December 16, 2017

Sermon: Epiphany III – What Is It About Jesus?

Fishing Boats, South India 2007

SERMON: What Is It About Jesus?

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, 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 lake—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.

• Matthew 4:12-23

What is it about Jesus?

What is it about him, that when he walks by, people pay attention? What is so attractive about this itinerant rabbi that people like Simon Peter and Andrew, hard-working brothers in a family business, will stop right in the middle of their work day, come ashore and leave it all behind to follow him? Why would James and John drop their nets, abandon the boat, and leave their father in the lurch to take off after Jesus? (I’ve always thought that was a bit unfair to Papa Zebedee.)

What is it about Jesus?

Why do people like you and me come to this place every week? Why have people gathered together around here since the mid-1830’s to pray and sing, to hear sermons from the Bible, to take communion together? Why have generations of people brought their babies to be baptized and raised their children in confirmation classes here? Why has this congregation continued, generation after generation, to serve its neighbors? It has something to do with Jesus, who is pictured right behind me here as a shepherd tending his flock, whose name we invoke constantly throughout our service, whose body and blood we receive each Sunday.

But what is it about him? What is it about Jesus that inspires such devotion, that brings about such faithfulness and loyalty?

Why am I here this morning? Why, more than forty years ago, did I embark on a journey of faith and pursue a vocation of ministry? Why did a young man like me, a senior in high school, become attracted to a church and a youth group and a youth choir and to studying the Bible? Why did I walk forward in response to an invitation one Sunday morning and profess a renewed faith and a desire to follow Jesus? Why did I then go to Bible college and afterwards begin preaching in the hills of Vermont in a little white church where they rang the bell on Sunday morning — a church even older than this one, where people had been coming to worship since 1814?

After that, we moved to Chicago so I could attend seminary. There I became pastor of another church as our family grew and learned what it meant to follow Jesus together. Then it was on to the Indianapolis area, where we kept on trying to serve churches in Jesus’ name. Gail and I even took mission trips around the world to places like India where we sang and preached and did medical work so that young people there would hear about Jesus. Now, as a hospice chaplain, it is my calling to go into homes where people are dying all around Indianapolis, sharing the comfort and hope of Jesus’ love.

What is it about Jesus that would make a person like me choose a life like that?

Each one of you has a story too, a story of what Jesus means to you. You might not be able to put it into fancy words, but you know Jesus has called you to follow him, and there was a time in your life when, like Simon Peter and Andrew, like James and John, you discovered that following him was your calling. It may not have been so dramatic as their decision to drop their nets and say goodbye to dad right in the middle of the work day, but here you are, however long it’s been, and you are still following.

Why? What is it about Jesus?

Our Gospel this morning says that Jesus was like a light in the midst of darkness. It says that people in his day, and especially in the place where he lived were sitting in darkness and in shadows so deep it seemed like death. Their land was occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by a puppet king named Herod. God had promised that one day he would send his King, the Messiah, who would bring about peace, rescue them from oppression, and finally make things right, not only for them but also for this whole great big dark world in which they lived.

Many individuals and movements claimed to have the answer. Some, like the Zealots, led revolutionary movements that sought to use violent means to overthrow their enemies. Others, like the Pharisees, thought that leading a life of strict religious observance would get God’s attention and move God to miraculously intervene on his people’s behalf. Still others, like the Sadducees, took the route of trying to cooperate with the Romans, thinking that working within the system rather than against it would yield the best results.

In various ways, all these groups were trying to fight darkness with darkness. Violence wasn’t the answer. Meticulous religious practice wasn’t the answer. Politics wasn’t the answer.

Then Jesus came along. What was it about him? Well, our text says he was like the light of the sun rising to dispel the darkness.

It says he came with a different message, a message that caught people’s imagination. “Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” The word “repent” here didn’t so much mean that Jesus was calling people to feel sorry for their sins. “Repent” means to turn around, to change your ways. He was calling them to do something new and different, something 180 degrees opposite of what they were doing, to give up all of the fruitless ways of fighting the darkness in which they were engaged.

Why should they change their ways? Because, Jesus said, God has come to rule. God was on the verge of fulfilling his promises. God is about to do what everyone has been waiting so long for God to do. And so, Jesus said, the appropriate response to that is not violence, nor withdrawing into a life of religious piety, nor trying to work the system to get what you can out of it.

Well, if those things aren’t the answer, what is? What should we do then? That’s when Jesus comes walking by, saying to us, “Follow ME.” We are to trust him, to spend time with him, to watch him and how he lives, to learn to do things his way. When we follow Jesus, the text says, we see him teaching, announcing Good News, and bringing healing to everyone he touches.

In other words, Jesus not only came with a different message, he came with a completely different mode of operation. Jesus comes and shows us it is all about the power of God’s Word and the power of God’s love. When people hear that Word and when people are touched by that love, they begin to experience the rule of God, the kingdom of God, in their own hearts and lives.

That’s what it is about Jesus. He’s all about a living in a different way than all the ways we commonly use to try and fight the darkness in our world. He’s about bringing a message of genuine hope. That message proclaims that God is really here, and he loves us, and he will make things right! Jesus is about a mode of operation that exhibits love, compassion, and kindness, that reaches out with compassion and helps the hurting. A way of living that brings healing and hope to all those who encounter it.

What is it about Jesus? It’s about truth, and grace, and most of all, love. Love that cared for people and gave so faithfully and completely that Jesus voluntarily took our darkness upon himself and died, before being raised into resurrection light.

This way of Jesus is what our world today needs too.

It has been many years since I have seen the people around me in our land so angry, so divided, so desperate to find ways out of the darkness. What our neighbors need to see in us — the followers of Jesus — is a group of people who refuse to resort to anger and violence, who will not succumb to the temptation to withdraw into our little world of religious piety, and who will not think that we can make things right by resorting to political compromise.

No, the call is clear. First, repent — that is, turn around and decide you are going to go a different way. Second, listen to Jesus when he says “Follow me!” Follow me into the light. Follow me as I lean on God’s Word and share it with others. Follow me as I lay down my life to heal and bless others.

That’s what it is about Jesus. May it also be said that that’s what it is about us. Amen.

Comments

  1. Eloquent, The fishermen knew of him. They weren’t living in a vacuum. Their fathers were actually in favor of them learning under a teacher. Maybe I wonder how 2000 years later we are here. I’ve seen darkness without long conversation you couldn’t comprehend. I’ve seen it from my earliest memories. I understand weeping and gnashing of teeth but that is understated. I can’t remember how long it has been to feel this bad for things I’ve said or to be so badly represented. Then to read this. I am realistic. Turn around see. You have to see. You see when I picked the cat up that was skin and bones starving for a month who chewed his leg off and was in agony the darkness is still here and I knew what he felt. Don’t pretend. It cost me 2000 dollars. I’m not someone who cannot share from heart. I’m just not able to. Good and bad I am face value. I’m just to crazy and sometimes I think stupid to be another way. ……bye dear ones just w

  2. What is it about Jesus, indeed.

    A Poem about Three Idiots
    (Rick Rosenkranz, 2014)

    Jesus once told a guy to walk on water,
    and like an idiot, the guy did.
    I mean, c’mon, dude, stay in the boat where it’s safe!

    Jesus once told a dead guy to get up,
    and like an idiot, the dead guy stood.
    I mean, c’mon, dude, you’re in heaven! Stay there!

    Jesus twice told me to follow him.
    The second time, I was an idiot.

  3. Yea I’m an idiot yet I’m fairly certain it was 70 X 7….The only truly good to ever be here as we know it came as a baby. I’m tired of manipulations and such. Always hated cliches and sayings it is why when he said you have heard but I tell you….See if all you ever see is positives then you risk never going to the garden he had to pass through. He was quite sure of what was nailed. Problem is I don’t see like that yet and I’m here. So if you must smile all the time sat hi to Joel for me. Do we do things at great expense and then find a reason. Hey did my best to say sorry. Not plain enough sorry please forgive me and extend mercy. ….for real I can’t do this anymore by being here

    • I knew what you meant Ric and that isn’t half bad except it would probably be longer for me. …Peace

  4. across the bay
    lights along the shore
    lives unknown

  5. Burro [Mule] says:

    “Repent” obviously didn’t mean, in Jesus’ mouth, back then, what it sounds like to us –

    You there! Stop being bad, and be good, like ME!!

    That is about the most distasteful message one can receive, and it’s no wonder no one’s heeding it.

  6. Dana Ames says:

    Excellent sermon, Mike. I think your concise summary of the main Jewish factions of Jesus’ day is the best one I have ever read.

    Dana