Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, January 26, 2014

Jesus Gets Personal: Fish Tales and Fish Filets
[Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23]

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ calling the first four disciples is lean and to the point.  Writing to a mostly Jewish audience, the author shows the continuity of Jesus’ life with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:2 and explains how Jesus fulfills that prophecy in a way that goes beyond the initial historical meaning of the text.
Last week, we encountered John the Baptist, who identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, the ONE who takes away the world’s sins. Then John was arrested, the cue for Jesus to inaugurate his ministry.
JESUS withdraws to Galilee in the north of Israel.  He leaves Nazareth where he grew up and makes his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, to FULFILL the prophecy that in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
The original meaning of this text in Isaiah was rooted in the historical circumstances of the time, long before Jesus’ birth and even before Israel and Judah’s exile to Babylon. One writer questions the NRSV translation of this text on a number of points as he explains its original context. Israel and Judah were both torn by civil strife and warfare from all sides. They had agreements with Assyria to the east, but Assyria’s own power was limited and powers to their west conquered them.  The original text was NOT a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, but Matthew lifts and transforms this Scripture to show that Jesus DOES fulfill the prophecy as no human ruler or king could ever do. 
Embedded in Isaiah is a prophecy that even the writer of Isaiah did not imagine!  God works through Scripture in ways that go beyond the original context, but do not contradict the text.  God breathes new life into it and expands the message of Good News!  It was a text full of good news when it was written; it was full of good news when Matthew interpreted it into the life of the early church; and it is full of good news today if we let it breathe life into the darkest corners of our lives.
Jesus’ first words in our NT reading are:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  We expect John the Baptist to urge repentance, but we forget that those were also Jesus’ first words.
Repent.  Turn around. Make a 180 degree turn, because the kingdom of heaven has come near. There is not a single one of us who does not need to adjust our life when Jesus enters.  Most of us need to KEEP REPENTING when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, so that our lives will not cloud over the good news Jesus brings, nor block the light, which should shine through our lives to others.
We need to own the darkness in ourselves, before the light of God’s grace can shine through us. Repent. Turn around. Let’s ponder God’s CALL to us. 
 Repentance is a very PERSONAL thing. That’s why we practice a moment of silence every Sunday, which might be more effective if we allowed 5 or 10 minutes for silence. No one can repent for someone else.  I can’t repent for you and you can’t repent for me.  It is an inside job.  We have to stop, do an about face, and start walking in the other direction.  We can’t be walking toward God and away from God at the same time.
WHY should we repent?   Jesus says:  “because the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (v. 17) We repent or turn and walk the opposite direction, because something more important, something more compelling, something more beautiful and incomprehensibly wonderful CALLS us to a higher way of living.  If we cling to our small selves and our limited interests, we will miss the kingdom of heaven when it draws near. 
When Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, they didn’t have a chance to check bank balances or equivocate about whether it was a good or bad investment. They didn’t say goodbye to their families. When he called, they left their boats, their professions and their family and followed Jesus whom they barely knew.  For some reason, his offer made everything else in their lives step aside to make room for Jesus’ call.
He invites these fishermen to fish for people. Their radical response to Jesus, as impractical as it sounds to us today, makes it seem like they had been waiting their whole lives to hear Jesus’ voice.  Jesus was on the move and they followed.  His train was leaving the station and they got on board.
The disciples followed and never looked back.  What they left was not a life of sin and carousing, but rather a lucrative profession and a family who loved them. They didn’t count the cost. Jesus’ call had spiritual authority which was compelling and worthwhile enough at the very deepest level of their lives; otherwise they could not have done it.
Jesus didn’t say there was anything wrong with their profession as fishermen, nor did he say their family was unimportant. He just said follow. He would show them a whole new way of fishing – attracting PEOPLE to the good news of Jesus Christ. The person they followed went around Galilee, teaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.
This calling was time sensitive & had an expiration date. When Jesus called, they couldn’t say:  “we’ll make plans to join you at the end of the season when the grouper quit running, or when my youngest child grows up. It was honestly NOW or NEVER. They dropped their nets and followed, becoming the “inside” circle of Jesus. They chose to be his friends and followers for a very short period of time which would actually change the world forever. Now that’s a mission worth dropping your nets for!
How does this impact us 2000+ years later? Can it possibly be that urgent or time sensitive as it was for Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John?  What do you think?
Many voices are trying to capture our attention.  It is worse today than it was in Jesus’ time.  Our world is saturated with opinions, advice, recommendations, slander, ranting emails, Facebook, twitter.  Sometimes it makes me want to put on thick ear muffs to drown it out.  I do not watch a lot of T.V. and I do not spend time on Facebook. There’s nothing WRONG with these media to give our church a presence.  Advertisements, pictures and messages are great tools for outreach.
The problem is God’s still small voice is not easily heard in the cacophony & that’s the voice I don’t want to miss.  I yearn for God’s guidance, direction and wisdom. I need God’s mind to guide me every single day.  If my ears are full of everyone else’s business, I may miss the ONE word I need from God, which makes all the difference for me and others.
We don’t have Jesus in the flesh as those first 4 disciples did, so we need to develop the gift of discernment, the ability to recognize God’s voice in a world of excessive noise.
You know what a “Fish Tale” is, don’t you?  It’s a story that stretches the truth. “You should have seen that 3 foot long grouper I caught this morning!”  When I tell that story tomorrow, all of a sudden it’s a 5-foot grouper and next week, it becomes a 7-foot grouper.  We laugh about the Fish Tales people tell us, because they contain an “element of truth” but a lot of fiction.
There are other “Fish Tales” people tell which are complete lies.  Has anyone told you they are “fine” when you know they are not “fine”?  This happens in church, because people come to church with their best foot forward.  We dress up, fix our hair and try to look our best. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that Jesus wants us to come JUST AS WE ARE, as we REALLY ARE, not as we would like to be. And that’s no fish tale!
Jesus doesn’t give us time to go home, take a shower, & make everything RIGHT before we follow.  Jesus calls us as we are and then cleans us as we follow.  That’s the “filet” part of this sermon. 
Jesus cleans up & transforms our small, petty selves. As we follow, we become people of the Word who walk in its light and spread love to others.  We can’t do it if we refuse to submit to the One who loves us so much that he gently cleans and filets us for God’s glory.  Transformation can be a painful process.  The man who cleans the fish and cuts them into filets has an important job to do.  Most fishermen clean and filet the fish immediately after they are pulled out of the water.  They scrape off the scales, cut off the heads and tails (unless you live in a country where the heads and tails are a delicacy!)  Then they de-bone the filets. It’s a smelly place to hang out, the place where fish are cleaned and fileted. 
Guess what?  Church is a smelly place if real transformation happens here. God flushes out our down-and-dirty issues. God cleans us up with the Water and the Word.  Being a Christian gets  personal, because Jesus sees, knows and loves us as we are, but has no intentions of leaving us in that stinking condition.  Jesus doesn’t tolerate our “stinking thinking” which self-justifies and makes excuses for our less than God-breathed behavior.
God loves us too much to leave us as we are.  God plants and tends us like a gardener, pulling weeds that are strangling us, providing water, fertilizer and sunlight. God does this while our lives are “in motion”—while we are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
A community of faith which follows in the footsteps of Jesus grows numerically and people are healed, for that is the nature of the kingdom of heaven on earth! It’s a supernaturally, natural process. Life begets life. Transformation is attractive & contagious.  If people are not growing & being healed, not being cleaned & fileted in our company, then something is seriously wrong.
God’s VOICE calls us towards growth & healing.  Roger Nishioka tells a powerful story about a young man he met at a youth conference in California, who was deeply distraught. Roger preached that night on discerning God’s call.  One of the adult leaders from this man’s group brought him to Roger and asked if he would talk with him.
Roger tells this story: “The young man said that for some time he had been hearing God’s call to end his life—that the world would be better off if he were dead. As he broke down sobbing, I held on to that young man and prayed with and for him. After several minutes, I whispered to him that while I believed he was hearing a voice that was telling him to end his life, it was not God’s voice. The young man asked if I was sure. I told him I was certain. I told him that in Psalm 139 he is described as fearfully and wonderfully made and that Jesus himself said in John 10:10 that he came to bring abundant life.”
 It’s our responsibility as Christians to know the character of God so well, that we will recognize imposters and be able to discern voices that are consistent with the will of God.  Jesus calls us and cleans us, so we can be used for God’s glory. That is God’s call for all.
Let us pray. Lord, as we look in the spiritual mirror you place in front of us, what do we see? Who are we? What is amiss in our lives? Let us humbly repent of all that masks the image of God within us. Breathe light and life into our darkest corners. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.