We are an incredibly mobile society. The Census Bureau estimates that the average American will move about 14 times in a lifetime—a figure I personally am just one dwelling shy of reaching. My time in the places I’ve lived reads like a reverse bell curve. The first seventeen of my life were spent in the apartment over my parents’ liquor store, the home of my childhood. After that, there are about sixteen years of almost continuous movement. I went away to college and lived in a different room or apartment each year for four years. After graduation I lived in apartments that lasted, in order, one year, six months, 2-1/2 years, and one year. As a young mother I lived in a house for three years, then, upon moving to the B. area, another apartment for four years. Finally, in 1994 I moved into my home on My Avenue, a place I have lived for almost 17 years, the home I hope to stay in for many years to come.
According to the Census Bureau, I am fairly typical. This is the way for Americans, ever since the Second World War seemed to give permission for individuals and families to move in search of greener pastures and better jobs. By way of contrast, the average Canadian citizen moves ten times in a lifetime, the average Brit, five times, and the average Japanese citizen, just four moves over the course of a life.
Of course, if 14 moves is the American average, that means there are many people who move less than that as well as many who move even more. About 40 million Americans move once or more each year, and most of those moves are related to job losses or changes. The most geographically stable Americans, the ones who move the least, are working class individuals and families with good, salable skills and union affiliations. But for the most part, we Americans are very much on the move.
Jesus, too, is on the move, from the very beginning of the gospel of Matthew. As a small child he is forced to move by the contract King Herod has put out on him. Like Moses, he finds himself sojourning in Egypt, where he remains until his parents discern, with the help of a dream, that it is safe to return to Galilee. However, there is still enough danger in Bethlehem that they choose to settle in Nazareth instead, where Jesus is raised to adulthood and learns a trade. Finally, when the moment is right, Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be commissioned for his work by both John the Baptist and God. Perhaps by our 21st century American standards, this is not a lot of movement. For a Palestinian Jew of the first century, though, Jesus is most decidedly on the move.
Our gospel lesson this morning begins with the information that John has been arrested. This is alarming news for those of us following Jesus’ life story thus far. Remember, just a couple of weeks ago, Jesus was baptized by John. That means, in terms of the world of Jewish rabbis, that Jesus became a follower of John. Jesus took on John’s yoke. Now, with reference to farm life and animal husbandry, a yoke is a wooden beam designed to sit across the necks of animals, often oxen, to allow them to pull a load. In terms of the tradition of rabbis and their students, teachers of the law and those who sought to be like them, the yoke was the particular teaching of the rabbi. The student usually prepared to take on the yoke by years of study—even today most students in modern Yeshivas memorize the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, and that’s just the beginning of their study. The sheer enormity of the task helps to make sense of the use of that term “yoke.” Jesus has taken on John’s yoke. But now John has been arrested. It stands to reason that John’s followers are in danger. And so once again, Jesus is on the move.
Jesus makes Capernaum his home base, the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, the prophecy tells us, home to the Gentiles. And we have to pay attention to something Matthew has been hammering home since the very beginning of this gospel: Jesus is making his “home,” such as it is, among outsiders. All Jesus’ wandering, all his travel to and from Egypt, the visit of the Magi, those Gentile star-gazers—an image begins to develop here of someone who is not interested in settling down where it is easy or comfortable. An image comes into focus of someone who is not only on the move, but who is taking his stand with those outside the comfort of his immediate community, as well as those who are under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
Case in point: these fishermen. It’s easy to have an image of the lives of Peter and Andrew and John and James before Jesus comes along—a rustic, homey image of men doing good honest labor in the bosom of their families. And while that all may be true, something else is going on here as well, something about the Roman Empire and its habit of squeezing every drop of lifeblood out of the peasant classes. Did you know that, in the ancient world, fishing was under the control of the empire and its surrogates? These men did not work for themselves. They were employees, either of the royal family or wealthy landlords. They were paid either with cash or with fish after they turned over their catch to their employers. And before they could even drop a net into the sea of Galilee, fishermen paid a tax in order to be permitted to fish—a tax on their catch of as much as 40%. As one of my favorite bible commentators says, “…Jesus calling fishermen is more than just calling them away from their families. It also involves a break from the ‘powers that be’—the wealthy and or the government—and into a new power: the reign of heaven.”
In the aftermath of John’s arrest, Jesus does not do the safe thing. Quite the opposite. Jesus does the risky thing. He tweaks the powers-that-be by disrupting the food-supply chain in this small way, by calling these four men to come and follow.
Jesus is not interested in doing the safe thing. He is not interested in doing the comfortable thing. He is not interested in doing whatever he’s doing in a familiar hometown. He is on the move with something far more compelling: that yoke, that teaching he picked up from John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
We hear the word, “repent,” and I imagine we all have strong associations with it. Personally, I have a mental image of a street preacher I saw once in Times Square, and he was everything you’d imagine—a disheveled fellow with a kind of crazed look in his eyes. A yeller. He attracted more catcalls than disciples. And I think that has to do with what he seemed to mean by “repent.” It seemed to have something to do with trying to convince all those thousands of people who were hurrying by to get theater tickets or to find the Hard Rock Café or the M & M store that they were bad. His message seemed to be, Repent, because you are not a good person.
That’s not really true to the original meaning of the word, though. “Repent” translates a Greek word, metanoia, that means, simply, turn around. Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Turn around, I have something amazing to show you. Turn around, the neat stuff is over here. Turn around, don’t you want to have a look at this? Turn around.
Jesus and John both want to show people the kingdom of heaven. And we learn, by the end of the passage, just what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We learn, because Jesus shows us—he lives out the kingdom right in front of us. We read, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like, and it has four components.
The kingdom of heaven involves teaching. Jesus goes into the synagogues of Galilee to teach about the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven involves proclaiming the good news—it’s near! It’s here!
The kingdom of heaven involves healing—every disease and sickness, Matthew tells us.
That makes three components. The fourth? Movement. Jesus is on the move. He is going throughout Galilee to teach and proclaim and heal. He is not sitting in one place. He is not waiting for the people to hear about him from their neighbors—though, boy, by the end of our passage, his fame is spreading. But that is only happening because Jesus and his friends and followers are out and about, among the people, talking to them, listening to them, and taking their pain and their problems seriously.
I can’t help believing there is something very important for us here, for our ministry as a church. And that something is this: to be followers of Jesus, to have opportunities to say to people, “Hey, turn around and look at this!”, we have to get up and get out and be on the move. It is not enough to say, “We have this great church and this wonderful ministry, and it would be so great if people came and joined us.” All of which, by the way, is absolutely true—we do have a great church filled with great people and a great ministry. But if Jesus is our model, if we take seriously that his call to us is “ Follow me,” then I think one of the places we have to follow him is out the doors of our sanctuary and into the community. That is not to say that we don’t want to engage in a ministry of teaching and proclamation and healing right here. Of course we do. But my guess is that if Jesus were to walk the streets of OurTown looking for the least and the lost, we wouldn’t find him here. We would find him where people are hurting… maybe the hospital or the nursing home, maybe the dive bars, maybe at the Women's Shelter, maybe at our own table over coffee. But wherever Jesus would be, that is where we are called to be, too.
Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” That is our call, to be the person who is willing to share in another’s pain. And that is something we can do anywhere, and when we are doing it we are showing what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Jesus is on the move, sharing the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we on the move with him? May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.