Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2023
Matthew 4:12-23 Commentary
Depending on what you preached last week, these two weeks of Lectionary passages from different gospels may leave you with some explaining to do—particularly if you made a big deal about the calling narrative of Andrew and Peter last week! For here we are again, in a new geographical setting, hearing about them becoming disciples of Jesus under a different set of circumstances.
It’s a teachable moment about the different purposes each of the gospel writers have in the way they craft Christ’s story. It’s interesting to note, for instance, how last week’s calling narrative went against the grain of the normal practice: the would-be disciples sought Jesus out, leaving their rabbi, John, for a new teacher. Here, though, Matthew follows the tradition more closely—the rabbi seeks out his students. And, as Peter Bynum describes it, Jesus finds them “not in pristine, idealized environments, but in the gritty, visceral details of everyday living.” (Interpretation 67, no. 4 (2013):414-16)
The result is the same: they will be with, remain, abide (last week’s key word) as they learn Jesus’s ways. The cost is the same: leaving behind what is known and familiar, what has been one’s responsibilities, what had been previously committed to, and choosing to submit to a realm of many unknowns. What holds these two ends of the journey together is who stands in the midst of it all and extends the welcoming invitation: Jesus Christ, on whom the Holy Spirit abides.
By referencing the fulfillment of prophecy in the opening verses of our text (one of five in this gospel), Matthew is showing us that this invitation to discipleship is much bigger than a handful of fishermen. Capernaum, in the hillside region of Zebulun and Naphtali and on the Roman road, is land scarred by violence and exile. Here, in the region that has been in the “shadow of death” where people have “sat in darkness,” Jesus’s arrival is heralded as light dawning.
And with the light, Jesus picks up John’s message right where he left it: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” (The Message)
Then we see the message immediately applied by Peter, Andrew, James and John. Might our ideas of repentance be too tied up in sin language to realize that at its fundamental level it is simply about change? Peter, Andrew, James and John were not in a life of sin while they went about their daily work, and yet, they immediately drop what they are doing to follow Jesus.
The call to change is fundamentally simple, but the practice of it is profoundly complicated. When you’ve been sitting in darkness, even the littlest bit of light, though welcome and needed, is painfully blinding and disorienting at first. When you’ve accepted death as your fate, even as you wildly grasp for the extended hand of life, the stun may take time to wear off.
Even when we have chosen the change, when we take that first step of action, it’s not uncommon to be overwhelmed by the experience of it. I can’t help but wonder if Peter and Andrew, James and John, after dropping their nets and leaving their old life behind, woke up the next morning and thought, “What did I do?” And I can’t help but wonder if Peter and Andrew didn’t feel more than a little relieved when James and John responded to Jesus in the exact same way as they did.
They had no idea how much everything was changing for them, let alone the world. What they were experiencing was a microcosm of the metanarrative of God’s love for the world. If these men were going to be a rabbi’s disciple, the time had long past. They were not smart enough or good enough to make the cut. But here comes Jesus, who, by extending the invitation to follow him, is telling them that they are good enough—that he wants them. He is willing to be with them, to put in the work as their rabbi, to trust them with his legacy.
It is just like the Triune God has done since the beginning. We are constantly being entrusted with God’s creations, from the world itself, to one another, and to the inmost parts of our very selves. We are being invited to so many tasks that we don’t think we’re cut out for, are afraid to try, might have a bigger cost or result in a bigger change than we realize. Our entire world, sinful as well as not sinful parts, will be disrupted by it.
This is why the call to discipleship is much bigger than the call to evangelism and fire and brimstone repentance—why Jesus promised that his disciples would do greater miracles of spiritual, emotional, and physical healing after he was gone. Why Jesus’s baptism is of Spirit and fire. Because change is fundamentally what is needed for the world to be the kind of place it will be when Christ returns.
When we think of Jesus’s “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” too narrowly, we allow just a little light to be manifest; but the full power of repentance is best understood when it is seen as any kind of positive change. Have our eyes become too adjusted to our dimly-lit darkness? If we focus on just needing to repent from our sins, will we be able to be like James and John, Peter and Andrew, and drop the important things we are doing in order to follow God’s invitations to new tasks and ways of being?
The repetition and parallel of the calling narrative in verses 18-22 is a technique used to highlight the message; by repeating, and ramping up the cost of discipleship, Matthew is drawing our attention to it. Peter and Andrew leave behind their nets, but John and James leave behind both their nets and their father. Yet, both sets of brothers do so immediately upon Jesus’s invitation. Further to the point, exegetes will point out that Matthew’s preferred way of talking about discipleship is with the word akoloutheo, “to follow.” But here, Jesus also uses a phrase which has been translated as “follow me,” but is actually an encouragement to “come on behind me,” but none of the verbs in this passage are in the imperative—Jesus isn’t commanding anything, the choice is up to us to be a disciple.
There are countless numbers of ways you can talk about the light imagery here. For instance, plants seek out the light, bending their growth. Even the way that we use “light at the end of the tunnel” to describe the hope that trouble will soon end reminds us that we are people whose souls seek light.
Amanda Gorman gave a poem at President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 full of biblical imagery and historical storytelling. Though her work could be interpreted as a piece of civil religion, I was reminded of her words as I read Matthew. Gorman captures the way Matthew talks about the light, the way the kingdom comes, and the hope Jesus brings with him as both. The poem begins:
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we know it.
Then the last lines can be tied to the call to discipleship:
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
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