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.
Our nation, bitterly divided about the election and its consequences, is preparing for the inauguration of the next President of the United States as these words are published. In the gospel lesson assigned for the Third Sunday after Epiphany we learn about another kind of inauguration, one with consequences so substantial it changed history once and for all:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali … From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus takes up the call for repentance people heard from John the Baptist, but with a new meaning: now the Kingdom of Heaven is inaugurated, not merely announced. When Jesus speaks, people listen up, for he embodies the Reign of God.
His ministry has begun, and he immediately begins recruiting staff for his work; he breaks into the ordered lives of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and calls them into service. His simple words hit the mark: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Unlike in our culture (where all sorts of outfits offer us an “extreme makeover”) people did not strive for identity in the culture in which Jesus issued his call: it was what you were. Vocation for Simon and Andrew was who they were and who their fathers had been; they were born to it. They identified with it as they did with their village and their family. It was their life.
They did the work that would feed them and their families. They were part of the local economy, waking early, following the patterns of fish, and selling at market. It was an identity that offered sources of happiness—family and friends in the village, and children to carry their names.
Jesus offered a new identity to these fishermen who had never questioned their place in life, an identity that would be about movement, a willingness to take a journey, to begin a pilgrimage, to walk with Jesus. He offered a radical makeover—with both the adventure and the risk. They would have the opportunity to form a new community; but they also had to leave behind the place, location and source of power and knowledge that defined them. When Jesus said, “Follow me”, he asked them to surrender their lives as they knew them.
As soon as you mention that word, “surrender”, some people will take flight. Their egos shudder and shake, and they run in the other direction. Surrender makes them think “weak” and “helpless” and “powerless”. They run in great fear and in search for someone who might offer them a way to be disciples without giving up control. Usually they run into the wide-open arms of false prophets that come under the names of “Positive Thinking” and “Prosperity Gospel”.
In the not-so-far past, some of these false prophets were Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking). In contemporary America, these false prophets are people like Suze Orman, Oprah Winfrey, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and Paula White, author of Why God Wants You Wealthy and one of the ministers scheduled to pray at the January 20 inauguration.
Advocates of positive thinking claim that your attitude will shape your destiny and that positive results will occur if only you think positive thoughts. The strategy you use is to force yourself into thinking the “best” of any situation.
If you wake up in the morning and feel sick, tired and achy, positive thinking would have you tell yourself, “Boy, I feel great today. Isn’t it fabulous to feel alive?” Alternatively, they instruct you to say something like, “I think it’s just wonderful that I feel sick, because good things always come from these kind of situations.”
Positive thinking is self-manipulation. We can all pretend that everything is positive, but saying so does not make it so: real life does not work that way. Humanity’s great works of literature, art and music would never have come into being if life was all beautiful; if there were no dark, who would even know the difference between light and darkness?
If the power of their thinking could have made them so influential, rich and happy, why do so many of their followers look so miserable? However, they have an answer for that too: you simply did not have enough faith in the power of your thinking! When prosperity gospel pastors told their church members, “God wants you to have this house”, quite a few people listened, even though they knew they could not afford it—but when they found that the banks foreclosed on them after a short time, their pastors turned their backs and told them that they had failed in their faith.
Surrender means giving up what the false prophets promise: control, money, wealth, success—all the trappings your ego needs to make you feel important. They promise that you can be a disciple AND still be in control; they flatter your ego and promise it a long life, if only you will do as they say (which includes sending them money). If you let them, your inner voice is silenced, and all you hear is your greedy ego.
Surrender means embracing the journey on which we bind ourselves to our loving God. Our problems won’t disappear when we choose to surrender: we still have to let go of things we have known and loved … but on the other side of that journey, we will find freedom, a freedom that cannot be grasped with the mind (so celebrated by those false prophets), but only with your heart. Only your heart can grasp surrender. As we are binding ourselves to God and God’s Kingdom, we find freedom beyond all freedom.
After surrender, being God’s own counts as our wealth and success: creation itself will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:20-21). We realize we are not merely people who are fundamentally disordered and fatally flawed; we find that, made in God’s image, we are glorious in God’s eyes. God wants to provide our deepest identity and our deepest freedom. God’s love makes us one with God, the universe and with one another.
While presidents come and go, along with elections and inaugurations, our God remains: the inauguration of God’s Kingdom irreversibly changed the world. As Matthew introduces the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he quotes Isaiah: “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.” The light of God dawned on all God’s children when God’s Kingdom was inaugurated, back there at the Sea of Galilee.
Our surrender comes with work to do. When we surrender to God and God’s Kingdom, we accept the call: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” In love and solidarity, we need to shine the light of God on those “in the shadow of death”. If, after January 20, the new administration begins to mark people as “other” (based on their creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, income, age and health status) and targets them for deportation and various forms of discrimination, we need to step in to protect them from the looming darkness. As people of faith, we know no “other”; we are one, and when one of us suffers, we all suffer.
When people hear from the pulpit whom they are entitled to hate, it’s time to remember that God expects us to love all people—especially those that have been pushed to the margins. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And, “It is my deep conviction that justice is indivisible”.
- that the inauguration of God’s Kingdom changed the world irreversibly;
- that surrendering to God means true freedom;
- that in Jesus came the great light Isaiah saw, and that it came for all people;
- that all God’s creatures are one Family of God, which is, no matter how much others try to divide us, indivisible;
- that when people suffer hatred and persecution because of who they are, we must act because of who we are: their sisters and brothers.
We pray. Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace to fearlessly contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.