Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 4:12-23
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – January 26, 2020

We began this season of Epiphany recalling the magi who came from afar – from different backgrounds and beliefs – following a brilliant star to the One they believed to be the new king. The One they worshipped with strange gifts as king, priest, and sacrifice. We then heard about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, being claimed as God’s beloved Son with whom God was well-pleased. Last week, John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world and baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus invited the disciples to “come and see,” to find what their hearts were truly seeking in him. It’s a season of experiencing the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. It’s a season of light and revelation. It’s also a season illuminating our calling to follow and share the good news.

During this time of year, the sunlight in the Narthex brilliantly mirrors the themes of the season! After worship, we are dismissed into bright, blinding, and warm light filtering through the doors of the church. It makes me want to bask in it, like a cat or a dog curled up in the sunny spot on the floor.

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah speaks to Israelites annexed by the Assyrian Empire – people living under oppression from foreign rule, longing for a return to a time when a ruler like King David would govern. Isaiah tells them that God will see to it that rejoicing and exultation are theirs again.

There are difficulties, confusion, trials, stresses, pains, wounds, and sorrows that mark each of our lives. At one point or another, we all may feel like we are experiencing proverbial darkness. It’s in those times we long for a shift – for light and life and joy to shine again. For a sense of purpose, direction, healing, and wholeness to pervade our daily lives. How do you need the light of Christ to warm and illuminate the moments of your day? Paradoxically, only in darkness can we really see the light for what it is. Light and dark, joy and sorrow, certainty and confusion coexist in our lives and give clarity to each other. Psalm 139, which poetically describes who we are and how God is with us reminds us that God is God in both darkness and light: “…even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” God illumines and grants insight, life, and hope even in the darkest of times. The confusion and disorientation of being “in the dark,” might be teaching you. In those times where is God present for and with you?

Jesus picks up the torch from John, proclaiming the exact same message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Both John the Baptist and Jesus call out “repent!” urging people to adopt a new mind or perspective. They begin with this because being open to something new is at the heart of being able to receive God’s kingdom in our midst – to see the light shining in darkness.

Jesus proclaims this, but he also shows what the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign on earth, will look like. It looks like healing “every disease and every sickness,” teaching, love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, wholeness… In fact, the next few lines say Jews and most-likely pagans from the Decapolis, a group of 10 Greco-Roman cities, even came to meet Jesus. What a mixed crowd!

In a highly structured and hierarchical society where the Roman Empire dominated everything from food to taxes, culture to religion, hearing God’s reign was near was a powerful political statement. It wasn’t something abstract, it was a life-changing proclamation of God breaking in and the world changing! It was light in darkness. Hope in oppression.

Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James, left immediately to follow Jesus. What did their families think? I mean, Peter was married. What was that conversation like? What kind of judgment did they receive for that decision to follow? Were they in such a position that what they heard, saw, and encountered in Jesus was so promising they had to go? They couldn’t not follow?

If we are honest, we struggle to share the good news of Jesus Christ in our lives. Maybe we worry people won’t take us seriously or will think we’re hopelessly naïve. Those same things probably crossed those first disciples’ minds, too. Maybe we worry with all the horrible things going on in the world, it doesn’t seem like God’s kingdom has come near. Maybe we feel it’s an idealistic dream, a hope out of reach. We don’t know how God’s reign really makes a difference and so we can’t talk to others about it.

But as Christ’s followers, we seek out glimpses of the kingdom. We look with the eyes of faith and help others to see. We, who walk in Christ’s light, shine his light in the darkness of the world so others can see the kingdom. This means not just talking about it, but working to bring the world around us into alignment with the kingdom of heaven. To bring healing, work for justice, to be kind, loving, and merciful to others, to serve with dedication and humility.

We might not know what direction or shape our following will take. But just setting out to follow is following. We learn as we go and uncover how Christ is leading us. We will make the road by walking, discovering that we are always on a journey exploring who we are and who we are called to be. You don’t have to have it all figured out! What a gift! Embrace and rest in it. Follow. Come! It’s an invitation walk with Jesus.

Fishermen know in order to haul in nets full of fish, you need to work together because they are heavy and cumbersome. Not even Jesus went through this world alone. After his initial temptation in the wilderness, angels served and cared for him. He called others to follow and join his mission. He withdrew frequently to spend time in prayer with the Father. On the road to his crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene helped carry his cross. In love and devotion, others removed him from the cross and sought to anoint his body with oil and spices.

As a congregation, we have many decisions to make together over the coming months. It’s an exciting and potentially stressful time. There’s still grief and trepidation about Pr. Joe and Debra’s retirement and what lies ahead. But I continue to be surprised and delighted in this time. For me, what loomed as a very intimidating, overwhelming, and stressful time has blossomed into a time of tremendous blessing. Initially, the invitation to follow Jesus into the unknown felt like too much – how could I do it? But I was never doing it alone. It is the gift Community keeps giving and teaching me. You all have shown me that. And Pr. Greg has come alongside to serve. We follow Jesus, but we always do it together. These disciples weren’t called as individuals but in pairs. They weren’t called into a “me-and-Jesus” relationship, but a “Jesus at the center” relationship. A community where God casts the net, gathering us. And, together, in the name of Christ Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do amazing, breath-taking things.

We can provide food for our community through the Giving Garden. We can support veterans and their families – we’re in the top three county supporters of veterans after the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars! We can give Rwandan students a future through scholarship support, raising up a new generation of leaders in a country still recovering from genocide. We can even give animals new homes through generous Soup Cook Off donations!

Jesus asks us to follow. And that’s exciting, anxiety-producing, and question-provoking. It’s the never-ending gift of being a disciple in the body of Christ. As Rachel Remen says, “The willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance of uncertainty.” We have incredible opportunities before us, but in order to see and embrace them, we must also be comfortable with a bit of uncertainty and mystery. That is, after all, the life of faith. Of light present in the darkness.

Jesus has already walked into your life. He extends his hand, inviting you. “Come and follow me. Come see for yourself what I am doing within you. In your life and relationships. In your neighborhood. In the world. God’s reign is breaking in. Come, eat at this table. What I have done, I have done for you. To change your heart and way of thinking so you can follow. Take heart and take courage for the road ahead. You may not know where you are going or what will be asked of you, but I am with you. Following, you will long to cast a bigger net. You will ache to make sure that all people know the love, compassion, justice, and mercy you have received from me. Come and follow.” Amen.