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Immediately

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 23, 2011.

Matthew 4:12-23

When Joani and I were visiting London several years ago, something happened I will never forget.  It was late in the evening, and Joani and I were dead tired.  After a full day of sightseeing, we were ready to get on the subway (or the “Tube”) and return to our hotel.

As we waited in the Tube station, we noticed that the normally punctual trains were running late.  So did the hundreds of other tired passengers whose patience began to wear thin.  Then a voice came over a loudspeaker, and informed us the trains were delayed because of a security alert at another station.  People complained a bit but kept talking.  Because of numerous bombings and rumors of bombings generated by the Irish Republican Army, Londoners were used to occasional alerts and delays.

At least three times, the voice on the loud speaker calmly urged us to be patient for the delayed trains.  Then without any warning, the same voice spoke with controlled urgency, informing us that now the police suspected our station contained a bomb, and we were to exit the station immediately!

Suddenly, people who had been half asleep jerked awake and sprang to their feet.  But no one reacted more quickly and decisively to the command to evacuate than an American tourist named Joani Ray Hughes! As soon as the announcement ended, I stood and turned to say, “Let’s go, Joani,” only to find she was long gone.

Most people were walking briskly toward the exit and up the escalators.  Not Joani!  Joani was running fast enough to leave gold-medal, Olympic sprinters in her dust as she raced through the Tube station.  When I finally caught up with Joani outside the station and asked her why she abandoned her beloved husband, she said she wanted to make sure her three children still had one parent alive–but she was certainly hoping I would make it!  Maybe you’ve wondered if the Pastor’s wife is a fast woman.  I can tell you she is and I have the proof!

(By the way, the bomb announcement was a false alarm.  A bomb did explode that night, but somewhere else.  But we still have a good story to tell our children, grandchildren, and you!)

Sometimes when we least expect it, life throws us a curve ball, and at a moment’s notice, we have to drop everything and go.  That sort of response doesn’t particularly suit those of us who are a bit more methodical about life.  We’d rather take a wait-and-see approach, and react in our own good time.  But sometimes life doesn’t afford us the luxury of sitting in a stupor or strolling about casually.  Sometimes, all we can do is move—immediately. 

If you don’t believe it, just ask Peter, Andrew, James and John.  For these two sets of brothers, it had all the appearances of being just another day on the Sea of Galilee.  Like they had done so many times before, these suntanned fishermen cast their nets into the water.  Nothing could be heard except the quiet lapping of the water against their boat.

Suddenly, a piercing voice rang out from the shore.  Follow me, the voice said, and I will make you fish for people.  Most of the fishermen on the sea that day had no idea who this man was, but there was no mistaking the authority in that voice.  None of the fishermen understood what it would mean to become fishers of people.  Even so, to the amazement of nearby fishermen, Peter and Andrew dropped their nets and bolted for the beach. Before these stunned fishermen could recover, they watched James and John drop nets they were mending, climb out of their boat and follow this same man without so much as a word to their flabbergasted father, Zebedee. 

Now, Jesus had the first four of his twelve disciples.  And the by-standing fishermen had a strong suspicion that their normally rational, responsible fishing buddies had flipped their lids and walked off the deep end.

So why did Peter, Andrew, James and John do it?

Well, you could argue that these four fishermen are simply irresponsible.  Most of us have been tempted to walk off the job or out of the family at a moment’s notice because we’ve had it up to here and can’t take it anymore.  No doubt these four brothers had the same temptations.  But while Simon Peter is clearly impulsive, there’s no solid evidence in the New Testament that these four are guilty of such blatant irresponsibility, so that explanation doesn’t fly. 

Another explanation often given for why these four would do such a thing is the magnetic power of Jesus and his word.  In a nutshell, this popular explanation says that even though Peter, Andrew, James, and John had never met Jesus before, they were so taken by his personal magnetism and the authoritative power of his word that they willingly and immediately walked away from the livelihoods and their families to follow Jesus.  One commentator I read is so confident of this explanation and so taken by Jesus’ power that he calls the impromptu calling of these four disciples the first miracle of Jesus. 

Proponents of this theory note that in the Old Testament when Elijah approached Elisha out of the blue while he was plowing a field, to become his disciple and eventual successor. Elisha asked only to say farewell to his family before following Elijah.  And in the New Testament, when a prospective follower of Jesus asked if he might first say goodbye to those at home, Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  

Since nothing is impossible with God, I will freely admit that Jesus could in fact have so impressed these four fishermen in fifteen seconds that they followed him immediately.  But I think another theory is more plausible.  And that theory is that these four were not meeting Jesus for the first time that day on the Sea of Galilee, but had already spent quality time with him. 

If you worshipped with us last week, you may remember that we explored the Gospel of John’s very different description of Jesus’ first encounter with Peter and Andrew.  In John 1 we read how these two brothers not only first meet Jesus on another occasion,  but remain with Jesus, abide with Jesus for a full day.  This is John’s way of saying that Peter and Andrew began a process of spiritual transformation that day with Jesus.  Bill Hull suggests that Peter and Andrew, and later James and John spent days if not weeks in the presence of Jesus before the meeting described in Matthew 4. 

During this “come and see” stage of “pre-discipleship,” Peter and company listened to Jesus teach and preach, and watched Jesus heal and perform other miracles.  In the process, several things happened.  These four became acutely aware of their own personal darkness, as well as the Light that shone brightly through Jesus.  They were the ones Matthew had in mind when, quoting the prophet Isaiah, he referred to people who sat in darkness.  Now, these four had seen a great light, and his name was Jesus.

So they were ready to hear the core message of Jesus:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The Greek word for repent is metanoeo, and it has a far broader meaning than “to feel bad about your sin.”  The root meaning of metanoeo is to turn around, to do a “180” from one direction to another.  It means to turn from all that falls short of God to God himself.  And, more recently I’ve learned that repenting means to stop living out of your false self or selves and begin living out of your true self, the self God made you to be.  In other words, repenting means a radical change of identity, an identity rooted in the very image of Christ.

Once Peter, Andrew, James, and John responded to this call to repentance, they were swept up by the dream of the kingdom of heaven, or the rule of God in their hearts and their world.  They came to see that God’s kingdom had broken into history through Jesus, and now there was an unequalled opportunity to see their world changed, recreated and reconstituted into the world it was meant to be where people were right and did right by God and each other.  Jesus had a dream, and they longed to become a part of that dream.  But they didn’t know when.  And they didn’t know how.  And eventually, they returned to their fishing nets, uncertain about what would happen next.

Until that day Jesus strode down the shore of the Sea of Galilee and spotted Simon (who according to John 1 Jesus had already renamed Peter), and his brother Andrew.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  In that moment, everything clicked into place, the pieces of the puzzle finally came together, and Peter and Andrew instantly knew what they were going to do, ever how though it looked crazy.

Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.  And a few moments later, so did James and John.   

Now, I cannot prove that Jesus’ calling of the disciples happened this way,   just like you cannot prove with certainty that it didn’t.  But even if Jesus was not meeting the four brothers for the first time, the whole scene is still remarkable for a variety of reasons.   For one thing, many commentators believe Jesus was the first Jewish rabbi in history to seek out his disciples rather than vice-versa.  The normal course of events was for a prospective disciple to initiate contact with a rabbi, apply to become his student, and hope to be accepted into the rabbi’s circle.  But Jesus was not normal.  As his ministry began, he made the first move and immediately began to recruit disciples to enter into community with him. 

Jesus was also considerably younger than the usual rabbi.  And he wasn’t just teaching his students Jewish Law.  Nor did they turn themselves into disciples.  No, Jesus made them into disciples by abiding with them, and modeling for them the truths that he taught.  Jesus did not graduate his disciples as did other rabbis when their students mastered the Law.  A disciple of Jesus was not only a disciple for life.  A disciple of Jesus was expected to make other disciples of Jesus, to become fishers of people for Christ, and thereby expand the kingdom of heaven. 

And then there was the small matter of Jesus’ first and foremost command.  Most rabbis said, “Follow my teachings.  Follow the truths of scripture.  Follow the wisdom of our tradition.”  Not Jesus.  He had the audacity to say, “Follow me.”  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  Above everything and everyone else, follow me.”  It was absolutely shocking.  And it eventually got him killed.     

Meanwhile, despite the time the four brothers had with Jesus beforehand, it was still amazing that they dropped their nets and followed Jesus immediately.  Think about it.  Suppose you attended a mountaintop retreat for a weekend or even several weekends.  Then, suppose you came home to your spouse and children, or to your best friends and your boss, and announced that you were leaving behind your “fishermen’s nets”—your lovely home and a great job to follow your weekend retreat leader, even though you had no idea where you’d live, how you’d make a living, or even exactly what you’d be doing.  And you were leaving—immediately!

Most people you know would think you had lost your marbles.  Maybe they would even try to commit you to a “psych” ward because of their suspicion that you had lost touch with reality, and were about to make the biggest mistake of your life.          Knowing myself as well as I do, I admit that had Jesus asked me to follow him on a dime, I would probably have hemmed and hawed and found a way to delay.  I’d tell Jesus I would need some kind of road map for what it meant to be a Christ-follower, and some kind of job description for “fisher of people.”  And even then I would need to sleep on it.  And after consulting with good friends for good measure, then maybe we’d see how the Spirit moved. 

After all, at my age there’s plenty of time.

As a pastor, I have my days when I am reminded that maybe there’s not as much time as I think.  Yesterday was one of those days. 

Yesterday morning, as I was preparing my funeral meditation for Teddie Martin, who lived a long and wonderful 96 year life, I got a call to come quickly to the hospital because a young, recently married woman in our church was coming off a respirator.  The doctors had determined that because of a severe infection there was no hope for this woman whose immune system has been compromised by cancer.  So, they recommended  she be taken off the respirator and allowed to die. 

As I prayed with this woman and then watched the doctors remove the breathing tube, I was reminded that nothing is guaranteed in this life—absolutely nothing.  I was reminded that this life is no dress rehearsal.  It’s the real deal, and unless you believe in reincarnation it’s our only deal, and the curtain could come down at any moment. 

So who am I, and who are you to put off God?  Why do we think we are entitled to a long life when, given the darkness of our lives, we don’t deserve to live past lunch?  Friends, here’s what I know.  There is only one Jesus, and he is worth more than anything else in this world.  More than family.  More than career and possessions.  More than fame and fortune.  And he has called every one of us to follow him to become fishers of people and builders of his kingdom. 

He’s called us to do it, not tomorrow or the next day, but today, immediately!  So—what’s keeping us?