For the Kingdom

“Take My Hand” by Michael Rosato, Mural of Harriet Tubman, Cambridge, Maryland

A Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Third Sunday of Epiphany. Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

After being anointed by God in baptism by the Jordan River and refusing the devil’s temptations of power and prestige while spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus commences his ministry. And the place he chooses to begin provides tremendous insight into Jesus’ purpose and work.

The territory of Zebulun and Nephtali is where King Hezekiah, the Judean monarch, resisted the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem about 700 years before Christ’s birth. It is in the context of this event that the prophet Isaiah writes that a messianic king will restore the Israelites from oppression to a new day of liberation, i.e. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” 

The writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes the prophet to show that God is about to again deliver the people from Roman occupation as God delivered their ancestors from Assyrian domination. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the liberator who has come to rescue the people from the brutality of the Empire and the tyrannical rule of Herod, its client king. And Jesus accepts the role and proclaims across Galilee about the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word for “kingdom” is basileia, which can be translated as reign, rule, realm or empire, which immediately makes Jesus a threat to the authorities.

Jesus is encouraging the Galileans to turn from the way of tyranny and instead embrace the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign—the way of unconditional love and never-ending grace—that is arriving to dismantle the oppressive rule of the kings, authorities and Empires now and forever. Repent, for the basileia of heaven (not Caesar or Herod) is imminent.

In a commentary on this passage, my friend Raj Nadella, an associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, notes that Jesus puts his life at risk to deliver this good news:[1]

“The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death integral aspects of the society and tried to normalize them. In Matthew’s appropriation of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the destructive ethos of the Roman empire and demonstrate that darkness and death need not be accepted as normal. This is no small task or mere sloganeering. The devil tried to coopt him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing seemed to deter him. Jesus … stepped right in the heart of the empire. He boldly stepped into a dangerous space so he can lead others to safety.”

“Jesus calls the disciples” by He Qi.

Next, Jesus continues this bold initiative by asking members of the lowest of the low professions to be his disciples: fishermen. Jesus’ invitation, according to some scholars, “was to leave the caste system behind and join him in ushering in a whole new way of living, economically, socially and otherwise.” The verb aphiemi, translated “they left their nets, is used elsewhere in the gospels to indicate the leaving behind debt, sin and bondage. The author and theologian Ched Myers refers to aphiemi as a “Jubilee” word. Put simply, the observance of Jubilee among the Hebrews was a time in which debts were forgiven and God’s mercies were celebrated. Thus, it is a new Jubilee world that Jesus invites the disciples and others to enter. It’s as if Jesus is saying: Leave the basileia of Rome behind, and come, follow me – for the basileia of heaven, the Great Jubilee, has come near!

In response to the invitation, Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately left their nets, boats and family, and “followed him.” The Greek word for “followed,” is akoloutheo, which means to join one as a disciple; to side with the party of the one preceding. These two sets of brothers didn’t just merely follow Jesus. With great intention in their hearts, they joined Jesus in the ministry he was born to do. They took God’s side over that of Herod and Caesar. They sided with the kingdom of heaven, the way of God that Jesus represented (and still represents) in all its fullness.

In an instant, the Peter, Andrew, James and John quit the only career they and their fathers and grandfathers have ever known to live out a new calling. The men cease being catchers of seafood and become fishers for people.

They become disciples, followers of Jesus, who for the kingdom of heaven, help liberate the ones who’ve been caught in the grip of earthly kings and Empire—

the ones who have been victimized through acts of violence

the ones who are sick and shunned for their illness

the ones who are hungry and lack sustenance in a world of plenty

the ones who are blind and ignored by those who pass them on the street

the ones who are imprisoned and denied basic human rights

the ones who have chosen to accommodate the system of oppression

What was true for Andrew, Peter, James and John centuries ago is the same today for each of us who God in Christ invites to followWe are also called to be fishers for people. However, to be clear, becoming fishers for people is not an opportunity for Christians to just check off “to-do” lists of church tasks, responsibilities and ministry activities so we can move onto the next items in our busy and compartmentalized lives. And it’s certainly not a time for any of us to obsess over church growth statistics as a gauge of success when energy can be better used to relish the holy moments of grace that occur regardless of the number of folks present.

Becoming fishers for people…for the kingdom of heaven is about devoting ourselves entirely to the way of God.  It’s about caring for humanity with every breath of God that is within us. As one commentary puts it: “Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to participate in the struggle for justice and kindness, inspired and encouraged by past generations.”

A notable figure in American history, someone from past generations who has lately inspired and encouraged me through their faithful discipleship is the abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman.

When Harriet was a teenager in the 1800s, she suffered a head injury when an angry slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave but striking her instead. The injury caused Harriet to have dizziness, pain and sleeping spells; she would suddenly fall asleep and became difficult to wake. According to Harriet, the spells were visions and dreams from God—divine messages that enabled her to escape from a slave plantation in Maryland and travel 90 miles, mostly on foot, through rough terrain and slave territory to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harriet soon became a conductor of the Underground Railroad—a network of secret routes and safe houses that enslaved African-Americans used to escape into free states and Canada. Unable to read a map or a sign, Harriet allowed God’s visions to guide her on 19 trips to free 300 slaves over the course of a decade. She was the only conductor who never lost a single passenger or allowed them to be harmed. [2]

Her remarkable story finally came to life on the big screen in November with the powerful film Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo as the title character. In one scene, when asked what it’s like to be guided by God’s voice, Harriet replies: [3]

“Sometimes, it stings. Like a smack in the face. Other times it’s soft. Like a dream. Fly off soon as you woke. Seem like I learned to see and hear God like some learn to read a book. I put all my attention on it. Act without question. Fore I can wonder if I even heard it at all.”

Harriet was unequivocally a fisher for people, called by God to help liberate others for the kingdom of heaven that is drawing near. And we too are being called by God to participate in the struggle for justice and kindness. But how do we discern and follow Christ’s invitation? What direction are we to move for the kingdom of heaven? Are we dragging our feet? [4]

The call may seem daunting because we’re worried that our ministry has to be mistake free. Yet the anguish is unnecessary because it is humanly impossible to be impeccable anglers. Being a fisher for people doesn’t mean we have to be absolutely perfect. It only requires that we keep responding to God’s call, even when we mess up.

Author Sarah Miles

And don’t ever doubt that God will call you and me again and again in spite of our mistakes, because, truth be told, there isn’t anyone else.  No other living creature on the planet is capable of being fishers for peoplefor the kingdom of heaven, except human beings. Consider, as an example, a story by Christian author Sara Miles regarding a Friday at her church’s food pantry where she works as the founder and director. She writes:[5]

I was standing at the bus stop across from the church…as the food pantry was winding down, talking with Miss Lola Brown. A tiny, elderly black lady with sensible shoes and bent, arthritic hands, she was shaking her head in despair because she didn’t know how to get her groceries across town to her apartment… 

I was exasperated. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money to give her for a cab. I had to be somewhere else in a little while. I looked at the man standing next to us, a big, quite psychotic white guy, a ranter, who’d also just been at the pantry. ‘Ok, we’ll help you,’ I said, not very nicely. I had no idea how. And then the bus pulled up, and the man shuffled forward, muttering, and the two of us lugged her cart on board.

Miss Brown smiled and raised her hand to heaven. ‘I know,’ she testified. ‘I know the Lord will always send me help.’ I told that to my wife, Martha, when I got home and she rolled her eyes. ‘Couldn’t the Lord send her a taxi at least, if he’s got all the power to help?’ she asked. ‘Instead of a crazy guy and some feeble middle-aged lady, and she’s still got to take the 22 Filmore for an hour?’ 

‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Jesus has a sense of humor. He just sends us.’

Jesus calls and sends us to be fishers for people…for the kingdom. That means all of us. There are no exceptions. We are each called to help liberate others through acts of service. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:[6]

Everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity… You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can serve.

Everybody can serve. Everybody can follow in the way of God. Everybody can be fishers for peoplefor the kingdom.

So, let us get going.

Amen


[1] Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23 by Raj Nadella, associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4366

[2] There is historical debate over how the number of trips Harriet Tubman made and the number of slaves she rescued. According to Harriet’s own words and documentation of her missions, she made 13 trips and freed 60-70 people. Others say it was 19 and 300 people and that some of those trips were guided by others who followed Harriet’s instructions. The 19 and 300 figures appear to come from a biography written in 1868 by Sarah Bradford who guesstimated the numbers. Organizations like the Harriet Tubman Historical Society and PBS claim the larger numbers as fact, while The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway claims those numbers are a myth. Recent biographies and mainstream news stories about the film cite the 13 and 70 figures. Regardless, what Harriet did was incredible and as some say, superhuman.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

http://www.harriet-tubman.org/facts/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html

https://harriettubmanbyway.org/harriet-tubman/#myths

[3] Harriet, Focus Features, November 2019. https://www.focusfeatures.com/harriet

[4] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/1/18/the-reign-of-heaven-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-3

[5] Jesus Freak by Sarah Miles, Cantebury Press, February 2012

[6] The Drum Major Instinct, sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ebeneezer, February 4, 1968

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