January 22, 2023
Prioritizing People
Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

When you hear this story of Jesus calling his first disciples, do you wonder what you would have done? If you were there, beside the Sea of Galilee, would you have left your job, your family, to follow Jesus? When you hear this passage today, how do you hear it? You may think that this story has nothing to do with your life—because you KNOW you haven’t been called away from your day job into fulltime ministry, and you may be tempted to not explore how this passage speaks into your life. Some may be, but most of us can hear this passage as asking us to be more obedient to Jesus—and wonder what that might look like in our world today. We know on some level that we are supposed to follow Jesus, but what does that look like given the variety of lives and circumstances in which we all live?

Our passage this morning starts with Jesus going to Galilee. Matthew places this passage right after Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. We see the contrast of Jesus choosing to not prioritize what the culture prioritizes and instead prioritize God’s way of doing things. It then shows that the backwater of Galilee, this place that commentator Dale Bruner called “where Judaism touches paganism”—this place outside of where good religious people find themselves is where Jesus withdrew—fulfilling this Isaiah prophecy.

It is interesting that the same Greek word for withdrew here was the one that describes what the Holy Family did as they withdrew or fled to Egypt to avoid Herod. In both cases Jesus leaves one place for another and Matthew uses this to demonstrate the fulfillment of prophecy.

It seems in this instance that the arrest of John, not only Jesus’s cousin, but someone that many of the religious leaders of the day considered a prophet of God, was the catalyst or impetus for Jesus to begin his ministry—for him to continue sharing John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Our passage also has the Isaiah prophecy quoted. Good Jewish people would have heard the Isaiah prophecy as a reminder of how God worked to rid Israel of the darkness of Assyrian rule in the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This would have certainly been a good word for a people who had recently been reminded of the darkness of Roman rule. Matthew is written in about 80 CE, after the Roman Empire had flexed its power and torn down the Temple in 70 CE. Countless people had fled Jerusalem and Israel, and these reminders of God’s work and God’s light would have been incredibly meaningful! It was a reminder that they didn’t have to accept the Roman rule as being all powerful, but that God’s light can offer another option to the darkness and death of Pax Romana—or Roman Peace. Matthew is contrasting these two empires.

A New York Times article in December quoted Pastor Dudley of Bellevue Presbyterian, “Power cannot generate love. Power can generate obedience, fear, awe, grudging submission—but not love. The God who comes to us in Jesus doesn’t want grudging submission; he wants us to love him and be loved by him. He wants relationship, including friendship, and so he came in vulnerability, not power.”(i) This is the Kingdom of Heaven verses the Roman Empire. This is a kingdom that invites people in with Jesus’s “Follow me” to make a difference based on God’s way of doing things.

We aren’t sure how much time passes, but here in Galilee, Jesus calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, who were casting their net into the lake. He said “Follow me, and I will make you fisher of people.” I know that it was always stressed that they left their nets immediately and followed Jesus. The passage continues with a similar invitation to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were also fishermen, and were in a boat with their father, mending nets. Again, they immediately followed Jesus. It is interesting that they too seem to have survived the temptation to follow what the culture expected. One of the commentaries I read discussed that by working as fishermen, they were working to give fish to Rome. They were part of the Roman establishment and supporting the work of Rome through provisions of fish.(ii) Jesus invited them to follow him, live with him and learn how to do life according to the kingdom. They have a new vision for life and follow.

So how do we get this vision? As I imagine myself in the scene, and wonder about what would motivate me to do that—I think that the big changes in my life have been in response to a new vision for the future, or new priorities. I believe that Jesus asks us to prioritize people.

What has motivated you to change your focus or behavior? Often it is understanding the impact of staying on the current course of action, or of not changing your mind. When I become uncomfortable where I am, I am motivated to change. There are articles about eating more vegetables, eating less meat, using less plastic, five best ways to communicate with our spouse, maximizing retirement, buying the house of your dreams, or whatever shows up on your newsfeed. What if could grasp God’s vision for how the world could be, for how our lives could be, and we answered Jesus’s call to repent, or change our direction, and follow him. What if we accepted his invitation to change our perspective and begin to prioritize what God prioritizes?

How do we do that? We are doing it now. We are in worship (or reading the sermon). Just as the disciples heard the words of Jesus, we can too through scripture, prayer, conversations in the pews or classes, songs and hymns. What if we shifted our priorities a bit to start getting a vision for what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. What if we shifted to walking in the light instead of assuming we needed to stay in the shadows of the status quo?

We are in a sermon series exploring how to walk in the light. The next several weeks we will be in the Sermon on the Mount with additional examples of how to live—which are incredibly different than expected. Hearing the sermons and reflecting on what difference they may make in our lives can better align our priorities with God’s.

Walking in the light includes prioritizing people. We know scripture raises this value of loving others over and over. We are reminded of the Shema—love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

John 15 is Jesus telling us that “greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This new vision—this new way of walking in the light, it is ushered in through God’s word and our response to it. Jesus’s word makes disciples. Hearing the word of God gives us the vision and motivation to leave how things have always been done for new ways to live in God’s way of doing things.

Jesus called his disciples, both men and women, into community to learn how to live as Jesus lived. This was an interesting group of people. Several months ago we explored Jesus and politics in Adult Faith Formation and we learned that Jesus’s disciples were very divergent politically. There was Matthew, a tax collector, aligned with Rome and the power structure, as well as Simon the Zealot who wanted all things Rome gone. Additionally, Jesus’s disciples were from a breadth of socio-economic backgrounds, and scripture is clear that women were called into discipleship—which would have been a huge shift and change for their culture. It was not about finding likeminded people… it was men and women learning to live and love as Jesus did, through the power of the Spirit, who changed the world and gave them a unity that surpassed their personal perspectives.

What did Jesus and his disciples do? It is captured in our last verse this morning: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

We see this through history. God transforms people to love and care for others better—to prioritize them. Many in our congregation are reading Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water and some have read the Social Justice Chapter. It was fun last week making eye contact with people who smiled when Patrick spoke about Dorothy Day’s work. This week I want to lift another person who prioritized God’s way over the culture’s way—John Woolman who was an abolitionist and Quaker in the mid-1700’s. We read about some excerpts of his journal and of the decisions he made to not buy items produced by slaves. How he quietly lived life according to the leading of God and refused to write wills, or wear certain clothes, visit certain homes, and how this led to people being so moved by his actions that they freed their slaves. He took to heart Jesus’s teachings to prioritize people and people noticed, changed their actions, and as a result, countless slaves were freed.

It is hard for me to really grasp living a life like Dorothy Day or John Woolman or Mother Teresa, or one of the disciples. It seems too big of a task. That said, I know that it is constantly opening myself to the word of God that will shape my heart to prioritize people and allow me to make daily choices to follow Jesus. God doesn’t call us to do everything day one, just what God puts before us each day.

Dale Bruner states in his mammoth commentary on Matthew that Matthew’s goal is for us to see ourselves as ministers doing ministry.(iii) It is for everyone. Jesus calls everyday people to do amazing things, large and small. This morning in the Adult Faith Formation class we discussed a pool playing pastor, Tom Reynolds. Apparently he started playing pool when he visited his mother at a local retirement community. He got pretty good and made pool playing friends—non-church friends—and was able to share with them the love of God. Many believe this is what Jesus did when he came as a vulnerable human to live a life as a son, a brother, a friend, a carpenter, a teacher, a healer. He chose everyday people to share the Kingdom of Heaven and not the religious elite. This is something we can all do. The NYT article I mentioned also quoted Pastor Renee Notkin, “Instead of being people who stink with judgement and criticism, we are to be an aroma of blessing, hope, joy, peace and love.”(iv) This is something we can all learn to do through the power of the Spirit as we learn to prioritize people.

As I reflected on the last verse of our passage this morning: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people, I realized the First Presbyterian’s mission statement was all about prioritizing people as we together “experience the boundary-breaking love of Jesus Christ by practicing radical hospitality, forming deep relationships, and joining in shared ministry.”

When we come to worship, a group, or a class, we experience the boundary breaking love of Jesus and in turn follow him by practicing radical hospitality through Saturday Sanctuary, Godly Play, Youth Group, our Creation Care ministry or maybe one of the music ministries. People are welcomed as they are, and are offered deep community with one another. We pray for one another, we care for one another, we share high points and low points. This week alone I know that I witnessed the care of one another during team meetings, groups, and ministries. Being in a group, being on a team or committee gives layers of caregiving that worship alone does not offer. It gives us strength to proclaim the good news and serve the people.

In the days and weeks to come, listen for how Jesus is calling you to follow him. It could be noticing someone who is sad or lonely, worried or stressed. It could be nurturing a desire to help the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. It could be prioritizing being at Saturday Sanctuary, Godly Play, or lending a listening ear during fellowship after service. Notice it will be a call to follow Jesus into the light, into a deeper love for God’s people, into a place where you are part of the kingdom of heaven, sharing the good news of the gospel, and bringing healing and the light of love to a dark world.

i Wehner, Peter. “Why Jesus Loved Friendship”, New York Times, 23 Dec. 2022.
ii Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23-Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-6 Accessed 12 January, 2023.
iii Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. p. 118
iv Wehner, Peter. “Why Jesus Loved Friendship”, New York Times, 23 Dec. 2022.

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