When Jesus began his ministry, much of Israel was ruled by a king named Herod Antipas. Although his name was Herod Antipas, we might as well call him Herod Jr. because, just like his father Herod, he was so insecure in his rule that he would crack down hard on anyone who even appeared to be undermining his Kingdom. So when Herod Jr. heard there was a man named John the Baptizer who was preaching that the kingdom of Herod was coming to an end and the Kingdom of Heaven was about to begin, well, Herod Jr. did not take this news well.
“There’s going to be a new Kingdom huh? We’ll see about that …” Herod Jr. sent his men down to the river Jordan and arrested John right then and there and dragged him off to prison, a prison from which John would never leave again. John lost his life because he dared to challenge Herod Jr.’s rule by proclaiming “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. It’s dangerous business, trying to change the world.
Which brings us to our reading today:
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee and from that time, began to proclaim “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”!
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee”. This makes it sound as if Jesus were retreating to Galilee, headed away from the powers that had arrested John and into safe territory. Jesus was from Galilee, after all, so Galilee might seem to be home turf, a safe place for him to begin his ministry. But that is precisely wrong. Because do you know what part of the country was the center of Herod Antipas’ territory? Do you know what part of the country Herod Jr. had the tightest grip on? Galilee. Galilee was the heart of Herod Jr’s power. Jesus wasn’t headed in to safety, he was headed in to danger!
Now that same verb in Greek “withdraw” can also be translated as “go back”, so that to my mind the passage rightly translated goes like this—“As soon as Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he went back to Galilee and from then on was always proclaiming—the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Jesus went straight into the heart of Herod Jr.’s kingdom and started preaching the very same message that had gotten John the Baptizer arrested.
This is dangerous business, talking that way, trying to change the world. And Jesus was doing a lot more than just talking. Jesus was doing recruiting. He was calling people to follow him, to no longer follow along with the rules and regulations of the Kingdom of Herod Jr, but instead to live as a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is sedition, it’s treason, and the people who heard Jesus preach? They knew it. They knew what kind of man Herod Jr. was.
Jesus headed down to the docks on the Sea of Galilee to find some recruits. He was approaching people with steady and secure jobs, and Jesus was a man they had never met and about whom they knew nothing except that what he was preaching was dangerous. Jesus mouthed no assurances of their safety, he gave them no stirring speech promising success, he offered no flattering and sycophantic explanations as to why they of all people should be Disciples. All Jesus did was call them to follow him into important and dangerous work: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, let’s go fishing for some people to live there. And four among them said … yes!
I won’t try to explain why the Disciples followed Jesus because I don’t think the motivation of the Disciples is the point of this story. I don’t think this story calls out for understanding and explanation at all. I think this story calls out for imitation, this story calls out for us to be like the Disciples. That’s what Christian Discipleship means after all: Discipleship means trying to be like the Disciples.
It’s not a complicated idea, though simple and easy are not the same in this case. Discipleship means that when God calls you to take up important and dangerous work that would change your whole life along with the world, that would mean leaving old ways behind and learning new ways to live, that would mean risking everything you know with no assurance of success and no explanation as to why you must be the one to do it, Discipleship means that when God calls, you say … yes!
Jesus called the Disciples and together they set out to prove that the world did not have to be the way that it was. And they proved it by actually living that way themselves, and calling others to live that way too.
Jesus and the Disciples proved that the poor need not live in humiliation; and they did so by treating the poor with dignity equal to any other. Jesus and the Disciples proved that women and children did not need to be treated as if they were the property of men; and they did so by welcoming children with open arms and placing women into positions of authority within their movement. They were living all day long like the Kingdom of Heaven was where they lay their head at night. And by doing that, they were changing the world, they were undermining the unjust Kingdom of Herod Jr. at its very foundations. They were demonstrating with their lives the first and most fundamental thing that people must believe in order to change anything about the world: this isn’t how things have to be. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
And if we would seek to be Disciples of Jesus, to be like the Disciples, then we must say yes to God’s call and show by our living that the world does not have to be like this. Must it be the case that humanity should destroy our environment, or is a different way of living possible? Must it be the case that the elderly and infirm should be consigned to loneliness and irrelevancy, or is a different way of living possible? Must it be the case that hundreds of our brothers and sisters will sleep on the streets of Boston tonight, or that untold thousands should rot in prison in America tonight, or that millions live in fear of war tonight, or billions go without enough to eat tonight Must this be so? Is this the way the world must be? Of course it isn’t! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and it is the work of Christian Disciples to prove that the world can be different, to prove it by living all day long like the Kingdom of Heaven is where we lay our heads at night.
All Christians are called to Discipleship though the work particular to each is not identical. Some will work for peace and others will feed the hungry and others will raise and educate a generation and others will lead whole nations.
When God calls you, God will not make promises that you will succeed, and God will not tell you when you begin what lies at journey’s end, and God will not tell you why you of all people MUST be at that work. What God will do is call you to important and dangerous work. And Christian, O Christian, when God calls you remember the Disciples … and say yes!