Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday's Sermon

MATTHEW 4:12–23

Sharing the Scripture

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”[
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

While scholars disagree about who the author of Matthew was, there is general agreement the book was written by a Jewish writer for a Jewish audience in the last quarter of the first century. This is significant for two reasons as we examine today’s text which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

First, the author points out that Jesus, after hearing of John’s arrest, leaves Nazareth—a Jewish community—to make a home in Capernaum, which is also in Galilee. Jesus’ move fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy about the Gentiles seeing “a great light.” Such a connection to the Hebrew Scriptures is the writer’s way of saying to the Jewish audience, “you need to pay attention to the rest of this story.”

Besides fulfilling prophecy, this account communicates that Jews were not the only people invited to this adventure with Jesus. In the language of Community of Christ’s Enduring Principles, “All Are Called”, not just one group of people.

A third theme of major importance is Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of heaven on Earth.
As the author of Matthew addressed a Jewish audience, most of the time he used kingdom of heaven instead of kingdom of God. He proclaimed that, “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” continuing a message John the Baptist had been promoting before his arrest (Matthew 4:17). The message is not one of a place after death, but of the presence of the kingdom in the here and now—a message he would later reinforce in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This message resonates to this day with Community of Christ and its idea of “the peaceable kingdom.”

A final theme speaks as much to followers of Jesus today as it did when Matthew was written.
According to the text, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to go with him and they “immediately” left everything—jobs, possessions, even family—to follow him. The author provides no background so we have no details of what made them respond immediately. Some say the fishermen had been disciples of John and heard John’s proclamation of Jesus mission. 

Some sensed something special in Jesus and couldn’t resist him. Others think these new disciples also may have sensed Jesus’ expectation for them to respond quickly and completely because the message of the kingdom on Earth was so important.

I believe Jesus sensed the urgency of the times. Some of his disciples had been John’s disciples first. Now they heard Jesus proclaim the same message “Repent!” In other words, Jesus was challenging the disciples, and all with whom he shared his message, to change…not only themselves, but also their society. They needed to take care of one another…be there for one another.  In other words…live out God’s kingdom on earth. 

We are not told how the fishermen or their families would be provided for during the men’s absence. Perhaps, and we can hope this is so…they took care of one another while the men were away. In some of the other Gospels there are similar examples of the expectation for an immediate response. It appeared the authors wanted to express the urgency Jesus felt to have active disciples reach out to as many people as possible while striving to live out the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

Jesus brought light into the dark places of the world and into individual lives.  He worked hard spreading his message of hope for a better of peace and love and healing as well as acceptance of all individuals.  He challenged his disciples to do the same. His message was one that our church should recognize as “What matters most!” Mission…is what matters most. Mission is not only sharing the church beliefs and baptizing them. It is teaching them by example to take care of one another. 

Unfortunately by the 4th century, that important message had been changed to one of “salvation theology”.  That message only benefited the early church and its hierarchy.  His urgent original message was largely lost in the varied doctrines and dogmas of the various Christianities leading up to the 4th century. 

This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the rule of Gentiles” now belonged to and was ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE.

Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cited Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as “darkness” and “death.” It positioned Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shined in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserted God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee. At first, he did that quietly in small villages. It was dangerous.

The Gospel reflects its imperial world at this point. Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty -- from the very poorest to those who temporarily fell below subsistence levels.

Understandings of hygiene were limited; social stresses were high; water quality poor, food insecurity was rife with low quality and limited quantities. Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition (blindness; muscle weakness etc.) and a lack of immunity (diarrhea; cholera etc.). These kinds of diseases were death-bringing in a world that required physical labor for survival.

Jesus’ healings were acts that repaired imperial damage and enacted God’s life-giving empire in restoring people’s lives. They anticipated the completion of God’s working that created a world, envisioned by Isaiah, in which all people enjoy abundant good food (Isaiah 25:6-10a) and physical wholeness, where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5; Isaiah 35:5-6).

Perhaps here in this scripture we get a glimpse of Jesus' kind of existence.  From his earliest days through his adult life and ministry, Matthew's Jesus is an itinerant preacher, a constant wanderer.  Jesus did not opt for the comforts of the familiar but embraced God's call to find those who were in need of a healing ministry wherever they might live. From the first and in consonance with prophetic promise, Jesus ministered in an ethnically diverse land.

In an ever more mobile and diverse culture, Jesus' moves are in some sense familiar to many of us. 
The dislocation of a new place and new neighbors can be both thrilling and intimidating.  New surroundings can provide us a new start, a nearly blank slate that might allow us to recreate how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.  New surroundings also can cause us to question every dimension of our selves.  Moving causes us to ask anew, "Who am I?"  The richness of diverse communities can help us understand others better but also ourselves.  In Matthew, Jesus' experiences must have shaped his perspective, helping him understand a community as both an insider and an outsider.

In Capernaum, Jesus picked up the proclamation of John.  John's arrest in 4:12 marked a critical transition but not an entirely new path.  The basic proclamation of both is identical: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" Later Jesus sent his disciples to preach the same message.  At the same time, John himself promised that Jesus would be a more powerful and important figure in this story.  So what is the shape of this reign of God?  How was Jesus uniquely bringing it about?

These men were unlikely to be individuals of great social power or individual wealth.  These fishers were not among the elite of ancient culture.  Though Jesus' disciples would play a vital function in the earliest days of the church, on this day they are utterly ordinary individuals called to an extraordinary task.  I imagine that they would not have completely understood what it would mean to become fishers of people at the moment, yet they followed without hesitation.  Many came to John seeking his baptism; here Jesus calls a small cadre of those disciples to follow his itinerant path of preaching and healing.

Having begun to assemble his disciples, Jesus turned to his work.  He taught in the synagogues.  He pronounced "the good news of the kingdom."  He made the sick and infirm whole.  These were the defining characteristics of Jesus' daily labors in Matthew.  Teaching, proclaiming the kingdom, and healing were integrated components of his ministry.

"Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  Spoken nearly two millennia ago, how does this promise now function for us today?  Is the kingdom of heaven still drawing near even today?  In a world of violence and war it is hard to see that connection…but it is there. We hear much from the media about the violence and war but little about those serving needs worldwide.

It is vital to observe the close connection of preaching, teaching, and healing in Jesus' ministry.  The proclamation of the kingdom was not solely verbal, not just a teaching but a series of actions designed to bring wholeness to individuals and communities. We are challenged to follow his example. We are challenged to preach teach and heal the immediate world around us.

The reign of God has dawned not only because Jesus spoke it into existence but also because he was willing to heal the sick and make whole the broken.  Thus, it is not a point of embarrassment for us that Jesus proclaimed the dawning of God's direct rule over the world so very long ago, for he believed deeply and enacted powerfully God's reshaping of the world.

How then are we to proclaim today, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near"?

Unfortunately, for many people today, such utterance is characteristic of the wild-eyed preacher who has lost contact with reality. Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us of Jesus' life-giving words and deeds.  Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us to proclaim the drawing near of God's reign not as a threat but a life-giving promise.

Let us ask ourselves: When have we sensed Jesus saying, “Follow me” and how have we responded? How has our life been changed by following Jesus message and teachings? How have we experienced the kingdom being near us? How does that feel? What might “immediately” following Jesus look like today? What value, if any, do we see in the author of Matthew using Isaiah’s prophecy? Into what new or different mission might God be calling the congregation to follow Jesus teaching and example?

Only we as individuals and a congregation can answer these questions. But let us ask them.


Deb @ Frugal Little Bungalow said...

Margie your sermons are always great, full of research and an intelligent thoughtful view to the Scriptures and history! :)

Margie's Musings said...

Thank you, Deb. I appreciate your opinion so much.