Sunday January 26, 2020
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2020a
Old Testament – Isaiah 9:1-4
New Testament – Matthew 4:12-23
INTRODUCTION: Emperor Penguins are a unique breed of the larger genus.
The tallest and heaviest of all penguins, they are also the only penguins that breed during the winter in Antarctica. Yep, while the rest of their relatives are smart enough to reproduce during warmer weather, Emperor Penguins annually trek up to 75 miles over thick ice to winter breeding grounds that can contain up to 10,000 of them in all.
Of course, after laying a single egg, which the male then proceeds to incubate by holding it on top of his feet while also covering it with his feathered, warm skin, the females waddle back to the icy waters to gorge on fish and crustaceans for two whole months so they can provide food to their chicks upon their return to the colony.
But as you might expect, when the females return to their colony, well, trying to find their mate and newborn chick can be a bit tricky. After all, trying to track down your mate amongst several thousand other Emperor Penguins that have been milling around for two months can’t be easy.
But here’s the thing. Penguins have actually developed a way to solve the problem. You see, each penguin has a unique call that is distinctive to them and their mate. Sure, when we hear penguins squawking on some nature documentary, they all sound annoyingly the same to us.
But to the penguins each call is actually quite distinctive and particular. And so eventually, with enough squawking, the various mates are able to find each other and renuite. The reunion, though, is short lived. For after the female returns, the male, who hasn’t eaten in two months, then makes his own way back to the icy waters for his own feeding frenzy.
Of course, given the way Peter, Andrew, James and John respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, it seems safe to assume there must have also been something unique and distinctive about his voice.
After all, the response of the two sets of brothers to Jesus really is kind of amazing. They hear a strange man calling from the shoreline and before anyone knows it they’ve totally abandoned their existing lives all in order to begin brand new ones.
No wonder people have gone to great lengths over the years to try and argue the brothers surely must have known Jesus beforehand. They must have at least been casually acquainted with who Jesus was, many have been prone to argue. At a minimum, they had to have had at least some passing familiarity with him, right? After all, who would be so rash as to simply abandon their work and their lives up until that point in order to start following a total stranger.
But the text doesn’t seem to really support such an idea. Nope. It seems, instead, when the brothers hear Jesus calling, they are literally hearing and seeing him for the first time. He is, in short, a total stranger. And yet they drop everything so they can follow a man they don’t even know.
For apparently, there was just something about his voice.
And here is one of those times when talking about the original language of the New Testament can actually be helpful.
Because the Greek used in our reading for today speaks of the immediacy and quickness in the collective response of the four men. A subtle language full of nuance, the Greek used implies there is very little contemplation or hesitation done by any of the men after hearing Jesus’ invitation to follow.
They don’t ask Jesus to hold on a minute so they can go and say “Bye!” to family members. Nor do they go to post the office to fill out that slip so their mail will be forwarded. Why, they don’t even bother to see how much cash they might have in their wallets for the trek ahead.
Instead, they just go. Jesus shows up on the shoreline unannounced saying, “Come and follow me!” and in an act of pure spontaneity they drop everything in order to answer his call.
With nary an idea about where they’re going or what’s to happen next, Peter, Andrew, James, and John just up and lay down their nets and start wading to shore so they can follow a man they don’t even know.
For apparently, there was just something about his voice.
So do you see what the first act of faith is for the four men, and by extension, us?
The first act of faith for all of them isn’t to make some public profession of faith or even to affirm their faith through the unison reading of a creed pulled from The Book of Confessions - as important as those things are to do.
No, the first act of faith from all four men is to simply start walking. Turns out faith, at least initially, has more to do with being physically on the go rather than believing or proclaiming certain things.
The four men don’t come stumbling down a saw dust covered aisle to an altar to utter a sinner’s prayer nor do they immediately form the First Presbyterian Church of the Galilee to start holding worship services. Instead, they simply start walking in order to follow Jesus into an unknown and strange future.
All they really know is that they’ve been called to follow. That’s it. Jesus hasn’t given them any more information to go on than that. They aren’t told where they’re going next or even where their next meal is going to be coming from. They’re simply invited to follow.
No wonder a scholar from the 20th Century, after writing a book about Jesus, could end his book with these famous words about that man from Galilee, “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him..they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
So do you see how at the heart of faith for all of us there should be a sense of adventure and wonder?
For while faith is surely about conforming ourselves to some basic principles, beliefs, and yes even doctrines, it is also way more than that, isn’t it?
For it’s also about turning our lives over in wonder, joy, and total trust, to a man who shows up on the shore saying nothing more than “Come and follow me.” There’s no detailed itinerary provided with the offer, nor is travel insurance available as a precaution.
There’s only the invitation to follow – to follow in joy and wonder.
There’s a story about a famous rabbi named Abraham Heschel who one day suffered a nearly fatal heart attack. In bed slowly recovering with his close friend Sam at his side, Heschel reportedly turned to his friend and said, “Sam, I feel only gratitude for my life, for every moment I have lived. I am ready to go. I have seen so many [amazing things] during my lifetime.”
And then after a long, quiet pause Heschel added, “Sam, never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked only for wonder, and [God] gave it to me.”
Of course, these days it can be hard to find wonder in the world, can’t it?
After all, we’ve come a long way in just a few thousand years and because of that the world is hardly the mysterious and awe-inspiring place it used to be.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love technology and all the amazing improvements that have come over the last several centuries because of scientific advancements. But there is also a way in which all that advancement has sort of reduced the world to nothing more than something to be studied and analyzed.
Brennan Manning likes to put it this way when lamenting how the world has lost some of its wonder:
“We have grown up. We no longer catch our breath at the sight of a rainbow or the scent of a rose, as we once did. We have grown bigger and everything else smaller…We no longer run our fingers through water, no longer shout at the stars or make faces at the moon. Water is now H2O, the stars have been classified, and the moon is not made of green cheese.”
Well, Manning has a point, don’t you think? In growing up we seem to have lost something very important and valuable along the way.
There’s that tale about a man who had just recently graduated from plumbing school. Deciding to take a trip to celebrate, the man packs up the family and heads to Niagara Falls.
Gazing at the falls for the very first time, the plumber, after several minutes of silent reflection, finally says out loud, “You know, I think I can fix this.”
And while we’re right to giggle, there’s also some truth to the joke, isn’t there? For the world is hardly charged with wonder anymore, is it?
CONCLUSION: But it hardly has to stay that way, does it? For just like he did all those years ago, there’s a man standing on the shoreline calling: “Come and follow me,” he says, “Come and follow me.”
It’s a gracious invitation that comes to all even now. It’s an invitation to begin a sacred journey – a journey full of joy, mystery, and wonder. And to begin it, all we have to do is start walking.
For there’s just something about that voice - that voice calling us to ever newer, deeper, and richer lives.
And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.