Pastor’s Sermon Notes: “Standing on the Promises: God’s Promise of Ministry”
Rev. James E. Lunde
Warrenton Presbyterian Church
Good morning it’s good to see you and have you with us this morning for worship at Warrenton Presbyterian Church. I hope you’ll join us next Sunday as we welcome a special guest to be with us, the Rev. Nicole Childress Ball who is a church relations officer at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Nicole and I graduated together at Union and it will be a joy to have her with us. Nicole will be leading a presentation on Union Seminary in the fellowship hall at 9:45 for Sunday School and will be leading worship with me at the 11:00am service.
Today, we continue our series “Standing on the Promises” as we explore God’s Promise of Ministry. So far, we’ve reflected on God’s promise to us that we belong to God, no matter what. We’ve remembered God’s promise that God remains faithful to us even when we are not. So today, we continue this series as we remember that God in Christ promises us that we are called not to be spectators as the kingdom comes to life, but rather as active participants as Christ calls each of us as his disciples to drop our nets that we might fish for people…
Matthew 4: 12-23 (New Revised Standard Version)
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He 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.”
18As 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. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As 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. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus 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.
This is the Word of the Lord…
In this time of new year’s resolutions, many of us are recovering from the indulgences of the holidays. All of the treats, the goodies, the wonderfully unhealthy food. It’s fun. It’s celebratory–and appropriately so. But, more than anything, it’s brings us a sense of comfort. We call it comfort food for a reason. There’s something about the new year and the bitter chill of January that seems to jolt us out of our comfort and challenge us to make changes in our lives. These changes, call them resolutions, call them promises, they feel risky–because as humans, we seek comfortable and are adverse to change–even if we know it’s necessary. Mark Twain once said “that the only person who likes change is a wet baby”–and as a young parent, I can tell you that isn’t even always the case!
This dichotomy of comfort and change of safety and risk is expressed in our readings today. Earlier, we read Psalm 27 together. In it, we discovered a psalmist that longs for safety–for comfort. The Psalmist says: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.” It’s clear that the psalmist is in some kind of trouble–and he trusts that God will bring safety and comfort.
The gospel reading is also shrouded in trouble, but it’s response to trouble takes a drastically different tone. Our reading begins with Jesus learning that his forebear, John the Baptist, has been imprisoned–possibly for his ministry of Baptism and repentance, but Matthew doesn’t provide that detail. John’s arrest serves two functions in Matthew’s gospel. The first is that it tells Jesus that Galilee is no longer safe, so he goes to Capernaum. The second is that it is the catalyst that begins Jesus’ ministry. Both show us that when faced with trouble, Jesus doesn’t long for safety like the Psalmist. No, Jesus responds to this trouble by taking risks–moving from the comfortable/familiar and into the unknown. Jesus leaves his home, his family to begin a ministry (from John, we know a dangerous one), in an unknown place.
The risk-taking theme continues as Jesus calls his first disciples– two sets of brothers James and John along with Simon and Andrew–all of whom fishermen. He goes right up to them and tells them to drop everything, to leave behind their careers, their livelihood, even their families to follow him. He promises them you are no longer fishers of fish, from now on, you will fish for people. Jesus, the son of God, of the same essence and being of God, could easily do this risky ministry on his own. But he decides to call others to follow him and participate in this ministry. He calls these disciples to follow him out of the comfortable–out of the safe–and into the risky and the unknown.
The psalmist desires safety and comfort, but Jesus calls us as disciples into the unknown, to take risk as we follow him. This doesn’t mean that the psalmist is wrong. Scripture tells us that there are plenty of times in life–particularly after tragedy and trauma, that God provides comfort, safety and peace. Even more so, the psalmist tells us that it’s okay to seek these things from God.
But, here in our reading today, it’s as if Jesus saying that the time for playing it safe is over–the kingdom of God has come near–now is the time to take risks as we boldly proclaim, and live into this kingdom here and now. God promises us that we have a role in the indwelling of the kingdom. This is God’s promise of ministry to us–that we are not merely spectators, but that we are participants in the unfolding of God’s ministry. But this is not an easy promise. God promises us a role in building a kingdom–ministry–but this ministry requires boldness–it requires risk–all things that we as people are innately averse to.
The promise of ministry of working–of participating alongside our Lord as we follow him–this promise comes to us in the form of calling these disciples: follow me and I will make you fish for people. Instead of fishing for fish–to kill for food–you will fish for people. The fishing net becomes transformed from something intended to trap and catch, to something that is opened allowing for others to come in. The Greek here indicates a sort of word-play–you’ll be fishing, but instead of taking the life of what you catch, you’ll be helping others be transformed by the love of the one we call the way the truth and the life itself. This is the deep promise of ministry: from now on as you fish for people, you’ll help people truly come alive.
The promise to Simon and Andrew, to James and John is the same for all of us who seek to follow our Lord. So as we wrestle with what this promise means for us today, let’s go back and take a look at Jesus’ words as he begins his ministry.
Following John’s arrest, he goes to Capernaum, but particularly, he goes to the territories of Zebulun and Napthali. Now, let’s be honest, this is a pretty easy detail for us today to gloss over in the reading–but the first readers of the gospel knew this was significant location. A little digging into the history shows us that this is clearly an intentional move on Jesus’ part–and Matthew’s as he is the lone gospel writer to highlight this detail.
Following an election year, we know well that politicians strategically choose places in which to make major speeches and announcements–to highlight their vision and agenda.
Jesus, in a similar way, strategically chooses Zebulun and Naphtali to highlight just what his ministry will be about. He quotes Isaiah in the first words of his ministry: “
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —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.” (Matthew 4: 15-16, NRSV)
Jesus goes to and names the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali as he begins his ministry because these were territories that have perpetually lived in darkness. When Isaiah wrote these words, they were living under persecution of the Assyrians. Fast forward several hundred years and a few more foreign occupations and you get to Jesus’ time. And as Jesus speaks, they are living under Roman authority. This area was known for constantly living under oppression, but Jesus begins his ministry here, echoing Isaiah’s words several hundred years before promising light and peace.
Here Jesus discloses what his ministry will be about: shining light into darkness and proclaiming that the kingdom has come as he invites others to join him along the way. Jesus calls the disciples as they join him in proclaiming the kingdom–proclaiming Christ’s life-giving love to go into the darkness–to take risks going to the Zebuluns and Naphtalis of our world that this promise might be shared and realized–the people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light!
This realization challenges us to ask ourselves today, what does it mean to fish for people–to shine light to the Zebuluns and Naphtalis of our world?
Normally the church has taken this phrase to talk about evangelism–a word feared by many Presbyterians because it eludes pushiness–perhaps even judgment. But evangelism simply means in Greek being a bearer of good news–spreading the good news–the gospel.
Evangelism at its heart isn’t about numbers–it isn’t about how many people are in the pews–it’s not a statistic. Like Jesus’ metaphor, evangelism is the net we as his followers open to welcome
- Participating in Christ’s ministry–proclaiming the kingdom of God, offering light and hope–like
What would it look like if the church stopped worrying about numbers and took this risky promise of ministry to heart–dropping our nets and following Christ into the unknown?
In my last presbytery in East Tennessee, I witnessed a church that took God’s promise of ministry to heart. The church in little Spring City, TN had been dwindling for years like many congregations and at this point in their history, they only had 20 people on their rolls. Their small community had also dwindled over the decades leaving a small, dying town. A few years ago, denominational issues caused half of their congregation to abruptly leave–giving them just over ten people in the congregation. This sort of crisis often makes congregations even more averse to risk, clinging to the past in security–but this church was different. Instead of closing their doors, as many had recommended, they decided to think outside the box. Instead of thinking how to bring people into their doors, they decided to go out of their space and into their community. In other words, like the disciples, they dropped their nets–the familiar–and followed Jesus into the unknown. Though they had no children in the congregation, you could see the whole gang every Saturday morning at the area soccer games–cheering on the children in the community. They were able to use their space to sponsor a Girl Scout troop and open a staples pantry, filling two community needs.
- They weren’t focused on numbers, they were focused on ministry–on being fishers of people–opening our nets to allow others to be transformed by God’s amazing love.
God promises us in Christ that we are not spectators–but are called to participate in proclaiming God’s coming kingdom and reign. May we proclaim light into darkness and hope into fear as we cast the net allowing others to be transformed by Christ’s life-giving love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. Series inspired by and adapted from Katherine Willis Pershey in: A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
2. Psalm 27: 5, New Revised Standard Version.
Works Consulted and Cited:
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, National Council of Churches for Christ, 1989.
Multiple Authors, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.
Multiple Authors, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.