Steps in the right direction

December 24th, 2016

Matthew 4:12-23

The crucial moments in which we choose directions for our lives aren’t usually marked with caution signs, bright red flags, or even the feeling that we are about to make a big decision. Some of the decisions that matter most slip by without our even noticing. Some of the choices that seem small are bigger than the ones that appear big. Because the sacred is present in the ordinary, we can’t be sure that any decision is unimportant. Because life is holy, every moment matters. Every day and hour is crucial.

Jesus is walking beside a lake one afternoon when he sees two men in a rowboat waiting for unsuspecting fish to wander into their nets. It’s hard to believe what happens next. Jesus offers them a job with no pay, and they accept: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Why should they follow someone who uses such tortured metaphors?

Had the sales pitch been, “Come and make more money than you could ever make fishing,” then it might make sense. But this invitation and response seem unlikely. Four fishermen drop what they are doing and head off to God-knows-where, to lives they can’t imagine.

People always try to explain away big-fish stories, and this one is no exception. Some commentators suggest that young men often left their occupations to become students of a rabbi. They say it sounds more unlikely to us than it would have to people in the first century.

We read the story and assume that this isn’t the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus. Surely they knew Jesus before this. But Matthew doesn’t seem to feel any need to explain why they would follow Jesus.

The disciples’ instant acceptance of Jesus’ peculiar invitation is as dramatic as any moment we will ever encounter. On occasion, we face big decisions about family, jobs, and faith. We stand at a fork in the road and have to choose. We have moments when we feel that we have to act in a particular way for reasons that we cannot completely explain. We feel the need to sacrifice something we would rather keep in order to follow. We have taken a few big risks. But most of the time, it isn’t that dramatic. We don’t drop everything to start a new life very often. The calling of the disciples is more spectacular than what happens to us most days.

Most of my life is routine. I go to work each morning. I always have a list of things to do. There are phone calls to return, e-mails to respond to, and meetings to attend. There are a dozen administrative details to take care of. The urgency in what I do is usually the urgency of keeping up. Most of it doesn’t feel holy. My day is filled with pleasant people. I receive too much credit for what I do. My work is enjoyable, but it’s not spectacular.

My life doesn’t feel as adventurous as that of the disciples, leaving their nets and following Jesus into the unknown. There are women and men who live each day in danger because of their faith. There are people who do astonishing, heroic works. Maybe someday we will do something spectacular. For now, most of us feel called to less-dramatic discipleship. Most days, we answer God’s invitation from within the situation in which we find ourselves.

Maybe Jesus’ disciples had days when their lives didn’t seem sensational, as they walked up and down Galilee from village to village, through Samaria to Jerusalem and back again. Maybe they had days when they thought things were going too slow. On those days, perhaps their faithfulness was more modest.

We tend to forget the importance of details in the journey of faith. We focus on dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, and powerful moments of prayer. We search for peak experiences and end up assuming that some people are born with a spiritual talent that we just don’t have.

But God is in the details. God calls us every hour of every day. God invites us to be friends, practice kindness, and pray for our daily bread. We live out our faithfulness in worship, work, and study.

The routine, everyday ways in which we follow Jesus, the way we read scripture, welcome strangers, and love the people with whom we live are all crucially important.

The difference between the saints of the church and most of us is not some spiritual talent that we don’t possess, but the way the saints’ everyday habits, disciplines, and practices have prepared them to live extraordinary lives.

God is at work in a variety of unspectacular ways. God is present in every way that grace is shared, hope is proclaimed, and healing comes. Love spreads word by word. The bucket fills drop by drop. Wrongs are righted one by one.

Our calling is to be faithful, to live God’s grace on routine days in ordinary ways. If we pay attention, then we will see that even as unsurprising a life as most of us think we live is extraordinary: taking a child to school; hugging someone you love good-bye; eating lunch with a friend; trying to do a decent day’s work; talking to a neighbor; coming to worship. There is no event so commonplace that God is not there. Every moment and every word have possibilities.

Slowly but surely our priorities change. On the day they first followed Jesus, the disciples were brash, impulsive, stubborn, and they smelled of fish. They had to learn day by day how to be the church.

We grow in faith, not only in memorable, never-to-be-forgotten moments, but also in forgettable moments when we decide to pray instead of turning on the radio, to do better with the next hour than we did with the last, and to give something that we would rather keep. We become faithful as we confess a misspent hour, an unnecessary word, or a wasted opportunity. We start to follow again and again.

In every moment, God offers us another opportunity to take a step in the direction of Christ, to begin anew to live with purpose, hope, and love.

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