In our gospel reading from St. Matthew this morning we meet Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Thus far Matthew has given us the account of his birth, his baptism, and his being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And now, Jesus begins his ministry in the northern-most region of Israel (way up there in Rexdale). Out there, on the fringes.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew records these as the first of Jesus’ words in Galilee. I want us, this morning, to hear these words. I want us to hear Christ himself speaking them, to us gathered here this morning. They are familiar words to most of us, of course. But I hope that this morning they become a little bit stranger. First we will focus on the latter part, “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and then we will turn our attention to that first word, “repent.”
Matthew tells us that, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” OK, that’s not exactly how we heard it this morning. What we heard was, “…and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom…” The word, however, is Gospel, or in Greek, euangelion. Friends, McDonald’s has just announced that they are rolling out all-day breakfast across the GTA. That is good news. The Gospel that Jesus proclaims, on the other hand, that’s a whole other category.
To help us better understand this it’s important to know that the Evangelists adopted this language from the Roman Empire. Emperors would, from time to time, issue edicts, called in Latin evangelium, the content of which was not always cheerful or pleasant. Such gospel was not just another piece of news, but changed the Roman world for all its inhabitants. So, when Matthew and the authors of the New Testament adopt this language and place it on Jesus’ lips what they’re saying is this: You know all of those claims and assertions that the emperors, who play-act at being gods, illegitimately make? Well that is what is really occurring here—a message endowed with real authority, not just talk but reality.
What is the content of the Gospel that Jesus announces? It is the kingdom of God which has come near. Right then, what is the kingdom of God and what is Jesus’ relation to it? And what about Simon and Andrew, James and John, how do they fit in? How do we fit in?
Well, we know a bit about what it isn’t. The kingdom isn’t simply an interior reality, a private spirituality having nothing much to do with the world. It isn’t the Church, per se. It isn’t something that we can build or achieve, like a more just and peaceful world that we can harness our energies towards creating.
The kingdom of God is not a matter of human acquisition but of divine gift.
Quite simply, the kingdom of God refers to God’s actual sovereignty over the world. When Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God he is proclaiming the living God, who exists and who holds the world and all that is in his hands. And more than that, he is telling us that God is acting now, in history—this is the hour that God is showing himself as the Lord of history, the God of all creation, in a way that has never before been seen.
This announcement is rooted in the Old Testament. There is a whole movement, in fact, of promise and of expectation from Abraham on up through the prophets. As we heard in the prophet Isaiah this morning, the arrival of this king would be like the dawning of a great light that would bring with it great rejoicing. Why? Because finally the yoke of oppression that weighed Israel down would be broken.
Matthew takes this same passage and places it here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “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.” Matthew could not be more clear: all of human history, not only Israel’s history, leads here to Jesus himself.
The coming of this light in Jesus both disturbs us and captivates us. It disturbs us because by it we see that apart from Christ the world is a dark place. And we who dwell therein apart from Christ are sluggish, paralyzed—we sit in darkness, unable to move. So Christ exposes the truth of our reality and it is not beautiful.
And yet the beauty of Christ himself draws us in. In him we come to see that darkness and gloom is not the fate of the world, in him we see another reality and way of being. In him we see the world taken up and redeemed. This is the simple fact that the Gospel announces. This is the truth. This isn’t just another piece of news, but has rather changed the world for all its inhabitants. Now then is a unique time of conversion and penance, as well as a time of great joy, because in Jesus God has drawn near to us.
So, wherever Jesus is there is God ruling and acting. Not with worldly power, exercising authority over others and demanding unquestioning allegiance. But rather in a divine way, ruling through a love that reaches to the end (John 13:1), all the way to death on the Cross.
In light of this self-giving love, what we are confronted with in Jesus is not primarily a demand for allegiance but rather an invitation to follow.
“Simon and Andrew, James and John, follow me.” Isn’t it interesting that Jesus Christ comes not just for the life of the world but for Simon and Andrew, James and John as well. That is, Jesus came not just to save all people but to save every person. This person here, Simon the fisherman and that person there, James son of Zebedee. These men have names and histories, they are particular men. Likewise, Jesus Christ calls you in particular to follow him. Friends, if you sense yourself drawn to Jesus Christ, do not resist. If he calls you, the best thing you can do is get up and go with him wherever he might lead us.
And immediately, Matthew tells us, they got up and left everything (“Bye, Dad”) and followed him. Amazing. No hesitation just pure response. Why was this, I wonder? Do you think perhaps these men were particularly well suited? I mean, they were working the family business so we know they weren’t exactly the religious elite. In fact, as Matthew tells it they weren’t even expecting it. It’s not as if they were out looking for the kingdom. No, they were working. The kingdom of God does not spring up on those who were looking for it, but shines upon those who were unprepared for it (Origen).
No, I think what Matthew is drawing our attention to with the immediacy of their response is not anything in them at all, but rather the power and effectiveness of Christ’s word. It catches, it empowers. When Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil he said, “leave” and the devil left. Here, when he called the fishermen they left their nets and went with him. There is a power in the word of Jesus. As the Reformer Martin Luther put it, “When this Speaker saith something that He will have, it must be so.” What is Christ saying to you, to us? Where is Christ speaking his word in your life to liberate you and bring you to light and life? What areas of your life have you clung on to and refused to submit to the lordship of Christ? What darkness do you remain in that Christ wants to bring his light into? And if you sense the light of Christ shining, how should we respond?
At the same time it wasn’t simply the potency of Christ’s word that caused the disciples to get up and follow Jesus. As if they were programmed and unable to respond themselves. No, the word of Christ called out of them a response that was truly their own. And they did respond and go because they were drawn to the beauty of Christ himself.
Why did my friend give up his established career as a lawyer in the southern US and move his family up to Toronto to go to seminary and become a priest? Why do Christians in millions of other walks of life regularly give up practices and ways of life that seem attractive in order to pursue Jesus instead? The answer can only be Jesus himself. People see him, they hear his word and know the power of his living presence, and that is enough.
This is precisely what repentance is all about—responding to Jesus in faith. Repentance then, is an invitation and not a demand. It is a gift. As my friend Sean has said, repentance, “is the very way that we welcome God’s love” and take part in life with him. Jesus’ call to repent doesn’t hang over us like some terrible divine ultimatum, it is “given as a gift from the King who stands with us as Friend.”
Repentance is the gift of a great exchange: Christ Jesus has broken the yoke and the burden that weighs us down so that we can take the yoke of his lordship upon our shoulders.
As Jesus will say a little later on in Matthew: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” (11:28-30).
If you’re hearing my words this morning and you’re unsure that you can do what it is Christ is calling you to do, to give up or leave behind whatever it is you need to leave to follow him, know that his word will empower you to do so. Or, if you’ve been on the way for a while now and are tired and weary, have you taken up some of those old burdens again? Or, if you don’t have it all figured out yet and you’re not really sure you can trust Jesus with your life, know that you can still take the first step in response to his calling you. You will learn all you need to know in time as you stay with Jesus. The prayer of the Psalmist will be our prayer as we go: “Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path,” (Psalm 27:11).
And along the way with Jesus, Simon and Andrew, James and John, you and I, are given a task: “I will make you fishers of men.” In calling people into a saving relationship with himself Jesus gives them a share in his own ministry and work. The Holy Spirit gathers a community around the risen Jesus whose sole purpose is to love and adore him, to live in friendship with him, and to proclaim the Gospel with him to the world. That is, we are invited to invite others into the way of Jesus, to come and see as Canon Beth preached last week.
Some of you are here this morning because one day the Holy Spirit used someone, perhaps many someones, to extend Christ’s own invitation to you to: Follow me. Or, perhaps you are new here and are hearing Christ’s call afresh? Whatever the case, we’re all here, whether we are conscious of it or not, because we are drawn to Jesus. Like us, Jesus is drawing others to himself as well. Are we willing to go out and find them? Are we willing to walk with them on the way? We needn’t look far, I’ll bet there are some such people right under our noses if only we are spiritually discerning.
Wherever Christ is, there God is with us. In the words of Holy Scripture, in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. “For those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” He has broken the yoke of slavery and put his own yoke upon us. Let us rejoice and be glad! Let us adore and worship him! He is alive, today he lives, he reigns and he calls not just all people but every person to follow him. And to follow him and know him who lives is the greatest thing ever for in him we know light and life and in his light we see the whole world redeemed. And in his light we are healed and ourselves made new—no more gloom for those who were in anguish, no, now glorious in Christ! This is the Gospel of Christ! Somebody say it with me: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 (Ratzinger 47).