Sunday, January 22, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 13:55; sermon starts around 19:55)
(originally preached 1/26/20)
The first verse of our gospel reading for this morning quickly glosses over a very serious bit of news: John the Baptist has been arrested. This news doesn’t exactly send the same shiver of fear down our spines as it would if we lived in the first century instead of the twenty-first century. For one thing, it’s not news – we already know very well that John’s arrest is part of the story. And for another thing, our modern conception of things like “arrest” and “imprisonment” is a very far cry from what these things would have looked like in ancient Rome.
Being arrested and thrown into jail in Roman times was not like being thrown into jail today. Unlike us today, Romans didn’t really have a practice of putting people behind bars to serve out a certain number of years before being released. In most cases, there were only two ways out of a Roman prison: either succumb to starvation and die in prison, or survive prison long enough to be executed. And as an added bonus, the practice of torture wasn’t considered a form of punishment, but rather just a standard interrogation technique.
So all in all, this news about John being arrested is grim – so much so that it leaves Jesus himself feeling pretty shaken. We just spent the last couple of Sundays talking about Jesus and John together and about John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. And now suddenly, John – who has been one of Jesus’ loudest champions – has been snatched up and his life threatened. When Jesus hears this news, he packs up and moves even further away from Jerusalem – from Nazareth across the sea to the north to Capernaum. Our translation says he “withdrew.” It’s worth noting that the word Matthew uses here for “withdrew” is the Greek word “ἀναχωρέω” (anachoreo); it’s the same word Matthew used to describe how the holy family “withdrew” into Egypt after the wisemen’s visit, when the infant Jesus’ life was threatened.
Jesus is afraid; he knows he’s in danger. Like John, his ministry was bound to make the people in power very, very angry. Herod threw John in prison for criticizing his marriage to his brother’s wife – it wasn’t even for all the Jesus stuff. But Herod’s father was so threatened by Jesus as an infant – when Jesus was being hailed as the “King of the Jews” – that he ordered a mass murder of children in order to protect his power. (We skipped over that bit in the lectionary earlier this year.) John’s arrest is a stark reminder of what Jesus already knows: that the way of the cross is a path toward danger. He knows that every single step he takes further south toward Jerusalem is another step toward his own arrest and suffering and death.
It would have been safer – perhaps even wiser – for him to stay in Capernaum. Or it might even have been smarter to give into temptation! Right before the passage we read today, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil. And if you read the passage closely, you notice that all the devil really does is point out some of the actual options Jesus has before him as the Son of God. He could feed his starving body with stones turned into bread or call upon the power of God to save himself; he could take power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth and force humanity to submit to God’s will. And any one of these actions probably would have been seen as wise in human eyes. But that’s not what Jesus does.
Instead, Jesus embraces what Paul, in our second reading, calls “the foolishness of the cross.” Against all worldly wisdom, after first withdrawing to Capernaum, Jesus sets his feet southward toward Jerusalem and starts walking. Because Jesus sees the larger picture. He knows that to redeem humanity and bring us to life, he will have to enter with us into the depths of death. But Jesus doesn’t just step out on this path toward “foolishness” and the cross alone; he invites other people to come follow him – and they do! People follow him by the thousands, all the way to the foot of the cross. And people all over the world are following him still – including those of us gathered here today.
And I think that that is the part of the story that gets me most. Why? Why do people follow Jesus down this dangerous and foolish path? Even if they somehow hadn’t heard the splashy news story about John the Baptist’s arrest, they were no strangers to the brutal consequences of defying the powers that be. It’s one thing to be the Son of God and to get to see the big picture, to know what’s coming; but it’s another thing entirely to be just some regular person going about their business, living their life, to drop everything and follow.
Both last week and this week, we have these almost bizarre stories of Jesus just walking along, noticing people, and just going, “Hey you! Leave all that and come follow me.” And people do it! It’s nuts! Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John literally leave their entire livelihood behind – along with their dad! – lying in the sand by the sea, in order to follow some guy they just met. To the people watching, this must have seemed like the absolute height of foolishness – I mean, who does that? And why would they do it??
It’s a question that begs us to also ask ourselves: why do we? Why do we follow Jesus? There are dozens of other things you could be doing right now on a Sunday morning. There really isn’t any kind of social expectation anymore to participate in church – in fact, there are plenty of people now who think it’s pretty weird, even foolish, that people still do prioritize church. Especially in my generation and younger – I have friends who think I’m downright nuts for doing what I do.
And in terms of practical, bottom-line human wisdom, it’s kind of hard to argue with them. Materially speaking, it’s not like there’s a huge return on investment for the time and effort and money we put in here. And it is a huge amount – you’ll see it next week as we go through our annual report, the staggering amount of time and energy and resources and creativity and talent that we have all collectively poured into this ministry together. It’s not hard to imagine someone on the outside looking in wondering why – why not spend that time and money and resources on yourselves? Why not invest it? Why foolishly put all of that effort and talent into the church, instead of putting it toward turning a profit?
But I think I know why. In our gospel reading, as Matthew tells this incredible story of people leaving their regular lives behind to follow Jesus, he explicitly connects it with this text from Isaiah that we read as our first reading, where Isaiah writes: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
The way of the cross – the way of discipleship – seems like lunacy… until and unless you are someone who has known darkness – until you have known the darkness of hopelessness, of fear, the darkness of illness, of hardship and trauma and struggle, the deep darkness of grief. And I know that you all who are sitting here have known darkness, as have I. You don’t have to be threatened with imprisonment in a Roman jail to know what it is to suffer – to lose the ones you love most, to feel your own mortal body overtaken by illness, to witness the forces of division and destruction and death set loose in our world. You know well what it’s like to walk in darkness.
But in the midst of that region of darkness, you saw a light. You felt Christ shining there with you in the shadows. You felt his presence holding you up, giving you a firm place to stand, even when it felt like the world was crumbling away beneath you. And you realized that the truth of Christ changes everything. As the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” In the light of Christ, we see clearly, and we know with Paul that what may seem like foolishness to the world is really the very power of God.
Following Christ is a way of life. Being church together is about so much more than what people might see from the outside looking in – it’s about more than making offerings so that we can keep the lights on and the pastor fed and the furnace from giving out. We gather here together to be reminded of the light we have seen, shining in the darkness. We gather to strengthen one another in walking the path of discipleship, even when it seems like foolishness. And from here, we go forth to call others as Christ has called us; we go to be moons and mirrors reflecting the light that we have seen into the shadows of this world.
It can be a daunting task. There are many challenges to being the church, as you well know – and there is a whole lot of darkness in the world. And, as we’ve seen, it’s no sin to be afraid or worried about the path ahead; even Jesus himself felt fear from time to time.
But Christ’s light goes with us. And he calls us onward, calls us to follow the way of the cross with boldness and courage. And along with Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Isaiah, and Paul, and Matthew, Christ calls us all to the holy foolishness of discipleship.