January 22, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Today’s gospel story is an early turning point in Jesus’ life. He has submitted to baptism and heard those amazing words, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and is tempted by the devil. There are many ways to think about these temptations, but in one way or another they all have to do with whether Jesus will make his ministry about himself—his own power, his own glory, his own ego--or let his ministry be about God and God’s will. Then on the heels of that, Jesus learns that the one who had prepared the way for him, John the Baptist, has been arrested by Herod the King. In other words, it is now his time.
Bible scholar Joseph Donders writes about this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life.1 “The first thing Jesus did,” Donders writes, “when he heard that John the Baptizer had been arrested, was leave Nazareth forever. He chose a new home, his new headquarters, at Capernaum.” It’s like this geographic move represented a spiritual movement, a life change, that Jesus was going through.
Donders goes on: “The second thing [Jesus] did was start to preach. His message was short and clear.” It was, in fact, the very same message preached by John: Everyone repent! We all need to change our hearts and minds, to let go of the old and embrace the new, for the Kingdom of God had come very, very near.
“But preaching,” Donders acknowledges, “is a strange thing. Preaching can be frustrating. As a preacher,” he says, “I know very well what I am talking about. You can preach and preach, people can listen and listen, and you just wonder what all that preaching and all that listening accomplish. I am afraid,” he admits, “that very often they accomplish nothing at all. Something else must be added. . .”
So “according to today’s gospel, Jesus did a third thing. He left Nazareth, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone.” He decided to associate, to unite himself with others, to create a community. He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John, and afterwards he called many others. In our day, he has called you and he has called even me. Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but at this early turning point in his ministry and life, he decided not to remain alone, but to do his work and to live his life in the company of others.
I suspect there were times when Jesus regretted that decision! As lonely and as limiting as can be to be alone, living in community has challenges of its own. The Twelve that Jesus chose to be closest to him neverendlngly misunderstood him. They asked exasperating questions. They were afraid of him when he walked on the water, and they deserted him when soldiers came to arrest him. He would frequently get frustrated with them, and call them, “You of little faith.” And of the Twelve closest to him, one betrayed him and another denied him. Even for Jesus, community—being with others--involved conflict and disappointment.
But still, he did it. He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John; he called many others and in our own day, he has called you and me. This was, Donders says, “normal and logical for anyone who wants to change anything in this world. When you want something to be done, you associate, come together, network, unite, and do it together. That’s what Jesus did.” There’s an old joke that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God and wound up with the church. . . We chuckle, perhaps, because we sense the great and unfortunate difference between the kingdom of God and the church as we know it. But really, the joke isn’t true. Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God AND he came to found the church, to be with people, to bring people together in his name to show the world until the end of time what love and forgiveness and acceptance and unity of spirit look like.
After his baptism and temptation, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus left Nazareth for Capernaum, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone.
But there’s more to it even than that. Jesus also decided not to let his disciples remain alone. He didn’t just say, “Follow me—I want to be with you.” He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus calls us to be with him, and he tells us to call others to be with us and him. This is what at Maple Grove we call the ministry of invitation--reaching out to others to say, “Come and see who Jesus is; come and see what Christian community can be like. Come and see.”
This ministry of invitation is admittedly hard most of us. One of Administrative Council’s goals last year was that everyone would invite at least one person to a Maple Grove event some time during the year. Sounds simple enough on paper, right? Well, on the commitment cards last fall, we gave people a chance to report how they did. 53 people said, “Yes, I invited someone in 2016.” That’s not quite everyone. . . But the good news is that 93 people said they intend to invite someone this year. In other words, invitation is hard, but we are learning and gaining confidence, and we are committed to fishing for people.
Jesus makes this ministry of invitation easier in two ways in this gospel reading. One thing is this: family counts. Simon and Andrew are brothers. James and John are brothers. When inviting others, Jesu wasn’t talking about going door to door or accosting strangers on street corners. We start with brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Family counts.
The second way Jesus makes invitation easier is this: our invitation comes out of who we are. To these fishermen, Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people.” To construction workers he might have said, “I will make you builders of the kingdom,” to IT folks, “I will make you network people,” or to coaches, “I will make you recruiters for Team Jesus.” Well, you get the idea. Just be who you are, and use who you are to build relationships for Jesus.
God-Centered Wellbeing is a movement, or maybe better, an emphasis, a way of being mindful to keep God’s love at the center of all that we do and all that what are. And we start with our relationships. Jesus chose not to remain alone, and he urged his disciples not to remain alone, but to be in holy relationship with others.
Jesus made his decision not to remain alone at a critical and stressful time in his life—after his baptism and his temptation in the wilderness and after the arrest of his relative and forerunner, John. My own personal tendency in critical and stressful times is to isolate myself, to withdraw and protect myself and lick my wounds. But that is not the call of the gospel. Here’s how Donders puts it: “[Jesus’] followers are not allowed to merely stay at home, criticizing and complaining. . . We, his followers, are not allowed to remain alone, safe and secure. We, his followers, are asked to associate ourselves with him and with one another in an organized and efficient drive to chase away the evils that terrorize our [world].
So “please, sister,” he concludes, “please brother, don’t remain alone, don’t just criticize. That’s too easy. Let us unite, let us come together in [Christ’s] desire to shape God’s new world. Let us associate, let us move together with him in the direction of the Kingdom.”
The answer for Jesus and the answer for us, is this: not to remain alone. We’re in this together.
1 Joseph P. Donders, “Not Alone,” Alive Now (January/February 2006), 34-36.