Now arrives the Hour: 22 January 2017

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Readings Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, Psalm 27: 1 – 10, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, Matthew 4: 12 – 25

The parallels are quite extraordinary really – at least at surface level.

  • “The time for empty talk is over … now arrives the hour for action” – Donald Trump. “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near” – Jesus Christ.
  • Both appeal to the ‘forgotten’ people – those of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri – Donald Trump; and those of Zebulin and Napthali, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – Jesus Christ.
  • Both appear to have all the answers to the problems of their followers. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American” – Donald Trump. “(He) went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” – Jesus Christ.

But after that – I’m not so sure.

Jesus Christ, of course, has the advantage over Donald Trump, despite the enormous number of words that have been written and spoken both by Trump and about Trump over the past few years. As yet, Donald Trump has only his campaign rhetoric behind him. Jesus Christ has two thousand years and, if we are to believe St Matthew, many hundreds of years of history and expectation before that. But before you think that this is a political science lecture let me take us back to today’s Gospel reading from St Matthew, chapter 4, vv 12 – 25.

As always, the context is important. Who wrote the Gospel, and for whom? What is the setting of the particular passage – what’s in the chapters before and after our particular passage?

Tradition suggests Matthew, someone close to the Jesus story and the followers of Jesus, even if not the Disciple known as Matthew the tax collector and mentioned in Chapter 9 verse 9. Likely to have been written four or five decades after the main events described in the Gospel – the active preaching, teaching and healing works of Jesus of Nazareth, culminating in his arrest and crucifixion and death – Matthew’s Gospel seems to be aimed at those who are Jewish. And yet, throughout the Gospel, and especially in the last few verses, there is a sense that the Gospel is not aimed only at Jews. David Bosch[i], tragically killed in a motor accident about twenty years ago, but still regarded as one of the greatest of modern commentators on the mission of the Church, suggests Matthew wrote primarily for those Christians who were Jewish, but now found themselves increasingly alienated from the synagogues.

Their vision and understanding of God’s mission was bigger than that of an earthly kingdom with a Jewish king based around a particular city in a very small country. That was the vision found in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah – a small threatened population who felt the need to withdraw, isolate themselves, keep ‘them’ at bay. The new vision, which, incidentally, is beautifully expressed in many parts of the Book of Isaiah, is of a people whose lives are so attractive that others, “all the nations of the world”, will come flocking to see what they have. This vision is built on openness to others, a willingness to share the good things they have, a genuine generosity of heart. And as so often happens, it is the little people, the forgotten people, the so-called lost, the last and the least, who are the most generous. So it is with Zebulun and Naphtali – the two northernmost tribes of Israel, the most oppressed by centuries of foreign rule. It is here that Jesus, according to Matthew, chooses to begin his ministry.

But take a moment to get the context. Matthew chapter 1 places Jesus in an historic context and gives him an impeccable pedigree. Chapter 2 tells us something of the birth of Jesus and especially the story of those strange visitors from the East – not Jewish at all. That story ends in tragedy as the jealous King Herod orders the slaughter of the Holy Innocents and Joseph and Mary flee, with their precious bundle, into a strange land. Chapter 3 opens with the fiery John the Baptist calling for repentance, a genuine change of life, in preparation for the one who comes after him. The chapter ends with John, reluctantly, baptising Jesus. Chapter 4 opens with Jesus being led (interesting word) into the wilderness, there to face the temptations of the devil.

Then comes today’s passage with its four key components. It is followed immediately by the Sermon on the Mount, three chapters of intense teaching by Jesus on the new life-style he invites all his followers, disciples, to enter into.

I have already commented on Zebulun and Naphtali – but let’s note the idea of a people who live in darkness and the coming of the light. This contrast between light and darkness is one we normally associate more with St John’s Gospel – but here it is in Matthew. And it gives the immediate setting for Jesus’ mission statement: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Where John the Baptist seemed to expect plenty of grovelling in his call for repentance, the same is not so of Jesus. Rather, repentance here might be likened to a call to focus, to pay attention, to come on board; or even, as we see in the next paragraph, to respond to the call of Jesus. For a long time I struggled with the idea that repentance means a 180 degree turn around; literally moving from darkness to light; from going in one direction to another. After all, I thought, I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I have my faults, but I am not really a bad person. And then someone suggested that repentance also has the sense of a course correction. Imagine the navigator of a plane (yes – even MH370) misreads the compass and gives the pilot a reading which is only half a degree out. Little as that seems it will still cause the target to be missed. Perhaps repentance is like that – a course correction which brings the target back into focus. And the target?  – the Kingdom of Heaven. The reign of God is no longer something in the dim distant future – but here, among us, in our midst, in the person and presence of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and glorified.

Having given out his mission statement Jesus’ next task is to call people to join him, to help him, to be with him. “Follow me,” he says to the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” To them is given the task of being fishers for people. Later Jesus calls Matthew from his tax collecting, names the Twelve to be Apostles, and still later sends them out to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19)

What exactly, we may ask, does this mean? Politicians and commentators talk about the first hundred days of a new incumbent (I even heard last week that Archbishop-elect Geoff’s first hundred days have already been mapped out). St Matthew doesn’t number the days but he does, in the last paragraph of today’s Gospel reading, give us an idea of what Jesus himself did, and called his disciples to do. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Teaching, proclaiming, healing. In simple practical ways bringing wholeness to people. Living into, and in, the Kingdom of Heaven. Nothing more, nothing less. And the Church has been doing that ever since.

Many years ago I was told the story of Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, James and John, to leave their nets and follow him. In my own stumbling, often bumbling, way I said yes then and continue to say yes now. I wonder, who here this morning, is being called to repent, to leave their ‘nets’ and ‘boats’, and follow Jesus because the kingdom of heaven has come near?

A prayer for today:

Loving God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: help us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may faithfully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[i] David J Bosch: Transforming Mission