Sermons That Work

The Bible Is Full of Beginnings…, Epiphany 3 (A) – 2008

January 27, 2008


The Bible is full of beginnings; not only the universal one, when God speaks into existence the components of a magnificent cosmos, but other beginnings as well. Thus the human race begins with Adam and Eve, and begins again after the flood with Noah and his family. In old age, Abraham answers the invitation of God to go away from home and begin anew.

The Bible presents us with beginnings over and over again, until at the end a holy city comes down from heaven to earth, and its name is not Jerusalem, but New Jerusalem, for it is a place to begin, the start of what will be forever new.

Some of the beginnings in the Bible are known as call stories. A call story recounts how somebody was invited by God to begin something new and unexpected. God calls this person to begin, and not only to begin, but – and here’s the hard part – to persist, to persist so that another beginning can take place.

One day Andrew and Simon, James and John get up when the sky is still dark, walk down to the sea, and hurl nets into the water, anticipating a catch of fish. It is a day like so many other days. Nothing special. These men have engaged in this same routine hundreds of times before. This is what they do, for they are fishermen.

Amid familiar water and nets and fresh fish, rough wood of boats, rhythmic motion of waves, in the midst of this familiarity, for these four men, a beginning takes place.

Jesus turns up at the waterside. Have they met him before, heard about him? It does not matter. Today, as he calls them, a beginning takes place. He glances out at these working men with their nets and their hard-won catch, and announces in a voice almost comic, the way men kid one another, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The four hear this as a put-down, a dare, a challenge from this landlubber on the shore.

Like every other call story in the Bible, this one is an adventure. According to G. K. Chesterton, “An adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.”

Other rabbis wait for disciples to come to them. This Rabbi Jesus goes out and finds his own. He looks, not among the likely candidates, the best and the brightest, but down at the docks, where he interrupts fishermen at their work.

An adventure is something that comes to us, that chooses us. Discipleship is the great adventure, for the one who comes to us and chooses us is great beyond all measure. We are taken away from predictable lives, plunged into adventure.

Woe to anyone who dilutes this adventure with dullness, who makes discipleship into something safe.

Happy are those for whom the adventure remains forever sharp, who find themselves always at a new beginning.

Are these four men – Andrew, Simon, James, and John – ready and equipped for the adventure that comes to them, that chooses them, this adventure of discipleship? Jesus at the waterside does not collect resumes; he does not check references. The personal histories of these four do not have the last word about their futures. Christ’s call means a new beginning. He takes a wide-open risk by inviting them. They do the same in their response.

Subsequent events do not demonstrate that they are particularly fit for their call. Simon, who will come to be known as Peter, betrays Jesus in an even more boldfaced way than all the rest. James and John, nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, not the most agreeable pair to have around, indulge in dreams about their own enthronement, missing the point completely when Jesus announces that downward mobility is the path to his kingdom. Andrew rarely appears again on the radar. Maybe his flaw is playing it safe. Yet Jesus never withdraws his invitation to any of them to share in his adventure, and partners with Jesus is what they finally become.

The novelist James Baldwin once wrote, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it … the end of safety.” The call to discipleship of these four fishermen, the beginning their story represents, implies the breakup of their familiar world, the end of their safety.

They leave behind old securities: the waterside, the boat, the nets, those days of fishing that so resembled one another, and even old Zebedee, the father of James and John, standing astonished in the boat as his two sons suddenly walk away. The new beginning requires this. Disciples must walk away into the future. They may be afraid, but not so afraid that their faith does not lead them forward.

The Bible tells us of this beginning for the four fishermen. They are called out from their occupation about which they know a great deal, in order to fish for people, about which they claim no knowledge.

In the same way, our discipleship means a new beginning, one that appears before us again and again. We keep experiencing the end of safety so that we may participate in a new world. We find ourselves engaged in an adventure, for however strangely, however unjustifiably, Christ comes to us and chooses us, and sends us out to be the next new beginning in the world.

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Christopher Sikkema

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