Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Isaiah 9:1–4; 1 Corinthians 1:10–18 & Matthew 4:12–25
The author of the Gospel of Matthew, whom I will simply refer to as Matthew hereafter, quotes extensively from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Members of the community that Matthew was writing to, which was predominantly a Jewish community, would have recognised or been familiar with these quotes. In today’s passage, Matthew quotes from the passage that was the subject of our first reading today, which is of course from the Book of Isaiah.
Matthew tells us that after Jesus hears of the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist, he decides to leave his hometown in Nazareth, and settle instead in the town of Capernaum in Galilee. Matthew also tells us that Capernaum is located in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, and that by moving there to live, Jesus has fulfilled a prophesy of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah was writing about the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, which were two of the tribes of Northern Israel, both of which had been taken over forcibly by the Assyrian Empire. That is the reason why Isaiah said that God had previously “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.” Isaiah was saying that God allowed the Assyrians to conquer these tribes, and to confiscate their land, as punishment for their role in joining with Syria and the other tribes of Northern Israel, to try and force the nation of Judah (the southern tribe of Israel) to fight with them against the Assyrian Empire.
Isaiah then prophesies that the Messiah will come and free Zebulun and Naphtali, and all the region of Galilee. Thus, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” In quoting Isaiah, Matthew is saying that God has kept His promise to send a light who would shine on everyone living in the shadow of sin. This message of hope is fulfilled in the birth and ministry of Jesus.
The rest of today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, of course deals with the call of the first disciples of Jesus, and with the key aspects of his ministry. As we know, the first disciples of Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were all fishermen. Jesus doesn’t call learned or trained professional rabbis (teachers) to be his disciples, because they may have to “unlearn” much of what they have been taught about the Jewish law. Instead, he calls people whose skills would prove useful in the service of God’s kingdom. Think about it, if God called shepherds like Moses and David to shepherd his people Israel, Jesus could call fishermen to be gatherers of people.
Matthew tells us that Peter, Andrew, James and John respond to the call from Jesus to follow him, by immediately leaving their family and livelihood. This was a rare and significant commitment. And by highlighting the immediacy of their decision, Matthew is demonstrating to his own community the importance of not wasting time in responding to their own call to follow Jesus.
My own belief is that Peter, Andrew, James and John had already met Jesus and heard him speak about his own mission and ministry. If you remember last week’s gospel reading, from the Gospel of John, Andrew was actually a disciple of John the Baptist who, together with a fellow disciple, goes and spends time with Jesus with the endorsement of John the Baptist. And we know that Andrew, convinced that Jesus was the Messiah after spending time with him, then introduces Peter to Jesus as well. So I believe they were already favourably disposed to Jesus and his ministry before he actually calls them to become his followers.
And Matthew describes what the key aspects of the ministry of Jesus are: teaching, preaching, and healing. Teaching shows the concern Jesus has for making sure his disciples truly understand what it is he wants each of them to do; preaching shows his concern for their commitment to their task; and healing shows his concern for the wholeness of people – their physical wellbeing as well as their spiritual wellbeing. His miracles of healing authenticated his teaching and preaching, proving that he truly was from God.
We can imagine that being fishermen, these first disciples of Jesus were not necessarily eloquent speakers when it came to proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. But they obviously had other skills, acquired through their experience as fishermen, that equipped them for their ministry. In the same way, the Apostle Paul tells the members of the church in Corinth that Jesus did not equip him with eloquent wisdom to proclaim the gospel, because in doing so this might have diminished the power of the gospel’s message.
And Paul says the “message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The proclamation of a crucified saviour is nonsense to unbelievers: no orator in antiquity ever spoke eloquently about a man dying on a cross. For believers the news of the crucified Saviour is “the power of God,” because God is at work in proclaiming this message. God himself persuades sinners to come to faith in Jesus and thus be saved as the news of Jesus, the crucified Saviour, is proclaimed.
Paul stresses the importance of his message not his style. Paul is saying that you don’t need to be a great speaker with a large vocabulary to share the Good News effectively. The persuasive power is in the story, not the storyteller. Paul isn’t against those who carefully prepare what they say, rather he is against those who try to impress others with their knowledge or speaking ability. That’s useful for us to understand today as well.