Scripture: Matthew 4:12-23
I have found that one of the most relaxing and amazing things to do to pass time is to watch birds fly. As a child when riding in the car to town I would stare out the window and see the huge flocks of black birds jump up at once to take flight and do aerial acrobatic moves that were awe inspiring. Hundreds of birds moving in unison weaving and twisting, flipping and rolling only to settle back down onto the ground. I would stare in wonder watching the magic of nature noticing that not a single bird would fly into another while they performed their dance, each fitting in and doing their part to amaze the poor creatures that were not created with wings on the ground.
People have studied these birds and have tried to explain how and why they do these acrobatics but I could not tell you myself, to be honest I could not tell you what kind of bird they are, I just enjoy watching the show. But I do know that from observing the behaviors of birds like these people can determine things about the environment around them. From my days working outdoors I can tell you that if you have several birds in your lawn chances are very high that you would have a grub problem, and the birds are around to eat them. So if you happen to need some fishing bait you might observe the birds.
People have always observed their surroundings; they have studied how the animals and plants react. They study so they are able to survive and thrive in environments that are not always pleasant. As they studied and learned they were then able to use this knowledge to domesticate animals, to determine where the best land would be to plant crops, or when it was time to move. It is remarkable how well we have been able to do this. Just think for a bit, how did mankind eventually tame a dog, how did they learn to control a horse, the reindeer, cattle, or the largest mammal on land the elephant?
The world around us is filled with wonder if we were to take the time to slow down and enjoy it. We have yet to really observe and harness various amazing mysteries surrounding us. For example we have known and studied the forces of magnets for centuries but magnetism for the most part is still a mystery, after hundreds of years of study the forces of nature continue to cause many to wonder just as a child watching the birds perform outside a window.
Today, as we reflect on this passage of scripture, I would like us to focus on that sense of wonder and natural curiosity found in humanity. Jesus has moved from the banks of the Jordan, where John was preaching, to the Sea of Galilee. The cause of this move could be because of John’s arrest or just a change in the approach of ministry, either way the delivery method of the Gospel changes because of this move. In the ministry of John, the people would leave their homes and come to the Jordan to hear the message. In many ways that was the way the religious world worked. People would make holy pilgrimages to various sites to pay homage to God; the greatest example biblically would be the feasts that required travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. John’s ministry was transitioning the people out of this temple form of worship, basically telling them that God does not dwell only in a temple of stone but He can be worshiped anywhere. But the method was still similar it required a pilgrimage, people came out to listen to John. They left their community to worship God. Jesus changes the method, instead of having people come only to him, but he would go to the people. He moved to Capernaum and traveled the countryside teaching in their synagogues and ministering to the sick and hurting.
Jesus changed the method of ministry. The ministry is now active in the community, walking around and engaging people where they are, instead of requiring people to come away. This is interesting in many ways, because the methods do change at times. It like many things is cyclical. There is a time where the method is best in the heart of the community and at other times the gospel is best heard when one leaves their own community and get outside their normal routine. At times we build and people come while at other times we must go meet in the houses and parks within a community.
Jesus goes and he is walking on the shores of the sea. We do not know how long Jesus was in Capernaum before this story took place, but I would venture to say that he was there for a while. What we do know is that he was there long enough to walk around and attract the attention of the fishermen. It is the fishermen he first engages. Two brothers are casting a net into the see and Jesus calls out to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” or as other translations state, “I will make you fishers of men.”
Think about that statement. I will make you fish for people. It immediately makes one think of the art and science of fishing. One does not just simply fish. A true fisherman knows fish, like a rancher knows their cattle. They know how fish react to the climate and to the current weather patterns. They know how they react to light and what areas they inhabit at certain times of the year. They know what season the fish are mating, when they are hibernating, and how to effectively catch them in any situation. It is a skill that takes time to learn through observation and careful study; it takes years of practice and discipline. The men that Jesus is speaking to know their trade, they know when to take the boat out and when to stay home. They know where to go and what tools to use. Although it is not always an exact science, these men know their business because if they did not they would not survive.
They are also religious men. Last week we read a similar passage in the Gospel of John where two of these men were mentioned, they were disciple and students of John the Baptist. But today they are not on the banks of the Jordan but at home fishing in the sea. There is something about the Gospel that compels them, it drew them from their homes to seek out John, and it opens their lives to Jesus as well.
Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He is offering them a new trade, a new way of life. The discipline required to learn how to fish is now being applied to humanity.
Let us go back to the human’s natural curiosity. For us to survive in our environments we must observe and adapt, we must learn skills and develop tools to survive. Andrew, Peter, James and John were master fishermen. They knew the tools of their trade, they knew the best places to fish and they knew how to read the environment to get an idea of where to go next. These same skills apply to ministry. To fish for people we first must develop an understanding of people. We need to know where they are coming from and what they hope for. To be effective we must observe the cultures we are in and adapt our methods to present the Gospel more clearly. We must devise tools to use that will effectively reach the people. This takes time, discipline, and a willingness to adapt.
These fishermen know the task at hand. They know that to be good fishermen they must use nets; these nets must be constructed properly. They are designed to catch large fish but to also let the smaller fish escape so they will grow and repopulate. These nets are thrown out into the waters and then pulled in, and as they are pulled the nets close and capture the targeted fish. This is one method of fishing, but there are other methods as well. If you were to go fishing in around Kansas City you would not use nets but hooks and lines. We place various types of bait on the hooks to attract the attention of a specific type of fish. Again one must know the fish and the tools to do this effectively. And just so you know I am a terrible fisherman so do not ask me what to use.
But in dealing with humanity we are not catching them or baiting them, this illustration was made to specific people of a specific profession. The point is discipline. Jesus is presenting to these men the ability to observe and read people, and to adapt their ministry to reach people more effectively. How do we do this? What are the forms and methods of communication utilized by our culture? What are the interests of those around us? What are their needs and what are their fears? If we cannot adjust and adapt to the culture we live in our greatest ministry efforts will be like throwing out fishing nets without the netting, as it is pulled it catches nothing. To be effective we need to first be students. We must know the Gospel as well as the culture so we can adapt to minister to those around us.
This applies to all types of ministry in every culture. Those that minister in Rwanda must know the message of Christ but they must also be able to present that message in the language of the Rwandan. For the Rwandan to listen to the message the minister must have some understanding of the people. They need to know the political, economic, and other cultural aspects affecting the people in their daily lives. What about our community? What are factors here that would affect our ability to minister?
Jesus is calling us to follow him into his ministry and to do that we need to develop a discipline to read the culture around us. To begin we first need to follow Him. We need to develop in our own lives the rhythm that Jesus himself had in ministry: a lifestyle of prayer, worship, and service to others. Without this rhythm our best efforts in ministry are empty, without power or substance. In prayer we connect to Christ, in worship we are empowered and in service to others we pass the grace on. In prayer we interact with the Spirit of God as we engage scripture and observe our community. In worship we join together to encourage one another to embrace the Spirit’s leadings and to go out and serve. In prayer we get direction, in worship we get confirmation. Both lead to service. Our prayer and worship is empty if we do not serve others. And our service is misplaced and ineffective if it is not connected to God.
We are faced with a great challenge. Jesus is calling us as he did those first disciples to follow him and he will make us fish for people. The challenge is learning and observing taking a step back to gain understanding before we move forward. The challenge is putting our own preferences off to the side so that collectively we can serve our community more effectively. It is adapting our ministry to engage with culture we are called to serve. We have a great challenge before us, but one that is filled with promise. God is calling us to become His laborers and to participate in His Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. The challenge is before us, but we are not alone in this task. The power that raised Jesus from the grave is available to each of us when we ask for it in His will and in His name. That is amazing power, power that we have only begun to understand after 2000 years of observance and study. But are we willing to rise up to the challenge, are we willing to drop the control of our own lives to follow Jesus into this great unknown? Are we willing to lose ourselves to gain the Kingdom of Heaven?
As we enter this time of open worship and holy expectancy, let us remember that curiosity of a child that would wonder about the dancing birds and other mysteries of our world. Let us remember the curiosity and the desire to know and let us apply that same curiosity to the challenge and joy God has set before us.
Scripture: John 1:29-42
How many of us have ever been exhausted? Just stretched to the near breaking point feeling as if one more thing going wrong just might make you snap. Where the stress is so great the only thing you really want to do is to sit down to cry, or lay down to sleep for a day straight. I know many of us are at that point, and if you are not currently you have been there. In those dark days of exhaustion we do not always act in a manner we would normally wish to act, we may not think as clearly as we would like, and at times our mouth may start speaking before our brain chooses the proper words.
The problem with this state of mind is that we tend to add more to our plate. The stress may be the result of a lost client so we work extra hours attempting to replace the lost income, or we seek to work another job. We end up adding additional stress to alleviate the stress. We have to do these things because it is an issue of survival. But if we do not have a good way to relieve and release the stress, we are walking about like pressurized balloons drifting and bumping along only to pop when we least expect it.
The first century Palestine is one of those pressurized cultures stretched thin and ready to explode. What is causing the pressure? Many things really; there is the political tension of very different cultures living in one place, there are the religious debates over what the correct interpretation or teaching of the Hebrew Law, there is the continuous threat of war as the Romans have a military presence stationed throughout the land because it is the eastern edge of the empire, historians could probably continue listing off various factors that were putting pressure on this small province. But what we do know is that the pressure continued to build and it eventually snapped into all out war that has affected the region for nearly two millennia.
It is in this culture that the evolution of faith emerged. It is in this pressurized and tense situation that everything changes, so much so our calendars and history reflect the distance from this particular era. Last week we spoke of John the Baptist and today this same man again is mentioned. This one man’s ministry stood at the fork of history and faith, it stood as a signpost that marked two paths. The paths were similar in many ways yet altogether different.
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” This is where the pathways diverge, and this is where the evolution of faith that I spoke about earlier is first seen. It revolves around on small three-letter word, sin. Notice that this is a singular word. John did not say sins of the world, but sin of the world. How many of us have recognized that point? Of the two pathways at which John stands guard, one lane focuses on the plural sins where the other focuses on the singular sin. As I contemplate that point I am reminded of the passage in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The yoke in this passage is the teaching of the rabbi. Jesus says that his yoke is easy, where the others are heavy. As Jesus taught, he critiques the religious leaders saying, “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to life a finger to move them.” This critique is saying that they are focused on the plural sins, instead of the singular sin.
What exactly is the difference? The plural form looks at the symptoms where the singular looks at the cause or the disease. One is looking at the outside, the other internal. Mankind once lived at peace with God in the Garden of Eden, but they were tempted. That temptation was to become like God, and they ate of the fruit and have since lived trying to control their own lives and that of others, instead of living in relationship. Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Lamb of God is the second statement that sticks out to me. This statement goes back to the formation of Israel, linked to the Passover lamb. This particular lamb is a sacrifice, but is different than other sacrifices. This lamb was the sacrifice that freed the tribes of Israel from bondage, and also prepared and nourished their bodies to begin their journey to the land of promise. Those with the blood of the lamb on the frames of their doorways were protected from the wrath of God that hovered over Egypt claiming the first born of all living creatures.
Sin entered the world and that sin affects relationships between God and humanity and between mankind. Adam and Eve immediately became ashamed of their nakedness and began to hide themselves from each other and God, they covered themselves bound themselves from knowing one another. They became a slave to sin because they could no longer trust, and could only rely on themselves. Here is the Lamb of God, who will free us from the sin, or sickness of the world. Here is the Lamb releasing us to love and trust once again.
The teachings of all the other rabbis focused on the symptoms or the effect of sin. The books of law contain 613 commandments. There are 613 symptoms that point to the root cause of sin, but treating the symptoms does not cure the disease. Trying to keep these laws is like trying to cure a brain tumor with Excedrin. It may relieve the pain for a time but the reason behind the pain remains. Every day more pills are taken, at increasing amounts just to cover the symptoms, and that individual would have to constantly keep a bottle of pills with them just to be able to function. These rabbis command each person to keep the laws, but they still have issues with sin. So they add teachings, and define what the laws mean and what constitutes sin. All the while they continue to wrap their bonds tighter, until they chock out the very life of their faith. Here is the Lamb releasing us from that bondage.
Two of John’s disciples heard these words being said. They were like many of us tired and exhausted, stretched to their breaking point, and John is telling them, “That guy is the one that will release the tension.” For two days they heard this and they decided to follow. Jesus turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?”
These men are tired of the constant struggle, tired of the trying, tired of the lack of trust and love between everyone around them. They are tired of keeping track of the sins of their life and just want released. And Jesus asked them what are they looking for? Everyone is looking for something. We live in a world that is more connected than ever before. We can instantly converse with people on the other side of the world, we can play games with them over the Internet, but we are also the loneliest we have ever been. What are we looking for? Acceptance? Hope? Release? Everything that we do is done for a reason, that reason may be well planned out or spontaneous but everything we do is done to full some need we are seeking. We may not even know what the reason truly is but we are self-medicating our sins hoping that somehow we can numb the sin.
The men answered Jesus, “Teacher, where are you staying?” The translation, “staying” does not really paint a clear picture of the conversation. Their question alludes to the pitching of a tent, or abides. Or to be clearer, where do you find relief from life’s struggles? Come and see is the answer.
Jesus does not only want to give them some grand teaching or interpretation of the law, he instead wants them to come and see. He wants them to join him so he can show them what life with God is truly supposed to be. Come and see, not listen and do, but come and see. There is a distinct difference between the methods of teaching. One is dictated to others while the other is a hands’ on approach with them. Come and see, walk with me, listen and observe, and let me show you and then watch as you practice.
We live in a scary, dark, and lonely world. Every day we shake our heads as we hear reports of violence. We have divided our nation up into political groups where we have different philosophies how to answer the same questions, and yet we do not trust the other. We stretch ourselves out with work, and attempts to alleviate the stresses that are around. We attempt to control as many factors of life as we can in an attempt to turn things around. And yet we feel as if we have just been spinning our wheels. We look to leaders to give us the answers, yet those leaders are just like us exhausted, stretched, stressed and about to pop. We are asked what we want and all we want is a little release of the pressure.
Jesus is saying to us all come and see where I stay. He took those men out to the place where he physically rested, and Jesus taught them and showed his life. Come and see. Jesus showed them how to enter into a spiritual rhythm that would fulfill all law. He showed them love and acceptance.
We look out at our community, states, nations, and world and often we are overwhelmed, but Jesus is calling us to first come and see. This is what caused George Fox’s heart to leap with joy, this is what prompted Ignatius to start the Society of Jesus with his companions, and this is what prompted every major movement in the church. All had a strong desire to find rest and release from the bondage of sin within them.
We are each on a journey together as we walk with Christ. But we are not the only ones looking for answers. Everyone is looking for something, and we like Christ should help them discern what they are seeking, and then walk with them as they too come and see. We each walk the path, and we each are being watched. Are we showing those around us asking questions what life with God is like or are we instead binding them deeper in their sins.
I began today speaking about being stressed and tired. Our stresses are constantly going to be around us. But we can find rest in Christ. We find it as we adjust our lives to reflect his, as we walk with him in a life of Prayer, worship and ministry. By becoming a people who are Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. When we are able to live that rhythm we will begin to see how we can better encourage those around us in their own walks, without binding heavy burdens on them.
As we enter this time of open worship let us contemplate on the question, “What are you looking for? And the answer come and see.” Let us look to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and let us seek to show a lifestyle where we are free to speak and encourage others to come and see the hope that we have.
Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
We are a nation of rules and laws; everyone knows this and many would point to the Ten Commandments to verify this stand. The fact of the mater is that our nation’s legal system has more in common to the Greeks or Roman cultures than that of the Hebrews. We often think of the Jewish people as being people of the Law. They follow the Torah, or the books of the law, so it is easy to think that, but after the exile to Babylon and the subsequent rule of Persia the Hebrew people were in a state of transition. Their faith was in a sort of evolution. They became people of teaching instead of people of the law. They became a people of various rabbinical teaching or interpretations of what the meaning behind the law was. These teachings or yokes as they were commonly called in the first century were more than just a religious expression but an entire way of life. It was incorporated not only on the day of worship but saturated every facet of the disciple’s existence.
The first century expression of faith among the Jewish people was in a state of transition. It had to change in many ways because the people of Israel were scattered across the known world, to the east they reached into across the Persian Empire and into what we now call Russia, they moved throughout Western Europe into Spain and north into Scandinavian areas. Their settlements are old and their influence in those areas are great. This vast distance posed an interesting dilemma for the faithful, how do we worship without going to the temple? As distance increased it became impossible for the faithful to travel to Jerusalem for the feasts so they developed a proxy type system that eventually morphed into what is seen today.
This is the culture in which Jesus began his ministry. But to really understand the ministry of Jesus we must begin with John the Baptist. Every Gospel speaks of the ministry of John. There are very few things that every Gospel mentions, but each one mentions the ministry of one man John. John is not the only teacher in Israel at that time, but there is something about the ministry of John that uniquely corresponds with the ministry of Jesus. That place they meet is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Both Jesus and John teach this Gospel. And that is the Gospel message. As our own Christian faith has evolved over the years we have focused on different aspects, many would say that the Gospel message is the Cross, but the cross is only a portion of the good news it is not the whole Gospel. The cross is a sign that points to the fulfillment of the gospel and proves that the kingdom is truly at hand. But the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is near, the rule of God is all around us, and God wants us to participate in it. The kingdom of God is beyond the walls of a building, beyond even the sacred wall of the most holy of holy area of the Temple. The kingdom of God is at Hand, that is good news.
This is a teaching that is emerging in the culture around Jesus. It is something new yet linked to the traditions of ancient days. This message has people curious and is why people are leaving the cities and seeking out a radical teacher out in the wilderness. The Kingdom of God is at hand. If that is true, the people then asked, “What must we do to enter into that kingdom?”
John stood on the banks of the Jordan crying out to the people all around, “Repent and be baptized.” This literally means turn around and wash. This message says a great deal about the evolution of faith in the first century. John’s baptism was more than just the ceremonial cleansing promoted by other rabbinical teachers; those washings needed to be continuously repeated because people were constantly getting themselves dirty again. Meaning sin was all around, the interpretation of the law showed this in great detail, and so to worship one would need to wash to be acceptable. To eat with unclean hands would deem you unfit to worship, so you would wash in a particular way to be clean. John’s teaching was slightly different. Yes there is a glimmer of similarity but there is something deeper. John’s baptism was literally teaching that to enter into the kingdom you must turn from the other interpretations and wash yourselves of their influence. Turn from a life of sin and walk a different path, cleansed from all unrighteousness.
This is where the foundations of the Christian church are laid. They begin with the teaching of John, the Gospel of the kingdom. The news that God’s rule is all around us and to gain access we must first wash ourselves of the old ways and turn to Him. John did not teach that the law was bad, but that it was not enough. The teaching of John was a lifestyle of sacrifice, putting others before yourself and living in a community of blessing. John’s teachings were just the begin, because John himself said “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John in his own words is saying that the Gospel message that he is teaching is yet incomplete, that the water of repentance he is promoting, is just a symbol, a shadow of the true power yet to come. It is here that Jesus comes in. Jesus meets John in the Jordan and John says to his cousin, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
What is John saying? First off he is saying that Jesus is greater, that Jesus is the more powerful one John was speaking about that would bring the Holy Spirit and fire. But secondly he was saying that the next stage of the evolution of faith was upon them. John the Baptizer was about to step back and allow the new day dawn. Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Let it be so now. I want us to contemplate this phrase, really the word now. When we consider the word now, we have certain thoughts that immediately come to mind. This one word could be translated as: at once, for now on, still, again, at last, immediately, in the future, just, just now, this moment, and this very day. Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. At once, for now on, still, again, at last, immediately, in the future, just now, this moment, and this very day all righteousness is fulfilled. With that one act Jesus took on the mantel of all humanity turning them around and began to show us the Kingdom of God. That one act connected the traditions and teaching of the past with the emerging teachings and life that Jesus was to show his disciples. With that one phrase and action every theological expression of the Church is covered: Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Quaker. Because in this one exchange the focus shifts from what man can do to what Christ does for us. As Jesus stepped out of the water, He became the way.
Matthew’s Gospel more than any other Gospel builds connections with the teachings of the Old Testament with Jesus, he shows how Jesus fulfills all righteousness, and he shows the path or the way to the Kingdom. Matthew teaches us the way of the disciple.
The word baptize, is to immerse as to clean. It has roots in the hygienic laws of the Old Testament but is deeper. I have recently began to read a book describing one woman’s quest to live a life of biblical womanhood, why a guy is reading it who knows, but it is very interesting. In this book there is a discussion of the Mikvah, or the ritual bath, and describes how it is to be used. It is to remove all foreign substances from the body and then immerse completely. One is to breath out all the air from your lungs and let the water soak into the pores, allowing the water to carry away all filth, so you emerge from the water clean. This is a great picture; I fully understand why many believe that full immersion baptism is an important sacrament. But I want us to remember that John said the one to come would baptize or wash us with the Holy Spirit and fire.
It is when we immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit that we entered into the Kingdom. It is when we allow the Spirit of God to soak deep within our being and to carry away the things unclean in our lives that we enter into the kingdom and begin that walk with Jesus. This comes through worship, prayer, and service. Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with others. We immerse and are baptized by the Spirit when we turn from the old ways and put ourselves into a place where we can converse with the Spirit.
I speak a lot about a life of prayer, and I have a feeling that I will be speaking about this more deeply throughout the year, because prayer is where the immersion begins. When I speak of prayer, I am speaking of something that incorporates the entirety of our mind and body. It involves the reading and deep study of scripture, the meditation and contemplation on scripture, the interaction and conversation between oneself and God with scripture. I speak of the use of our imagination and our wisdom as we with the Spirit examine our lives and envision the future. To me prayer is more than just lifting words of intercession on behalf of others, or telling God our needs, it is an intense intimate conversation with God. Prayer and a lifestyle of pray builds into worship and service to others. Without that immersion with the Spirit in prayer, worship is just noise, and ministry empty. But with an immersed life of prayer everything changes all things are made new.
When I read this passage. I see the conversation, and I hear the words. I see the bubbles emerging from the nose and mouth of Jesus as John pushes Jesus beneath the water and insures every hair is soaked. As I read I see the passing of a mantel, not ritual. I see John laying down the old guard, and Jesus rising up out of the water to carry on something new. Emerging from the water as the droplets fall to the ground, splashing in the dust I see all righteousness fulfilled in Christ. And he walks out into the wilderness. I see the closing of ritual and the emergence of a new lifestyle a lifestyle focused on God ruling every aspect of our being, immersed.
Repent and be baptized. Let it be so now. Fulfill all righteousness. God is calling us to the Kingdom; the Kingdom is already around us. It has always been, because God has always been working in the lives of mankind. Jesus is calling us to turn from the old and see with new eyes, to listen with new ears, to gain a different perspective, to be immersed in Him. Let each one of us this year strive to be immersed in Him. Let each of us strive to examine every aspect of our lives with Him, to envision a brighter future. Let each of us strive and walk with Christ out in the wilderness of our community, not with answers to the problems of the world but instead going out with teaching and encouragement to everyone we meet. Showing encouragement that they too will want to immerse their lives in the grace, hope, and love of Christ.