Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: "Moving Forward" (Matthew 4:12-23)

The law of inertia states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force.  
I don’t know about you, but sometimes it seems that the law of inertia has a great influence over my life. Sometimes, when I find myself at rest, I resist moving. My inclination is to stay put.
When I graduated high school, I resisted leaving home. My life was at rest, and I wanted to stay at rest. I was unmotivated to leave. I planned on going to college nearby, and living at home. It was unsettling - literally - to think about moving away.
It would take an awfully big force to get me to move away from home.
When that force did act upon me, I found myself at Chapman University, living on campus. I’m not quite sure how that happened, really. One day I was at rest at home in Burbank, and the next, I was staring up at a new ceiling in the dorm room that would be mine for the next school year. That particular moment is vivid in my memory. My parents had dropped me off, I had checked in, and with not too many belongings, there I was, laying flat on my bed, looking up at the dorm room’s acoustic ceiling tiles, wondering just how I got there.
Well, my four years at Chapman were great. Unlike most students, I lived in the dorms all four years, working as a resident advisor my junior and senior year. And, in fact, because of the training I went through as a resident advisor, I feel compelled to tell you that they weren’t really dorms, they were “residence halls.”
While at Chapman I figured I would graduate and get a job here in southern California, perhaps even back home in Burbank; but then, in my senior year, a force acted upon me again, and this time, I ended up over 2,000 miles away, attending seminary in Indianapolis, a place where it snows in winter and is muggy in summer, a place where people gather at sports bars to watch high school basketball on TV. It took Ginger and I five and a half days to drive from California to Indiana, chased by a thunderstorm the whole way; we’d drive through the storm during the day, then it would pass over us at night. We even celebrated our first wedding anniversary at a KOA campground somewhere in Utah, with thunder and lightning and a piece of our wedding cake that we had saved and kept in the freezer because someone said that’s what you’re supposed to do, so you can eat it on your first anniversary.
We took one bite, spit it right back out, and threw rest in the trash.
I can’t imagine moving without a really good reason, a really compelling reason. In other words, I can’t imagine moving without a really strong force compelling me to move.
Moving means leaving the streets we know, and moving to a new place where the roads are unfamiliar and where we have to spend some time learning our way, learning how to get to the grocery store, to the bank, finding a new church, new schools, a new favorite place to eat, notifying everyone of our new address, changing our voter registration, and so on. For us, moving to Indiana even meant leaving In-N-Out behind, and settling for Steak N Shake. Moving also means hiring someone to move all your stuff, or moving it yourself. That’s a lot of work. It’s so much easier to just stay put.
But if a big enough force acts upon us, staying put is not an option.
Jesus moved several times in his life. Most of our gospel readings this year are from Matthew, and in Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Matthew doesn’t mention it, but Luke describes a journey that Jesus’s parents took just to get to Bethlehem, a Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Jesus’s parents had a very compelling reason to move to Bethlehem: Caesar.
Matthew’s gospel does describe another move.
A force named Herod acted upon Jesus and his parents, forcing them to move to Egypt. That’s a big move. Moving from Nazareth to Bethlehem is a big move, but moving from Bethlehem to Egypt is an even bigger move. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a move they made by choice, but a powerful force acted upon them, and they were compelled to move.
They stayed in Egypt until it was safe to return - but they didn’t return to Bethlehem; they went to Nazareth.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth - Luke and Matthew both agree on this - and he lived there until he was baptized by John. After that, and after a little time spent in the desert, Jesus then moved from Nazareth to Capernaum.
All this moving! What was it that made Jesus leave Nazareth and move to Capernaum? What was wrong with Nazareth? Most people don’t just say one day, “I think I’ll leave this place and move to that place,” unless they have a reason.
According to Luke, that reason was that Jesus offended the people of Nazareth with his teaching, and they drove him out of town. But that’s Luke’s version. Matthew’s version is different, and Matthew presents a very different reason for Jesus’ move to Capernaum.
Matthew mentions that John had been arrested. John, Jesus’ cousin, who Jesus went to to be baptized. In being baptized by John, Jesus had publicly identified himself with John and John’s message.
So when John was arrested, Jesus realized that he was now in danger. The two were linked by blood, since they were cousins, and they were linked because John had baptized Jesus.
If the authorities came after John, perhaps they would come after Jesus next.
That’s a pretty good motivation to move.
And pretty much every time he moved, Jesus was doing so to flee violence and terror. In Luke’s gospel, moving from Nazareth to Bethlehem because Caesar said so, and then later moving out of Nazareth because the people of Nazareth were trying to kill Jesus.
In Matthew’s gospel: moving from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape Herod’s intent to kill him. Moving back to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem because it was safer there than in the city of David. Moving from Nazareth to Capernaum after John was arrested.
Jesus was a refugee, fleeing danger. This week, an email sent to our church email address came in, sent by someone afraid that their mother was going to be sent back to wherever it is that she came from. She is an immigrant in this country. She came here to escape danger back home. And now she is afraid she will be made to go back home, back to where the danger is.
I replied and said that we’d keep her in prayer, as we do all immigrants and refugees.
Jesus was a refugee who fled danger. It wasn’t that Jesus was afraid of danger. Jesus wasn’t afraid to die, and Jesus didn’t move in order to hide or escape from his calling. It’s just that his time had not yet come. He had work yet to do. A mission yet to accomplish.
Jesus moved so that he might fulfill his calling.
And even though he is a refugee several times over, fleeing from danger, he does not back down in his message. In fact, he is more motivated than ever to proclaim that there is a new kingdom - the kingdom of heaven - and that all people should repent - turn away - from the kingdom that inflicts violence on so many innocent people.
That message would continue to get him in trouble with the authorities. But Jesus remained committed to proclaiming that message and accomplishing his mission.
I have moved a number of times in my life. Yet I have ended up, for now (and hopefully for some time to come), just 30 miles from Burbank where I grew up.
So it’s hard for me to imagine moving across the globe, to another country, as Jesus did when he fled to Egypt, and as some in our own congregation have done. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to flee danger, as millions of refugees are doing today. Fleeing danger, just as Jesus fled danger time and time again.
It really was a big deal for me to go to Brazil last summer. I thought everything would be upside down because, you know, you look at the globe, they’re in the southern hemisphere... Although, seriously, my 12 ½ hour flight to Brazil makes Brazil a lot closer to California than Egypt was from Bethlehem, since that journey took Jesus much longer than 12 ½ hours.
But still, I am amazed at those who start over in a new country, who move to a new continent to make a new life for themselves. I am in awe of their courage and determination. Because it took me 45 years just to get enough courage to spend two weeks in a country where I didn’t know the language.
If there is one thing I’m learning, though, it’s that there are times when you just gotta move. Times when you gotta move from that place where you are comfortable, to a new, unfamiliar place. There are times and situations when that must be done so that you can fulfill your calling and carry out your mission.
And yes, moving forward means letting go. When God worked through Moses to free the Hebrews and lead them to the Promised Land, they had a hard time letting go. They were slaves in Egypt, yet they still couldn’t let go and move forward. They longed to go back, and it was all Moses could do to remind them: “No, God is calling you forward.”
And God is a pretty powerful force, certainly capable of overcoming any inertia that might be acting in our lives. But even when we follow God’s call to move, moving is hard. Moving involves letting go.
Letting go is hard. Letting go of old dreams so that God can give you a new dream to pursue. Letting go of friends and family we have lost.
Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. We remember and we honor the past. But remembering and honoring shouldn’t keep us from moving forward.
Can you think about how God might be calling you to move forward? Maybe it’s not to flee danger. Maybe God is calling you to a new opportunity. Maybe God is calling you to a greater purpose. But to follow that call, you have to overcome inertia.
Is there an area in your life where you are stuck? How can you pray for God to help you get unstuck? What can you do - what actions can you take - to get your life moving forward again?
And, can you think about how God might be calling Bixby Knolls Christian Church to move forward? That’s a big question that our elders will be leading us through in the year to come. What is holding us back from proclaiming the message God has given us to proclaim? What is keeping us from fulfilling our mission?
Jesus moved to Capernaum. That move enabled  him to proclaim his message loudly and more boldly. Although he was fleeing danger, the move was not a retreat. It was a move forward that advanced his ministry and his purpose.
Because he moved, he attracted others to him, people who could help him carry out his mission. First Simon and Andrew, then James and his brother John. Then many others. The movement grew. And the world was changed.
But the change didn’t happen until Jesus was willing to move.

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