“Follow the Light”
January 27, 2008 - Third Sunday after Epiphany
“In case of an emergency and failure of the cabin lighting, the lights on the floor will illuminate to guide you safely to an exit.” So goes part of the spiel that every passenger on a big jet hears at the beginning of a flight. In the dark, follow the light.
If this were an evening worship service and the power suddenly went out, you would suddenly notice behind you what none of us usually pays attention to. Those glowing green exit signs above the doors would remain lit with battery power, and guide us all safely out of the building. In the dark, follow the light.
As he begins the story of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew tells us how the light came on in the darkness of northern Israel, illuminating a path that is still being followed. We’re often pretty fuzzy on the geography of Scripture, but you can illumine it for yourself a bit if you have maps in the back of your Bible. Find one that’s labeled “Jesus’ Life and Ministry” or “Palestine at the Time of Christ,” or something like that.
The last two weeks we’ve been with Jesus and John the Baptist in the region of Judea. That’s just west and north of the Dead Sea, or the “Salt Sea” as it might be labeled on your map. Jesus went there to be baptized by John in the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea. But then, as verse 12 says here, Jesus heard that John had been put in prison by King Herod. Staying safe for the time being, Jesus headed back north to the region where He grew up. His hometown was Nazareth, there just to the south and west of the Sea of Galilee. But He didn’t stay there. Verse 13 says He traveled even farther north, around the lake a little, to the village of Capernaum on the north shore. Jesus began His ministry in the province of Galilee.
Galilee had once been the land of two of the tribes of Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali. For the text we read from Isaiah 9 this morning, in the prophet’s time in the eight century B.C., that area and all of northern Israel was overrun by the Assyrian empire. The Israelites in those places were dispersed and lost and it became Gentile, non-Jewish territory. Hundreds of years later, in Jesus’ time Jews had recovered that area and had moved there by the thousands, but it was still a very different region from Judea. It was surrounded by Samaria to the south and Phoenicia to the west and Syria to the north. Jews there mingled with non-Jews all the time. Despite the Jewish presence, it remained very much what Isaiah named it and Matthew quoted here in verse 15, “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
Here in the backwoods of Jewish life and culture, far from Jerusalem, Jesus launched His ministry. Here John tells us He did His first miracle in Cana. On a hill very near Capernaum He preached the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew says in Isaiah’s words in verse 16, “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.” Out in the spiritual darkness, away from the Temple, away from the most deeply religious Jewish life, right in the middle of pagan culture, the light of Jesus Christ dawned on the world.
It was hard at first to tell that the light was dawning. Jesus probably looked a whole lot like John the Baptist—not just physically, although they were related. Jesus’ very first message was exactly the same as John’s. Compare what Jesus says here in verse 17 to what John says in the previous chapter, verse 2. It’s exactly the same, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And it was, quietly, gently, for just a few at the start. The dawn was breaking and Jesus had come inviting people to follow the light out of darkness.
The next verses show us Jesus calling the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John. Matthew gives us no inkling of what we read in John’s Gospel last week, that at least two or three of them had already been introduced to Jesus by John the Baptist. Peter and Andrew, at least, had spent time with Jesus. This invitation to discipleship on the lakeshore was not a cold call. When Jesus walked by and found these men fishing, He knew them, and they knew Him.
It was not Peter and Andrew’s first meeting with Jesus, as they stood barefooted and waste deep in water, trying to spot the silver shapes of fish and cast their nets over them. As James and John sat in their beached boat, mending and straightening nets with their father, the man coming toward them was familiar. It was not the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus, but it was the decisive one, the critical moment. Would they leave their past—their nets, their boats, even their families—behind and follow the light, or would they sit there trying to untangle lines, but always in the dark and never untangling their lives?
I would guess most of us encounter Jesus like the four first disciples. He’s familiar to us. We’ve known Him awhile. We’ve learned a bit about Him. We may have even spent some time following Him. But then comes a critical moment, a point of decision, a time to get up and leave all the old stuff behind and follow Christ, follow the light.
Moments of decision come at the beginning of our spiritual lives. You hear about Jesus, you even believe in Him, maybe as a youth, maybe as an adult, but at some point you hear Him calling and you have to decide. Will you truly be a Christian? If you were baptized as an infant, will you acknowledge that baptism as your own now? Will you stand up and say to your friends and family that you have actually begun a new life, that you are a genuine believer, a true follower of Christ? Or if you haven’t been baptized, will you receive it now? Will you follow Jesus down under that water, leaving an old life behind and taking up a new one, like Peter and John walking away from fish and family?
Last year here at Valley Covenant we saw Lindsey and Arezoo take the huge step to follow Jesus in baptism. We also heard Alison, Andrew, Jamie and Lindsey stand up and affirm their faith in Christ and desire to follow Him as they were confirmed. We listened as several new members confessed their belief in Jesus and committed themselves to follow Jesus in this fellowship. And a couple weeks ago seven of our members stood and dedicated themselves to follow their Lord’s leading by serving as leaders. Those were all critical moments on the beach, points of discipleship, choices to follow the light.
But those “on the beach with Jesus” moments come to us more often than that. You know Jesus. You’ve learned all about Him. You love Him. Then comes a time, maybe a dark time, certainly a hard time, when you find Him walking up to you once again saying, “Come, follow me.” He may ask you to leave some bad habit behind and follow Him into a new freedom. He may ask for you to simply continue trusting Him and following His light as some dark chapter of your life unfolds—illness, or divorce, or loss of a job. He may ask you to walk away from hurt and anger in order to forgive someone. He might ask you to leave familiar places and people and follow Him to a mission field. It could be a simple request as to follow Him out into the cold to help someone in need. “Come, follow me,” asks Jesus, and there we are, on the beach, at a critical moment of discipleship once again.
One point of discipleship we all have before us here at Valley Covenant is whether and how we will follow our Lord in the call He gave to that first pair of brothers, Andrew and Peter. They were tossing webs of cord into the waves and drawing in the wriggling forms of fish. Jesus found them, asked them to leave that kind of fishing behind, “and I will make you fishers for people.” Jesus asks the same of us, to become fishers of people.
Fish come to light. When I lived in the Midwest, in the spring you would row out on a lake at night, in the dark, and position your boat over a deep hole. You would light a Coleman lantern and hang it over the side, then toss jigs or hooks baited with minnows into the water to catch the crappie swimming up toward the light. Growing up in southern California, we would go to the beach at night, shine flashlights out at the water, then run to scoop up from the sand thin little fish that were attracted by the light and got washed in.
Fish come to light. People come to light. They come to the light of Jesus Christ whenever and wherever they see it shining in the hearts and lives of those who answer the call to follow Him. Sharing the light of Jesus, sending it out into the darkness around us is a critical moment of decision for us all.
Galilee wasn’t all that different from the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t the Bible Belt of Judea. There were Jews, but there were plenty of non-Jews. Other cultures, other ideas were constantly confronting those who tried to hold on to Jewish faith in Galilee. There was a constant temptation to accommodate, to simply be like one’s neighbors and not make religion such a big deal. It was not unlike Oregon, where there are two of the least-churched communities in the whole country. One of them is ours. Sure, there are plenty of Christians, plenty of churches, but most people here are not Christians. Many have no religion at all. Jesus started His ministry in a place very much like the place where He has called you and I to shine His light, to fish for people.
Verses 20 and 22 tell us how the four fishermen responded to Jesus. “At once they left their nets and followed him,” “immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” Jesus called for and got an instant response. These men didn’t wait to settle their business affairs or even pack up their nets. They didn’t sit and try to work things out with their father or explain themselves to him. They didn’t go home to straighten out their past and get everything in order so they could accomplish Jesus’ mission. No, they just left all that behind and began following Jesus, learning how to fish for people.
Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what an instant response to the call of Jesus means and looks like for you and me today. Times and circumstances are very different and the rest of the New Testament shows very clearly that our Lord does not ask us to just up and walk away from spouses and children and aging parents who depend on us, or to be irresponsible about jobs and homes and other commitments we’ve made. But I’m sure that at least this much is true. As He calls us to shine His light out into the darkness, He does not want us to dither very long about whether it’s a good idea or how we might go about it or mistakes we might have made in the past. He wants us to get up, leave old stuff behind, and begin drawing those in darkness into the bright, gleaming net of His love and grace.
How to do it? Verse 23 demonstrates again, in Jesus’ own ministry, what we heard last week. We shine the light of Jesus, we fish for people, by showing and telling. “Jesus went throughout Galilee,” that land of darkness, shedding light by “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” That verse is a summary of the next five chapters of Matthew. In chapters 5-7, Jesus preaches the good news on the mountain. In chapters 8 and 9, He heals a man with leprosy, a Roman servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, a demon-possessed man, a paralytic, a bleeding woman, a blind man, and a mute man. And He raises a girl from the dead. Show and tell. Tell and show. Jesus did it and He wants us to do it. Follow Him. Follow the light.
Long ago in college, two friends and I took a backpack trip into the mountains above Santa Barbara. Ed, an old friend from elementary school, and Randy, now my brother-in-law, arrived late, so we started out in the afternoon, following a little trail up Cold Springs Creek, then turning to climb out of the live oak trees up a dry valley to a steep, sparse ridge. Our camp was on the other side. When we got to the base of the ridge, we stopped and made dinner. It was a mistake. Starting up the ridge we looked back and saw fog rolling up the valley after us. And the sun was setting.
Soon we found ourselves hiking up switchbacks, with steep drops to the right or the left of the trail and visibility growing very dim. We stopped and Ed fished out a flashlight. It stabbed out a little into the mist and dark and we could see enough to go on. Then, just as we were about to turn another corner, Ed’s light dimmed and went out. So I reached for mine. The batteries were dead. We turned to Randy, who hadn’t backpacked much, and he said, “I didn’t bring one.”
It was now pitch black and we were enveloped in cloud. There was nowhere level to stop and lay down sleeping bags, and we couldn’t take a step without fear of going over the edge. I sat my pack down and fished in the bottom and came up with a little candle lantern I always carried. Randy found some matches and we got it lit. It was just enough. Taking turns leading and holding that single small candle, we could see just a couple steps ahead, enough to stay on the trail and get on up the hill. By that light we finally made it safe to the top, where we found enough flat ground to make camp.
That’s how it is in this world. People are, we are, hemmed in by darkness and troubles and our own failures. Yet by following the light of Jesus, holding that light for each other, even when it seems small, we press forward. We guide each other toward safety, toward home. And the light of Jesus will bring us home.
Follow the light. Tell the story and demonstrate it through acts of love. Fish for people. Jesus is calling us, calling us to follow His light and shine His light. We are all like Peter and Andrew, James and John, hard at work, going about our business, taking care of our families, making a living, going to school, doing the things we enjoy. Then the Lord of Light appears before us, dazzling and bright and beautiful, and asks us to come away with Him, to follow Him out into the dark, where the presence of Jesus is our only guide, the only illumination. Yet when we follow, we find the way home, and bring others with us.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj