Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Zebulun and Naphtali are among the lesser-known tribes of Israel; there is not much mention of them in Hebrew scripture. (For the background, check this link from our previous commentary.) A significant event, however, was their participation in a battle against the Midianites, detailed in Judges 6-8. A greatly outnumbered Israelite force emerged victorious in the battle — leading to Isaiah’s comment about “people who sat in darkness” now seeing a great light. When the darkness and weight of a difficult problem are weighing on us, it is awfully comforting to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Matthew will use this verse in his interpretation of Jesus — who went to live for a time in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali (also known as Galilee) — and the shining of God’s light through his life. Matthew looks back and sees God’s purpose at work in the events of Israel’s history — God is always preparing the way for God’s future in the lives of God’s people.
Have you ever looked back and seen the “hand of God” in your own life? Was there a time that you felt God lifted a burden, or shed light on a dark place in your life — and, ultimately, may have used that experience to make you stronger?
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
A repeated theme during the season of Epiphany centers on light. There is perhaps no better or stronger statement of what it means to have the Lord as your light and your strength than verse 1 of this psalm.
The phrase “afraid of the dark” captures what it feels like when we cannot see our way through a situation. Can you recall feeling this kind of fear of the unknown? How would you describe the sense of relief that comes with a bright light shining in the midst of the darkness?
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
It seems to be a part of human nature to tend to “choose sides.” Of course, we all have favorite sports teams — for better or worse, when a game is involved one team usually wins while the other loses. Paul tries to help the Corinthian church understand that there aren’t “winners” and “losers” in the church. We are all on the same team. It is not a “Christian” thing to do to feel superior because of one’s connections to individual leaders, pastors, or teachers. It is Christ who is pre-eminent — everybody else is simply working for Christ.
Is it possible to be proud of your leaders — whether past or present — without having to assert the superiority of one over another? Why is it so important to maintain Christian unity, especially when it comes to choosing whose “side” we are on?
Jesus comes through a rather “dark” moment in his own life when he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. All the more fitting to have Matthew note his connection to Zebulun and Naphtali, the place where God has brought light in a dark time.
A key idea in the calling of the disciples in Matthew’s story is there “immediate” response to Jesus. What makes them so responsive to the call of Christ? If you were called to leave your way of life and give your full attention and time to ministry, just how difficult would that be? What kinds of arrangements would you need to make?
Notice the kinds of things that Jesus did in his daily exercise of God’s will for his life: he taught, he preached, he brought healing to those who were sick. As Christ’s followers, can we still be involved in doing these same kinds of things? If so, how? What does such a ministry look like in our world?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Almost forty years ago, I had my first meeting with a denominational committee to talk about my “call,” my belief that God was calling me to be a parish pastor. I only remember two things about that day in a Sunday School room in the education wing of a large downtown church; 1) being so nervous that I felt like I was going to pass out, and 2) someone asked me “What have you given up to enter the ministry?” I managed to say something, but the most truthful answer would have been, “As a recent college graduate with a degree in Sociology and no job prospects; not much!” Years later, I found myself in conversation about a call to ministry with a young person who has worked for a major American corporation for several years and makes a nice six-figure salary with good benefits and bonuses. I said, “For me, “what I was giving up” was all theoretical; for you the change in standard of living will be very real and possibly quite shocking and painful.”
In today’s Gospel lesson we see people whose sacrifices were very real. It is probable that they were also shocking and painful; if not to themselves then certainly to their family members and business partners who depended on them for help in earning a living. As I read this lesson over and over, I wondered – “How can anybody just drop everything and go, on a moment’s notice, just like that?,” especially when to do so is giving up so much in terms of financial security and personal relationships.
But yet, the Bible tells us that first the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and then the brothers James and John, immediately got up and walked away from their boats and their nets and their families when Jesus called them. (Actually, it refers to James and John as “other brothers,” which makes me laugh because it reminds me of the Newhart Show and the line, “my other brother Darrel,”) Unless these two sets of brothers are as clueless as the backwoods brothers both named Darrel, how could they make such an apparently thoughtless and reckless choice? How could they walk away from a lucrative business catching and selling fish in order to follow a carpenter who offered them nothing but a vague promise to teach them to “fish for people?”
Well, this being the Epiphany season we must make allowance for the idea that Simon and Andrew and James and John had, well, an epiphany – a sudden realization of the truth, in this case a sudden realization of the truth about who Jesus was and as a result, an equally sudden realization of the truth about who they themselves were.
Most of us in the modern world aren’t real comfortable with Epiphanies and Revelations and sudden realizations of the truth. We are much more at home carefully calibrating the odds and possibilities, gathering together our data and building a logical case for the truth. We are all a lot more Sgt. Joe Friday; “Just the facts Ma’am, just the facts,” than we are Hank Williams; “I saw the light; I saw the light; no more darkness, no more night.”
But there they were, those hard-working fishermen, confronted by the commanding presence of an itinerant preacher and precious few other facts to go on. Had they heard of him? Had they heard of his baptism in the River Jordan and the dove from heaven and the voice proclaiming him the beloved son and messiah? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know.
All we know is that Jesus came out of the wilderness a changed man. He had wrestled with the devil and his own vocation for forty days and he came out of there sure of who he was and what he was to do. He came out of the wilderness and into the world ready to teach in the synagogues and proclaim the good news of the kingdom; he came out prepared and eager to cure diseases and sicknesses among the people. He came out ready to get to work, and he came out ready to pick some people to work with him.
And so he strode down the beach and he looked these people in the eye and said, “You, you, you, and you. Yes you. Come with me. We have work to do.” And they came. For us today it matters not why those men chose to follow Jesus that day. It matters to us that they did, for it was through them, and others like them, that the gospel has come to us.
What is important for us today is that Jesus has issued to us the same invitation, the same call, the same imperial demand to follow, that he issued to them. And you know what? We deserve it as little as they did and understand it even less.
The message is that God in Christ has chosen us, every last one of us, to be his disciples, his followers, his fishers of folk. And God has not chosen us because we are the smartest, or the prettiest, or the richest, or the most popular, or the most likely to succeed. No, God has chosen us because God is God and God is love and God has graciously loved us in spite of ourselves, and when that overwhelming reality suddenly becomes clear to us – all of us then have a moment of epiphany and revelation and realization and find ourselves in the midst of a great light that has pushed back all our darkness and all our night.
And the only rational thing any of us can do at that moment is to lay aside whatever it was we were doing that we thought was so important and give it and ourselves to over to God and the Kingdom.
And the strange thing is, when we do that, God turns us around and sends us right back out to do the same thing in the world that we were doing before. But now, we do it differently. We do it knowing we do it not for ourselves, for our own pleasure, or improvement, or material gain; we do it for God. We do it knowing that we are in the world as ambassadors for Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We do our work and live our lives knowing that the most important things we do are those things that help others know that they too are chosen by God, loved by God, wanted by God.
And in the end we will never, ever think about what we have given up to follow God. Instead, we will wonder how we ever got by without God and God’s work in our lives.
Amen and amen.