Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 23, Epiphany 3: On the Shore and In the Hills

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus moved out of his home town of Nazareth, up in the hills, and rented a house down at the lakeshore, in Capernaum. Imagine Jesus in his house: in the mornings doing carpentry, making furniture for the merchants, or going out to frame houses for Gentile settlers. He makes his mid-day meal, takes a nap, and then he goes out for his walk. He loves to be out among the people. He likes to walk along the lakeshore. One afternoon he comes back from his walk with four other men. They sit down in his front room, he makes them all coffee, and they talk. More coffee, more talk. Late that night, they go back home. I wonder, how many days a week do they come back? How much do they keep fishing, in order to feed their families?

On Fridays they go with him up into the hills. Every week another synagogue, arriving at sundown, repeating the prayers with the people, socializing overnight, going to service on Saturday morning, preaching and teaching, getting invited for coffee, healing the people, then still more coffee, and then walking back downhill, and home to Capernaum.
The campaign platform was the same as John the Baptist’s. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," but the emphasis was more on the second part. For John, you had to go down to the water and repent, to get clean and ready for the kingdom soon to come. With Jesus the kingdom has come, ready or not, and he was taking it up to the people, in their ordinary lives, and just to accept that kingdom is the same thing as repentance.

In their villages, not in Jerusalem. In Galilee, not in Judea. In the Bronx, not in Manhattan. In the north, in the region that Moses had assigned to the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali, a region that had always been a battlefield, one army after another marching through, pillaging their crops and ravaging their women. A region of Jews in poverty, and of Gentile settlers controlling the means of production. The Jews were in depression, and they felt like exiles in their own land.
The Jewish revolutionaries, the Zealots, had their headquarters in Galilee because it was more open and less controlled than Judea. Jesus had more freedom here to develop his campaign. Had he stayed in Judea, and announced in Jerusalem that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, he would have would been arrested with John the Baptist. But Galilee was also a better venue for Jesus’ new version of the kingdom of heaven. He didn’t bring it as a kingdom of independence, but a kingdom of interaction. It’s not for ridding our life of enemies, but for loving our enemies close at hand. It’s not for isolation but engagement. It’s not for getting rid of troubles, but for dealing with our troubles. The kingdom of heaven is for the mixed-up reality of our lives.

And to join him in his campaign he didn’t call priests or scribes or soldiers, but ordinary working guys. This was not the first time that he called them. Last week we read of the first time he called them, in the Gospel of John. They were down in Judea, standing beside the Jordan River, disciples of John the Baptist. And then when John pointed out Jesus to them, they went to him, and began to follow him. Then there was a gap. John the Baptist got arrested and his campaign was dispersed. The disciples went back to Galilee to fish. And now a second time they’re called, but instead of their looking for him, he comes to find them, right in the midst of their ordinary lives. And now they have to balance their fishing with the immediacy of discipleship.

Following Jesus is not magic. It’s usually gradual, in fits and starts, with gaps and hesitations, and with doubts and disappointments. It happened in stages that Peter and Andrew became disciples. That’s how we experience it. Following Jesus is rarely a sudden simple thing or one nice gradual evolution. You get an experience where you really take notice of God, which feels like a call. And then there is a gap, and you wonder if it was real, and if anything has really changed. Then you have another experience that takes you further, and you feel called again. Now God is asking more of you, a greater measure of devotion, God is calling on you to do something which may cost you, and you have to put down what you’re doing, and make new room in your life to keep on going where Jesus is calling. And when you think you’ve got it down, there’s more.

Jesus calls them on the lakeshore—not in the desert nor in Jerusalem. My favorite place on the planet is a rocky lakeshore up in Canada. In the summer I love to get up at dawn and just sit there for a couple hours. The lakeshore is a boundary, a limit, yet it’s not a wall, it’s an open boundary, the lake is open wide before me, and I can enter into it. And the lake is always right there all the time I’m doing whatever I’m doing on shore.

That’s what discipleship feels like to me, that’s what repentance feels like, not like putting yourself through fire or through torture, not punishing yourself, but like living along the lake, living along the boundary between two worlds, two realms of existence. The one realm is the one we’re born into and we’re used to it, where we can make our own way, thank you very much, where we don’t have to follow anybody. You make your bed, you cook your meals, you do the dishes. The other realm of existence is right there, always with you, as close as heaven is to earth, but it’s wide open, and I’m drawn to it but I’m unsure in it. When I look at this world I"m used to from within the air of heaven, the very same world becomes a different world, a strange world, in which all of my certainties are made uncertain, where all my confidence must be humility, where I need a leader and a guide, someone I can trust. And he says, "Follow me."

That’s very open-ended. I’d like to know first where he’s going. Why not just tell me where we’re going, give me the directions, and I’ll go straight there on my own? And why not just tell me what I have to repent of? I don’t mind repenting, just tell me what I did wrong, and I’ll say I’m sorry, and I won’t do that again. But Jesus doesn’t stand up in the synagogues of Galilee to say, "This is wrong, these thirty-seven things are wrong." If Jesus did that we could keep a list and check it off. He doesn’t tell us precisely what we have to repent of, he just says, "Repent," and then he says, "Follow me." He leaves it very open-ended.

Discipleship, repentance, the coming of the kingdom. These are all aspects of a single package. The kingdom is what Jesus brings, and to receive it is repentance, and to explore it is discipleship. The kingdom is what Jesus brings, and to receive it is repentance, and to explore it is discipleship. So then what is required of us?

On the one hand, everything is on the table, The boundary runs through all things. There are not some parts of life which are in the kingdom of God and other parts which are exempt. Every action, every possession, every relationship, every issue, every interest, every dollar, everything about you, everything you think or hope or say, it all belongs to the kingdom of God. The call is fully comprehensive. You must be ready to put anything down right now, from your plans to your possessions. In nothing are you self-sufficient, in nothing are you fully competent, in everything you need instruction, in everything you need healing, in everything you need forgiveness, and for everything you need repentance. Repentance as an attitude, not a self-evaluation or a listing of rights and wrongs you’ve done, but repentance as an attitude of full reception.

On the other hand, there is no stress to this. It is total but it is light. There is no pressure to this. Look how easy Jesus takes it. Look he patiently he campaigns, how much time he takes, how much room he gives. How just a little is a sign and seal of a whole new world. There is no pressure because the kingdom has already come, we don’t have to earn it or build it but receive it. You explore it by enjoying it. This is a kingdom where the law is love and the power is joy.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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