The Ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:12-23)

Jesus Calls His Disciples by He Qi

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (New International Version)

What is “ministry”? 

For some, ministry is only about the souls of people; it is seeing as many people respond to the message of salvation in Christ as possible. 

For others, ministry is meeting the tangible needs of people because there is such a breadth and depth of human social and physical problems. 

And, for others, ministry is defined in terms of what takes place within the four walls of a church building, led by pastors and church leaders.

“Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.”

Warren Wiersbe

Problems, however, arise whenever we:

  • Focus on one dimension of ministry. Because, in reality, ministry is multidimensional.
  • Fulfill the outward, administrative demands of ministry – without going after the relational heart of what ministry entails. 
  • Forget about whole groups of people who are different than us. Ministry is for everyone, not some.

We need to look at the ministry of Jesus – what he did and why he did it. Christ’s purpose is to be our purpose: Minister to the total life of all people.

Jesus Preaching

Before there were newspapers, CNN, and 24 hour news cycles, ancient people heard what was happening from heralds or preachers who loudly announced in the streets the important news of the day.

Jesus had a ministry to both Jew and Gentile. Although his ministry was chiefly directed toward his fellow Jews, Christ went out of his way to engage Gentiles, as well, with a message of repentance.

Repentance is turning the whole person – body, soul, mind, will, and emotions – from sin and disobedience to God in obedience to the message of Christ. It involves humility, sorrow for sin, and a commitment to following Jesus.

To repent doesn’t mean to manage sin or clean up parts of my life; it’s a radical conversion from an old way of life to a new way of life. Repentance is not simply adding Jesus to our schedule but is a complete change of how we live.

Christianity is a life, not just an event. Following Jesus is a journey, a life-long process of inner transformation; a complete forsaking of anything that does not please God; and a desire to reorient my life around what’s important to God. 

To illustrate this in a contemporary context, I ask, “What does it mean to follow the Green Bay Packers football team?” A fan not only watches all the games from start to finish, but cheers loudly for the Packers; talks about the Packers with everyone, even strangers; and doesn’t cheer for the Chicago Bears! Fans are committed to their team.

The difference, however, between football and Christianity, is that followers of a team are fans, whereas followers of Jesus are not fans in the stands or watching the television. Instead, Christ followers are on the field of play as teammates with Jesus.

So, when it comes to repentance, we turn from being fans of Jesus to followers of Jesus, doing what he did and saying what he said. We are active participants in the kingdom of God – embracing and embodying a message of repentance to new life in Christ.

Jesus Calling

Jesus calling the first disciples illustrates the kingdom message: a radical break with the old life. Each disciple walked away from a good life and embraced of a new life following Jesus.

Some understanding of Jewish culture in the time of Jesus is helpful here. Central to the life of any Jew was the Torah, the Law. Around age 6, Jewish boys would begin to go to the synagogue for schooling in the Torah by the local rabbi. 

This first level of education was called Beth Sefer (“House of the Book”) and would last until about age 10. In those four years, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, were thoroughly memorized.

By age 10, some of the boys would distinguish themselves as good students and able to handle Torah. So, they would continue on in the second level of schooling called Beth Talmud (“House of Learning”). Those that did not continue with school would then learn the family trade and become an apprentice. Those that went on with school would then memorize the rest of the Old Testament.

At about age 14, only the best of the best were studying Torah. At the completion of their studies, they would apply to a well-known rabbi in order to become his disciple. The goal of this third level was to become just like the rabbi. This was called Beth Midrash (“House of Study”). The rabbi essentially interviews the teenager to find out if he has the stuff to become like the rabbi. 

If the rabbi believes the kid doesn’t have it in him, he tells him to go back to the family business. If, however, the rabbi grills the kid and finds he has what it takes, then he will say to him, “Come, follow me.” It was considered a great privilege and opportunity, and the teenager would leave everything to literally follow the rabbi everywhere he went.

Now, let’s return to Christ’s disciples. Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James, and John. At the time, they were fishing because they were fishermen. That meant somewhere along the line they didn’t have what it took to further their education, or to follow a rabbi. 

Let’s, then, not miss the import and impact of Jesus saying to them, “Come, follow me!”  Jesus is expressing a belief that these men can become just like him. Well, of course you drop your nets and follow him! Jesus believes I can be like him! Jesus took a group of young men who couldn’t make the grade and used them to change human history. 

Jesus also says the same thing to you and me: I choose you. Come, follow me. 

Christ believed in us before we believed in him. Yes, Jesus believes you can do all the work of embodying the very words of God and becoming like him.

The attitude here is not, “Oh, geez, I have to go do ministry,” as if I were a teenager who was just asked to do the dishes. Rather, the attitude is of privilege and opportunity. If we fail to view ministry in this way, then we must come back to the message of repentance and have an attitude adjustment. People who follow Jesus do so because they get to, not because they have to.

Jesus Healing

            Envision yourself walking with Jesus and following him. You observe several things about his ministry of healing:

  • Jesus heals every problem. Christ has the power and authority to do so.
  • Jesus heals the whole person – not just the physical, or just the spiritual.
  • Jesus heals people whether they repent or not. Christ never made repentance a prerequisite for healing. He heals simply because he wants to.
  • Jesus heals to defeat the devil. Christ continually looks to reverse the hold that sin has on people.
  • Jesus chose to focus on healing the destitute, the poor, and the disadvantaged – rather than directing ministry to the higher classes and royalty to mediate his wishes to the people.

Who are the people – the least, the lonely, the lost – in need of healing in your family, neighborhood, and community?

  1. Those who are ill with various diseases
  2. Those suffering severe pain – of body, mind, emotion, and spirit
  3. The demon possessed or demonically influenced
  4. Prisoners and ex-convicts
  5. The working poor, and the elderly poor
  6. Those in the hospital with no one to visit them
  7. Those who grieve alone
  8. Those with addictions and behavioral issues
  9. Victims of verbal or physical abuse
  10. And many, many more….

Jesus had a ministry of both word and deed. To follow Christ is to become like him and pass on what we have learned to reliable people who will do the same.

Your People Will Be My People (Ruth 1:6-18)

Naomi and Ruth by Chana Helen Rosenberg, 2017

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye, and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (New International Version)

Every time I read this account of Naomi and her daughters-in-law I’m reminded of my Dad because this was his favorite Old Testament story.

Dad was a lifelong farmer, and so, always related to the agrarian society of ancient Israel. But what really resonated for him in Scripture was Ruth’s response to her mother-in-law: “Your people are my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

My father did not want to be a farmer. He wanted to go to college and become an engineer. In fact, without my grandfather’s knowledge, he was accepted to a university and secured an on-campus job. Yet, when Grandpa found out, he was less than pleased because Dad was needed on the farm during the depression era.

So, Dad, although he could have went to college, decided to stay on the farm. And the reason he decided to do so was not because he got his arm twisted, but because of the story of Ruth. He made the decision to stick with farming and never looked back. My Dad died ten years ago and is buried in the same cemetery as his father.

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi, 2001

The biblical character of Ruth is a solid example of one who was cognizant that she was part of a larger whole – that, although she was indeed an individual with personal choices, the decisions she made impact a much wider community. I believe Ruth discerned that the Israelite community understood this truth, and she wanted to be a part of it.

It is rare, in this age of extreme individualism, that people willingly give themselves to do what is best for the group, the family, the neighborhood, the faith community, the nation, and the world. There is a tendency to view things very narrowly in terms of what’s in it for me and ignore the rest.

So, I invite you to consider becoming ever more aware and connected to the communities around you. Discover the issues, problems, joys, sorrows, celebrations, and challenges they hold. And give yourself to the great struggles of that place. Jesus said:

If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25, CEV)

The One who is concerned to save the entire world only tolerates disciples who share his care for the entire human family.

Therefore, we ought neither to participate in nor support causes, activities, or speech that is harmful to others. Instead, we should find ways of using our particular gifts and abilities to serve the common good of all persons. We need more commitment and love, and a lot less anger, divisiveness, and hatred.

Grace and humility will always serve us, and others, very well. Judgment and pride, not so much.

Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. (1 Timothy 6:18, CEB)

How, then, shall we live?

Your people will be my people.

Can you imagine a world in which all persons ascribe to this?

May it be so, to the glory of God.

We pray to you, Lord God, for all people everywhere:

For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.

For our community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.

For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.

For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.

For the peace and unity of the Church;
For all who proclaim and seek the Truth.

Hear us, Lord; For your mercy is great. Amen.

Numbers 27:12-23 – Humble Leadership

Moses Blesses Joshua by Marc Chagall, 1966

One day the Lord said to Moses, “Climb one of the mountains east of the river and look out over the land I have given the people of Israel. After you have seen it, you will die like your brother, Aaron, for you both rebelled against my instructions in the wilderness of Zin. When the people of Israel rebelled, you failed to demonstrate my holiness to them at the waters.” (These are the waters of Meribah at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.)

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him. Present him to Eleazar the priest before the whole community, and publicly commission him to lead the people. Transfer some of your authority to him so the whole community of Israel will obey him. When direction from the Lord is needed, Joshua will stand before Eleazar the priest, who will use the Urim—one of the sacred lots cast before the Lord—to determine his will. This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do.”

So, Moses did as the Lord commanded. He presented Joshua to Eleazar the priest and the whole community. Moses laid his hands on him and commissioned him to lead the people, just as the Lord had commanded through Moses. (New Living Translation)

Moses was one of the most humble persons who ever lived on this earth (Numbers 12:3). Whereas many people are concerned for their legacy at end of life, Moses, instead, had a deep pastoral concern for his fellow Israelites. He didn’t want them without a capable and godly leader. So, in his humility, Moses was willing to obey God, let go of power, and share his authority so that the people would be well-cared for.

“All streams flow to the ocean because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.”

Lao Tzu (Chinese philosopher, 6th century B.C.E.)

I believe humility is the queen of all virtue, especially that of leadership. Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.

Rather than having large statues erected to honor us and our proud accomplishments, or having our names plastered on buildings (and churches!) to recognize our wonderful charity, we really need to orient our energies toward passing the baton to trustworthy people who are capable of faithfully fulfilling the role of servant leader. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us. To be a humble leader means to steadfastly seek God’s will and way in everything. Then, to have the courage in leading others toward God’s direction, despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

Therefore, a leader’s task is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to instinct, pragmatic desire, or personal views. We continually need a radical openness to God. So, we must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us. 

God, in divine mercy, is always up to something good. The Lord has plans for us and for the people we lead.  It’s humility that allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit and gain the direction needed for leadership.

Yet, being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds. We must recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including us, who may be closed to God. 

If our focus is more on creating safety and security or trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, or having our institution be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways….

  1. Maintaining tradition, at all costs. Whenever we do everything the way we have always done it, to make us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security angers us. This is where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them. But faith is what it takes if we are going to follow God. Like Abraham in the Old Testament, we are called to move and change without always knowing the destination.
  • Getting rid of traditions, at all costs. Sometimes folks who want new or different, desire to create a place of their own making to serve them and their needs. They aren’t really focused on what God is calling them to do. Rather, like Timothy in the New Testament, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.

So, what to do? Have the humility to ask the question continually and constantly: “What is God’s will?”  We need leadership that is incredibly open to God, allowing decision-making to come from a position of faith, and not fear. This enables us….

  • To let God, flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.
  • To practice hope and love, rather than relying on our own strength and desires.
  • To make prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.
  • To read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it and pray like there is no tomorrow.

If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen. 

Let our prayer together be this: I am yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be. I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same. Amen.

John 1:43-51 – Follow Me

“Follow Me” by Greg Dampier. Jesus calls Peter and Andrew.

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’the Son of Man.” (New International Version)

I am a follower of Jesus. I have been for decades. I found, and continue to find, in Jesus Christ a compelling person full of grace, truth, and love.

But my early life was not characterized with knowing Christ. I certainly learned about Jesus, that this ancient guy lived an altruistic life, got tortured and killed on a cross, and that Christians believe in his resurrection from death. However, back then it was more like some strange history lesson. That information made no difference to me.

That is, until I heard a voice – not an audible one that others could hear. Yet, it was just a real as any daily conversation with another person. I heard the call of Jesus. The Ancient of Days showed up. I know with every epistemic fiber in my being that it wasn’t an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. I am sure beyond sure that there was more of an empty grave than gravy about my experience of the risen Christ.

I experienced the call of Jesus to “follow me.” And that is really, at its simplest, the call which continually goes out to all humanity. It is a gracious and merciful call. It isn’t a summons to experience a cataclysmic event of total belief in one fell swoop. Rather, it’s a call to belief that is much more an unfolding awareness of the deep spirituality and connection with the divine within.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

Jesus (John 8:12, NLT)

Important to that faith process is another call to “come and see.” Whereas there are some Christian traditions which focus solely on a singular one-time experience of saving faith in Christ, the Gospel of John displays a drama of faith with multiple layers which people move through.

There is no egalitarian zap in which God grants total and immediate understanding. Instead, faith is an ever-increasing process. It is appropriate and biblical to say that our salvation has happened, is happening, and will happen. We follow, we come and see, and we keep following, keep coming, keep seeing more and more.

Like a muscle, our faith grows, develops, stretches, and strengthens over time. To use another metaphor, we ascend a stairway to heaven, one step at a time, day after day, following Jesus.

Methinks this is likely part of what Jesus was getting at with Nathaniel in today’s Gospel lesson. Nathaniel would have quickly picked up on the reference Jesus was making, way back to the first book of Genesis. The Jewish patriarch, Jacob, had an experience of seeing the angels of God on some celestial stairway, ascending and descending. It was an encounter of God’s presence with Jacob, assuring him of divine intervention into the muck of humanity. (Genesis 28:10-17)

Jesus connected that ancient portrait to himself so that Nathaniel would understand, would believe, that God has again broken into this world with a special divine presence. To look at Jesus and follow him, is to see and follow God.

Christ Jesus is the ultimate example and embodiment of God with us. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus presents himself as:

  • Living water – connecting to Jacob’s well (John 4:5-14)
  • The Temple of God – the place where the Lord dwells in all divine fullness (John 2:18-22)
  • Bread from heaven – linking the giving of manna to the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 16:4-7; John 6:1-59)
  • The good shepherd – fulfilling divine Old Testament imperatives of caring for people (Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 10:1-30)

In all these ways, and more, Jesus intentionally connects himself as fulfilling God’s ancient promises to people.

In whichever way we need to hear the call to follow, Jesus accommodates to us. For some, Christ comes knocking on the front door. For others, he enters the side door, or slips into the backdoor of our lives.

And, if we will come and see, Jesus will also accommodate us by being the authority over us, the teacher to us, or the friend beside us. The Lord Jesus shall shepherd us and woo us to the flock for guidance and protection.

However, Jesus comes to you, it most likely will be in ways we aren’t expecting. Surely, nothing good can come from Nazareth! Yet, it did. Can anything good come from Calcutta, India, or Juarez, Mexico, or Hoboken, New Jersey, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or even from a small rural area that doesn’t show up on a map? Yes, it can. Because with Jesus, God has entered this world, and, as it turns out, the Lord’s presence is everywhere.

Follow me. Come and see. Two of the simplest exhortations ever uttered. Yet, two of the most gracious phrases ever said, with profound implications for us beyond what we can fathom or imagine.

Guide us waking O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace. May the shape of each day be formed by the pedantic following of my Lord; and may I come and see the wonders you have done, are doing, and will do. Almighty and merciful God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – bless us and keep us. Amen.