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“Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth He went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 5:12-13).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When Jesus hears that John has been arrested, He withdraws from the region around the Jordan into Galilee, heading northward after His wilderness conflict with Satan. Jesus is not running away, but He Himself will choose the times and ways to confront those who seek to destroy the work of God’s gracious reign.
More importantly, Jesus withdraws into Galilee and leaves Nazareth, His hometown, in order to take up residence in Capernaum by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. This happens in order to fulfill Isaiah’s words from our Old Testament reading. The light of the Christ has begun to shine in Galilee. Jesus is about to begin His ministry of preaching and teaching and healing on behalf of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Jesus’ preaching is precisely the same as John the Baptist’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John proclaimed such a message as the one who had come to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus proclaims the same message as the Lord Himself who has come to free the people from their exile in sin and to bring God’s end-time salvation already now into the present.
Jesus addresses the lost sheep that are the house of Israel. Though there are certainly members of the faithful remnant who have never lost true faith in the God of Israel, the spiritual condition of the whole nation is essentially one of “lostness.” The call “Repent!” is then a call to conversion, to move from sin and unbelief to repentant faith and salvation.
When Jesus grounds His call to repentance with the declaration that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He is proclaiming that the reign of God, expected on the Last Day, is beginning already now on the earth. The “kingdom of heaven” is not primarily a place. It certainly is not a group of people or an organization. The kingdom of heaven is the reigning of God—in Jesus, in history. Wherever you find Jesus, you find the kingdom of heaven.
There is an “already” and “not yet” quality to God’s reign breaking into history. The kingdom of heaven has not yet fully arrived, with all its power and salvation. At the same, however, Jesus, the Son of God, is already here, and He is bringing a salvation that will avail on the Last Day. The time is urgent, and those who refuse what Jesus offers will seal for themselves a judgment on the Last Day.
With the kingdom of heaven at hand, Jesus calls His first disciples. Four men are specifically named: Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John. They are all fishermen. Jesus speaks, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately leave their nets and follow Him.
Some, concerned to show how such a dramatic response by the four could be more reasonably understood, have focused on the fact that at least some of Jesus’ first disciples had come already into close contact with Him in Judea before He returned to Galilee. However, to try to make the fishermen’s response to Jesus humanly reasonable or understandable misses the point. No one becomes Jesus’ disciple by his own initiative. Jesus calls, and only then can and do people respond.
To what are the four fishermen responding? What do they know and believe? Although the evangelist does not tell us specifically, the context provides a strong indication, so obvious that it might be missed. Jesus has just begun to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The four believe, even with only faltering faith, that Jesus’ preaching is true! They have begun to acknowledge their need for conversion, their need to be saved, and they have begun to believe that through Jesus, the kingdom of heaven has broken into Israel’s history. They have begun to repent and to believe.
The fishermen leave their former lives and follow Jesus. It is easy to find either too much or too little significance in this aspect of their response. On the one hand, commentators at times almost speak as if the disciples clearly understand what discipleship might personally cost them and are willing to pay that price. A quick reading of the Gospels shows how wrongheaded it is to make that much of their response. The disciples do not yet understand fully who Jesus is or what He has come to do, and they understand neither what Christian discipleship nor (in their case) apostolic ministry will eventually cost them.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that just as Jesus had begun to preach and call disciples to Himself, so these disciples are given, through His preaching and call, the beginning of the understanding that none of their old priorities and relationships will ever be the same or will ever again possess primary importance. But the four do not know the implications of this as yet. There will be many occasions, even up to the time of Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus’ disciples show that they have not grasped or appropriated all the ramifications that His call will have for their lives.
Do you find our text difficult to relate to? It offers such wonderful things—a world encompassing ministry, miracles and healings, disciples dropping their nets to follow Jesus—but these things are so distant from our daily lives, aren’t they? When you work all day during the week, have your children in school, and pay a mortgage on your home, how can you identify with the disciples who drop their nets to follow Jesus? Have you really left everything to follow Jesus?
Upon closer reading, however, Matthew offers a careful correction to such questions. The point is not so much whether you can identify with the disciples but whether Jesus identifies with you.
Matthew begins with very specific details. A specific place: Capernaum. A specific prophecy: Isaiah. A specific proclamation: Repent. Specific disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Such specificity is part of a larger mission. Light shining in the darkness. Jesus proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease. Great crowds following Jesus.
The beauty of this account is found in the specifics. The eternal reign of God breaks into our world in specifics. The ministry of Jesus has to start somewhere, and He chooses to work from Capernaum. The death and resurrection of Christ will take away all boundaries. Sin, death, and the devil—nothing can separate people from God’s love. This means that Jesus can enter any territory and call the place home, including backwoods Capernaum in Galilee. Jesus can go into any life and from that life bring discipleship, including among some uneducated fishermen.
In the beginning of His ministry, Jesus chooses to make His home in Capernaum. So much so that later, Matthew says He comes back to “His own city” (9:1). While Jesus indeed travels throughout the region of Galilee, there is a place He calls home. While the disciples indeed leave their family and fishing, later we find them eating in Simon Peter’s house (8:4). The world-encompassing mission begins with specific people in a specific place.
This is the wonder which is present in the calling of the disciples. Not how they drop their nets to follow Jesus, but that Jesus does not need to go far to find disciples. He chooses the people He lives among, the place He makes His home. Such is the power of His love.
Capernaum was a fishing village on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus lives in a city by the sea, we find Him walking on the shores of Galilee and interacting with fishermen. If He were in the financial district of New York, He would interact with people in the banking industry. If He were in Silicon Valley or Seattle, He’d meet computer nerds at the coffee shop. If He were in rural Minnesota, He would interact with farmers in the field and feed store. Jesus makes His home wherever He chooses. Jesus calls those He lives among. He begins with a specific people who live in a specific place. The power of God’s grace means He can bring anyone from any walk of life into His kingdom.
This is the work of God that continues among us today. He chooses to begin with specifics: You. There was a specific day He made you His child. Perhaps it was when your pastor held your head over the baptismal font that your discipleship began. You did not leave your parents but grew up in the family. You learned how to follow Jesus even as you learned how to get along with your brothers. What matters here is not the drama of discipleship, dropping nets, and leaving family, but the wonders of God’s particular love.
In this world where death reigns because of sin, Jesus makes His home, calls His disciples, be they in Pipestone or Jasper or Trosky or Afghanistan. He brings with Him forgiveness and victory over death. This victory is missed by many, because again the Lord comes quietly, mercifully. He spread this grace and victory around Zebulun, Naphtali, and Galilee by walking from town to town, preaching His Word; and this is how His evangelism still happens today. As people talked of Jesus and Christians told His Word to others back then, so they do today.
While the Lord can accomplish His will without us, He delights to use us as His instruments in the spread of His salvation. People hear the Word and come to Church to hear more, to be instructed in the ways of the Lord. Believers gather to hear the Absolution, to be baptized, to receive the Lord’s body and blood.
It looks ordinary but know this: The Lord’s work will ordinarily look ordinary. After all, He created this world and set it up to run normally according to His will: therefore, because the Lord’s will is the normal way of doing things it will look normal. Rather than have bread fall from heaven each day, He ordains that seeds sprout and grow into grain that is harvested, ground, and baked; but as He uses farmers and bakers to supply bread, it is no less the Lord’s plan. Likewise, He delights to give forgiveness in His Word and His Sacraments—Word, water, wine, and bread, and they appear quite normal because that’s how the Lord normally saves. This is no less a miracle than if the Lord started zapping individuals with salvation via lightning bolts from heaven.
The Lord’s way of evangelism will seem ordinary, and it may even seem inefficient as the Church plods toward eternity. But of this we are comforted as well: Christ Jesus will not fail to send forth His Word to save all who will believe. He will not lose one of His beloved children. And as He fulfills that promise, you and I have the privilege of being His instruments.
Jesus continues to make His home among His people, wherever they are, with life and salvation—because He has shed His blood and given His life to win that gift. That is the message of Epiphany, and that is the purpose of evangelism. In this dying world, the Lord of life makes His home. He comes in human flesh to die our death and set us free. He come in His Word even now, to forgive your sins and give you His victory over the grave. Indeed, for Jesus sake: You are forgiven for all of your sins
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.