Jesus Believes in Me!
Preacher: The Revd Rob Ryan, Cathedral Curate (2010-2012)
23 January 2011, 10:30 (Epiphany 3)
Matthew 4 : 12-23
I find this incident we heard of today in the gospel one of the most intriguing incidents throughout the whole bible. Each gospel talks about this occurrence ... of Jesus saying to these people ‘follow me’ and them immediately packing up and following Jesus.
Why? I mean, does this not strike you as strange? These are people with responsibilities, with jobs, family businesses ... a life ... and ... they just get up and leave! Poor old Zebedee is just left in the boat, alone, with no word of explanation! Does this not strike you as a bit rash? A bit impetuous? Maybe even a bit irresponsible?
But ... ok this is Jesus we are talking about! Maybe there is something special about him to draw people to him. That would make sense ... after all this is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. So ... people would have noticed that wouldn’t they? If so, why didn’t everyone follow? But we read in Isaiah 53:2 that ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’.
So he was not noticeably special.
Just a man like any other man of first century Israel.
So ... we are left with the question ... why?
Why do they leave everything?
Why do they get up and follow Jesus?
To try to understand we need to know a little about the culture and Jewish way of life in this 1st century context.
I remember a couple of years ago, it suddenly struck me that Jesus was a Jew! Clearly I’m a bit slow on the uptake. Jesus, a Jew, grew up in a Jewish area called Galilee, living with Jewish people and calling Jewish people back to the God of the Jews!
Once I had taken that on board I decided that, for me, I needed to learn more about what this means. A couple of years on, I am only a little closer to understanding, so this morning I am sharing from a ‘work in progress’. I share only from my understanding of where I am at the moment. I am not saying I am an expert!
Jesus is called ‘rabbi’. We hear this over and over again in the NT. To understand Jesus in context, we need to understand more of what it meant to be a rabbi in first century Israel.This will then help us to understand why these men just get up and go after Jesus ... leaving their families, their businesses, their very lifestyles behind!
So ... Jesus grew up in an orthodox Jewish region called Galilee.The people there believed God had spoken directly to their ancestors.They believed that Moses went up Mount Sinai and received words form God. Not only did Moses hear words, he was given copies of them too. They believed the first 5 books of the bible were copies of what God said. They called these 5 books, Gen, Ex, Lev, Num, Deut, the Torah.Torah can mean, teachings, instructions, or simply ‘the way’.
They believed the best way to live was by following the Torah.The way to maintain their faith, to ensure they survived was through education of their children.The Torah was essential to survival.
At around the age of 6 many Jewish children will have gone to school for the first time. Lessons were based on the Torah. This first level of education lasted until the child was about 10 years old. These young children would start to memorise the Torah and by the age of 10 would generally know it off by heart.All of this, off by heart, word for word, by the age of 10!
By this age, students had begun to sort into groups. Those which had natural abilities with scripture, the best, started to separate from the rest. These gifted students would progress onto the next stage of education which lasted until around 14.
Those that did not continue in education, and this is important, returned home and continued in the family trade.
Meanwhile the gifted students continued in their education and memorised the rest of scripture. By 13 or 14, the top students, the very best had memorised the whole of the OT. 39 books, all of this, memorised, word for word, by the age of 14!
These students would also have started to study the tradition surrounding the text. For thousands of years these texts had been discussed amongst rabbis and these students would learn who had said what; what the text meant, how it applied to life and so on. This is why the literal meaning of ‘synagogue’ is discussion house.
When a student asked a rabbi a question he would rarely give an answer.We see this with Jesus in the gospels. When asked a question he often replies with a question. Rabbi’s wanted to know their students understood the scriptures and were not just looking for information given back; they were looking for an understanding and an engagement with the word.
By 14 only the very very best were still studying. They would now apply to a well known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s disciples. The goal of the disciples was not just to know what the rabbi knew but to actually be like the rabbi.
So ... a 14 year old would choose a rabbi, go to him and say something like; ‘Rabbi, I want to become one of your disciples’.The rabbi would look at this person in front of him and ask himself a number of questions like ‘can this person do what I do?’, ‘can this person be like me?’, ‘has this person got what it takes?’
The rabbi would ask questions.The rabbi would give him a good grilling because he was only looking for the very very very best. He only wanted a train someone that would be able to do what he did! He had no time for less than best! If the rabbi thought this student had what it took he would say:
‘Come, follow me’.
We hear those very words in verse 19, the strict translation of which is ‘come behind me’
He would leave his home, his family, his friends, everything he had ever known to follow the rabbi, to walk in his footsteps, to go wherever he went; he would not want to miss anything his rabbi said or did.
This is why Simon and Andrew and then James and John leave everything to follow, to come behind, Jesus.
You see they had probably already been through part of this process and fallen at one of the hurdles. Disciple was top job and they had missed out on it.The clue is there ... they are already working in their family businesses. If they had been good enough they would have been with some other rabbi somewhere.They were not good enough to progress through the stages of education.They had not earned the right to go to a rabbi and ask to become a disciple.
Here, Jesus turns everything on its head.
People don’t ask Jesus .... Jesus invites them.
He invites them to be his disciples.
Rabbis only wanted the best.
When he says ‘follow me’ he is saying that he thinks they are the very very best.
To understand this we need to imagine what in our wildest dreams to us would be the dream opportunity ... winning an X factor contract, starring alongside Skandar Keynes in the next Narnia movie, being made director of that company, given that contract, being an astronaut! To gain some understanding of what those first disciples felt on hearing this invitation from Jesus would be like you, after realising and coming to accept you were not good enough for your dream role, suddenly, unexpectedly, out of the blue just being offered it ... right here, right now! You’d jump at the chance! You would not even have to think about it! A no brainer!
That is what is happening in the hearts and minds of these disciples as they hear the call, the invitation from Jesus to ‘come follow me’. Jesus is saying you are the best and I want you! No wonder they respond so quickly. Zebedee is not stuck in the boat confused; he is there with a tear in his eye saying to himself ... ‘I knew it! I knew my boys were good enough!’
There is something of great depth here, because in case it has escaped your notice Jesus, the rabbi, calls you.
Jesus, the rabbi, has said those words ‘come, follow me’ to you.
Jesus, the rabbi, has looked at you, he has asked has this person got what it takes, can this person do what I do, can this person be like me’.
Jesus has looked at you with the belief that you can.
Let that sink in and realise how amazing that is. Jesus has called you to follow him because he believes you can be like him.
I became a Christian at the age of 17 and I have been told over and over again that I need to believe in Jesus, which is of course a very good thing - and I do! A mind blowing thing, though, is to grasp that Jesus believes in me.
No one had ever told me that before.
Jesus has faith in us. He has called us because he believes in us. Say those words to yourself .... Jesus has faith in me, he has called me, because he believes in me.
Those first disciples were amazed by that faith and responded by stepping into the unknown.
So ... that may answer the question of ‘why’ these disciples left everything they knew to follow Jesus. But that, in turn, leaves us with a question:
Do we believe that Jesus has faith in us? And, if we do, what is our response?