Saturday, January 25, 2020

Repent and Follow Me!

Matthew 4:12-25 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,   so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned." 
            Despite being promised by God, it is difficult to convey how absolutely unexpected these events were for the Jews of that day who were looking for the Messiah (that he would come to Galilee) because Jewish tradition promised something else. 
The Jewish tradition was that the Messiah would conduct his ministry in Jerusalem.  That is where the temple was!  That was the heart of the Israelite religion!  It was the center of the universe for God’s people. 
Why on earth would the Messiah go out to the boondocks of Zebulun and Naphtali?!  Why would he go to the hinterlands of Galilee?  These were the people he had destroyed at the hands of the Assyrians 700 years before.  The place was now overrun with pagan Gentiles-- and the Jews that remained there had long since “given up and given in” to the ways of the unbelieving world around them.
But God had made a promise—that in the midst of great darkness-- an even greater light would shine on those who dwelt there.  And so at the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the light of the word, went to Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles—to a people living in the darkness of sin and unbelief and false worship. 
Now maybe this all seems like ancient and even more ancient history—after all, Jesus went to Galilee two thousand years ago and the Assyrians conquered Galilee 700 years before that.  But it’s not just ancient history at all!  It is the story of God’s love!
We live in a time and place very much like the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali did.  Whether scholars ever come to a consensus about whether or not the United States was, at some point in its history, a Christian nation, we can all look back with longing to a day when sexual immorality and violence and materialism and vulgarity were not central to our national identity as they are today. 
We know that something is wrong in our nation when mindless consumerism brings us to the point of economic collapse; when millions of babies are killed on the altar of convenience; when billions of dollars are spent on filth that is called entertainment; when so many of our leaders are the worst kind of people.
And if the truth is known, all of us, to one degree or the other, like the Galileans of Zebulun and Naphtali, have made our own uneasy peace with it.  We accommodate ourselves to the current, pressing realities of the culture-- all the time assuring ourselves that we are still faithful to the Lord—and yet, living, to one degree or the other, in the spiritual darkness of the world around us. 
I think we want it to be different—but the tide of history seems so strong and the forces of the culture so insurmountable that there seems to be little hope in these dark days of returning to the Lord and walking with him in faithfulness as his disciples.
But there is hope for us in Jesus, the Light of the World, who comes to shine the light of his life upon all of the dark places of our hearts and souls and lives.  And he comes to us today with the same message of hope that he brought to the Galileans:  "Repent."   Now maybe you say to yourselves:  that sure doesn’t sound like a message of hope.  Oh but dear friends in Christ, it is!
That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to shake off the tentacles of a godless culture that threaten to strangle our faith.  It means that there is still time for us to see the world around us as God sees it—that despite its prosperity and despite its technological marvels and despites its artistic achievements, where the Lord does not reign supreme-- it is a place of darkness.  That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to take a good hard look at our own lives and honestly evaluate how many comprises we have made with the ways and thinking of the world—how often we have gone along to get along—and then to repent of the whole sorry mess. 
There was no hope for those left on the outside of the ark when the door went up who had not heeded Noah’s message of repentance and there will be no hope for those who have not come to repentance and faith in the Lord at his return—but for us here today—in this moment-- there is hope. 
And the message of hope is:  repent!  Repent of our sin--our compromises with the world—our lack of faithfulness—to repent of it all and be done with it and then to turn Jesus for forgiveness and new life.  That was the second part of Jesus’ message that brings light and hope to those living in darkness and despair:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  
To repent, not only means to turn away from something, but to turn to something and that “something” is the Good News of Jesus and life in his kingdom--a life of discipleship, walking in his footsteps and learning from him to live a life that is pleasing to the Father--just like that day in Galilee.  The Bible says that:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 
            When Jesus called the disciples that day by the Sea of Galilee to come and follow him, he was offering them nothing less than a new life.  They were leaving behind an old way of life and an old way of thinking and an old way of looking at the world-- for the light of the Gospel and life in the Kingdom.
The Lord still calls some into the full-time ministry, but he calls every person who follows him into full-time discipleship.  There are no part-time disciples of the Lord!  Following the Lord involves every facet of our life, every hour of the day. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on these verses in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” wrote that when Christ bids a man come to him, he bids him come and die—to turn over our entire life to Christ.
And that’s true.  When we become Christ’s disciples our old way of life does come to an end.  I just wish that Bonhoeffer had gone on to say, “When Christ bids a man comes to him, he bids him come and die—and live again” for that is whole truth of the Christian life. 
Not only does our old way of life come to an end when we follow Jesus Christ as his disciples, but a brand-new way of life in the Spirit takes its place—in fact, the only life worthy of the name “life” becomes our own-- through faith in Jesus.
That dying and rising that is the heart of Christian discipleship is ultimately rooted in Christ’s own dying and rising for us.  It is his death on the cross that forgives our sins and it is his glorious resurrection that gives eternal life in the kingdom and it is only because of his dying and rising into which we have been baptized that we can die to sin and rise to newness of life.
When we answer Jesus’ call to discipleship with the Spirit-given “yes” of faith, we are lifted up above our circumstances.  Yes, we are still affected by the same hardships and difficulties as the unbelievers around us—just like the disciples still had to live in Galilee along-side those who opposed and oppressed them. 
But walking in Christ’s life and living out his kingdom’s values, we see our struggles in a brand new way:  not as darkness and despair-- but as moments to trust God.  We see them as the Father’s chastening and discipline that make us stronger.  We see them as opportunities to serve others in their needs and especially do we see them as opportunities to call them to trust in Christ and receive the blessings of life in his kingdom--just like the people of Galilee did.  The Bible tells us that:
Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.   So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
            God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah was that, upon those living in darkness, a great light would shine—and that’s exactly what happened. 
For those living in the darkness of disease and demonic possession the powerful, healing Light of the World shone into their lives bringing them healing and hope.  Each victory over the devil and his angels was an unmistakable sign that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of heaven had come to that place.  Each healing miracle was an unmistakable sign of a new day when Christ will come again with the fullness of a kingdom in which there will be no more sorrow or suffering.
            That day is a day of hope for us-- but it is just as certain as that day in Galilee-- for it has been promised by the God of kept promises.  And even though we live in a dark world until that day-- we do not live in darkness, for the light and the life of Jesus Christ has shown into our lives.  Amen. 

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