Matthew 4:12-23 NRSV
Earlier this month, as I preached on the Baptism of Jesus, I said that what happened at Jesus’ baptism with the spirit of God descending upon Jesus like a dove can happen to you and to me. Somehow, some mysterious way, I believe God is continually revealing God’s holy self to us. We just need to pay attention.
Sometimes we call events like this “epiphanies.” All of a sudden our hearts are startled and awakened to the miraculous presence of God in our lives. And I truly believe that if we pay attention, if we keep our eyes, our ears and our hearts open to the possibility of it, this is something that we can experience every day.
Because all of life is a gift of God’s grace, as Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite preachers, says, “The sacred moments, the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments.”
But here’s what I believe can be problematic: when it happens, when we catch a glimpse of the sheer grace of it, the absolute divinity of it, the contentment that we experience can be so comforting, the peace we feel is so beyond our understanding, and yet so real, that we may be tempted to overlook the primary purpose of all such “epiphanies.”
This purpose becomes clear when we remember Jesus experienced it at his baptism, at the very beginning of his ministry. In fact, the entire biblical witness proclaims the purpose behind every revelation. When God reveals God’s self to us, it is always in the form of a summons—a call. When God reaches out and reaches in, when God swoops and descends, God is always saying: “I have places for you to go, truth for you to tell, things for you to make right, and I have people for you to set free.”
In an ordination sermon installing Methodists who had answered the call of God to the ministry, William Willimon recounts the biblical witness:
Moses was a renegade fugitive in Midian. He had killed a man back in Egypt and he’s hiding out, working for his father-in-law. Suddenly, without warning, a bush bursts into flame. And a voice says to Moses, “I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I have heard the cry of my people. I have seen their oppression. I have come down to deliver them…Now, guess where you’re going?”
Little boy Samuel was asleep in the middle of the night when he hears his name being called. He’s has to be called three times before he gets the message. He hears a voice: “The house of Eli will be cast down for ignoring my commands, and the voice of God will be spoken to a new generation. Now guess where you’re going?”
Young Isaiah really didn’t want to go to church that Sunday but his mother made him. He never did get anything out of the sermon. He couldn’t stand the music. Then, without warning, the heavens opened, and there’s this vision and this voice. “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
Isaiah says, “Not me! I need to be honest with you God. I’ve got a lot of baggage from my freshman year at college. I have done some things I shouldn’t have done. I’ve said some things I shouldn’t have said.”
The voice says, “Perfect! Just the sort of honesty, just the kind of truth-telling that my people need! Guess where you’re going?”[i]
It is no mere coincidence that all of the Gospels depict Jesus as we meet him in today’s Gospel—as one who is always on a journey, always going someplace, always on the way to liberate someone, to challenge someone in power, to defend someone vulnerable, to feed someone hungry, to heal someone sick and forgive someone who’s sinned, always on the move.
I’m afraid many of us have erroneously learned along the way that this thing we call faith is something that we possess instead of some road we travel, some place we go, some act of justice we do, some people we liberate. We have reduced our faith to merely some sort of personal relationship or some type of heavenly transaction, a divine stamp of approval or some kind of Get-of-Hell-Free card.
I wonder what in our world taught us that? Think about it. What in this world benefits when our faith is watered-down, lukewarm, innocuous? What is strengthened and emboldened on this earth if our faith is understood as merely a placid personal relationship between us and God instead of a life-giving, world-changing, justice-seeking journey? The forces of demonic evil benefit. The powers of darkness are strengthened. The voices of selfishness and greed, hate and bigotry, racism and xenophobia are emboldened.
It’s popular among Christians to talk about how we “invited Jesus into our hearts.” However, living in a sinful and unjust world where the first are always first and the last are always last, when we invited into our hearts the Jesus who preached the very opposite, what on earth did we think he was going to do when he got in there? Just come inside and relax? Maybe take a little a contented nap? Just stay with us, comfort, protect and assure us until one day we die and go to heaven?
We seldom understand that our faith is not something we possess in our hearts, but a journey with the Christ who is always on the move going to those places we would rather not go, to those places that are likely to break our hearts— when we challenge the selfish culture, when we speak truth to power, liberate the oppressed, defend the vulnerable, feed the hungry, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, and welcome the foreigner, regardless of the faith or the ethnicity of that foreigner. Thus, faith in Christ is always a risky venture, a dangerous mission, an unpopular march to places that are dark, despairing, and dreadful, to places that we would not go unless the Holy One God’s self was leading us there.
And if our faith is something else, something silent in the face of oppression, something static in the face of suffering, something stagnant in the face of injustice, then I believe we should question whether Jesus is truly in our hearts.
Like in nearly all of the stories of Jesus, Jesus is on the move in today’s lesson. He is walking along a road when he sees some fishermen literally minding their own business. Then, out of nowhere, comes the call: “I am about to start a revolution that will reveal that every man, woman, boy and girl in this world are God’s beloved children, and I am here looking for a few ordinary people like you help me! “Now guess where you’re going?”
And Jesus took them places that they would have never gone by themselves.
Sometimes, we Bible-believing church people have our faith completely backwards. We say things like, “Since I took Jesus into my heart” or “Since I got saved or got Jesus.” But that’s not the way God works. That’s not the biblical story. The story—the story of Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, James, John, Peter, Andrew and the story of you and me—is that we do not take Jesus anywhere—it is Jesus who takes us places. We don’t get Jesus. Jesus gets us.
Everyone is here this morning because you were called to be here. For some of you, your summons to this place was a dramatic and life-changing experience. For others, the summons has been a lifetime of gentle prodding and persuading. However, for every last one of you, God has reached out, reached down, reached in, and grabbed you. You have been called. You have been summoned.
In fact, God is summoning each of us right to go somewhere, to love someone as we love ourselves, to speak out on the behalf of someone who is being oppressed, to welcome and to embrace someone, to be a sister or a brother to someone who is searching for a home. We just need to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to listen and look for the epiphany.
In reflecting on epiphanies that stir his soul, move him to tears, Frederick Buechner writes: ut. And the reality is, that God is ing called to his journey, to this faithn. is something
“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. … You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”[ii]
It is not an easy journey. There is great cost involved. Because of this journey, we will lose friends. Disappointed family members will try to tell us our faith should be kept private. And like the first disciples, we are prone to wander off course. In the face of great adversity, even persecution, we are liable to deny, even betray our Lord. But thank God that God does call us to be perfect on this journey. God, through Christ, only calls us to step out in faith and follow.
The good news is that, even now, Jesus is once more revealing himself, and Jesus is on the move! He has places to go, truth to be told, things to make right, and people to set free, and he wants to take this entire church with him! Now, guess where we’re going!
[i]Inspired and adapted from: Guess Where You’re Going, A sermon at the Service of Celebration and Installation by William H. Willimon, Bishop, The North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, November 14, 2004
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 1993.