Text: Matthew 4:12-25
Date: Epiphany III + 1/23/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
So far our Christmas celebration has burst forth into the floodlight of the Epiphany declaration, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is. 9:2). That Light is Christ. It is the message of salvation through the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. The message is so bright, warm and winsome that, even though applying first and foremost to God’s ancient people, the Jews, still it immediately drew Gentile wise men from the east. So said Isaiah and Matthew, “Galilee of the Gentiles…on them a light has dawned” (v. 15-16).
We have heard the beginning of the Gospel in the birth of Christ and His baptism by John in the Jordan. John the Baptist was an important link between all the Old Testament promises and the coming of the Christ. He was “the voice” in the wilderness and the Elijah predicted. But now, though John’s active ministry is completed, his witness and martyrdom has only begun, for Herod had put him in prison. That was the signal, for “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee.” This, immediately following His triumph over Satan in the wilderness, is the active beginning of our Lord’s earthly ministry. And it begins in Galilee, as the prophet Isaiah had said. “From that time Jesus began to preach.” And what was His Message? It was, word-for-word, the same as the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And this is to be the constant and consistent message of His Church to this day and to the Last Day. My Message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
The Gospel is for people who are lost, who are going every which way but God’s way. It is true, all people are lost. We know it is the common trait of the fallen, sinful human nature that all are born into this world spiritually blind, dead and at enmity with God. Spiritually Lost. This is the fundamental condition of all who remain separated from God until they repent and believe. But it remains to a certain extent also in those who have already come to repentance and faith, that is, Christians including you and me. For the Christian life in this world is that mysterious mixture called the “already, not yet.” That is, by faith in Christ a person is already made a member of the kingdom of heaven. Yet the reality is, because the sinful nature still hangs on until the Last Day life is a continuous struggle against sin and death. Therefore the constant and consistent message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is not only for unbelievers but for all even who have joined the struggle as saints and sinners at the same time.
To repent means to turn from sin to God’s forgiveness, from unbelief to faith…again! And again! The reason for repentance is because the kingdom, the reign of God is here already. That is, though the Last Day of judgment is not yet, today just may be your last day. And the good news is that you do not have to wait and wonder what will be your outcome, your destiny. You can know it for sure because the reign of God, the verdict of the Judge of all is already here in the Person of Jesus. And that verdict is pure grace. In Him you receive the forgiveness of sins and acquittal, the setting free from the guilt of your sin. This is the essence of the Christian faith and life, living already as citizens of heaven while yet struggling as aliens and exiles in a world still separated from God and besieged by the temptations and attacks of the devil.
Now this message needs both to be continually received and believed and therefore also continually preached and taught. Last Sunday we noted the initial drawing of certain men to Jesus: Andrew, his brother Peter, and the author of the fourth Gospel, young John. They were drawn to Jesus, heard Him speak and even spent the day listening to His teaching. I’m sure there were probably many other times they got to hear Jesus speak. Today’s Gospel account, therefore, does not relate a mystical, magical call of a stranger not yet known, but a unique call from someone they had already heard and were getting to know. The difference is that all their previous “following” of Jesus was, as we might say today, part time, as “laymen.” They would always return to their regular life, which Matthew tells us was that they were fishermen.
That’s where Jesus found them this day, walking by the Sea of Galilee. There were the two brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the sea. And they saw their teacher, Jesus, approaching. Maybe they even stopped what they were doing so as to greet Him and receive His greeting. But this time they didn’t receive the usual greeting. This time Jesus called them, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers…of men!” This time they didn’t wait for break time or the end of their shift, but they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. That is, they left their nets for good. Suddenly their whole life and vocation changed. The same then happened with the two Zebedee brothers, James and John. So today we discover that there are two levels of Jesus’ calling here. On one level Jesus calls everyone to follow Him, to discipleship, to the life of repentance and faith, faith in Him. This happens “in, with and under” (if you will) whatever else a person’s vocation may be whether that be son or daughter, student, husband or wife, mother or father, worker, truck driver, doctor, nurse, pastor or whatever. On another level, however, these four were being called not only to discipleship but also to apostleship. What’s the difference between a disciple and an apostle? Well, literally translated, a disciple is a learner and an apostle is one who is sent on a mission. An apostle (the one sent) is also a disciple (a learner), but a disciple is not necessarily an apostle. A disciple is every Christian believer. An apostle is one of a particular twelve (or thirteen depending on how you look at it), chosen directly by Christ and sent to be a witness of His earthly ministry and His death and resurrection. Certain of the apostles would write the apostolic scriptures of the New Testament. Now, though there are no more apostles, there remains the apostolic ministry, those who serve as pastors under apostolic authority. In this way the apostles are made fishers of men. They “fish” by means of preaching and teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. They “make” disciples.
This means, among other things, that “fishing” or shall we say the work of evangelism is not necessarily the expected function or main vocation of every Christian, every disciple. Every Christian supports evangelism. Every Christian is a witness to one extent or another. But not every Christian does the same sort of work in the kingdom.
Now at the end of the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the Evangelist is ready to launch into the detailed instruction of how to become and to continue as a disciple of Jesus Christ beginning with the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Before that launch he today ends our introduction to Jesus with a summary of our Lord’s ministry in verses 23-24. In summary the message of salvation is clearly proclaimed: Jesus taught and preached the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease. The teaching and preaching cast the light of salvation declaring the forgiveness of sins, and the healings demonstrated the victory of forgiveness over every aspect of sin and death.
Once again, however, you need to understand that the healings of our Lord’s earthly ministry only pointed forward to the ultimate healing of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting coming to complete fulfillment on the Last Day. This is the reign of God breaking in, even now, in Jesus. Jesus healed “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics.” That healing is what we have to look forward to in the Day of resurrection, even for those who Jesus healed then. For, Jesus did not heal everyone, but only those he came to or who were brought to Him. Moreover, the truth is that, eventually, even these would continue to struggle in this life, grow older and weaker and, ultimately, die as all men. Remember that if you are ever lured by the fanatical promises of the so-called faith-healers of each unbelieving age, the hucksters of phony religion who know not the truth of what it means to live as a disciple in this world as saint and sinner at the same time, living by the victory of faith alone and in the struggle and suffering of hope of the Last Day of deliverance.
You have been called by the Lord to follow Him, to believe that He is the Christ, the Savior who has come into the world, in whom you have the promise of salvation, the deliverance from sin and death and the gift of eternal life. Now may we all learn, even better, the main message of how to repent, believe and follow our Lord through all the twists and turns, the joys and sorrows of the life of faith.