One of the commentaries I was reading to prepare for this sermon tells the story of a small boy, who used to phone people at random, and if someone picked up the phone, he would ask if they were ‘on the line’. If they said ‘yes’, he would then shout: ‘Well, get off the line quickly, there’s a train coming!’
It’s a great story to help us think about the sense of urgency Jesus showed at the start of his ministry described in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus had left Nazareth on hearing the news John the Baptist had been arrested and had moved to Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. Matthew reminds us this helps to confirm Jesus’ identity, fulfilling Messianic prophecies, quoting Isaiah:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road, by the sea… 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. (Isaiah 9:2; Matt. 4:16)
There is always a temptation to be overwhelmed by darkness and as a faith community, the darkness can tempt us to turn our backs on the world and become defensive and pessimistic. We are people who sit in darkness longing for light. When Isaiah spoke to our deepest longings, he chose light as the symbol as he too, knew how dark the world could be, as it was for Jesus.
We’re told John has been imprisoned. I imagine the darkness settling on a man in Nazareth, wiping wood dust off his hands as he hears the news along with the opinions judging John and his foolishness in challenging Herod, the Roman client king. Jesus says goodbye to his family to start his ministry, knowing if this is what can happen to John, its easy to guess what will happen when he starts talking about a whole new kingdom! Yet Jesus now tells people urgently, proclaiming:
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt. 4:17)
Like the small boy shouting down the phone, we want to know what to do, as God’s plan is happening now, as it was for Jesus. Matthew usually describes Jesus speaking about the ‘kingdom of heaven’, while the other gospels use the phrase, ‘kingdom of God’. Saying ‘heaven’ rather than ‘God’, was a Jewish way of avoiding the word ‘God’ out of reverence and respect. Remember ‘Heaven’ did not mean a place where God’s people went after death.
If ‘kingdom of heaven’ means the same as ‘kingdom of God’, what Jesus meant was revolution! As Jesus hears the bad news of John’s arrest, of Herod trying to silence the voice in the wilderness, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven is coming near, with his words, his life and ministry. Jesus lives the reality of the kingdom of heaven breaking forth in light and love among all the bad news of the kingdoms of this world.
The Jews were familiar with kingdom movements. The Romans had occupied their country for about 90 years with Herod and his sons ruling for the Romans. The Jews were praying for change, for revolution, for freedom because of what they believed about God, themselves and the whole world. If there was one God who had made the whole world, and if they were God’s special people, then it couldn’t be God’s will to have Gentiles ruling them. God had promised to rescue them, to put things right through Isaiah and the prophets. They believed God would become king, not only of Israel, but of the whole world, bringing justice and peace, turning the upside-down world the right way up at the last. The revolutionaries believed there would be no king but God.
Now Jesus was proclaiming the rule of heaven was coming near, like an express train. Those standing idle needed to get out of the way. God’s kingdom means danger and hope. If justice and peace are on the way, those who have twisted justice or disturbed the peace may be in trouble. They need to sort themselves out and ‘repent’. But let’s explore this word ‘repent’ as well.
Repenting is not simply about feeling bad about yourself and wanting to change this as a private emotional response. Repent means, stop what you’re doing, change direction, go another way. Its not simply about what you feel but what you do that matters.
Jesus was a Messiah with a difference. His contemporaries were determined to have a revolution with military resistance against the occupying forces, taking over of power. Remember, part of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was about using his own status as God’s Messiah to sweep him to power, privilege and glory. The problem is, these movements as we ourselves know today, are fighting darkness with darkness, and Israel was instead called, like Jesus, to bring God’s light into the world.
We now see the connection between Isaiah’s preaching on light, the people in darkness being dazzled by the light, by a newborn child through whom God would liberate Israel. (Isaiah 9:1-7) The standard kind of revolution with fighting, killing, hate and vengeance to put an end to fighting, killing, hate and vengeance is nonsense. Doing it in God’s name is blasphemous nonsense.
Jesus’ message of repentance is not simply to feel sorry for personal, private sins, but in addition, we should all stop rushing towards violent revolution, and instead go the other way, towards God’s light and love, peace and justice, healing and forgiveness for ourselves and the whole world.
We do know what happens when we don’t do this. If light bearers insist on darkness, they have darkness. If peace people want war, they have war. If those insisting on God’s love and forgiveness, focus on hatred, judgement and exclusion, this is what the world has and it will all come crashing down.
So, Jesus’ message is urgent. The kingdom of heaven is close by, its coming. What are you doing? Are you still on the line? For those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, Jesus is bringing life. Let us personally and collectively turn our backs on the power of bad news to control our lives with pessimism and violence, and instead, trust God’s power in Jesus Christ to bring healing, wholeness, hope and redemption to our broken lives and world.
Christ proclaims peace will overcome hostility. Love will and does defeat hatred. Fears become laughter. One day we will not learn war anymore and we will not be sending our children and grandchildren to fight our battles. One day, those committed to repentance, turning away from the power of bad news to control their lives will be proved right. One day, the light will overcome the darkness permanently. We need to help one another overcome the darkness and in so doing, the kingdom of heaven is truly at hand. The Lord be with you.
Harrington, D.J., S.J. [Ed.] Sacra Pagina The Gospel of Matthew. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vo. 1 Chapters 1-13.
Mackay, D. 2013. Glimpses of Jesus through the eyes of Matthew. St Boniface Books, Bunbury, WA.
Wright, T. 2004. Matthew for Everyone Part 1 Chapters 1-15. SPCK, London, UK.