January 22, 2017 Sermon

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017, Lectionary

The Rev.  Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 4:12-23

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

Why follow Jesus?


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to hearing Jesus’ words, “Follow me,” and then do just that, follow Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen. 


Two words from Matthew’s gospel this morning especially caught my attention.  Can you guess what they might have been?  Well, the two words were spoken by Jesus and they are “follow me”—words He spoke to Peter and Andrew.  Then, amazingly, Matthew tells us that: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  Personally, I have always been astounded by their response to Jesus’ words.  They did not say, “Well, let me think about it.”  They did not say, “Let me check my schedule,” as they looked at their calendars on their I-Phones.  They did not say, “Not today, but I am free next week.”  No, they immediately left their nets (quit their job in effect) and followed Jesus.

If we could imagine ourselves in their sandals, would we have done the same?  My guess is that unless it was an emergency, we probably would not drop anything immediately and head off to do something else.  Our lives are so over-scheduled, so bound up in the fabric of what we call our lives—our comings, our goings, our doings—that to make a change or deviate from those particulars would snarl up everything.  We are too busy are we not and no relief seems to be in sight.


Think of the disorder that Hurricane Matthew brought to our lives.  Suddenly, we immediately had to drop everything, leave what we were doing in order to prepare for, in order to save ourselves from the threat of the storm.  Emily and I moved all kinds of stuff (and it was stuff) around in the house in order to protect it from a potential storm surge and high wind.  Then we packed to leave town.  The everyday schedule was gone.  Even worse was the return.  Very little was the same.  Immediately, we had left and immediately our lives had been changed.

As you might have noticed the title of this sermon is “Why follow Jesus?”  Initially, I had thought to title the sermon, “Are we following Jesus,” but as I though a little harder that looked more like a surface question.  I then thought to title the sermon, “Do we want to follow Jesus?”  Again, that question did not seem to go deep enough.  Finally, it seemed to me that real question for any of us is that of motivation, “Why follow Jesus?”  Why follow Jesus?


We do what we do for some reason, do we not?  Motivation is highly important in whatever endeavor we find ourselves.  What motivates us can vary from the hopes of gain to the prospect of loss, meaning fear.  Hurricane Matthew certainly evoked the prospect of loss of property and even loss of life.  Those are not motivations that we can readily ignore.  Hopes of gain are also strong.  We are motivated to gain money, stuff, time with family, and a good time.  For some reason we were motivated to come to church this morning, but maybe not last week.

Our motivations can compete with one another.  I want to go to church, but I also want to sleep late or play golf.   What then are our motivational priorities? Is it short term, long-term, or what feels the best?  How do we balance our motivations or should we?  We can be conflicted.


The following example offers some illustration of what conflicting motives might look like.  It seems that once word of 19th-century missionary David Livingstone’s ministry of bringing Christ to the peoples of Africa reached the Western world, others wanted to join in his work. A missionary society sent him a cable that said: “Have you found a good road to where you are — if so, we want to send other men to join you.”


Livingstone’s response was sobering: “If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them! I want men who will come if there is no road at all!”


In other words, these men seemingly were more motivated by the need for convenience than the desire to do mission.


So then, when we look at Peter and Andrew, we have to wonder what was it that motivated them above all else to immediately drop what they were doing to follow Jesus.  There was no hurricane coming that we know of that they should suddenly drop what they were doing.  Now, we can say to ourselves in respect to those two that that was then and this is now.  Peter and Andrew did not have the same kind of jam-packed busy schedule that we do.  Fair enough, but that does not mean that dropping their source of livelihood, fishing, would be any less deleterious to them than for you or me to immediately quit our jobs.  How would we pay the bills, right?

What then are we to understand as to why above all else they wanted to follow Jesus?  From Matthew’s account there was no evidence that Jesus had performed even one little miracle before He called Andrew and Peter to follow Him.  There is nothing to indicate that they had even heard of Jesus before, yet they were willing to drop everything to follow Him.  Makes us wonder, does it not?


What was it about Jesus that so compelled those two guys to up and follow Him immediately?  Was there something they saw in Him—a special glow, perhaps.   Some movies have played with the lighting on Jesus’ face, making Him appear as if from a different realm. Was it the tone of His voice?   Was it high pitched, low pitched (a deep base), or hypnotic? Maybe, it is worth remembering the Genesis (1:3) account of creation.  Jesus being God had said at the beginning of creation, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”  Could not God/Jesus simply by the words He spoke, “Follow me,” have made Peter and Andrew follow Him?


That thought, perhaps, leaves us to pause, to stop, but isn’t that the nature of God encounters.  Remember the old commercial.  When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.  In the commercial everyone would stop what they were doing. God/Jesus encounters immediately bring to a stop everything else that is going on in our lives.  Whether we literally drop our nets, so to speak, we do stop and change the direction in which we were going.  We change the way in which we look at our lives and the lives of others.  We follow where we had not followed before.  Do we relate?  Can we see that as having been true for us?  We encounter God, we encounter Jesus and immediately we drop what we are doing or the way we are doing it and reorient our lives to a new direction, to following Jesus.


In a recent Christianity Today article Justin Wrenwrote: “Growing up, I faced pretty severe bullying.  At 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I battled suicidal thoughts.  Luckily, I had a loving home and my parents did everything they could to help me improve my self-esteem. They encouraged me to get involved in athletics. And that’s what started me on the trajectory to professional cage fighting.  I’ve loved the sport of wrestling since the moment I stepped onto the mat. It took my focus off my struggles. Eventually I became one of the best and won multiple state and national championships.


After graduation, I moved to the Olympic Training Center to pursue my dream of wrestling in the Olympics. In a match with a world champion, I ended up in a bad position. In a freak accident, my arm snapped like a twig. I was in terrible pain from my neck down to my hand. And my insurance company didn’t want to pay for my surgery.  In the meantime, I took painkillers, and I was hooked immediately. The drugs dulled not only my physical pain, but also the emotional pain and depression that had tormented me since elementary school. I would go through a month’s supply of Oxycontin in a week.


My wrestling career was in limbo, but the drive to fight remained. I took a spot in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight. As my career skyrocketed, so did my addictions. Before long, I’d added cocaine and alcohol to my already out-of-control narcotics addiction.  After my record reached 9–1, I appeared on Spike’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter.

My life hit rock bottom when I was kicked off one of the world’s best fight teams for drug use. When everyone else had written me off as beyond redemption, one friend, Jeff, called, inviting me to a Christian men’s retreat.  The men there had a peace I envied.  After a few days at the retreat, I knew I needed what they had, and I prayed:

God, I’m a drunk and drug addict. I’m a liar and a cheater. I’m many things I’ve wanted to be, and I’m everything I never wanted to be. God, I’ve hurt everybody. I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore. I don’t want to hurt.’ Something finally released me. I was free. All the emotional chains of depression, all the bondage, just broke and fell away. At the same time, I felt God’s arms envelop me, the way a father bear-hugs his sons.


Instantly, things began changing. I threw the rest of my drugs in the campfire. God took the desire away from me, and I’ve never wanted to return to the life I had before. After Jesus helped me overcome my depression and addiction, my dreams for my life changed. I wanted more than MMA fame; I wanted to serve God however I could.  I also knew I needed a break from MMA. Even though I still loved the sport, the temptations were too great. But without fighting, I didn’t know what to do with my life. In desperation, I prayed: God, I’m yours. Is there anything you want me to do? I desire to do your will, not mine.  That’s when a strange vision flooded my head.

I watched myself weaving through the jungle.  I took a step forward, and the vision changed. I was bombarded by flash-fast images of malnourished children and starving old men. I saw a man dying from a disease eating him alive. For some reason, I could tell these people were oppressed and outcasts. I sobbed so uncontrollably that I left a puddle of tears on my Bible. I didn’t know who these people were, but I knew I had to help them.”  Justin Wren would subsequently end up working with a Mbuti (or Pygmy) tribe in the Congo.

Justin Wren’s life, as a professional fighter is certainly unique and different than our own, though some might identify with the addiction. Regardless, there is no question that Wren heard Jesus say to him, “Follow me.”  No, those exact words might not have been heard by Wren, but the call was none the less. We may wonder why Wren did not hear Jesus’ call sooner.  Then again, how long did it take for us to hear Jesus say “Follow me.”  Perhaps, we still don’t hear Him.

Speaking for myself, I was 35 years old when I heard Jesus.  Why at that age, I do not know.  I had been baptized, raised (sang in the choir, served as acolyte, involved with the youth group), and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.  I had even been to a Billy Graham crusade at around 12 or 13 years of age.  Despite all that, somehow I had failed to hear Jesus say to me, “Follow me.”


Why might that have been?  What was I hearing, what was I listening to instead of the voice of Jesus?  Who was I following instead of Jesus? You know the answer.  It is the same for all of us.  I was listening to the voice of various desires in respect to relationships, family, ambition, and having a good time.  None of that, none of that, worked out for me—failed marriages, emotional upheaval, and occupational missteps to put it mildly.  It all collapsed into silence.

With the static now quiet, the background noise extinguished I could suddenly hear Jesus say, “Follow me.”  No, I did not hear those words per see, but I no less knew those were His words to me.  I could no less not want to follow Jesus than I could say I did not want to live. Wanting to follow Jesus, following Jesus is life.  No, that does not mean I don’t want other things.  No, that does not mean following Him is easy.


Since we began by wondering what it was that made Andrew and Peter immediately drop it all, it is appropriate to revisit St. Peter’s words at a certain critical, difficult, and challenging moment.  Remember the circumstances.  “So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; [. . .]   Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?”(John 6).

Perhaps, the bottom line then is not whether we are following Jesus, not whether we want to follow Jesus or even why follow Jesus.  Rather, are we hearing Jesus?  Are we hearing Him say to you and to me, “Follow me?”  We don’t necessarily hear Him with our ears, but in our very souls, the deepest core of our being, which our creator, Jesus, gave to us.  Hearing Him is not a onetime experience, but a growing one.  It can even take effort on our part, no less than it takes effort to hear a spouse, a child, a friend, or someone in need.

The hearing of Jesus, though, is not without consequence to us and others.  It means that as we increasingly hear Him, we increasingly become like Him.  As such, we become fishers of people; invite others to know their creator and savior and to likewise hear Him from the depths of their being, saying “Follow me.”  That is what we have been called to do, to follow Jesus and to invite others to follow Him.  The Church exists for this reason and no other.  The Church’s, St. Elizabeth’s future depends on that simple principle of following Jesus and inviting others to follow Him as well. I cannot stress enough the necessity and the importance of following that simple principle.  Can you hear Him? Can you hear Him say, “Follow Me?”


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.