It wasn’t a very smooth handoff, was it?
John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, a few of John’s adherents started following Jesus, and then – BAM – John was hauled off to prison. In the Greek, it is said that John was paradidomi, handed up, to the authorities. An important word, because it is the same one used later in the gospel for Jesus’ arrest. They were handed up to the authorities, and eventually handed up to a higher plane, to be with the Heavenly Father. Being handed up, paradidomi, can be a good thing or a bad thing, it seems. But there went John, off to be locked up by Herod, who didn’t much care for the things John was saying about his new wife. The lesson? Never disrespect the trophy wife.
If Jesus thought he was going to have a gentle transition into active ministry, he found out that was not to be the case. John was gone, and it was predictable what would happen to the Forerunner. He would be a forerunner in death as he was a forerunner in baptism and in proclamation. John was handed up, and now Jesus was handed up into the active phase of his ministry.
What happens next? Jesus withdraws to Galilee. It is the natural place for Jesus to go, to the home turf, the place where he feels relatively safe, where he knows people. It is, for him, a place of light, a place where he might reconnect and recharge. But it is also a place where he might shine his light, in words and in deeds, for a people who had been suffering and confused and struggling for a long time. And that was just what Isaiah had prophesied, wasn’t it?
“ 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. “
A light shining. A light giving warmth and hope and strength to a troubled people. But a light dies if it is not given the fuel, the oxygen, that sustains it.
What might that fuel be? In Jesus’ case, the light that he brings requires that people hear his message. He speaks, in strong words that are both comfort and rebuke, and the people of Capernaum must listen…and they must act. Action is the oxygen that fuels the Light.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Do something! Recognize that you have been on the wrong path. And do it quickly, because something wonderful and terrible is coming quickly - the kingdom of heaven! Like the t-shirt that was popular a few years ago: “Look busy! Jesus is coming!”
Only it isn’t just looking busy that Jesus is asking for, it is actually doing something, acting. Oxygen for the light.
If we have not yet gotten the message, Jesus then demonstrates what he means. He walks by the seaside and grabs two men. Peter. Andrew, his brother. (We heard the story from a different angle last week, in the Gospel of John.) They are casting a net into the sea, doing the thing that fishermen do. And he says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And as he continues his walk on the sand, he also grabs the Zebedee boys – the sons of thunder, as their name means – and he calls them, and they too drop everything including their father and their boat and follow along.
Can you imagine the strangeness of that moment, this man approaching workers and saying, “Drop everything. Come along. I have work for you to do.” Can you imagine the astounded looks on the faces of the others on the shore, watching this happen, wondering if their friends would come back at dinnertime, wondering what the meaning of all this was?
It was about the light, and about action in response to the light.
In Greek, the word for light is “phos (fw/j)” the word from which we derive words like photograph, photosynthesis, phosphorus..I mention this last word because one of the things that the chemical element phosphorus does is to glow in the presence of oxygen. A chemical response, an action, if you will, by means of interaction with another element. The light, the phosphorescence, is a response to the fuel. No oxygen, no response, no light. And what about photosynthesis, that life force in plants, where the presence of light helps a plant convert carbon dioxide into sugars to fuel growth? A light that energizes, a necessary thing. Not ornamental or aesthetic, but absolutely essential to light, and to life itself.
So the light we talk about in this gospel is this active kind of light. As I said earlier, without oxygen, without action, it dies. The light moves and affects and responds…
Such an interesting concept! We think of light as something that switches on and off…but what if light is an active and responsive and moving thing? Such things demand their fuel and they also demand some sort of recognition and response.
And this reminds me of a story a friend told me, about going fishing on a lake in Africa. On this deep and narrow lake, the fishermen go out in small boats at night. They cast their nets, the kind that are called purse seine nets, large, with a drawstring at the top when the nets underlie a school of fish.
Why at night? Well, when these fishermen go out – and they never go out during the full moon, only on nights when the sky is velvet black – they shine high powered lights into the depths of the lake. And the fish in the lake coming swimming up, swarming around the light, and the fishermen gather them in…they are drawn to the light as if they hunger for it. It is a remarkable thing to see. And the even more remarkable thing is that the fish react to the light not only by coming up from the depths, but they are faintly phosphorescent. They glow. They are not only attracted to the light, they are transformed by it.
Jesus walks by the seashore and he says to the fishermen, “I will set you at a new task of fishing; you will fish now for people.” And these fishermen, untutored, not orators, not well-traveled, are given the single tool they need for their new kind of fishing. Their net is not a purse seine. Their net is the Light, the Divine Light that draws in those who hear it and are transformed by it. Do they glow in the dark, like the fish? No, but they are warmed and changed and their souls now have an inner glow.
We think of those disciples and the task that Jesus set before them, and we marvel at the millions and billions of followers of Christ in the centuries that ensued. But these men, these first disciples, they began their work with what seems like less than we have. No written Bible. No trained preachers. No commentaries, or songs or movies. They had only the word, the light incarnate. All they did was trust in Jesus and share the light by sharing the word. They saw it in action, in Jesus’ lifetime, in his healing and in his proclamation. But they had the exact same tools that we have to bring people to the knowledge and love of Christ. A net.
A net made of light and of words.
Jesus says the same thing to us today, to drop the things that get in the way, to fish for people. He challenges us to take that net made of light and of words and to cast it and see whom we catch.
It’s not about approaching people and whacking people over the head with a Bible as if it is a club – many of us fear that this is what sharing the good news is like. No, it’s more like an invitation to glide into a warm and lovely pool of water. It’s about shining the light that draws people into Jesus’ love by living our lives in ways that make others want to imitate what we do…which is no more or less than trying to follow what Jesus teaches us to do.
If you’re still nervous about this kind of fishing, let me give you a different way of thinking about it.
If you’ve gone to a great restaurant, you’ll mention it to your friends and say “you need to check out this place. Let’s go there together.”
Why is it so hard to say that about Jesus, and about this church?
Cast your nets, your nets of light and words and love. Invite people into this place of love and this beautiful tradition of honoring the one who has taught us all we need to know. Fish for people. Let Jesus help you. It isn’t so hard after all.