There have been many movie and TV versions of the story of “Superman”—and there may be more “reboots” in the works now: I have lost track. The one I know best starred Christopher Reeve and came out in the late 1970’s.
Superman was born, says that movie, on the planet Krypton, in a society with superior technology to ours, but whose planet was about to explode from within. When he was just an infant, just as the planet was about to explode, his parents put Superbaby in a rocket ship and sent him to Earth where he was discovered by a kindly older couple in the Midwest—Iowa, I think—and raised as their own child.
The only things he arrived with were the blanket he was wrapped in and a glowing crystal, about six inches long. These the parents hid carefully away.
When he was about 17 or so, Superteen awoke one night and went out to where the glowing crystal was hidden; I guess it was calling to him somehow. And it let him know that he was to take the crystal and set out for the north—the far north, practically the North Pole. So off he went, and when he got to a certain point, surrounded by nothing but snow and ice and wind, he threw the crystal far ahead of him into the ice. And where it landed, there grew up from the ice a crystal palace, where he would spend his next few years.
It was in the crystal palace, which had lots of glowing six-inch crystals in it, that Superman was provided by his original parents, through a sort-of advanced DVD-player, I guess, on disc, with all the knowledge he would need, to do what he was supposed to do on Earth, to be Superman. And it was in the palace that he found out exactly who he was, and . . . exactly what he was supposed to do. His father told him, on these “discs,” exactly what his mission was, what he was supposed to do with his life. It was laid out for him; he knew. And the story proceeds from there, to the city of Metropolis.
Now Jesus, the subject of our Scripture lessons today, wasn’t from the planet Krypton. So Jesus didn’t have, as far as we know, a glowing crystal. So he didn’t make a trip to the North Pole, didn’t stay in a crystal palace, didn’t listen to discs telling him exactly what he was supposed to do with his life. . .
So how did he know . . . what he was supposed to do? How did he know? Today we’re looking at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it prompts the question: How did he know this was what he was supposed to do? And, along those lines, how do we know what we should be doing with our lives? How do we pick our directions, make our choices about how to proceed? And what can we learn from the way Jesus decided those things, to make our decision-making better?
The first thing Jesus did, according to our Scripture passage, after making his home in Capernaum, was to begin preaching. His message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Repent,” meaning acknowledge that there are parts of our lives that do not match what God wants us to do, stop doing those parts, and resolve to do the right thing instead. And, he also said, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”—that is: the time of waiting for the Messiah is over, and the time of fulfillment, when people can finally walk with the Christ, is about to begin. Jesus’ words still leave open the possibility that it may be many, many years before God’s ways are fully established on earth, but with his coming the process of God’s taking charge has at least begun; the period of waiting is over. The first thing Jesus did was to preach, telling people to repent, for the kingdom has come near.
The second thing Jesus did was to begin collecting a team of helpers. And one thing that often occurs to us here is the question of their qualifications: Why did he pick this crew? We find out later that they don’t seem to be particularly quick students, chosen for their understanding of Jesus’ teaching. Or great healers, since they sometimes fail. Or people of perfect faith, since they eventually run away. They were not all from a common profession or social class or political persuasion. In short, they “are not distinguished,” in the words of Lamar Williamson, “by any outstanding personal characteristics, or by meritorious subsequent performance.” End of quote.
But they do say “yes.” “Immediately,” the passage says, “they left their nets and followed him.” Perhaps their qualification for being a helper of Jesus was that they responded. Which, it’s been pointed out, is a qualification that any of us have the potential to meet: All it takes is the willingness to say “yes.” Jesus would go on to choose twelve people as his central circle of disciples, all of whose primary qualification was to say “yes.”
The third thing this passage describes Jesus as doing is teaching: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues.” We find one detailed account of this teaching in-the-synagogues in Luke 4, when Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth; and another in Mark 1, when the teaching is followed by calling an unclean spirit out of a man. We will see later, including next Sunday, that Jesus also taught outside of synagogues, sometimes, to large crowds on a mountain, for example. The third thing we see Jesus doing is teaching.
And the fourth thing Jesus did as his ministry began, verse 23 continues, is heal: “He cured every disease and every sickness among the people. They brought to him all the sick, and he cured them.” Jesus exhibited the compassion of God by personally, publicly, touching those who were sick, and curing them.
So that’s what Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry: He proclaimed; he gathered disciples; he taught; he healed. Matthew has given us a very clear, very concise description and summary. But now we still have our Superman question before us, don’t we: How did he know that this was what he was supposed to do?
As with many other situations Jesus would face, this was not a question that he would be the only one to ever face. There are very few of us who have not asked, at some point in our lives, “what am I supposed to do with my life?” It’s the question of college students choosing their majors, and of high school or college seniors trying to figure out what comes next. It’s the stuff of which career changes and mid-life crises, and engagements and divorces, and decisions when to have children, and deciding when and where to retire, and when to sell the house, are made. What am I supposed to do with my life? And how do I know?
And we face other, not quite so life-changing decisions all the time, and need to decide: “What do I do with this situation? How do I respond? How do I know what to do?” Even if Jesus knew, as a boy, or as he heard the voice at his baptism, that he was the special Son of God, that didn’t by itself answer the question: But what do I do, given this identity? What does God want me to do with my life?
So how did Jesus find out?
I’m afraid I can’t tell you for sure. See, the problem is: there’s a gap in Matthew between verse 11, the end of the temptation story, and verse 12, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry story. There’s a physical gap, white space, on the page of many Bibles there, including this one, indicating some kind of separation; and there’s a gap in time.
We don’t know how much time passed between his temptation and his move from Nazareth to Capernaum; and we don’t know what he did during that time. It could be that some of the stories unique to John’s gospel, like the wedding at Cana, took place at this time, but we can’t say that for certain. So we don’t know for sure how it was that Jesus went about finding out what he should do with his life, or how he prepared for it.
But we can make some educated guesses as to how he approached his decisions, based on the limited information we do have. We are speculating a bit, but it’s speculation that fits the hints we have from Scripture and the pattern we see in Jesus’ later life.
One way Jesus might have gone about finding out what God wanted him to do with his life might have been through his time alone, time spent by himself. Look again at the first stories of his adult life in the gospels; he is baptized, a voice testifies from heaven that he is the Son of God, he withdraws into the wilderness—and then comes the account of his ministry’s beginning. This withdrawal into the wilderness might have been his retreat, his way of talking with God, his quest for special guidance.
It’s not an unusual pattern, either in the Bible or in the early church: Moses was in the wilderness when his call from God came; Elijah ran away into the wilderness when his life was threatened and he didn’t know what to do next; the whole people of Israel were given the set of laws which defined them and told them what to do, in the wilderness; tradition says Paul retreated into the wilderness after his conversion experience. And many of the holy men and women of the early church would withdraw into the wilderness to try to know God and God’s will better.
Jesus went on a retreat, a sabbatical. He withdrew from his ordinary day-to-day activities of being a carpenter or whatever, and went out to talk with God. He dropped the ordinary hustle-bustle so he could listen. And he would do it again and again throughout his ministry: we find repeated instances of his withdrawing from everyone to go off and pray. The first thing Jesus may have done to find out what God wanted him to do with his life was to go off by himself, away from routines, away from distractions, and talk with God about it.
Now while some of us aren’t real keen on wilderness experiences, without indoor plumbing or electricity, there’s nothing to keep us too from retreating every once in a while, from getting away for a day, or two, or just a half, and being quiet, praying, listening, asking God “what do you want me to do?” The first thing Jesus did was to take some time alone with God.
The second thing that might have helped Jesus discern what he was supposed to do with his life was his knowledge of Scripture. When we look at the content of his proclamation, “the kingdom of heaven is near,” we see it reflects the promises of Scripture, that there would be a time of Messiah, of a Day of the Lord. What he proclaimed, the terms he used, the way he said what he said, was formulated based on his knowledge of Scripture. When we look at his teaching, in that Luke 4 episode, we see that he began with Isaiah, with Scripture, and interpreted himself and his role and the events of that day in light of Scripture’s promises. When we look at his choosing of disciples, we see them described as a group of twelve, which many readers see as a deliberate duplication of the twelve tribes of Israel described by Scripture—the new organization of the people of God reflecting the old organization of the people of God.
And there are other actions of Jesus which he very likely did intentionally to conform to Scripture. Later, his answers to the religious authorities about why he was doing what he did would quote Scripture. So the second guide Jesus had for figuring out what to do was his knowledge of Scripture.
Now while we may not have the Scripture committed to memory which Jesus apparently did, again we have access to the same resource he did when we’re trying to determine what to do in our life. We can evaluate our decisions based on what the Bible tells us. We can make sure what we’re considering is consistent with what God’s will revealed in Scripture is. The second thing Jesus did was to be guided by Scripture.
And the third thing that might have helped Jesus discern what he was supposed to do might have been the intent to do what God would do. When confronted with people who were sick, having the power to cure them which God has, he acted as God would—with compassion, with love, in their best interests. He lived out his understanding of who God is.
And for a third time, while we may not have the power to heal on the spot or do other miracles which Jesus did, we do have the capacity for responding, to the best of our abilities, in the way we think God would: when confronted with people in need, for example; when faced with an ethical decision. The third thing that may have shaped Jesus’ decisions about what to do in his ministry was his desire to do what God would do.
Taking time alone in prayer with God. Scripture. Living out an understanding of who God is. Three things that may have guided Jesus’ decisions about what he should do with the rest of his life are also available to us as we face the same questions.
Superman, again according to the movie version, eventually did a couple things his father had specifically told him not to do. Even though he had very specific instructions, much more so than the instructions most of us get for life. He still turned aside. Jesus, it is pretty clear, never did. Whatever his sources of information and decision-making about what to do, we are told he was blessed by God throughout his life, looked upon with favor by God, in what he did. His resources must have been pretty good ones. And his resources can be ours.
Let us pray: God, sometimes our lives seem to be a continuing exercise in figuring out what to do, in choosing the right way. Thank you for the resources you provide to help us make decisions, and help us to use them well—to take time apart to listen to you, to read and be guided by Scripture, to act as you would act—that we might go, in our lives, the way you would have us go. Amen.