Sermon January 5

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

January 5, 2014

“An Invitation to Discipleship”

Matthew 4:18-25

This is the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew has concluded the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. Then in chapter 3 he introduces us to John the Baptist and we see that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In the beginning of chapter 4, Jesus, still a solitary figure, is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Then verse 17 is the transitional statement to our text: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Jesus begins his public ministry and his first act is to call disciples. This is what I want to talk about this morning. The key verse is verse 19 – Jesus said to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

I assume you have a mental image of that scene in your mind. No doubt, you have seen paintings or drawings of that moment when Jesus was on the shore and the fishermen were in the boats working their nets. We’ve seen it portrayed in movies and heard it told in Sunday School. Jesus says, “Follow me”, and James and John leave their father Zebedee with the boats and the nets and follow Jesus. It is a compelling, dramatic event. And we wonder about those disciples – Who were they? What were they like? Were they like us? It is interesting to look at the people who surrounded Jesus because we are their spiritual descendents today. What can today’s disciples learn from Jesus calling his disciples then?

It is this call to discipleship that I want to focus on. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What does it mean for you and me today to be his disciples? I worry that we may make it sound too simple, too easy. We equate discipleship with church membership. You just have to sign on the dotted line, show up once in a while, toss something in the offering plate occasionally. We’ll try not to expect too much or make too many demands. We don’t want to inconvenience anyone.

But I know that’s not what Jesus had in mind. G.K. Chesterton said: “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton is reputed to have put the following ad in the Times of London trying to recruit crew members for a voyage of exploration – “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Now that’s a challenge! When we turn to Matthew’s Gospel, I wonder if we can truly understand what it meant, what it cost, for these men to leave everything to follow Jesus? They left behind the only occupations they knew, their families, the villages in which they had grown up and spent their lives. How long had the Zebedee family been fishing on the Sea of Galilee? In that culture, at that time, a small family business would have been handed on not only through generations but through centuries. And here comes this prophet from Nazareth and they leave it all behind to follow him.

Jesus said: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” I want to examine the three parts of that statement. First – “Follow me.” The way Matthew tells the story is in an abbreviated form. This was not the first time that Jesus met these fishermen. The Gospel of John reminds us that it was Andrew who first introduced Simon Peter to Jesus. And we learn from the Gospel of Luke that once, after the fishermen had spent a fruitless night fishing, Jesus, in the boat with them, directed them to let down their nets for a catch. The resulting catch of fish was so great it strained their nets to the limit and filled their boats. So when Jesus did offer his invitation to be his disciples they had some sense of the uniqueness of Jesus. Jesus didn’t overwhelm them. He didn’t sweep them off their feet. Jesus had prepared them for this moment when he would ask them to leave all else behind and commit their lives to following him.

Who were these disciples? And what did Jesus see in them? Remarkably, they were just ordinary men. They were not wealthy or educated. None of them occupied a prominent place in the local synagogue. They were from a poor and isolated part of the country – Galilee. Apparently, the only one of the twelve who came from the more sophisticated region of Judea was Judas Iscariot. These were just common men. There was nothing special about them. We might think that Jesus saw some hidden quality, some latent talent in these men that singled them out from the rest. But I don’t think that’s true. What made them disciples, what enabled them to accept the challenge of discipleship, was not the power of human potential but the power of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we see the grace of God at work.

The unusual thing about this story is that it is Jesus who does the asking. This went against the cultural norms of society. Ordinarily, students would come to a rabbi and request the privilege of being his disciple. This highlights a great spiritual truth for us. It is Jesus Christ who comes in search of us. God’s love always takes the initiative, constantly appealing to us, continually drawing us to himself. Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. No one comes to him who has not been drawn to him. Jesus said: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”

Jesus calls these men and says: “Follow me.” In that call we see the primary meaning of a disciple – it is to be with the master. In that time, disciples did not merely listen to the rabbi’s lectures, the students lived with their teachers. This call is not to a single act, but a lifetime of actions. The word “follow” is a present tense Greek verb. It stresses continuity. It means a lifetime of following. The Christian life is not a rigid adherence to a set of rules and beliefs. It is a living, personal relationship with the Lord of life. Jesus said: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” These disciples would see and hear all that Jesus did. They were witnesses to the love of God that was lived out in Jesus Christ.
The second part of the call to the disciples is the words – “I will make you”. What this phrase expresses is the creative work of Jesus. It is Jesus who will make them fish for people. It will not be because they have the natural gift or the proper I.Q. Several years later, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Jewish religious leaders. It says in the book of Acts: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” There’s the explanation for the dramatic change brought about in the disciples – they had been with Jesus. Through the experience of being with Jesus and the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God, their lives had been utterly changed.

The Christian life is a journey and when we make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ we have not arrived, we have only begun. We see as we read the gospel accounts that the disciples weren’t sure at the beginning who Jesus really was. You don’t hear any great statements of faith at that point. That doesn’t come until chapter 16 when Jesus asked them – “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But even then they didn’t fully understand. They still doubted him. At the cross they deserted him. It was not until the Risen Lord was a present reality in their hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit that they knew with certainty.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, you and I are always a work in progress. As we abide with him, as we walk with him in our daily lives, Jesus Christ is working his creative power into our lives. Paul uses this kind of language in his letters. He wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He also said: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me his own.”

The last part of the call to discipleship is “fish for people”. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Not only does Jesus call the disciples out of the world for a special relationship with him, he also sends them into the world with a special mission.

If you want to do something great in life then get involved in something greater than your life. Jesus addresses our ambition, our desire to make a difference in life, our yearning to accomplish something. And he enlists us in the greatest cause there is – to introduce people to the love of God. Jesus uses the language of the people he was addressing – you will fish for people. He says that he will enable them to reach beyond themselves to have an impact on the world.

What Jesus teaches them as disciples he will later commission them to do in his name. After the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” They had been with Jesus as disciples. Now, Jesus instructs them to go and make disciples of others and Jesus will be with them.

In Matthew 4 we find a remarkable invitation. It is an encapsulation of the message of the gospel. An invitation such as this entails risk. It calls for a decision. It is not an invitation to a theory or an idea or a religion, but to a person, to Jesus Christ.

Let me close by asking three questions. First – what did it mean to be disciples? I am struck by the grandness of this call to discipleship. The Son of God came to these disciples with a personal invitation. And as they spent time with Jesus they realized they were in the presence of the Son of God.

The second question is – what did this mean to Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to it as a costly grace. He said: “It is costly because it cost God the life of his Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us all.”

And that brings us to the last question – what does it mean to you? Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Do you want to become Jesus’ disciple? Jesus comes to us with a life-changing invitation. It is an invitation to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. To follow Jesus is to accept his offer to come into our hearts and to make us the person that God intended for us to be. And then we will indeed have an impact on the world.

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