The Kingdom of God is at hand!

note that there is no video version of this sermon (as I forgot to push ‘start’) 🙁

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:12-23)

I don’t know if you’ve been following the goings on in the USA lately, but I’m finding them fascinating (in a very disturbing sort of way).

Ever since the surprise election of Donald Trump as President, that country seems to have been thrown into turmoil in a way in which I’ve never seen before. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going on from this distance, but one thing that you can’t miss, even in Australia, is the extraordinarily well-coordinated media campaign that seemed to be designed to discredit Trump even before he took office!

I’m not pretending to be a Trump fan, and indeed it’s none of my business anyway, but I don’t think any of us would have anticipated the blow-back that came from the established people in power in the USA when their chosen candidate lost!

  • Initially, there was disbelief, as people thought it was a mistake.
  • Then excuses, increasingly focused on Wikileaks and the Russians.
  • Then, the formal expulsion of Russian diplomats by the retiring President, suggesting that the accusations against Russia indeed had substance!
  • And simultaneous to all this was a relentless media campaign targeting the President elect – vilifying his character, claiming he should not have won, and prophesying doom for American and the world should he actually take office!

A run through of articles on the Washington Post website make the point. These (and many like them) appeared in the last 24 hours, focusing on the inauguration:

One of my favourites was entitled simply:

And then of course we had:

Indeed, the only headline I found with a hint of positivity to it read:

Chris Hedges, who is a commentator I much admire, says that the whole campaign is designed to discredit Trump by depicting him as Vladimir Putin’s idiot puppet so that when impeachment charges come (which he thinks won’t take long) Trump will have zero public support.

I have no idea whether that is true, of course, but I do appreciate that Donald Trump is someone who is now deeply hated by a lot of people and, as my friend George Galloway said recently, “if I were Donald Trump, I wouldn’t be standing on top of any grassy knolls at the moment or anywhere a sniper could get a good shot at me.”

You’ll have to forgive me for going on like this about the current American political climate but I think it provides and excellent backdrop for our Gospel reading today which depicts the inauguration of the ministry of Jesus. I don’t mean to suggest any real parallel between the lead characters of the two stories, and I am certainly not suggesting that Donald Trump will turn out to be the savior of the world, but I do think that the controversy and the ambiguity that pervades America at the moment must have had real parallels in first century Judea when Jesus first burst on to the scene!

Who was this guy? What really was his agenda? How was it all going to turn out?

Am I asking these questions about Trump or Jesus? Well … the same questions could be asked of both, and while Jesus wasn’t hated at the inauguration of his ministry, that may have been largely because Jesus kept his plans for the future largely hidden. It was as His plans unfolded that hatred and opposition to Him grew.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” (Matthew 4:12-17)

What does this tell us about the person and ministry of Jesus?

For one thing, it tells us that Jesus didn’t appear in a vacuum. His very movements, as well as His work, were connected to the prophesies of His forefathers. Jesus was a character in a larger story – the story of the people of Israel. Jesus’ work (whatever that was) would bring light to his nation, as his forefathers had apparently foretold!

And the message of Jesus – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) – connects him not only to that historical narrative, but also more directly to the work of his immediate predecessor – John the Baptist – for this was exactly the same message that John was preaching!

In Matthew, chapter 3, we are told that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”” (Matthew 3:1-2), and now, after news comes through that John has been arrested and taken out of play, Jesus assumes centre stage and continues with the preaching of exactly the same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17)

What Jesus seems to be doing is not so much continuing on from John but rather repeating him, word for word! Their message was identical, but what did it mean?

Again, to understand the message, we need to be aware of the back-story, which is the history of the people of Israel, and we need to be familiar with the Scriptures of the people of Israel, for it is in those books – in the Torah in particular – that the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven (or, as it is referred to in the other Gospels, ‘the Kingdom of God’) finds its meaning.

In general terms, the Kingdom of Heaven is simply a better world. It’s not another world, in the sense of it being a world on the clouds somewhere, or a world in some other space/time continuum, and it’s not a world we go to when we die. It’s this world upgraded (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘debugged’).

Biblically speaking, the Kingdom of Heaven is a return to Eden. It’s a return to a time of harmony between human beings and all creation, and between humanity and their God. Of course, it’s never really depicted as a step backwards, but rather as a radical step forwards towards a new and better sort of world, where people live in peace with God and with one another, and where the earth gives forth its plenty!

“The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:8-9)

This is the ancient hope of the prophets – the dreamtime of the people of Israel – but for most Jews living in the first century, this great hope had a very tangible near edge to it. Whatever else it meant, for most Jews, the Kingdom of Heaven meant freedom to live their lives without the burden of foreign occupation. In other words, it meant getting rid of the Romans!

It’s at this point that I’m tempted to see the parallels again with the American (and even with the Australian) contemporary political situation.

To what extent were the Romans really responsible for the woes being experienced by the people of Judea in the first century? Were the Romans really any more responsible for their problems than Muslims or immigrants are responsible for our problems?

Charismatic leaders then, as now, appealed to popular resentment to get themselves a platform, and while I’m not suggesting that either John the Baptist or Jesus played the people in any way, there can be little doubt that nationalistic fervor and resentment towards the Romans contributed greatly to the popularity of both men!

In truth, I don’t doubt that John’s ultimate agenda was both political and militant. His great baptism ritual seems to have been a symbolic reenactment of the exodus narrative, where the people walked out of slavery, through the red sea, and into the promised land!

John, we are told, chose the Jordan river quite deliberately as the place where he baptised people, and that river was the border between his country – Israel – and the pagan world! It may have been that John had people quite literally marching from the pagan soil of the Jordan (symbolizing bondage and occupation) through the waters and back into the land which they could then claim again as their own!

John, of course, saw his work as only that of ‘preparing the way’ for the real freedom work of the Messiah, but I have little doubt that John foresaw the Messiah’s work as being both glorious and bloody! “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17) I think it’s pretty straightforward what John meant by that. It meant ‘let’s make Israel great again!’, and I’m pretty sure that’s what John’s followers heard, and I’m pretty sure that’s the message that the first followers of Jesus were responding to too!

You sense that very straightforwardly in the next part of the Gospel story:

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20)

What’s going on here, for you don’t normally leave your job and your family like this to join a seminary? What’s happening, I believe, is that these disciples think they’re being recruited into an army!

I know that modern translations translate “I will make you fishers of men” as “I will teach you to fish people”, using more inclusive language, but I suspect that’s a mistake. They are men that are being sought out here – big, burly, strong men! And these men are going to become part of the recruitment process so that they can get more men, for this is not women’s work (as traditionally conceived). This is war!

That’s how these early recruits understood the process, I believe, and Jesus’ proclamation, that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” would have meant the same to them as it had to John. It was a proclamation of a hope of national independence, which is not to say that it was a political hope rather than a spiritual one as the people of first century Judea would not have made that distinction. Theirs was a hope for national renewal, where they, as God’s people, could be free to worship without fear, upholding their spiritual traditions with integrity, and governing themselves according to God’s own rules in God’s own land! That’s how they understood “the Kingdom of God”, but how did Jesus understand it?

We get a clue, I think, in the closing verse of our Gospel passage today:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

I suspect that it struck both John the Baptist and those first disciples as somewhat strange that Jesus stopped his recruitment process after he reached only twelve men. Indeed, I think they were expecting Him to raise an army of at least twelve thousand, but instead of enlarging the army, Jesus starts preaching about His kingdom and healing diseases!

Twenty-first century people often find the stories about how Jesus healed people to be a bit disconcerting because a lot of us don’t believe in miracles. I suspect that Jesus’ first century contemporaries found His healing activities disconcerting too, but not because they didn’t believe He could do it, but because they would have had trouble understanding why He was doing it!

Healing people wasn’t part of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ agenda! To be quite blunt, Jesus wasn’t supposed to healing people. He was supposed to be killing people!

This is where everyone’s kingdom expectations start to come unstuck. Before too long, John the Baptist himself is asking Jesus – “are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:13). Jesus’ preoccupation with healing people and doing works of compassion simply doesn’t fit the revolutionary agenda.

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17) What exactly did Jesus mean by that? Well … I’m not going to give any precise definition today, and mainly because I want to stay true to the gospels. The Gospel of Matthew itself goes on for another twenty-something chapters with Jesus teaching us about the Kingdom through parable and metaphor and through healing and illustration, so maybe narrowing the Kingdom down to a tight definition at this point isn’t the way forwards.

What I think can be said at this point is that Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom that was at hand was broader than that of most of his contemporaries – John the Baptist included.  That’s not to say that the liberation of his people from political oppression wasn’t a part of what He was on about. It just wasn’t all He was on about!

‘Make America great again’, ‘make Australia great [for the first time]’ – these are the sorts of slogans that politicians throw at us in order to get our votes, and often these slogans prove to be nothing but empty rhetoric.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). Was that empty rhetoric too? I don’t believe it was, but I don’t think any of us was really ready either for the sort of Kingdom that Jesus was about to launch!

First preached to Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill on January 22nd, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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