Isaiah 9.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew
Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the
wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your
heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty
power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ISAIAH and the Gospel plunge us into times of endings,
beginnings, and fulfilment.
The tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali lay in the fertile
hill-country, north and west of the Sea of Galilee, at the northern
end of the Promised Land. On a significant trade route, they
contained many fortified cities, which were needed against invasion
from the north - the Syrians ravaged the lands, and a century
later, the people of this region were the first to be deported by
It is in that Assyrian context that we should hear Isaiah's
remarkable prophecy, which must be read with the end of chapter 8,
where there is only distress, darkness, and anguish. Otherwise,
chapter 9's life-changing "but" is robbed of its power.
Isaiah dared to look forward to the ending of oppression by a
superpower, and the beginning of joy for a downtrodden people. As
we hear of South Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic, we
gain an idea of how radical this vision was of the shining of God's
light in places that were walking in deep darkness. There was an
ending because there was God's beginning.
Jesus grew up in this same region. Matthew makes the connection
with the centuries-old prophecy, partially fulfilled when the exile
ended, for which there was now a less immediately obvious but
deeper fulfilment, because the light of the world walked this
territory: Nazareth was in Zebulun, and Capernaum in Naphtali.
The Gospel is about beginnings and endings. There are two
significant endings before there are new beginnings. With John's
arrest, his public ministry ended. Traumatic for John, this was a
beginning for Jesus, who withdrew from his home of thirty years to
make a new start by the sea. We can only wonder what went through
his mind as he walked there, knowing that everything had changed
for him, as he began to call for repentance because the Kingdom of
God came near.
The familiar story of the call of the first disciples differs
from John's account, which we heard last week. Both can be part of
a process of calling for the men involved. John does not imply a
radical abandonment of their nets; so what he describes may have
been a first encounter that paved the way for this more decisive
response. Sometimes we need to hear the call in different ways, and
at different times.
There was an ending for the men before there was God's
beginning. Yet Matthew indicates that someone else, too, faced a
significant ending. Whereas Peter and Andrew left their nets,
Matthew records that James and John left their boat and also their
father, Zebedee. Peter lived with his mother-in-law, which may hint
that his parents were dead. But James and John left their father,
precipitating a devastating ending for him. Already sharing his
family fishing business with his sons, he would suffer drastically
from the withdrawal of their younger, stronger labour.
Recently, sorting through family papers, I found the letter I
wrote to my parents when I decided to move to the United States.
Memories flooded back to me of struggling to find words to explain
why I was leaving a successful career in local government to test
my vocation in a Benedictine community in an economically
devastated area, and trying to express my very mixed emotions at
leaving my family behind.
The next time I stayed with them, my father took me aside, and
we both ended up choking on our hard-found words, as he gave me the
freedom to go, with his support. Neither of us could dream where it
would lead - when I did return to this country, he had died, and I
had been ordained. All we knew then was the mutual cost of my
following what I believed was my calling.
One of my first journal entries in the US, while all the
farewells were still raw, was: "Why can't there be beginnings
without endings?" At times like that, we can pray the petition in
the collect: "in all our weakness, sustain us by your mighty
power", and draw strength from the promise of God's renewal by
heavenly grace, as well as the knowledge that Jesus, too, faced
endings, in order for there to be life-giving beginnings.
Sometimes, we have to free those we love to pursue new
beginnings; trusting, like Isaiah, that there will be God's "but"
in the midst of it.