become Children of God, and so Child of God, you are one. 

See it!