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I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Called to Follow


The Call to Follow
Immanuel Community Church
Sunday, January 23, 2011

(Matthew 4:12-23 ESV)
Now when he 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.”

            From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
            While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he 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.
            And he 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.

Introduction
We’ve spent the last couple of weeks building an understanding that the Call of the Christian is the normal work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.  This is pretty heavy stuff for most Christians today to take in.  That’s because the church in the 20th century failed to teach these things as normative.  Whether you want to explain these things as simply the action and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a believer or whether you want to explain them as specific expectations that God has for every person who comes to know him, these are things that, when the church is being the church, will flow from the life of believer to believer and from believer to unbeliever, and ultimately change the world.

Now, volumes and volumes have been written over the years on what it means to follow Jesus.  In fact, the greatest divisions the church has ever seen were over this central question. There isn’t time in this message to go over the whole history of this.  I’d love to share it with you, though.  So if you will ask me at coffee hour this morning, we can make this the topic of our table talk.   What I will say right now is that every time the church has attempted to make the message of the gospel appealing to the world, we have disengaged from the Call to Follow Jesus, even though that was exactly what we thought we were doing.

So what we want to look at this morning is NORMATIVE – it is how God means for discipleship to work.   And it is also SHOCKING, because the church has failed to teach it without compromise over the years, so this is going to sound foreign and perhaps a little harsh to you.  I wish there was some way of padding this and making it easier to present, but I don’t know any way to. 

The way Matthew outlines it for us here, we are called to Follow where the Darkness is Deepest; called to Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest; called to Follow where the Choice is Hardest; and called to Follow where the Risk is Greatest. 

Follow where the Darkness is Deepest
Matthew 4 begins by giving us what looks like a piece of background, almost an itinerary of Jesus’ doings to bring us up to a particular point in the narrative.  Matthew writes:  Now when he 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.”

But this is no mere itinerary.  Matthew is telling us why Jesus left Judea.  After John the Baptist was arrested, the climate, in terms of the area being ready to receive the Gospel message had changed in Judea, so Jesus withdrew back into the region where he had grown up.  It wasn’t that he was afraid of what might happen or was trying to be politically savvy.  Judea simply wasn’t yet prepared for what he was called to say and do.

The area around Capernaum really has a wonderfully colorful history.  In ancient times it was inhabited by the Canaanites, a pagan people who worshipped a pantheon of gods.  Around 1400 BC, when Israel was instructed by God to enter the Land, God gave regions to each of the 12 tribes, representing the 12 sons of Jacob.  The northeastern-most two of these regions belonged to the tribe of Zebulun and the tribe of Naphtali. 

When they took over the land, these two tribes not only failed to drive the Canaanites off what was now their property, but they intentionally intermarried with them and, in what would probably be called a hip ecumenical move today, worshipped not only Yahweh, but also the Baals and the Asheroth, the pagan gods of the region.  Though God spoke boldly to them for seven hundred years both through prophetic words and through the evidence of what happens when lives are lived faithful to him and when they are not, neither the people of Zebulun nor the people of Naphtali ever really embraced the Hebrew God fully.  The result was that the region came to be known as Galilee of the Gentiles.  Gentiles.  Goyim.  “Everybody Else.”    

By the time of Christ, Galilee, and Capernaum especially were resort areas, and quite cosmopolitan.  Capernaum sits right on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and makes a wonderful place for a holiday. And surely the Jews who lived there had long ago learned not just to tolerate idol worship, but to enjoy the benefits of having these pagan practices living side-by-side with theirs.  It was economically and culturally smart to do it.  So, when Jesus withdrew into Galilee of the Gentiles, he was not only going somewhere culturally familiar to him (since he grew up in the Galilee region), he was going into an area where the spiritual darkness was deep.  

Another thing to notice is that Jesus didn’t go there on some kind of preaching mission.  As we said last week, Jesus was no vagabond hippie.  The Call to Follow is the call to go and live in a place; to know and be known by the people there; and to live the message under the spotlight of community.  The text says that Jesus went and lived in Capernaum by the sea.  They might as well have said that Jesus had gone to live in Chatham on the Cape, or at Alton Bay on the Lake. 

But let’s not make a mistake here.  Even though Capernaum was a cosmopolitan melting pot and quite hip, the passage also says that he preached in the synagogues there.  So if you’re going to go where the darkness is deepest, you are going to Follow Jesus into the church as it is in a cosmopolitan setting.  If you are going to go where the darkness is deepest, the first shock your system is going to have to absorb is that Following Jesus means going into a thoroughly paganized church.
            Romans 1:21 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And in Ephesians 1:18 Paul writes, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

The darkness, it turns out, is often greatest IN the church.  “The people who dwelt in darkness,” it turns out, is us.  And this cuts across all denominational lines, across all theological distinctives.   WE, it turns out, are the ones who live the most pagan lives among pagan people.  What could be more pagan than to keep silent when you are with those of differing beliefs because at the root of it you have been taught that all is one and you don’t want to offend anyone?  We Christians today, liberal, conservative, Calvinist and Arminian, though we may call ourselves evangelical, are not evangelistic because we have adopted the pagan belief that pluralism in religion is good.  “Let others alone to believe what they will.  Jesus is okay for me, but it isn’t nice to impose my religious position on others.  So given the choice, I’ll keep silent, thanks.” 

The prophecy of Isaiah is not a prophecy directed to Gentiles.  It is a prophecy directed to Jews… in the synagogues… in Capernaum… where Jesus lived; Jews who should have known God, but had forgotten him. 

We who want to see Jesus have to follow him into the Capernaums of our day, into the cities and resort towns where the challenge to speak the word of God and live the word of God in public is the greatest because that’s where the darkness is greatest. 

Those who came before us did us a favor.  This church is already in Concord.  But we need to plant ourselves in Concord.  It would be better for us, for the city, and especially for the gospel if we had our church business meetings down at the Cheers Bar and at the Green Olive and worshipped the Lord together over at Boloco and in the CafĂ© at Borders.  The churches of Concord need to have their small groups meet at the Public Library and in the lobby of the Holiday Inn; not because it is provocative or hip to do that.  We need to do it because that’s where Jesus is because that’s where the darkness is and we need to follow Jesus where he is going.

And there are other dark places here too.  There is an apartment building so close to this church you could throw a rock at it and hit a window in the darkness.  We need to find how we can turn our lights on in such a way that that apartment building is bathed in the light of Christ.  Do any of you happen to live in that apartment building?  How many of you have been over there in the last six months?  Did you know there was a family here two weeks ago who live there?  How many of you sat and had a conversation with them during coffee hour?   What would happen if Jesus called you to move there and live there with your family.  Would you go?

Are… you… willing… to follow Jesus where the darkness is deepest?
           
Follow where the Kingdom is nearest
The second thing we find in the passage goes hand in glove with the first.  If we are Called to Follow where the Darkness is Deepest.  We’re also Called to Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest.  And thank God for that.

Matthew says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Mark’s version short-hands the whole account and simply says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Listen to just a smattering of what Jesus had to say about the Kingdom of God.  John 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were (preached) until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.”  Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Matthew 12:28, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  When some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him if he was the One whose coming was foretold by the prophets, Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  And let’s not forget the first-level prophecy uttered about Jesus before he was even born, “His name shall be called Immanuel, which means, God with us.”  (that’s Matthew 1:21).
What does all this mean?  Jesus’ wording here in Matthew 4 is absolutely so… provocative.  It practically SINGS.  “The time is fulfilled…”  That’s pregnancy language.  The word Jesus is using is how the ancients described a woman in labor.   “the kingdom of God is AT HAND.”  We talked about this a few weeks ago.  Disciple!  The kingdom of God isn’t in outer space somewhere where you may think God has heaven located.  The kingdom of God is right here.  The Kingdom of God is where Jesus is.
When Jesus walked on earth he could validly stick out his hand and say, “Kingdom of God, at your service.”  But if we accept as truth that Jesus is alive just as much today as he was in the first century, then the Call to Follow is a call to follow alongside of someone who is imminently HERE.   The Call to Follow is a call to go where the kingdom of God is nearest, and that means staying as close to Christ as you possibly can.   It means committing to following Christ wherever he goes.  If Jesus goes to the slums, you go to the slums.  If Jesus goes to visit your neighbor, you go to visit your neighbor.  If Christ goes to the nursing home, you go to the nursing home.  If Christ goes to offer love and reconciliation with the family member you’ve always had a hard relationship with, you go love and reconcile with that person. 
If the Call to Follow means Following where the Darkness is Deepest and where the Kingdom is Nearest, then it certainly means Following where the Choice is the Hardest.
Follow where the Choice is hardest
When Jesus walked past Simon and Andrew that day by the seashore he offered them the most difficult choice of their lives.  They were in a boat – their boat – and they were close in to the land, close enough that they could easily hear Jesus hail them from shore.  What Jesus said to them was, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  But what he might as well have said was, “You can’t hold onto two things at once.  Follow me and you’ll have to drop the net.” 

“Follow me and you’ll have to drop the net?”  This was their livelihood.  This was all either of them knew how to do to support themselves and their families.  You’ll notice neither of them asks, “Will I ever fish again?”.  You see, the moment you ask that question, you’ve already decided you aren’t following Jesus.  The terms of discipleship are this:  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is a net, you drop the net and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your money, you let go of the money and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your family, you let go of your family and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your health or your property or your reputation or your plans for the future, you let go of those things and follow him. 

Jesus went on a little farther and saw 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. 

This one stands out so clearly it almost runs you down.  Let’s read it the way Matthew means it.  “he saw 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. 

Mark 10:29-31 “Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
(Mark 10:29-31 ESV)

Do you see now what it was that James and John were holding onto?  Don’t be afraid of it. He is a good God, and he means it for your good.  James… John… You’ll see your father again.  You can’t hold onto him.  It will kill you spiritually.  Peter… Andrew… you’ll fish again.  But hold onto the net and you’ll never become a fisher of men like I want you to.  Following Jesus means making very real, very hard choices. 

Follow where the Risk is greatest
Finally, Jesus calls every person who follows him to go where the Risk is Greatest. 

And he 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.

This may not sound risky.  The way our “church ears” hear it, this almost sounds fun, like a vacation you’d be glad to go on with Jesus if he asked. 

It says he did three things.  First, he taught in their synagogues.  Second he proclaimed the gospel in the streets.  The word used here is one for public proclamation.  Third, he healed every disease and every affliction.  This sounds like fun until you realize that when Jesus taught the things we’ve just gone over in the synagogue, the response the leaders of the synagogue had was to test him, and then to put him out; to find some way to arrest him or put him to death.  And when he proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom in the streets they accused him of inciting anarchy against the state, and looked for some way to be rid of him.  And when he healed diseases and afflictions, the people marveled and clamored for more, yes.  But the spiritual powers of evil shuddered and said, “We know who you are, the holy one of God,” and sought for a way to destroy him.

If you take Jesus seriously in the things he said and did, if you strip away the sanitized picture Satan has convinced the church to deliver to you, you will see that if you teach these things in the synagogue, the church will hate you.  If you proclaim these things in the streets, the world will hate you.  If you heal every disease, the demons will hate you.  Ultimately, the Call to Follow means that you Follow where the Risk is Greatest.

Those are the terms of discipleship.  Follow where the Darkness is Deepest.  Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest.  Follow where the Choice is Hardest.  Follow where the Risk is Greatest.  What are you going to do?  Jesus is walking by.  Right now.  And he has just called out to you.  And he said, “Follow me.”

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