PASTORS PATTI AND JON STRATTON, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF RUTLAND, VT

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1 REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NEAR Sunday 1/22/17 FBC Rutland by Pastor Patti Stratton Matthew 4:12-17 Continuing our journey through the Gospel of Matthew today we pick up where Pastor Jon finished last week. Following Jesus baptism by John in the Jordan, having just been confirmed by God through a voice speaking from heaven and the Spirit s witness in the form of a dove that same Spirit led Jesus into the desert where he stayed without food or companionship for 49 days before enduring a time of testing by the tempter. After the tempter left him the text says angels came and attended him. Let s read what happens next, Matthew 4:12-17, the beginning should sound familiar 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. So it s winter that means we have more of a chance of bad weather and I m never sure what it means when the Weather Service issues a weather watch verses a weather warning. So I looked it up in hopes of finally getting it straight in my head. Here s what I learned: a 1

2 weather watch is issued when atmospheric conditions are favorable or expected but not occurring or imminent for the development of whatever sort of bad weather we re expecting. A weather warning is issued when the conditions are occurring or imminent. A watch is when conditions are favorable or expected but not yet occurring. A warning is when conditions are already occurring or imminent. I think I ve got it! The warning of an approaching event is always important. We need to know what s coming, how dangerous it might be, and what we need to do to get ready. While we were living in Maine, when a nor easter warning was issued, that meant that everyone raided the grocery store and I would strongly urge my husband to check the status of our generator! In our text today, it means Listen up! Because the kingdom of heaven is near, it s approaching, it s imminent, and indeed it is happening already! Repent! According to Matthew s gospel the first thing Jesus says in his public ministry is that the kingdom of heaven is imminent, it s near, so get ready. This theme, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Is central to everything Jesus said and did and to everything the gospels say about him. It is remarkable how few people really understood and grasped what was going on. Let s explore Matthew normally has Jesus speak of the kingdom of heaven where the other gospels normally use the phrase kingdom of God. Saying heaven instead of God was a regular Jewish way of avoiding the word God out of reverence and respect. Remembering that Matthew s Gospel is the most Jewish of the Gospels and seems to have been written primarily to and for a Jewish audience, this makes perfect sense. Even today, when reading Jewish writers, we often see God written as G-d. This means that we need to clear out of our minds the idea that kingdom of heaven means a place as in the place where God s people go after they die. Thinking of the kingdom of heaven in that way would make no sense here. How could that sort of kingdom be described as approaching, imminent, or arriving? 2

3 Now, if kingdom of heaven means the same as kingdom of God, and I believe that it does, then we begin to have a much clearer idea of what Jesus was talking about. We re starting to hear his words more like the people who were listening to him speak would have heard them. Any first-century Jew, hearing someone talking about God s kingdom, or the kingdom of heaven, would know. This meant revolution. Jesus grew up in the shadow of human kingdom movements. The Romans had conquered his homeland about sixty years before he was born. They were the last in a long line of nations to do so. They had installed Herod the Great, and then his sons after him, as puppet monarchs to do their dirty work for them. Most Jews resented both Rome and the Herod family, and longed for a chance to revolt. But they weren t just eager for freedom in the way that most occupied peoples are. They wanted it because of what they believed about God, about themselves, and about the 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 ungodly foreigners ruling them. Plus God had made promises in their scriptures that one day God would indeed rescue them and put everything right. And these promises focused on one thing in particular: God would become king king not only of Israel but of the whole world a king who would bring justice and peace at last; a king who would turn the upside-down world the right way up again. These revolutionaries believed there should be no king but God. God s kingdom, the kingdom of Heaven, was what they longed for, prayed for, worked for, and were prepared to die for. Unfortunately it was their own vision of the kingdom that they wanted and so they didn t recognize what it was that God was doing in their midst. Now Jesus comes declaring that God s kingdom, the sovereign rule of heaven, was approaching like an imminent, already beginning storm and those who were standing idly by had better take note and get read or get out of the way for God s kingdom meant danger as well as hope. 3

4 If justice and peace are on the way, those who have twisted justice or disturbed peace may be in trouble. They had better get their act together while there s time. And the word for that is repent. Now the trouble with the word repent is that many have not understood it. Many have thought it means to feel bad about yourself. It doesn t. It means to change direction, to turn around and go the other way, to stop what you re doing and do the opposite instead. How you feel about it isn t the really important thing. It s what you do that matters. Jesus believed that his contemporaries the priests, the scribes and lawyers, the teachers of the law, and therefore the people were going in the wrong direction. They were bent on revolution but it was kind with military resistance to the occupying forces that would lead to a take-over of power. Remember last week when Pastor Jon spoke to us about the temptations that Jesus endured in the desert? Part of the underlying theme of those temptations was the suggestion that Jesus should use his own status, as God s Messiah, to launch a movement that would sweep him into power. If they were going in the right direction, if they were getting it right what would have been the point or the need for God to Incarnate? Why Jesus come with the message Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near if all was well? Because they and we so often get it wrong. We misunderstand God. The problem with all these movements was that they were fighting darkness with darkness, and Israel was called and Jesus was called and we are called to bring God s light into the world. It is light and love that dispels darkness and evil. In God s economy things are so different. That s why the writer of Matthew s Gospel directly hooks together Jesus early preaching with the prophecy of Isaiah (the text that Nikki read to us a moment ago) that spoke about people in the dark being dazzled by sudden light, a prophecy which went on to speak about the 4

5 child to be born, the coming Messiah, through whom God would truly liberate Israel at last and that we embrace as redemption for us and all of creation as well. (Isaiah 9:1-7). Jesus could see that the standard kind of revolution - the fighting and killing in order to put an end to the fighting and killing kind was nonsense. And doing it in the name of God was blasphemous nonsense. The trouble was that many of his contemporaries were eager to get on with the fight. It seems to have been one of the motivations for Judas. So Jesus message of repentance was not that they should feel sorry for personal and private sins (though that certainly can be and usually is a part of it) but rather that as a nation they should stop rushing towards the cliff edge of violent revolution, and instead go the other way, towards God s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness, for themselves and for the world. What would happen if they didn t change direction? Gradually, as move through Matthew s version of the story I think we ll begin to understand If the light-bearers (I m talking about us now too) insist on darkness, darkness they shall have. If the people called to bring God s love and forgiveness into the world insist on hating, rejecting, and being unwilling to forgive, hatred and all that it brings will come crashing around their ears. This won t be an arbitrary judgment or punishment; it will be what they themselves have been calling for. This is why they must repent while there s still time. The kingdom is coming, and they are standing in the way. Are we? The message is just as urgent today, if not more so for us who live in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the empty tomb. Matthew s Gospel is calling us to understand that the kingdom which Jesus established through his own work, and his death and resurrection, now faces us with the same challenge. 5

6 The warning has been issues, the kingdom is imminent and yes, already here. Will we reverse direction, repent, and embrace our calling to be God s light and God s agents of love, forgiveness, welcome and grace? Will we come to Jesus asking for forgiveness for the wrong that we ve done and welcome the Spirit that will transform us into that agent of God we were always intended to be? Will we recognize the presence of God in our lives as the source of all goodness and light? Will we then work to extend God s kingdom in the world? Or are we standing in its way? With reference and thanks to: N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, Westminster John Knox 2002, p

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