Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
James V. Stockton
In his book, Crossing Myself, author Greg Garrett writes, “When I was sunk in depression and racked with insomnia,” I was also sunk in myself, to the exclusion of everybody else’s pain and suffering.” In his book, Garrett is describing his experiences of sin, his struggles with depression, and his discovery and embrace of redemption. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it seemed impossible [for me] to do anything but bad things.” When people are having this experience of feeling sunk, as Garrett puts it, they have, then, a sense that it is impossible for them to change things, that it’s impossible to alter things for the better. And so the feeling of sinking just goes deeper.
In ancient days, the people of God believed that they were incapable of doing anything but bad things, anything but wrong things, anything but those things that were least meaningful to God, least faithful to their call as God’s people. In the days of the prophet Isaiah the nation of Judah is increasingly vulnerable to hostile nations all around it. The northern kingdom of Israel is falling to invasion by Assyria, and now Judah to the south no longer has its ally to turn to for help and support.
Isaiah and his people are experiencing the utter collapse of their world. For too many generations before them, God’s people have taken for granted and grown accustomed to the blessings that God has brought them to enjoy. For too long, too many people, too many of their leaders, have forgotten or grown callous toward the blessing of God’s presence always available to them, always abiding among them. For too long the people and their leaders have veered from the course that God laid out for them, the course most beneficial, safest, and most joyful.
The people have lived in a land of deep darkness. And they know that they are heading there again. They are struggling to find their way back, but it seems that they do only bad, only wrong, only acts of empty meaninglessness faithless and impotent. They are sinking, and they know it. And knowing it, they are ready at last for a real word from God.
‘A light has shone,’ the prophet says. The people may not yet see it,; they may not yet feel its warmth; but it is there, and it is shining. ‘Hey, people! Listen!’ calls the prophet. ‘God, and God alone is bringing you your freedom.’ It is God’s reckoning upon the oppressor whose rod and yoke have for too long weighted down the rightful j joy of all God’s people. It is God’s beckoning to those suffering of the nation and to the lost of the world. To people sinking, it is a word of hope. To people wondering either if another day is even possible, or if they care to meet it, it is a call to a whole new future.
“[My] story is a confession of sorts,” writes the author Garrett, “[a confession] that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, that I have not loved me neighbor as myself.” “At [my church] we confess our sins at every Eucharist,” he goes on - not in mind numbing detail, but still - and when we’re done, we sit there for a moment, lost in ourselves, lost in our sins, as [our priest] gets up from his knees.”
‘Repent,” says Jesus. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is near.’ The ministry of Jesus begins. The light dawns. As the history of God’s people make clear, the experience of the blessing of God begins with repentance. The kingdom of heaven itself is as near as the heartfelt confession: “I have fouled up; and I want you, O God, to help me to do better.” It’s a confession of one’s shortcomings, to be sure. It is a confession of one’s errors, failings, wrong-doings. But what this means is that it is a confession of the inescapable fact that one is incapable of getting it right all the time, in every way. Which means that it is, if truly a confession, a confession also of one’s need and one’s desire for divine assistance, for divine guidance, for God help to turn to the way that is better; to the way that God is calling one to follow.
Without the second piece, the confession is, as Garrett describes, an exercise of simply sinking more deeply into self, me into myself, you into yourself, h into himself, she into herself. And in every case, each person or each group is distanced further from one another. Just as important, each is distanced further from God. It is this second piece, that is the complementary way out for people, for you and me, from that forest of sins into which the first piece leads, and so which keeps us all from sinking ever more deeply into our selves.
‘Come follow me,’ says Jesus to the fishermen. It is a way of saying, ‘Turn to me.’ It is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Stop following the path that you have chosen, or the path that someone else has assigned you, or that random chance has out in place before you. Turn to this new direction,’ he is saying, ‘and come, follow me.’ It is Jesus’ way of calling them to true repentance. Not to wallow in their fallen-ness, not to root themselves to their broken-ness, Jesus invites them, he invites us, to turn to a new, and even unfamiliar, direction in order truly to follow him.
People up and down the shore of Lake Galilee fishermen and their families, are sinking quietly within the same old pattern day to day, finding little hope for freedom from the Roman oppressors, little hope for freedom from the drudgery that defines their futures. Many are finding little reason, then, to seek freedom from their self-concerned despair. Yet, there are those few, those few who hear a call to rise to the unfamiliar, to enter into even the uncomfortable, and find a new way of being who they are, a renewed way of doing what they are meant to do.
Andrew and Peter, James and John hear the call of Jesus. It is his call to them not to enter an endless cycle of self-recrimination, but to turn to a new path upon which he will lead them. It is Jesus’ call to them not to wail a mournful dirge about the hardness of the world around them, but to learn to a new tune that Jesus will teach them, a new harmony already ringing quietly in the hearts and souls of those all around them.
“…lost in the moment, lost in our sin, …the priest gets up from his knees.” Garret writes. “Then he stands, raises his right hand, and blesses us.” “‘Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep in eternal life.’” “I have to say,” Garret continues, “that I am thankful that I can think about other people again; that I can think about somebody else’s pain before my own, again.” “Every Sunday, now,” he goes on, “I confess [to God] that I’ve put myself first and that I want to do better. And every Sunday I hear the voice of God saying that whatever I’ve done, I’m still loved. I’m still valuable. There’s still a plan for me.”
They leave their nets and follow Jesus. What net do we hold onto, what nets still hold onto you, to me: old habits, old grudges, old grief, even old lost joy that Jesus is calling us today to leave behind that we may find greater freedom as we follow him? What old regrets have you still in your heart, have I still in mine? What old wrongs, committed by you or against you, by me or against me, still wrap their mesh around our souls and drag us down from our higher calling to follow Jesus? What shall we drop today, tomorrow, in order that each of us may turn to himself, to herself, and find that person whom Christ knows him, knows her, to be? What shall we let go this week, this year, so that we may turn and love one another, that together we may help God to help ourselves to be the best that God has given us to be?
Finally, with whom shall we turn to the people around us, still living in darkness, still trapped in anger, grief or fear? To whom, but Jesus? That in you and me, they with us may find heaven come near, and may add their voices to our own to ring out with Jesus his call to each and all, ‘Come, follow me.’
And so may Almighty God, who unites us in the holy bonds of truth and peace, of joy and charity, grant to us that faith that was born in the heart of Christ our Savior, that it may overflow our own, and bless the world around us in his name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.
© 2008, James V. Stockton