St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

The Calling

Bob Potter
Isaiah 9: 1-4 | Matt. 4:12-23
Can you remember last week’s sermon? As I remember it Chris explored the cryptic and enigmatic conversations, recorded in John’s gospel, between Philip and Nathaniel and then Nathaniel and Jesus, culminating in Nathaniel’s
confession, ‘Teacher you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ with the implication that Nathaniel then joined Jesus’ band of disciples.

This morning the Lectionary presents us with Matthew’s version of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. This version which almost word for word repeats Mark’s account is completely at variance with John’s narrative. If
we listened to Luke’s version we would hear a third alternative. There Jesus first begins his ministry of teaching and healing. Luke tells us that people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority and that they were impressed
that Jesus commanded evil spirits and healed people. With this background Jesus is walking along the shore of the lake teaching. The crowd is jostling him eager to get as close as possible. He sees two fishing boats pulled up on
the shore and he gets into one and asks the owner, Simon, to push it out a little way and continues to preach separated from the crowd. After he has finished he instructs Simon to push further out and let down the nets Simon
and Andrew do so and catch a large haul of fish and call their partners, James and John, to help. Then in this situation Jesus calls all four to follow him.

These irreconcilable versions should underline for us that the Gospel writers were not recording history. Their stories were told with a purpose: to convert their listeners to become followers of Jesus.

I believe if we listen to the four stories we can catch glimpses of the historical situation and setting which formed their seed bed. In all four gospels John the Baptist is a significant figure. He is the last of the prophets and the message he proclaims is, ‘Repent, the kingdom of God is near.’

All four have John baptising Jesus and this act is portrayed as marking Jesus’ sense of who he is and his vocation. As Jesus comes up out of the water the Spirit of God descends on him. The gospels identify God’s proclamation as being heard by an expanding audience. The wording in Mark implies that only Jesus hears God speaking whereas Matthew’s wording suggests that John the Baptist also hears God’s voice. Luke’s version implies everyone within earshot heard the voice. Significantly for me John’s gospel has John the Baptist testifying to some of his disciples that he saw the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove and remaining with him and this was the sign that Jesus was the Son of God. John’s gospel continues the story portraying Jesus as one of the group of John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus selects from that group to form his group of disciples.

Matthew’s scenario is different. Jesus meets John the Baptist only once, when he along with many others went to be baptised in the River Jordan.

Immediately following his baptism Jesus is driven out into the Wilderness where he is temped. However, significantly it is the arrest of John the Baptist that galvanises Jesus into action. He leaves Nazareth and goes to live in Capernaum and begins his ministry with the identical message to that proclaimed by John, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The next scene has Jesus calling two sets of brothers, all fishermen, Peter and Andrew and James and John whom he has never met, according to Matthew‘s narrative, to join his band of disciples.

I believe John and Luke’s versions provide more believable settings: Jesus already knows the four fishermen as they along with him have been followers of John the Baptist. Thus Jesus knew whom he was inviting, their strengths and weaknesses. Certainly to my mind, Luke’s setting of the large catch of fish makes an excellent backdrop for the call, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’

The questions I want us to explore this morning are: Why did Matthew tell thestory this way? and What can we learn from it which will touch our lives?

Firstly, Peter, Andrew, James and John are chosen and called by Jesus.

Matthew places the initiative solely with Jesus. Thus subtly affirming Jesus’ divinity. In Matthew the birth narratives have God as the main character. You could say ‘the puppeteer’ as God orchestrates everything. In this story the four fishermen do nothing except respond. Jesus acts as God has.

We are not told why Jesus, a carpenter, chose fishermen to form one third of his disciples. They must have formed a pressure group from the beginning. It should not be surprising that one of them became the disciples’ spokesman.

Further it lead to friction among the disciples, as the debate over who would get the plum positions in the kingdom illustrates. Obviously Jesus had not read today’s personnel handbooks because not only was the group skewed in terms of representation with four from one trade, he also included two sets of siblings, from today’s understanding of best practice a real ‘No No’. So Matthew is telling us the composition of Jesus’ band of disciples was his call and was determined from a divine not human perspective.

Secondly, the call came to them while they were at work. Jesus did not go to the local synagogue or the Temple in Jerusalem to find his disciples. It’s not because they did not go there but, I believe, because their faith and life were entwined together. For them there was no chasm between secular activity and the life of Faith. Centuries earlier Amos told those who bade him be quiet, ‘…the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”’ I believe we need to take our faith into work with us and into all our daily activities. Not only should our faith influence our actions, how we carry out our daily tasks but it may enable us to hear God calling us to some particular task.

In my youth a number of preachers exhorted me and my fellow teenagers to become ‘fishers of men’ paraphrasing Jesus’ call to Peter, Andrew, James and John. Generalising Jesus’ call like that obscures its message. I believe what Matthew is telling us, and it is even clearer in Luke, is that Jesus tailored his call to the people he was addressing. The call, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ was specific to the four fishermen. He matched his call to what they were doing. The words Jesus used would have caught their imagination and sparked their enthusiasm to follow him.

Geza Vermes whom I have been reading makes the point that the metaphor of ‘catching men like fish’ was not invented by Jesus. Others had used it before him. But Jesus is the first to use it in a positive sense. From the fish’s perspective being caught in a net is undesirable and signifies death. But here Jesus implies that catching men is beneficial for both the fisher and those caught and this is a new twist.

The opening words, ‘Follow me’ in the NRSV and King James’ translation deserve some comment. While they are an exact word-for-word translation they miss the meaning. I’m reminded of Laurena’s tale from when she was teaching a bright young Korean 5th grader to match Australian colloquialisms with their simple meanings such as ‘I feel crook’ to ‘I am ill’. A crook to him was someone who steals. Matching ‘My mother hit the roof’ to ‘My mother was really angry’ threw him completely. He said ‘My mother wouldn’t hit the roof if she was angry. She would hit me.’

In the same fashion ‘Follow me’ is better translated as in the Good News, ‘Come with me’. It was an invitation to walk with Jesus, to share his life, to listen to him preach, and learn from his example. The call is a world away from the command of a general to his troops as he leads them into battle.

But the message I think Matthew wants us to be struck by most is the response of the fishermen. He tells us, each pair, on hearing Jesus’ call, ‘Immediately left their nets and followed him.’ There was no prevarication, no reservation, no farewells. An instant recognition that this was a turning point in their lives and they wholeheartedly threw their lot in with Jesus.

When Jesus calls us, how do we respond?

Amen

Marramarra Creek Campground and Return, Saturday 15th February, 2014

Our second walk for 2014 is in the Marramarra National Park, to a location the Cartophiles were supposed to go to last April, but we were temporarily geographically embarrassed.  This time, we’ll get it right!

Set among the trees and by tranquil waters Mmarramarra-creek-campground-01.ashxarramarra Creek campground can only accessed by water or by foot, making it a peaceful retreat away from the crowds.  We will follow the easy 3.5km walk along Marramarra Ridge management trail to the campsite, have lunch there and then return to the cars.

For more detail see 2014 Walk 2 (Marramarra Creek Campground) flyer

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org or on
0411 507 422.

Jesus’ baptism

Listen!
Isaiah 42:1-9 | Matthew 3:13-17
In several recent sermons I’ve made reference to our tendency to blur together the accounts of Jesus’ life given to us by the different gospel writers, and suggested that by doing so we lose something: we lose some of the unique insight that each brings to the life of Christ; we miss out on the way that insight has shaped the choices the writers have made in putting together their gospel – for, remember, each of the writers was writing a gospel, a story of good news, and not a biography, or a history. And so the stories that they choose to include and exclude – for how could a single roll of parchment, a book, in modern terms, of forty of fifty pages, capture every part of any life, let along the life of Jesus – form part of their message, part of the gift that they laboured to bring to us.

As a result, there are not all that many stories that all four gospel writers include. The death and resurrection of Jesus, of course – but even there, the choice of details and even the structure of the story differs from writer to writer.

But here, right at the start of the ministry of Jesus – they all start here. With the baptism of Jesus, in the Jordon, by John.

Today’s account comes from the gospel of Matthew – for as I’ve mentioned, this year, the three year cycle of the lectionary that the Uniting Church, along with many, many denominations, both Protestant and Catholic, follow, focuses on the gospel as told by Matthew.

And when you look at sermons preached on the baptism of Jesus – and I certainly include my own in this (although I think I’ve only ever preached once on this subject, probably because I’m normally on leave this time of year!) – the pressing question seems to be “why did Jesus get baptised?”.

And I don’t want to understate the importance of that question, especially in the light of John’s words, that his baptism was for repentance. For it has always been the confession and claim of the Christian faith that one thing Jesus did not need to do was to repent, that he, uniquely, had no sins to confess.

And to my mind the most satisfying answers to the question of Jesus’ baptism lie around the idea of identification; that though Jesus had no need of baptism for repentance, his mission, his calling, the very nature of the incarnation was that he would so closely identify with us, with humanity, that what we needed, he chose.

Our baptismal liturgy includes the words “In his own baptism in the Jordan by John, Jesus identified with humanity in all its brokenness and sin”. And so, surely, he did.

Yet there is another story of identity happening at Jesus’ baptism as well – the voice from heaven (or perhaps the dove, pick your gospel for details) declaring “this is my Son, the Beloved”. At the same time as Jesus identifies with us, God identified him as God’s child, God’s beloved. Not, I’d suggest, as a contrast to him being one of us – on the contrary, I rather think that it is as one of us that God names Jesus God’s beloved child.

But today I’d like to go somewhere a little different with this baptism story, and ponder, for a while, what John was expecting, as the one who came to prepare the way, what he was thinking when Jesus came to be baptised.

For which we need to rewind a little before the start of today’s story, and read what John said about the one who was to come.
John – the last and the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus himself will later name him – the one who came to prepare for the messiah – had this to say to the religious elite who came to him for baptism:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘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. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John’s baptism, in his own words, his own understanding of his calling, was a baptism of repentance. Which is to say – of change. Of change of life, of change of attitude, of change of actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” he demands.

John speaks into a world in which he can see wrong. He can see the neglect of the poor by the rich, the abuse of the weak by the powerful, and worst of all, the use of religion to justify these things. He calls on all to repent; but those in religious power, both of synagogue and temple (for those were two quite distinct religious powers in the day of Jesus, as we will see later in Matthew), the Pharisees and Sadducees, are singled out for abuse.

And his language is full of judgement. “I baptise with water, for repentance … he will baptise with fire … his winnowing-fork (a tool used to separate grain, for use, from chaff, to be burned) is in his hand”.

This is what John preached that he was preparing the way for. His call to repentance had a definite edge of “or else” about it. “The Messiah is coming. He will judge. Turn or burn.”

And then Jesus comes to him, and John’s immediate reaction is “you should be baptising me”. As if to say “now you are here, it’s your turn. I’ve prepared the way, with a baptism offering repentance – now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for the judgement. I baptised with water, now it’s time for the fire.”

And how could he not think like that, brought up as he surely was on the Old Testament prophets? If, as seems likely, John was heavily influenced by, or even part of, the Essene sect (communities of Jews who separated themselves from the masses, in the wilderness, in search of holiness – we know them best as the keeper, in Qumran, of the dead sea scrolls), then it makes more sense still; for the Essene strongly emphasised those aspects of the Old Testament that spoke of the judgement of God to come.

And it’s an expectation we see coming back, over and again, through the gospels – James and John asking Jesus “shall we call down fire and burn them up” – or the disciples after the resurrection asking “is it now that you will restore the kingdom” – or all the times when people expect the Messiah to bring political freedom, with the overthrow – judgement – of the Romans.

But Jesus refuses John’s expectations; he refuses to baptise. Indeed, it is one of the oddities of the gospels that we never seem to hear discussed that Jesus never baptised anyone. He refuses the play the part in the story that John has written for him – and instead, asks John to baptise him.

Even here, right at the start of his public ministry, Jesus has already begun to subvert the stories that have been told of the Messiah in the centuries of waiting. He has already begun to change what it means to be the anointed one.

To identify himself with those who have come for baptism, those who came with confession, for repentance – the common people, and the religious elite who earned such condemnation from John.

And claiming that identity – as one baptised, not one baptising, as one who stands as if repentant, not one who stands as judge, as one amongst us, not one looking down from above – claiming that identity, Jesus hears God’s voice: “This is my child, my beloved”.
There can surely be no doubt that if Jesus had chosen instead to bring judgement, he would have been just – he would have be right, beyond reproach. But in the first act of his public ministry he makes it clear that judging others, even judging rightly, is not his priority. Standing with them is.

I hear these words as a challenge – a rebuke – for I love to be right. I love to make good, sound, judgements about the decisions other people make – even if I normally keep my thoughts to myself. There is a great feeling in being able to see where someone else has gone wrong, and knowing that you would not have made that same mistake.

Against this attitude, Jesus’ baptism stands as a declaration: instead of standing over you to judge you, I came to be with you.

Amen.

Magi

Listen!Isaiah 60:1-6 | Matthew 2:1-12
Today we come to the end of the Christmas season, the last day of Christmas. Tonight is twelfth night, tomorrow, the festival of Epiphany.

And the tradition of the Church is that as Christmas ends we celebrate the arrival of the Magi, the wise men. For, of course, there is nothing in Matthew’s account to suggest that the Magi arrived on Christmas night – indeed, there is plenty to suggest they came months or even a year or so later. Perhaps, having made the journey to Bethlehem during Mary’s pregnancy, she and Joseph were in no hurry to travel back with a tiny baby; perhaps Joseph found that there was work for a carpenter in Bethlehem.

And so the Magi come, long after all the fuss of the Shepherds and angels as told by Luke has passed.

But of course, now we pull everything forwards. We celebrate Christmas during advent – if we can even wait that long – we put up the decorations in early December (not waiting, as tradition would have us wait, for Christmas eve), and the Magi too are pulled forward to be included in our pageant.

But, as you may recall I suggested in the run up to Christmas, when we drag all the different account together and merge them into one, we lose the distinctive tunes that they bring, and end up with the cacophony of the modern Christmas story, a mixture so rich with so many meanings, that we end up with a sort of spiritual version of the way many of us feel at the end of Christmas day – bloated with so many good things to eat that we stop appreciating them.

So lets take the space today to wonder about these Magi, and about the story that Matthew had to tell…

But first of all, a little clearing of the decks – for the story of the Magi, like so much of the Christmas story, has gained layers of imagery which owes more to the pious imagination than to the account given in the gospels. Firstly, of course, we have no particular reason to believe that there were three of them – the number seems to arise through the tradition of religious art, in which it is convenient to have one giver of each of the three named gifts. In the eastern Church the tradition is that there were twelve Magi, a number which makes just as much, or little, sense as three.

Oh, and there’s nothing suggesting they rode camels, either. Although the Isaiah prophecy does seem to say that camels will bring Gold and Frankincense, so maybe that one isn’t such a stretch.

And of course there is also no reason to believe that they were kings. While there are lots of Biblical references to kings kneeling before the Messiah – including from our Isaiah reading today: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” there is nothing to suggest that these Magi were royal. Indeed, given their reported interest in stars, it seems more likely that they were of priestly origin, perhaps from the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, for whom the term Magi was used, and who were famous at the time for their interest in astrology.

In fact, when we start to dig a little more into who these people were, it gets even more interesting. The title used to describe them, Magi, is used of only two other people in the New Testament – Simon Magus, who had previously been known for practicing magic, and Elymus a Jewish false prophet who opposed Barnabus and Paul in Paphos. In each case, the label “Magi” is translated as “magician” or “sorcerer”, and is used entirely negatively. Imagine how differently we would hear the story if it was translated “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem”. Perhaps this is why the early church adopted the name of ‘king’ for these three visitors, especially given the very strong condemnation of sorcery in the Jewish tradition.

In fact, that strong condemnation of sorcery in the Jewish tradition perhaps points us towards an answer to our question – what was Matthew telling his readers by including this story in his gospel. Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the four; his initial readers were the community of Christians in and around Jerusalem, almost entirely Jewish, and almost entirely ordinary Jews (not Priests or Pharisees). The central importance of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is that he is the one who restores true religion to the people of Israel: that in the tradition of the prophets he comes to overthrow the corrupt religious elite and remind the people of what they were meant to be – a holy people, set aside by God for God’s purposes.

But Jesus was not just a restoration of Israel, but also a fulfilment of their purpose. For at the heart of this sense of what Israel was meant to be, evidenced in our Isaiah reading and so many other passages like it, was the sense that one day, through the witness of the people of God, all nations would come to recognise the one true God: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

This year, the lectionary gospel readings will mostly be taken from Matthew; and as we read, this is a theme that will emerge over and again: Jesus, fulfilling what it meant to be Jewish, fulfilling this prophetic sense of what Israel was for – to be God’s people, for the sake of the blessing of the whole world.

With that in mind, look again at the story of the Magi. For the star does not lead them to Jesus – at least, not directly. Their wisdom, their insight, their astrology, did not lead them to Bethlehem. It led them to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem they heard the words of the Hebrew prophets, and those words pointed them to Bethlehem.

In Matthew’s story the wisest of the gentiles are led, by their arts and their traditions and their insights, to the prophets of Israel, and it is the prophets of Israel that take them to the Christ.

But despite Matthew’s strong commitment to the Jewish faith, something else creeps into his telling. The Magi do not just come in homage to the Jewish messiah, as good gentiles ought, but they bring something else into the story.

Isaiah prophesied that visitors would bring gold and frankincense – symbols, traditionally, of a king and a priest, to Jesus. But in Matthew’s narrative it is these bearers of foreign wisdom who first introduce the motif of myrrh, the symbol of suffering and death. Their secular wisdom does not just lead them to where they can hear the story, but it also adds something new to that story. The story of the people of God is made richer by the contribution brought by the outsider.

And then they leave.

They don’t stay in Israel. They don’t convert to Judaism, they don’t head to the Temple to worship. If they were indeed Zoroastrian priests, Matthew doesn’t even give us a hint to suggest that they gave up their alien, pagan, faith.
They go back to their own country, by another road. Taking, we guess, the story that they saw and heard and were part of with them.

Taking the blessing of God that they had found back to their own people. Perhaps, as later tradition would have it, they spread the story of the Christ child, preparing the way for later evangelists to bring the gospel. Perhaps. Or perhaps they took away a different blessing: an insight into God, into the humility of the God of Israel who didn’t come to earth in a palace of royal line, but as a child of humble means, born outside the religious and political heart of the nation.

We don’t know who they were, or where they came from; we don’t know how many there were or how they travelled; we don’t know what they did afterwards.

But they came, they brought their blessing into our story; and they, in turn, took something of that story away with them.

May it be so of all whose paths cross ours.

Amen.