Prayer of Illumination

God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hebrew Bible Text: Isiah 9:1-4

 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 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.

On Wednesday morning, it was announced that Terry Jones has died.  In a statement from his family, they said: “Terry passed away on the evening of 21 January 2020 at the age of 77 with his wife Anna Soderstrom by his side after a long, extremely brave but always good humoured battle with a rare form of dementia, FTD.”

“Over the past few days his wife, children, extended family and many close friends have been constantly with Terry as he gently slipped away at his home in North London. We have all lost a kind, funny, warm, creative and truly loving man whose uncompromising individuality, relentless intellect and extraordinary humour has given pleasure to countless millions across six decades.”

Terry Jones was a founding member of the British sketch comedy group known as “Monty Python.” They made incredibly silly and ridiculous sketch comedy and movies. One of my favorites was “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which was their wacky take on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

In one of the most famous scenes from this comical farce, Arthur and his knights approach a cave that may hold the location of the Holy Grail.  They are warned that the cave is guarded by a monster which is initially unknown. King Arthur and his knights are led to the cave by Tim the Enchanter and find that they must face its guardian beast. Tim verbally paints a picture of a monster so terrible as to have killed everyone who has tried to enter the cave, and warns them, “death awaits you all – with nasty, big, pointy teeth!”.

As the knights approach the cave and are prepared to battle a monster most vicious and horrible.  Out from the cave comes an innocuous white rabbit, and the knights scoff at the fluffy little critter.  Despite the cave’s entrance being surrounded by the bones of “four-fifty men” fallen, Arthur and his knights no longer take it seriously. Ignoring Tim’s warnings that the rabbit has “a vicious streak a mile wide!” King Arthur orders one of his knights to chop the rabbit’s head off. As the knight draws his sword and prepares to kill the tiny bunny.   The rabbit suddenly leaps at least eight feet directly at the knight’s neck and kills the brave night.  Arthur and his remaining knights rush to attack the white fluffy rabbit in force, but the rabbit injures several of the knights and kill two of Arthur’s knights with ease. The knights themselves have no hope of killing or injuring the rabbit. Arthur panics and shouts for the knights “Run away!”  “Run away!” “Run away!”

King Arthur and his knights of the round table are not the first people ever to retreat or run away from a difficult situation.  Real or Imagined!   Human beings all have a fight or flight response to challenging situations.  The same goes for the very human Jesus!

If we read Matthew chapter 4 carefully we will see that it is a chapter of two withdrawals. The first is Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. The second is a withdrawal anachoreo to Capernaum by Jesus when he hears that John the Baptiser has been arrested.

Anachoreo is an interesting word. It is the root of the word “anchorite” which describes hermits in general and later came to specifically describe a form of religious life during the early and high middle ages. At this time men (anchorites) and women (anchoresses) withdrew from society and were cloistered away in cells (anchor-holds) usually attached to churches.

In Britain the most famous Anchoress is undoubtedly Dame Julian of Norwich, whose record of the mystical “shewings” given her are recorded in her book “Revelations of Divine Love” which is still in print.

The anchorite was often walled into the anchor-hold by the Bishop who at that time would conduct their funeral liturgy as they became dead to the world. The rest of their life would be spent walled in with one window, called a hagioscope or squint, open to the high altar of the church so that they could watch the mass. Another window opened to the street through which food and presumably excrement could be passed and also through which people could seek the counsel of the holy soul inside.

Life for Jesus, as for us, took some interesting turns, didn’t it? Driven by fear of persecution by Herod, in the wake of John’s arrest, Jesus anchorites it to Capernaum, possibly to live a life of solitude and prayer? But that is not to be. One day on a quiet stroll along the shoreline of lake Galilee, Jesus in introverted mode, happens upon some fishermen casting their nets.

I would like to think that there was something in the archetypal symbolism of those fish gathering nets that jarred Jesus out of his introverted seclusion into an extroverted invitation to those early followers to come and “fish for the lost people of the house of Israel and indeed the whole world”

It’s as if the anchorite NEST was converted that day into missionary NETS.  In times of dread and threat, nothing seems more inviting than to wall ourselves off from life threatening humanity.

It is then that we have to balance the hermit and the helper, the monk and the missionary.  Jesus found his largest appeal in a desert country he ran to while trying to avoid his mission.

We will probably experience the same.  We crave times of solitude and safety as followers of Jesus Christ.  We want to be away from all the crazier or prickly people.   We desire opportunities to study, to pray and to worship, but like Jesus, we are called to another task – to be fishers of men or fishers of people – out in the world – out in God’s kingdom.

Our Matthew text highlights this particular phrase in today’s Gospel reading: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” I prefer “fishers of…” to “fish for” because it focuses on identity rather than function. Not “emissaries of the kingdom” or “heralds of God” or “disciples of the Messiah” or “witnesses of the divine” or even “the first Christians,” but rather fishers of people. All of those other things may have been implied or may eventually come to be, but what strikes me is that Jesus is calling these first disciples not into work but into relationship.

So perhaps we might re-imagine just what it is that Jesus is calling these first disciples to be and do: fishers of people. And that implies relationships. Jesus, that is, calls these first disciples into relationship — with himself, with each other, and with all the various people they will meet over the next few years and, indeed, the rest of their lives. This Gospel ends, keep in mind, with another invitation to relationship: make disciples by baptizing them into the name of the relational God, by the way and teaching them what Jesus had taught them.

Jesus issues the same call to us — to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace. Sometimes that call — to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others — will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the persons right around us. But it will always involve persons — not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.

So the theme of our scripture for today is Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.

So with this theme floating around: let me ask you to call to mind one person with whom they are in relationship.

Perhaps it’s a relationship that brings you particular joy,

or sorrow,

or frustration,

or hope.

It doesn’t really matter, just so long as it’s significant.

Once you have that person in mind,

take a moment to pray for that person,

and to believe that God is using you— to make a difference in the life of the person for whom you are praying.

You see, it’s not just that Jesus is just now calling us to be fishers of people, but that Jesus has been calling us — and in fact using us — to care for those God loves —so much —for quite a long time.

Commentary provided by Warren Carter, David Lose, Karoline Lewis, Peter Woods, John C. Holbert and Mark Abbott.