This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, Jan. 26. The text is Matthew 4:12-23.
Today’s gospel starts out with bad news. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, has been arrested. Hearing this, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee” (v. 12). This opening verse is not simply a way to mark time, but it signals that John’s arrest is a dangerous situation for Jesus, and he must choose how to respond. For now, Jesus pulls away to carry out his ministry of proclamation in and around Galilee (Audrey West, workingpreacher.org).
Throughout Matthew, we see this or similar statements, “…so that what had been spoken through the prophet…might be fulfilled” (v. 14). Normally these words refer to a time when such and such will happen. However, rather than the time being fulfilled in today’s gospel, the place is being fulfilled—Galilee of the Gentiles. God means to embrace everyone, Jew or Gentile. How shocking! God did what God said he would do. God’s Messiah had been promised and God fulfilled that promise. God is faithful.
These verses from Isaiah referred to the march of the army of Assyria westward to the Mediterranean and the promise of a deliverer to free the besieged people. By Isaiah’s time, Galilee had come under Assyrian rule. It later returned to Jewish rule, but a large Gentile population remained in the surrounding area (Faithlife Study Bible). Matthew applies this to the Sea of Galilee and the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. “Galilee of the Gentiles” points to something more, to the mission of Jesus, which he gives his disciples following the resurrection, “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20).
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadows of death light has dawned” (v. 16). Such light represents God’s action to save the people and land from Assyrian rule. For Matthew, it is the announcement to the nations, to those who were not Jewish, that the Messiah has come.
It is in the darkness of life that Jesus comes and shines. It is in the midst of bad news, personal and corporate that God has called us to repent and follow Jesus in proclaiming and living the reality that the kingdom is near. It is as the darkness seems to overwhelm us that we are called to seek the great light.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 17). Where have we heard this before? This was the message of John the Baptist as well. Jesus took up where John left off. Jesus’ message was essentially the continuation of John’s message because it was God’s message.
Jesus announces hope and a warning: given God’s new activity, the people must prepare through repentance. Repent is in the present tense, meaning “Keep on repenting.” This is so radical, so powerful that its presence calls all from their safety and routine to a life of unheard-of-newness. Here repentance means more a change of direction, the gaining of a new set of values, the readiness for life under the reign of God. This is not simply an individual thing, but corporate repentance like we participate in together every Sunday in the Confession and Forgiveness.
Another aspect of repenting is to repent from the power that bad news has to control our lives. Instead, we are to trust in the power of God in Christ to bring healing and wholeness, redemption and salvation, to our broken lives and broken world.
For Matthew, the kingdom of heaven was not an ideal, principle or abstraction, but was definitively revealed and embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. Kingship language is throughout Matthew’s gospel: from the newborn king being seen as a threat to the Roman kingdom already at home in this world (2:1-23) to the closing scenes in which the “king of Israel” is the crucified one who gives his life for others and is then vindicated and given “all authority” (28:16-20) (M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary). When Jesus’ followers heard that the kingdom “has come near,” they would have understood it quite literally as “what will happen next” (David Ewart, holytextures.com).
What should our response be to the coming of heaven’s rule? Surprisingly, it is not worship or praise, but repentance. We like to celebrate and praise. We want to celebrate and praise, rather than repent. Change is hard, but may we let the coming One change our thinking and living. Of course, we are not left on our own to do so. God’s Spirit works with and in us so that we can do and be all that God wants us to be.
How should we respond to the various manifestations of imperial violence in our contexts and its proclivity to punish those who speak up? Do we run to seemingly safe spaces or confront it? Do we make peace with the powers that be or challenge them to realize the kingdom of heaven?
It’s tempting to make peace with the powers that be to protect and advance our economic and political interests. There is a cost to confronting the empire but the cost of not doing so is much greater—the very loss of our identity as church. Joining hands with the empire or remaining silent in the face of it is a contradiction in terms.
Some who dared to stand up for the marginalized were punished with death. That has been true throughout the history of the church. In modern times, we see it in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted the Nazi machine that worked to eliminate any who were different, especially the Jewish people. Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp in Germany a few days before it was liberated by the Allied forces.
More recently, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. King resisted and preached against prejudice, injustice and opposed human laws that ran contrary to God’s laws of love. He paid for this with his life.
We may never be called upon to give our lives as martyrs for the cause of justice, for the cause of Christ, but will we just sit idly by while the words of scripture side with the poor, the oppressed, the mistreated? Next Sunday begins the first of three weeks with Matthew in the Beatitudes. Will we take these words seriously or just assume that Jesus didn’t really mean that?
Christians are called to proclaim and live out the good news amid the bad news. In the face of growing fear, division and death, we are called to put flesh on God’s good news of hope, peace and life. We are to be the good news to those around us.
Our message is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This was John’s message, Jesus’ message and it is ours as well. We as God’s hands and feet can help our hungry and hurting world by being as Christ to our neighbors. After all, our church’s tagline is God’s work. Our hands.
Even though Jesus had a home base in Capernaum, he left it and went out among the people. God speaks in places that surprise us. Perhaps God will speak more clearly to us outside the comfort of our sanctuaries.
Where are the places in our community outside centers of power? How can our church be present in them and be open to experience and embody the reality that the kingdom of heaven is at hand? (Mark S. Adams, Feasting On the Gospels: Matthew).
We let pessimism keep us from dreams as big as Isaiah’s and hopes as dazzling as God’s light.
Do we long for the kingdom of heaven Christ proclaimed?
Do we put our faith in Christ, even when we thought about giving up?
Do we live in Christ’s light?
I invite each of us as God’s people to believe in God’s power to bring light into the darkness (Brett Younger, Feasting On the Gospels: Matthew) through us.