Sermon: The King of Heaven is Arriving
Date Preached: Sunday 23rd January 2011
Bible Reference: Matthew Chapter 4, verses 12-23
(Contemporary news) You must have caught the news over the past week about the ongoing panic and fear that’s been taking hold of the Tunisian people as they realize their country has been ground to an economic standstill – and their mistrust of any new leadership.
Well the warning of an approaching event is always important – (or not ~ as we discovered in that classic faux pas quite a few years ago when those gales hit the UK and the poor weatherman Michael Fish said “there was nothing to worry about” – he never lived that one down!). Somehow I think with the recent extremes of weather they’re all getting more cagey!
Well Jesus is saying there’s one thing that’s supremely important – we need to know that the kingdom of heaven is approaching – and we also need to know what action we need to take as a consequence. And even though this teaching is absolutely central to everything Jesus was and everything he did – and indeed to all that the gospels say about him – it was (and is) remarkable how few people really grasp what’s going on.
First things first (as Tom Wright says in his Matthew for Everyone commentary) – the gospel writer Matthew normally has Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of ‘heaven’: the other gospel writers normally use ‘kingdom of God’. Saying heaven instead of God was a regular Jewish way of avoiding the word God out of reverence and respect. So we have to get out of our minds any idea that when Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven he’s referring to a place God’s people go to after dying. That wouldn’t make any sense at all here. How could that sort of kingdom be said to be ‘approaching’ or ‘arriving’ or ‘coming near’?
No – if the kingdom of heaven means the same as the kingdom of God, then we actually have a much clearer idea of what Jesus had in mind. Anyone who was warning people about something about to happen must have been confident that the people who were listening would understand. And any first century Jew, hearing someone talking about ‘God’s kingdom coming’ would know what this was all about – this meant revolution – nothing less.
Jesus grew up with kingdom movements going on all around him. The Romans had conquered his homeland about 60 years before he was born – and Rome was the last in a long line of pagan empires that had done so. They’d installed a puppet king “Herod the’ not-so-Great’” (as I’m sure they might have nicknamed him) and his sons to do their dirty work for them – and it’s not surprising that the Jews resented both parts of this sordid arrangement and longed for any chance to revolt.
But this wasn’t just an eagerness to be free of imperial rule. Like most people under subjection, the nation of Israel wanted it because of what they believed:
about themselves and their own identity
and about their rightful place in the world.
If there was One God (and only one) who’d made the world – and if they were his special people – then it couldn’t be God’s will to have foreigners ruling over them, could it? What’s more God had made promises in their Scriptures that one day he would rescue them and put everything right, just like he’d done throughout their history. And these promises focused on one particular thing happening: that God would become King – not only of Israel, but of the whole world – a king who would bring justice and peace – and who would make a crazy, misshapen world right and beautiful again. The revolutionaries believed that there should be no King but God – and they longed for, prayed for and were prepared to die for this to happen. So are you getting a bit of the picture of the urgency of all this?
And now here comes Jesus declaring that God’s kingdom – the sovereign reign and rule of heaven - is approaching like an express train, and that those who are standing idly by had better take note and get out of the way. Because God’s kingdom spelt danger as well as hope. Think about it: if justice and peace are on the way, those who have twisted things to their own ends and exploited people for their own gain had better watch out – there’s going to be trouble. They’d better get their act together while there’s still time. And there’s a good old word both John the Baptist and now Jesus used for that (?) “Repent!”
But we do have trouble understanding that word don’t we? It’s often misunderstood. People think it’s got to be about ‘feeling bad about yourself’ (now I don’t know about you but that’s a very familiar feeling for me because I mess up all the time). But that’s not what it’s about. The word metanoia – ‘repent’ means:
to change direction;
turn around – and go the other way;
to stop what you’re doing and do the opposite thing instead.
How you feel about it isn’t really the important thing. It’s what you do that matters.
Jesus believed that his contemporaries – lots of self-styled revolutionary leaders and political parties (if you’ve seen Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ they send it up pretty well with all subtle distinctions between very similarly named political groups?) (Anyway) they were bent on revolution as people usually think of revolution – (the kind we’ve seen in Tunisia recently) often with a military-style resistance to quell violent attempts to overthrow corrupt leaders and wrestle back political power for the people.
And this helps us understand something of the temptations of Jesus – because the devil was trying to get him to use his own status as God’s Messiah to launch some kind of movement that would sweep him into power, privilege, celebrity recognition and glory – and although this would have been easy, Jesus wouldn’t have it.
The problem with movements like this is that they fight darkness with darkness. And Israel was called – Jesus
was called - to bring (?) something to the nations? = ‘light’! I once remember Rowan Williams coming to our church in Crickhowell pretty soon after returning to the UK after 9/11. (He was just a few blocks away when the Twin Towers went down). One of the young kids in the Explorers Group asked him what he thought of the United States declaring “war on terror” and Rowan said that he was doubtful about how effective it would be to continue a conversation in the same war-like vein as things began after the planes were flown into the World Trade Centre towers. As the Americans say: “what goes around comes around”.
And the same is going on here – which is why Matthew hooks up Jesus’ early preaching with the prophecy in Isaiah that speaks about people in the dark being dazzled by a sudden bright light – a prophecy that went on to talk about a child being born, the coming Messiah, through whom God would truly liberate Israel at last.
Jesus could see that the bog-standard kind of military coup revolution – fighting and killing in order to put and end to…(well) fighting and killing – was indeed a vicious circle and pure nonsense. And to do it “in God’s name” – well that would be blasphemous nonsense. (& why do we never learn?!)
The trouble was – is – that many of his contemporaries were eager to get on with the fight.
So Jesus’ essential message (and John the Baptist’s before him) – of repentance was not about feeling sorry for personal and private sins (though of course that would be part of it), but that as a nation they should stop running headlong towards the cliff edge of violent revolution – and instead choose another way – going towards God’s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness – of life for themselves and all the world.
What would happen if they didn’t? Well gradually, as Matthew’s story develops, we begin to realize…if people who are supposed to be bearers of light insist on darkness – then that’s what they going to get.
If people want war then they get it.
And if people called to bring God’s love and forgiveness into a needy world insist on hating everyone else, then it’s hatred and all that it brings with it that will come crashing around their ears.
And this won’t be an arbitrary punishment or judgment – it’ll be exactly what they’ve been calling for. That’s why Jesus says repent – while there’s still time! The kingdom is coming, and look out if you’re standing in the way.
And isn’t this an urgent message for today, too? I wonder while we’ve been thinking about this passage have you begun to make your own connections? And perhaps even more so for us who live on the other side of Calvary and Easter. Surely Matthew would want to say to us in St Barnabas Church, Waunarlwydd this morning that the kingdom which Jesus established through his own finished work – his death and resurrection – faces us with the same challenge – to follow, just like Simon & Andrew; James and John. I wonder are we working to extend God’s reign and rule in the world?
in our lives?
in the community in which we’re set?
With the people with whom we spend most of our time?
Or are we standing in its way? These are big questions – for all of us!
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