Jesus was a northerner. While we are used to his birth in Bethlehem and his death in Jerusalem, both in the south, he grew up in Nazareth, to the west of Galilee in the north. There is something about the Gospels that sound particularly good when read in a northern accent. After the Temptations in the wilderness, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested and withdraws to Galilee. He leaves Nazareth and sets up his home in Capernaum, by the Lake – the Sea of Galilee, again in the north. And this is where our Gospel reading is set (Matthew 4:12-23). The reference to the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, which is the area in which Capernaum sits, is a quote from Isaiah (9:1-4) with the light dawning on a people who live in darkness. Hope is dawning and we see this because Jesus goes around proclaiming repentance, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near (v17).
Zebulun and Naphtali, territory around Galilee, are places with Messianic associations. Judas Maccabeus liberated the Jews there (1 Maccabees 5:15ff) and so Jesus has chosen a significant place to ‘withdraw’ to. Capernaum was a significant fishing town and centre. It was the first major place inside the territory of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist holed up far to the south. Far from skulking away, he has gone knocking on the front door!
As the Galilee of the Gentiles, or the Galilee of the Nations in another version, Jesus is setting out his stall for all nations, rather than just being a local prophet. The biblical scholar David Garland points out that the star of the Magi, which shone earlier in Matthew’s gospel for the multi-national visitors, has become the light that shines on all in spiritual darkness. Jesus is for everyone, not just the Hebrew people. This Gospel begins with an expansion of what it means to be the Messiah. It comes with the Magi and now at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry it comes in where he choses to call his first disciples. Nothing in the story is accidental. He has chosen his location with care. He placed himself in the centre of activity in that region, one with a cosmopolitan community, the first major place in the territory of Herod Antipas and one with Messianic connotations. Jesus is making a noisy entrance.
The call of the disciples is also interesting. Disciples did not tend to be called by their master rather they chose their teacher. So Jesus choosing them reverses that norm. We are so used to the notion of calling that we miss this. In John’s Gospel this is expressed with Jesus saying ‘You did not choose me, I chose you’ (John 15:16). And that call is to be total. The proclamation of the Kingdom of repentance requires a total commitment. They are expected and do follow immediately by leaving everything to follow him. There is to be a total reordering of priorities with unreserved commitment. Jesus doesn’t wait for volunteers to offer, he selects who he wants and it is a surprisingly mixed bunch: it includes fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionary zealots and of course Judas who turned out to be bad.
We live in times that assume the choice rests with us. We choose our clothes, our car, our carpets, we decide whether we want to watch POSH or play snooker, we might go and see the new film La La Land or the play Stoat Hall at the Key Theatre. We decide if we are going to join a book club, read the paper, belong to an environmental campaigning group or the school PTA. We choose so much of our lives and our decision to be a follower of Jesus fits the same approach. This is a lifestyle choice that we have chosen to follow because it appeals to us in some way. And in doing that we say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
So there is an element of choice in how we respond to the call to follow him. But there is a call. This comes from God, not from a group of likeminded people who have set up a club to enable the mutually agreed aims and objectives to be furthered. Behind this is Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of heaven has come near, so repent. Turn your orientation from yourself, from misguided aspirations and hopes, to the purposes of God which we see in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
This notion of call from a higher purpose, from God, can be particularly important when we might struggle with it. And there are times when we all struggle. We might struggle with who else is in the church. The guest list follows a very surprising criteria, one that includes politically diverse people, people of different financial riches and poverty, different marital statuses, sexualities, genders, ages, races, languages, temperaments… the list of differences is a very long one. Everyone has a place at this table because the host is Christ and he has sent out the invitations for us all to be here. That sets the membership criteria and not our taste or prejudices (and we all have them).
Our gospel reading gave us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after the Temptations in the wilderness. He chose a place with a multi-national community, a fishing port and a major centre on Galilee, the first big place in Herod Antipas’ territory. In this he calls fishermen to follow him and they leave everything straight away. He chose a place in the north which had been significant in the past, linked with Messianic activity. Far from withdrawing, he is gathering his movement, one which will be for all people. For us the challenge is to turn a life-style choice into a call to follow Jesus, so that it determines all our other life-style choices and not our life-style determine how we see following Jesus. The call to repent is to re-orientate our lives so that they are a response to the Kingdom of heaven. Its allegiance is to be absolute.
Sermon preached at St Mary’s, Peterborough, Sunday 22nd January 2017