Isaiah 9.1-4; Ps.27. 1.4-9; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23
I was a little taken aback, when I looked at the readings for today and found that I had never studied them in any depth before. They did not seem to have any real theme. One might have thought that the Epistle reading from Corinthians, with the call for unity among the Christians, would have been more appropriate last week when we had the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Also, the Old Testament Reading seemed to be out of place, until I realised that we are still in the Epiphany season, the revealing of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
Isaiah talks of ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,’ and how they will rejoice when the long awaited Messiah comes as promised. The Gospel reading refers us to the Old Testament reading and tells us that when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he left Nazareth, and went the 28 miles to live in Capernaum, which is small town by the Sea of Galilee. He mentions Zebulun and Naphtali and they were the very first tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to be deported by the Assyrians 700 years before Matthew wrote his Gospel.
The area of Zebulun and Naphtali had not been called that for a very long time.
To get an idea of how odd it is that Matthew describes the area in that way, imagine a modern-day writer referring to Paris as being in the “territory of the Franks”. Matthew is trying to get us to think historically. And his point is that Jesus — the son of David — is beginning his restoration of the Davidic kingdom, (and its transformation into the kingdom of heaven), at the place where the Jews had abandoned God’s covenant seven centuries before. Matthew goes on to say that from that time Jesus began to make his proclamation. ‘Repent!’ he would say. ‘The kingdom of heaven is arriving!’
There are two things we need to understand. Matthew normally has Jesus speak of the ‘kingdom of heaven’; 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. We should also understand that, ‘kingdom of heaven’ does not mean the place we call ‘heaven’; the place where God’s people go after their death. How could heaven be said to be ‘approaching’ or ‘arriving’? No. If ‘kingdom of heaven’ means the same as ‘kingdom of God’, then we have a much clearer idea of what Jesus had in mind.
Anyone who was warning people about something that was about to happen must have known that the people he was talking to would understand. And any first-century Jew hearing someone talking about God’s kingdom, or the kingdom of heaven, would know that this meant revolution. The Romans had conquered Jesus’ homeland about sixty years before he was born. 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 this, and longed for a chance to revolt. But they weren’t just eager for freedom in the way that most subject peoples are. They wanted it because of what they believed about God, themselves and the world. If they were God’s special people, then it couldn’t be God’s will to have pagan foreigners ruling them. What’s more, God had made promises in their scriptures that one day he 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, who would turn the upside-down world the right way up again. And these revolutionaries believed that 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.
And now Jesus was declaring that God’s kingdom, the sovereign rule of heaven, was approaching like an express train. Those who were standing idly by had better take note and get out of the way. For them God’s kingdom meant danger as well as hope. If justice and peace are on the way, those who have twisted justice or disturbed the peace may be in trouble. They had better get their act together while there’s time. And the good old word for that is: ‘Repent!’ The trouble with that word, ‘repent’, is that people have often not fully understood it. And I include myself in that group. It wasn’t until I looked into the doctrine of repentance that I understood its true meaning.
Repentance as taught in the Bible is a call to persons to make a radical turn from one way of life to another.
The repentance called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. Although it includes sorrow and regret, it is much more than that. It is a call to conversion from self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion to obedient trust and full commitment to God. It is a change of mind that involves a conscious turning away from wrong actions, attitudes and thoughts that conflict with a Godly lifestyle and biblical commands, and an intentional turning toward doing that which the Bible says pleases God. In repenting, one makes a complete change of direction, a 180° about turn toward God. Repentance typically requires an admission of guilt for committing a wrong or for omitting to do the right thing; and a promise not to repeat the offence. It also requires an attempt to reverse the harmful effects of any wrong done or, where possible, make good any omissions. And if we do truly repent, God has promised to forgive.
The reading from Matthew then moves to the sea shore. This can be linked to last week’s Gospel which recalled how Jesus’ first two disciples joined him from among the followers of John the Baptist. Today we heard how Jesus recruited more disciples from the fisher folk, two of whom were his cousins. We can wonder why they left their lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. The answer can only be in Jesus himself, and in the astonishing magnetism of his presence and personality.
Let us consider what it might have been like to be there when Jesus chose those fishermen to be his disciples. They’d had talked with him and heard him speaking, and they had never met anyone so inspiring. They wondered if he really could be the promised One. That morning they saw him coming while he was some way off. As he drew level with them, they looked up, caught his eye and smiled a hesitant greeting; and he stopped, and spoke to them, and their hearts pounded. Just to be with him would be beyond their wildest dreams; and to be of use to him, to be given new direction, gifts and skills… So their response was eager and immediate.
Jesus knew that time was short and the urgency required that he had some help. From his many followers he would choose some disciples whom he could train and send on a mission: to be apostles of the Kingdom. Deliberately he would choose twelve – twelve would be a sign of his New Israel. Sent out in two’s, they would increase the preaching sevenfold. He began steadily collecting those whom he wanted. Like us they were a mixed bunch: They had complementing or conflicting temperaments – impetuous, cautious, arrogant, humble, perceptive, hesitant, quick-tempered, and with one – sure that he was right – and they had to learn to live and work together. But most of all they had so much to learn from him about God, and the Kingdom, the world, and other people, about themselves, and about love.
Still he comes, and he will call you by your name, call you for your skills and gifts, for the service of the Kingdom. If we give ourselves to him – he gives us to each other: and we have to learn to live and work together with all who follow him.
Will you turn and follow him when he calls, – we have so much to learn.
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.