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Follow the Light

A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

January 26, 2014.

Matthew 4:12-23

In Farmville, Virginia, Tommy Pairet ran a T-Shirt shop right next to Farmville Baptist, the church I pastored for seven years.  In the shop window, there were sample T-shirts on display, and several of them had this question printed on the front: “Where the heck is Farmville?”  (OK, it didn’t use the word “heck,” if you know what I mean.)  It’s a funny shirt, because it names the perception that many have of Farmville as being a little podunk town in the middle of nowhere.  I’ve mentioned this before, but when I announced to you all in 2005 that I was called to Farmville Baptist, a couple of you came up to me and asked, “Have you been to Farmville?”  Even though Farmville is only about an hour’s drive from Richmond, Lynchburg and Charlottesville, moving from Charlottesville to Farmville did feel a little like moving to a very different world. 

After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus began his ministry not by going to Jerusalem, the center of religious life for the Jews, but by going to Zebulun and Naphtali, a remote region north of Jerusalem, near the Sea of Galilee.  It was a very different world than Jerusalem, and if Tommy Pairet had a store in that region, he would probably sell a T-shirt that read: “Where the heck are Zebulun and Naphtali?”  Moreover, the prophet Isaiah also described this area as a land of darkness and death.  Historically speaking, that remote region had suffered much as the site of many battles between Israel and enemy armies invading from the north.  The inhabitants there probably felt like they were walking in the dark.

Have you ever felt like you were walking in the dark — disoriented, discouraged and desperately looking for the light at the end of the tunnel?  There are, of course, many ways to be walking in the dark.  There are tragic situations beyond our control that plunge us into the darkness of grief and mourning.  There are also times when we are walking in the dark because of the wrong choices we have made, the bad habits we have maintained, and the hurtful attitudes we have nurtured.  There are even times when we might seem to be enlightened, successful, and self-sufficient on the outside, but in reality, on the inside, we are walking in the dark stumbling on a road to self-destruction and heartache. 

Before we can set our feet on the path of light, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that we are in the dark.  That’s why Jesus’ first words of proclamation are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  It’s the exact same message that John the Baptist had preached during his ministry of baptism in the River Jordan.  Jesus the light is coming, but we must first repent and acknowledge that we are in the dark and in need of light.  For many of us, the word “repent” conjures up negative images of wide-eyed, fanatical street evangelists spewing out condemnation upon their hearers.  However, the word “repent” is not necessarily a word of condemnation.  It literally means “to change one’s mind for the better,” and it is related to the Hebrew word “shuv” which means “to return,” presumably to return to the ways of God.  Jesus goes into the land of darkness and tells the people there that “the Kingdom of heaven is near”—in other words, God’s new reality is at hand waiting for you—so change your mind and return to the ways of God and live in that new reality.

So how do we live in the new reality of the kingdom of heaven?  What does it mean for us to live in the light?  Jesus answers those questions with three words: “Come, follow me.”  Jesus the light of the world was not content to just go into the deep, dark places in our world and in our lives.  Jesus is not just the Light shining out in the darkness, Jesus is also the Lord calling us to follow as his disciples.  Back in Jesus’ day, when students asked to follow a rabbi, they knew that becoming a disciple meant that they would be apprenticed to that rabbi, they would join his school, they would live with the rabbi.  The disciples of a rabbi did not just listen to the rabbi’s sermons once a week, they did not just attend lectures and take notes.  No, disciples literally followed the rabbi—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—living the way the rabbi lived, observing and learning from the minute details of the rabbi’s life, and training to do what the rabbi did.  Following a rabbi meant leaving behind one’s possessions, one’s occupation, and yes, even one’s own family in order to be a disciple. 

Now, you might say, “Well, that was then, but we just don’t do that sort of thing today.”  Well, I beg to differ.  Actually, we still do this all the time.  When Beth and I were first married and living in Houston, I applied to various graduate schools hoping to be accepted into their Ph.D. programs in religious ethics.  I applied to Duke because I wanted to study under Stanley Hauerwas.  I applied to Virginia because I wanted to study under James Childress.  When I was accepted at UVa, Beth and I immediately gave up our jobs in Houston, we left behind some of our possessions, and we moved away from our friends, from our church, and much further away from our families in order for me to study under Dr. Childress.  And while I did not move into the house of my major professor, for three years, I lived, breathed and immersed myself in his teachings.  Does this sound more familiar?  Many of us here have said good-bye to parents and family as we have gone away to school.  Or, putting the shoe on the other foot, we have said good-bye to our children as they have gone away to school or to the armed forces or other life paths.  Others of us have made similar choices when we were offered a new job in another part of the state or country.  If you are about to graduate or if you are in the job market, how many of you are willing to leave behind possessions, parents and friends in order to follow that job offer? 

It is interesting to me that, even for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, we are more likely to leave behind valuable things in order to follow the call of a college admissions offer or a job offer, than we are to follow the call of a discipleship offer by Jesus.  It really begs the question, who or what is truly lord of our lives when we are willing to make sacrifices for  a good education or a good job, but often we think following Jesus in discipleship should be at most, a convenient, cost- and pain-free once-a-week experience.  Jesus’ offer of discipleship demands more than that.  Those first disciples of Jesus freely and eagerly met those demands.

To the fishermen Peter and Andrew, Jesus’ offer of discipleship was two-fold.  Jesus first said, “Come follow me,” which meant “let us live and grow together with me as your teacher and you as my students or disciples.”  But then, Jesus immediately added, “I will make you fishers of men,” which meant “I will empower you to serve others.”  Jesus called them not to an experience of their own personal salvation.  Jesus didn’t say, “Come follow me so that you will go to heaven after you die.”  Jesus said, “Come follow me, because the Kingdom of heaven has already come near.  Come follow me and learn to live in the reality of that Kingdom.” 

Many times, preachers fixate on what it means to be “fishers of people.”  Preaching professor Anna Carter Florence warns us, “it would be a mistake to push the ‘fishing for people’ metaphor too far, letting our evangelistic fancies take off into the ether (“What bait shall we use this time?!  What are your youth biting on?!”). We don’t hook and land unwitting congregants, and we don’t cast our nets (either right or left!) in order to haul in another unsuspecting catch.  I doubt Jesus had any such thing in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.”

However, it is helpful to know that Jesus was talking to fishermen, and so he was using language that they could understand.  Fishing was what Peter and Andrew knew and did best.  And Jesus began right there: not with what he knew, but with what they knew. “Follow me, you fishermen, and I’ll make you fish-for-men!”  If Jesus had spoken to someone with another occupation, he would have said something else.  Dr. Florence playfully suggests some other calls Jesus might extend to people today, which I’ve adapted a bit.

Follow me, you farmers, and I will make you grow lives, not food!

Follow me, you bankers, and I will make you invest in humanity!

Follow me, you architects and tradespeople, and I will make you builders of God’s kingdom![1]

When Christ calls us to be his disciples, he starts with where we already are, using the gifts and talents we already have, so that we may follow and be apprentices to Jesus.  Jim Somerville, Pastor of First Baptist Richmond, puts it this way, “In the same way an apprentice learns a trade from a master craftsman, the disciples learned a trade from Jesus.  What was (the trade)?  Bringing heaven to earth.  And this is how he did it: wherever Jesus went he would show and tell people what the world would be like if God were completely in charge.  And so sick people were healed, hungry people were fed, the eyes of the blind were open, the poor had good news preached to them.”

In 2012 and 2013, Jim Somerville led the First Baptist Church in Richmond in a year-long, every member mission trip program called “KOH2RVA: Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond VA.”  Somerville wrote: “We are called to labor alongside the Lord Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth… What if we focus our efforts on the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Region, as if we really had climbed on board a bus for a mission trip and the bus had stopped here, at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard, with the mission field spreading outward in every direction?  And what if we tried to get every member of the church on that bus?” [2] 

So, for a year, members of FBC Richmond engaged in over thirty on-going projects and brought the kingdom of heaven to all parts of Richmond.  They also reported the many ways in which the Kingdom of heaven was already breaking into Richmond as they celebrated what other churches were also doing. 

Here’s what I believe.  I believe that wherever there are people walking in the dark, like in Zebulun and Naphtali, Jesus is already there.  It could be the darkness of an inner city neighborhood where there are drive-by shootings or the darkness of a gated community where some of the mortgages are under water.  Jesus is already there.  It could be the darkness of depression or of mental illness, or of cancer or Alzheimer’s.  Jesus is already there.  It could be the darkness of sexual abuse, or of being incarcerated in prison, or of an event from the past that still carries fear or shame.  Jesus is already there, offering light and healing by the power of God’s love.  Jesus is already there.  And since where Jesus is, the Kingdom of heaven has already come near, the T-shirts we should wear is not “Where the heck is Zebulun and Naphtali?” but “Where’s the heaven in Zebulun and Naphtali . . . and how can we join in?”

Where’s the heaven in the Zebulun’s and Naphtali’s of our lives?  Where’s the heaven in the dark places in our city, in our workplaces, in our dorms or on grounds?   It is so tempting to run away from the darkness — our darkness — by denying it, suppressing it, avoiding it.   As disciples and followers of Jesus, we are invited to follow Jesus into these places, to bring KOH2CHO, the “Kingdom of heaven to Charlottesville” by teaching, preaching and healing.  Jesus, the light of the world and our beautiful Savior, comes and calls us today.  Will we follow the light?  Amen.

[1] http://www.goodpreacher.com/shareit/readreviews.php?cat=12

[2] http://www.fbcrichmond.org/KOH2RVA/why.htm