One of the fun things about being a pastor is that I now have a whole gaggle of friends who are also clergy people. And clergy are a weird, funny bunch of people. Many of us are on social media and we like to share funny ministry-related memes and jokes that we come across with each other. I kept thinking of one meme that made the rounds a lot last year as I was doing my sermon prep this week.
It’s kind of a play on WWJD – What Would Jesus Do. There are lots of different variations on it, but they all draw on stuff that you can actually find in scripture. It usually goes something like this: “Whenever someone asks me ‘WWJD,’ I remind them about the time that Jesus flipped over a bunch of tables and chased people with whips.” Or “When someone asks me WWJD, I remember that time Jesus made over 100 gallons of wine and partied with people at a wedding.” Or my personal favorite: “Whenever someone asks me WWJD, I like to remind them about that time Jesus took a nap on a boat.”
I feel like today’s gospel reading could be made into yet another variation on this meme. Whenever someone asks me WWJD, I remember that time Jesus got so freaked out about the path he was called to follow that he packed up his bags and moved all the way across a sea to hide out in another city.
Now Jesus does this after he gets some very bad news in the first verse of our gospel reading for today. He had just been hanging out with John the Baptist a chapter ago, and word reaches him that John has since been arrested and thrown into prison. When Jesus hears this, he leaves his home in Nazareth and moves further away, further north, across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Our translation says he “withdrew.” The word Matthew uses here for “withdrew” is the Greek word “ἀναχωρέω”; it’s the same word he used to describe how the holy family “withdrew” into Egypt after the wisemen’s visit. Jesus is afraid – so he takes a moment to withdraw to someplace safer.
And, honestly, it sounds like a pretty wise move – Jesus was in danger, and he knew it. 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. And Herod’s father was so threatened by Jesus as an infant, being called the “King of the Jews,” that he ordered a mass murder of children in order to protect his power. Jesus knows that following the way of the cross carries mortal risk. He knows that every single step he takes further south toward Jerusalem is another step toward his own suffering and death.
It would have been safer, wiser, to stay in Capernaum. Or it might have been smarter to give into temptation! Right before the passage we read today, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil. And all the devil really does is point out some of the actual options Jesus has before him. He’s 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. All of these things would have been wise to do by human standards. 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. And he knows well that the path of life inevitably passes right through the valley of death. And not only does Jesus step out on this path toward “foolishness” and the cross, 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? It’s one thing to be the Son of God and to get to see the big picture, to know what’s coming; 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??
And for that matter, why do we? Why do we follow Jesus? There are still plenty of people out there who think what we do is pretty foolish. And in terms of practical, worldly, human wisdom, it’s kind of hard to argue with them. Looking at our annual report, for example, it is staggering the amount of time and money and energy and resources and creativity and talent that we have all poured into this ministry together. I can easily imagine someone on the outside looking in wondering why – why not spend that time and money and resources on yourselves? 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, Matthew quotes from our first reading from Isaiah, where he writes: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” The way of the cross – the way of discipleship – seems like lunacy… until it starts getting dark.
You are people who have known darkness. You have known darkness at some point in your life, and some of you may still walking in darkness, even now. You have known the darkness of illness and uncertainty. You have known the darkness of traumatic accidents and fear. You have known the darkness of separation from people you care about, the pain of family being divided. You have known the darkness of grief and the death of loved ones. You have seen the darkness. You have seen the darkness when our sense of control over the world and over our lives is peeled back, leaving us feeling helpless and hopeless.
And 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 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 roof from leaking. 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 darknesses 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 got at least a little nervous 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.