The computer never forgets. It even remembers a sermon written eighteen years ago. Looking back today, it seems to me this sermon marked a milestone in my own spiritual unfolding.

January 27, 2002 The Call To A Deeper Identity
Matthew4:12-23

(Preached by C. Page at Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church, WA)

The first two and a half chapters of Matthew’s Gospel serve as a prologue to the rest of the Gospel.  Matthew sets the scene for Jesus’ arrival.  He builds the excitement, preparing for Jesus to suddenly burst upon the scene in a blaze of glory and power.

Matthew has told his audience that this one who is coming is the fulfillment of Hebrew history, the Messiah, the king of the Jews. Matthew has introduced John the Baptist who appears in the wilderness with crowds flocking to hear his blistering message –

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Matthew 3:11,12)

But it is pretty much down hill from here.  After this great build up, Jesus does not burst triumphantly upon the scene.  He does not come in a blinding flash of splendour and glory.  He ambles out into the wilderness and asks John the Baptist to baptize him, then disappears for forty days and forty nights.  It is not an auspicious beginning for a great ruler, a king, a messiah.

Then it gets worse.  The next thing we hear is that Jesus’ advance man has been arrested. John the Baptist is in prison.

Surely, this is the moment Jesus should rally the troops, march into Jerusalem, capture the city, set John the Baptist free, throw out the Romans, and make everything right.  But no, Matthew tells us –

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. (Matthew 4:12,13)

This is all wrong.  Jerusalem is the place of power, the place for the King of the Jews to come to inaugurate his kingdom.  When you want to be king you go to the capital.  But Jesus does not go South to Jerusalem, instead he goes North to Capernaum in Galilee, the Jewish province furthest from the capital and generally looked down upon by the proud inhabitants of Israel’s holy city.  Imagine a US President on inauguration day, announcing, “No I’m not going to live in Washington.  I will make my residence in …”

Jesus is not going to fit into the neat categories of anyone’s system.  He is not going to conform to anyone’s expectations.

Life has a way of frustrating our expectations. Things do not always turn out as we had hoped they might; it is easy to feel let down by God.

 

What do we do when life does not unfold according to our plans?  How are we to respond when life seems to take a wrong turn?  What are we to do when things have gone sideways and God doesn’t rush in to put it all right?

Jesus’ preaching answers that question.  Matthew sums up Jesus’ message in one statement –

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matthew 4:17)

How is that helpful at a moment of crisis?

We tend to have a problem with this word “repent.”  We think of repentance as feeling terrible for all the bad things we have done.

There is a place for recognizing that our lives have not always been all they might have been.  But the word “repent” is much bigger than just feeling bad about the past.

Matthew follows his summary of Jesus’ message with two pictures of repentance –

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22).

Matthew describes Peter and Andrew as “casting a net into the sea.”  Then he adds the helpful little insight – “for they were fishermen.”  I suppose that might be rather obvious.  But I think we are to see something significant in this.

Here we have men who are identified as “fishermen.”   You would assume they might be fairly attached to their nets, their boats and their fellow fishermen.  These are the outer forms of their lives.  Nets, boats, fellow fishermen – are the things which give their lives shape and meaning.  I am the man who gets up every morning, goes down to the water’s edge, climbs into my boat and at the end of the day brings home a load of fish.  That is what I do.  That is who I am.

It is tempting to find our identities in the things we do.

But what happens when these fishermen encounter Jesus?

20Immediately they left their nets and followed him….22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

An enormous energy force is sweeping by.  Simon, Andrew, James and John are caught up in the magnetic attraction of the irresistible draw of Jesus’ presence.

Matthew uses the same word twice to describe the fishermen’s reaction. “They left their nets and followed him,” and “they left the boat and their father, and followed him”. The Greek word translated “left” is “aphiemi.”  It contains the idea of “letting go.”

To repent is to “let go.” To “repent” is to surrender our hold on all external forms in which we have located our sense of identity and to let ourselves be swept along by the compelling force of Jesus.

Eckhart Tolle says that

Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than resisting the flow of life.

Jesus is the flow of life.  Simon, Andrew, James and John are caught up in that flow of life and carried along into an unknown future.  In that process certain things fall away. These fishermen let go of their nets; they let go of their boats; they let go even of their father.

You can hang on to your boats if you want and cling to your nets until your dying day.  But, one day these things are going to let you down. They are not an adequate basis for a secure and lasting sense of identity. To follow Jesus is to heed the call to a deeper identity.

The truth is, one day your expectations of life are not going to be met. Your boat will spring a leak.  You will become tangled in your nets.  Your father on whom you have depended will die. The only thing you can be absolutely sure of is that any external thing in which you have located your identity will fail you.

If my identity is grounded in my expectation that my children will turn out a certain way I am in trouble.  I will either spend my life, forcing my children into a mould I have created for them.  Or, I will be shattered when my children fall short of my expectations.  If I locate my identity in my job, what happens when I lose my job, or even retire from my job?  My job is not my life.  My family is not my life. The way I look is not my life. My ability to perform certain functions is not my life.

Jesus says, “Follow me.”  It is an invitation to go deeper, to be caught up in the flow of life.  It is an invitation to discover a new identity, an identity beyond boats, or nets, or even fathers.

Join me, Jesus calls.  Sing with me the music of the universe.  As we flow together, others will be drawn into the powerful force of unexpected love.  You will “fish for people,” drawing others along in this tidal wave of energetic life which breathes through all created beings.  Feel the energy.  Feel the Spirit who fills creation and empowers your life.  Experience the deeper dimension of the fullness of life.  This is who you are.

Repentance defuses a moment of crisis because repentance awakens us to the reality of a deeper dimension to life. Repentance opens us to a dimension that transcends all those changeable uncertain realities in which we often seek to locate our sense of identity. Jesus invites us to embrace a whole new identity.  He invites us to find ourselves in him and to let go of those external props we have clung to in a futile attempt to reinforce some vulnerable little sense of self.

Jesus calls us to let go and be caught up in the force of life sweeping through our lives.  He calls us to cooperate with the unlimited and inexhaustible flow of energy which is the presence of God known to us in Christ.  Do not let your boats or your nets hold you back.  Surrender to the flow of life in Christ. Discover the fullness and richness which is your true identity as God’s child.