January 26, 2014


Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23


At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus picks up the message of John the Baptist and announces: “The realm of God has come near.”

It is just because the realm of God is breaking into this world in a new way that Jesus calls those who hear him—you and me and countless other women and men—to repent. Remember that “repent” does not mean “feel sorry about something.” Nor does it mean to act in an especially religious manner—whatever that might be.

Repent means to turn around, to go in the opposite direction.

“Repent” sounds harsh—and it is a stern word. “Repent” sounds as God’s “No” to the way things are.

Not this.

Not this way.

 Not now.

But God’s “No” is also God’s “Yes” to something greater. We know how there is always the temptation to remain in place, to hold onto what it known, certain, and familiar even if it is dangerous or deadly. Still God’s “Yes” is sounding clear in your heart even today.

The former dean of Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl, said that repentance was a “radical conversion to God.” This is not conversion to ideas about God or to being religious. If Stendahl’s own life was any indication of what this “conversion” looked like, it would be characterized by a deep intellectual curiosity, a warm sense of humor, a concern for the neighbor and maybe even more a concern for the stranger, that is the one who is unlike us—of a different faith, a different orientation.

We get a clearer picture of this conversion when we watch and listen as Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, James and John.

“Follow me,” Jesus says.

I’ve said before that it is difficult to talk about “following” to a congregation of leaders in medicine, in science and in the arts, leaders in business and education, leaders in our city. We gather here each Sunday as the people who are out in front—the people who win the prizes and the awards and the grants and the accolades. And the students who worship here have come to the University, not to learn to be followers, but to become the leaders of tomorrow.

What does following have to do with us?

In recent years, people in business schools who study organizations have started looking at followers as well as leaders. They want to know, “What makes a good follower?”

One of the, well, leaders in this field is Robert Kelly, who received a B.A from Drake University and who now teaches in the business school at Carnegie Mellon University.  Kelly says that the success of any organization is dependent as much on the ability of followers to follow as it is on the ability of leaders to lead.

Kelly suggests that “followership,” as he calls it is not simply a matter of doing what one is told. It is not a matter of blind obedience.

The best followers, apparently, are positive, active, and independent thinkers.

Now the, Gospels are filled with stories that illustrate how those first disciples were far from ideal followers, at least by contemporary standards. They were easily discouraged, cowardly, passive, and unable to think through much of anything on their own. And yet in seeking to follow the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ they turned the world upside down.

We are living through a time of great upheaval and change in the church and in individual congregations. Many congregations are failing. Our own United Church of Christ denomination regularly loses members. And yet our own congregation is thriving—we are engaged with our community, growing in numbers and in depth of spirit, generous with our time and our money in supporting our common ministry and mission.

We have taken our leadership and turned it into followership.

We are never called to be imitators of the first disciples—neither in their failures nor in their successes. Dropping nets and leaving boats are not required of us. The tasks that we have are unique to our time and we will discover them only if we take the risk of following where Christ will lead us now.  The call to follow still comes to us as we are—harried or at leisure, at the top of our game or still striving. The call to follow comes to us even whether we regard ourselves as religious or not. Jesus does not call us to be reverential. He doesn’t call us to “admire him or accept his ideas or even to accept him as our personal savior.”[1]

The first word we hear is simply, “Come, draw near. Walk along for a while. Watch what I do.”

This is echoed in the advice of the poet, W.H. Auden, who wrote those wonderful words at the end of his Christmas Oratorio For the Time Being: “He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

When we follow Jesus, then, we find ourselves going to the places where he goes. With him we meet the people he meets. Those places, those people often turn out to be nothing like what we have known or what we would expect. As we follow along we start to see that Jesus is the One most “unlike” our understanding and expectations.

Matthew gives us a geography of the Land of Unlikeness—hints about the place to which our following might lead us.

We follow Jesus to the place of prayer, a place apart from the noise of the world, apart from the demands of our rapid-paced lives. How hard it is to follow to such a place! The clamor and press of life up front lead us to keep busy, rarely slowing down.

But we watch as Jesus pulls back even as his ministry is just beginning. He invites active souls to slow down for a time.

We follow Jesus to places where healing is brought to our world. Prayer is never confined to quiet meditation or peaceful feelings. It always expresses itself in concrete deeds of love. The ministry of Jesus was one of healing the sick, of saying “No” to the powers of destruction—and more importantly, of saying “Yes” to all that gives life. The ministry of Jesus brought God’s “Yes” to life in its fullest. Where there is brokenness, those who are following Christ will be found.

We follow Jesus in bringing good news to all people. He eats with sinners and outcasts—is there no one that he will not love? He speaks to the poor and to the rich a message of the nearness of the reign of God. No person, no group is excluded from the love of God that is drawing near.

We follow Jesus to resurrection—from death to life. Resurrection is not what was done once but what is in the making now. Resurrection is the process whereby we who were dead are finding new life and sharing that life with others. The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright put it this way: “When Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings themselves to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.”[2]

“Follow me.” The One who offers this invitation is so compelling that we join with countless other women and men and line up behind him. We follow along as best as we know how. Maybe we even discover new ways of walking along with him.

I guess that’s a major reason why people decide to belong to congregations. We’re willing to put up with all the quirks of everyone else—and the pleasant surprise is that everyone else is willing to put up with our own foibles—because we want to be with others who have heard the same call. We want to be with others who have known the same passion. In this way, when hearing grows dim, when love is slight, we find support from others along the way. The Christian life is not a solitary, individual one. Our followership has enabled us to create a congregation in which people build up one another, a place where we seek good as we seek God. That is the promise of a group like this one. As we seek to live out that promise, together we discover what it means to follow.

As we follow, we find the same thing that the earliest followers did: we are not alone. We are not praying or healing or discovering new life on our own. We are not sent out to tell the good news of God's love by ourselves. By the Spirit of God, the risen and living Christ is with us. The mission of the church in the world is not ours. It is the work of Christ, whom we follow.

The message of Jesus is “The realm of God has come near.” Uncertain, yet in hope, we speak that same message. We say: “In Jesus Christ, God has entered our world, has known our joys and sorrows, has died the death of all who live, and—take note for this is the truly amazing part—in dying Jesus Christ has conquered death for us and all that is alive.”

Jesus was not the end, but the beginning. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was the start of God’s involvement with creation in a new way. The light of God is still dawning on this world, showing life in a new way. That is our hope, our faith, even when the night surrounds us.

We know how the story in the Matthew ends—“They left and followed.” And for 2000 years women and men have done just that. They have prayed and brought healing. They have told others that the God who created is also the God who loves each creature. They have brought the light of Christ into countless darkened corners.

Those who followed have succeeded marvelously and failed disastrously.

The call is still the same: “Follow me.”

This morning we gather after worship to look back—to reflect a little on how we followed in the past year. I like to think we did a pretty good job—by the grace of God. And we look ahead—considering the challenges and opportunities that we face in the year ahead.

We don’t know the end of this story. We don’t know where our following will take us in the year ahead.

Follow in living and in dying.

Follow to new resurrected life.

Walk in the light—for that is where you wanted to be all along.

[1] NIB Matthew,pg. 170.

[2] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, pg. 116.