Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23

3rd Sunday of Epiphany

St Barbara’s 26.01.2020

Dan Rathbone


It is strange that Matthew wrote in his gospel that “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee.” It makes it sound that Jesus was seeking to stay out of trouble and keep his head down. But that does not makes sense as both areas were under the control of Herod Antipas who had imprisoned John and would was later have him beheaded.

So, actually, what was Jesus doing? He left Nazareth, population 400, a village in the back end of beyond, a complete nowheresville, and moved to the fishing village, Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, population 1500. That does not sound much, but the big difference was that Capernaum was a connected place. It lay on the major international trading route, the Via Maris, or as both the Isaiah reading and Matthew put it, the Way of the Sea. This trading route ran from Damascus in Syria and down the Mediterranean coast and on into Egypt. It connected Babylon and Egypt.

The traffic of the world passed through Capernaum. Therefore it should be no surprise that when Jesus began to teach and perform miracles in Capernaum, as the gospel says,  that news about him spread all over Syria and that large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan sought him out.

That does not sound like withdrawing to me. Jesus moved to a place where he would be noticed, he recruited some disciples and set about his ministry. Matthew indicates that in doing so, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 9:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.

What is the land of the shadow of death? The lands of the tribes Zebulun and Naphtali on the northern border of the kingdom in Northeast Galilee were the first to suffer from the Assyrian invasion centauries earlier. Indeed that area was usually the first placed to be ravaged by an invading power and hence the idea of the people there living in the land of the shadow of death. And into that dark place Jesus was bringing the light of the coming of God’s kingdom as he began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

So that is the setting for the calling of the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John to become Jesus’ disciples. From the moment they responded to Jesus call, their lives were different, and to help us consider that I would like to remind you of the words of the song we shall be singing in a few minutes as these sum up the life and purpose of a disciple very well indeed.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Peter, Andrew, James and John followed Jesus when he called their name. They spent time close to Jesus and learnt on the job, as it were. They were taken well out of their comfort zone and they were changed as people. They learnt about Jesus’ love for all people regardless of race, gender or social status and they were challenged to change when their prejudices ran contrary to the love that Jesus was demonstrating. And in the years to come they were able to show that same love and to make Jesus’ name known.

But underneath all that, they were still fishermen and they still had families – we can see that from later passages in the gospels – but their priorities and their focus were radically altered. And that is the key point for us, since we also are called to be disciples. The first step for us, of course, as with Peter, Andrew, James and John, is to say YES to Jesus.

To say Yes, I will go with you Jesus.

Yes, even though I don’t know fully what that means or where it will lead.

To say yes, I am willing to be changed by you Jesus.

To say Yes, I am willing to have my preconceptions and prejudices challenged and my ideas reshaped.

To say yes, I am willing to surrender my life priorities to you Jesus.

I saw this magnificently worked out in a film that Jo and I saw at the cinema on Thursday. It is called Just Mercy and I recommend it. The film is based upon the true story of Bryan Stevenson. He studied law on a scholarship at Harvard University and during his studies he went on a secondment to death row in an Alabama penitentiary. There he spent a lot of time with the inmates on death row, mostly poor and black, and discovered that many were on death row because of ongoing miscarriages of justice and they had no one to speak for them. That was a turning point for Bryan Stevenson.

He felt called to be involved. After graduating from Harvard, instead of making his millions being a corporate lawyer, he dedicated his life to the fight for justice and against racism, particularly for those on death row. It changed the lives of those he was serving on death row and it changed him.

Although the film does not push this angle, it is clear that his Christian faith is being worked out in what he is doing. God changed his priorities. He was bringing light to those living literally in the land of the shadow of death.

But what of us? As a wild guess, I am assuming that nobody here is a Harvard-educated lawyer. It is not that we can go and do exactly the same as Bryan Stevenson. Each of us is different. We have different life experiences, different skills, different life circumstances and opportunities. But in the most important sense, we are all the same. We are all called to be Jesus’ disciples. So, we need to say yes to Jesus and be willing to spend time with him through prayer and fellowship, to be changed by him and to have our priorities aligned with his priorities and to be open to the call that Jesus may lay on our heart, sometimes completely out of the blue.

 Alongside all that, youth or age is no barrier to Jesus’ call. Samuel was but a boy when God called him to be a prophet. Mary was probably a young teenager when she received the news that she would be Jesus’ mother. Abram was 75 years old when his life’s work began and God called him to move toCanaan.

So – nobody is exempt from Jesus’ call to discipleship

I would like to finish by using the last verse of the hymn that we shall sing as a prayer.

Lord, your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you and you in me.