The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 10, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 4:12-17
From This Time Forward
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
Thus says the Lord.
Pray with me … And listen this morning for the word of God. Read Matthew 4:12-17. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
From the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to the Gospels of the New Testament. This morning, Matthew. I want you to think about the Gospel of Matthew for a moment. Think about how you feel when you think of the Gospel of Matthew along with the other Gospels. Luke is a close second, but it’s cerebral – you have to think a lot. Mark is mystical. You have think a lot in a different way. It’s the shortest, too, so you have to fill in a lot of blanks as you’re reading. And John, of course … is John, different in too many ways to name right now.
Now, I read and re-read that paragraph I just spoke in the past few days, knowing that I spend a lot more time in the Gospels and have studied them in ways most of you, if not all of you haven’t. But I still think … I still believe … that there’s something special about Matthew for all of us. Mark is actually my favorite, but Matthew is special. It’s the first Gospel in our canon, in the New Testament of our Bible, but there’s something more. This week I was reminded of what it is.
What has made Matthew so beloved to generation after generation of Christians, what makes it “different” to us, is that it combines something that is absolutely essential for us. It combines gospel and ethics, faith and morality, belief and action. And that’s exactly where we are right now in our journey into, through and beyond Christmas. Into Christmas we sought to more deeply understand that the birth we celebrate every year is our own. Through Christmas, we accepted our “belovedness.” And beyond Christmas this year, we have heard of God’s hope in us, and for us. So … it’s time to put our faith into action. It’s time for the Gospel of Matthew.
I’ve been insisting in these past months that Christmas and this whole “Christian thing” is not just about Jesus and what he did then and there. It’s about us and about what we’re doing, or ought to be doing, here and now. The author of Matthew sets himself severely over against any so-called Christians who claim that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is all that is required of us. And that’s a lot of Christians today, a lot of communities that we envy for their size and outward vitality.
For too many of us, Christmas is all about someone else. After Christmas is all about “believing.” And further after Christmas, like mid-February, or so …? Well, the lives of too many in the church are not conforming with our confession. The purpose of the Gospel of Matthew is to convince us all that genuine faith in Christ must be demonstrated in daily obedience. So, we move from Prophecy, from hearing of God’s love for us, into Gospel to hear again what God needs from us.
The scripture we shared this morning is one of three that serve to prepare us to hear what it will take for the Kingdom of God to come. In Matthew, this reality, the Kingdom where wolves and lambs lie down together and lions and ox eat with one another, is most often referred to as ‘the Kingdom of Heaven.” We’ve talked about this before, but it crucial that we don’t misunderstand this reference. Jesus’ teachings that follow are not teachings that are about how to “get to heaven.” They are not about our escape from this world into another one. That would make it easier for us to just “accept Jesus” and wait for the next life. But the teachings that follow are about God’s will and God’s way coming here, to this earth, into our lives. None of this, of what follows, as appealing as it is to believe it, is about future salvation. It is about present action.
We could spend hours in conspiracy theories, wondering if and how the church as an institution found it, and still finds it, profitable to keep us focused on what “can be,” rather than “what is.” To keep its members, and even those who say they no longer participate in the church, fixated on raptures and second comings that happen at the end of life, rather than on transformations that need to happen now. But those, perhaps, are sermons for later. Lenten sermons, maybe. For this morning and the weeks ahead, please understand that Matthew’s changing the kingdom of God to the Kingdom of Heaven comes simply out of his communities practice of showing reverence for the divine name. “The Kingdom of Heaven” refers not to the place where God rules, but to the activity of now that Jesus called, and calls us to: The Kingdom … is at hand.
Matthew suggests that this Kingdom draws near as Jesus begins his teachings. Curiously, those teachings begin immediately after Jesus hears that John the Baptist had been arrested. Everything changes here. No longer is John preaching about a Kingdom that is imminent, close but not yet here. Now, Jesus will be preaching about a Kingdom that “is at hand.” Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in “Capernaum by the sea.” Matthew seems to do this to fulfill ancient prophecy. That may not have been necessary, since Nazareth, like Capernaum, was situated in the tribal lands that Isaiah wrote about centuries earlier. But again, Matthew is making it perfectly clear that everything is about to change.
Jesus speaks the same word that John spoke in chapter three: Repent – turn around, get right, get ready. Everything is about to change. He calls his first disciples. He goes into Galilee, teaching, curing, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, gathering all those with ears to hear from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Mt. 4:25 And with all those called, following, and gathered, he begins the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ “inaugural address” to all of us, more than anything else, sets Matthew apart form the other Gospels.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed , blessed, blessed, nine times over “blessed” or “blessed are they.” “You are the salt,” he says. “And the light.”
He teaches us about the law and the prophets. He teaches lessons concerning anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, almsgiving, prayers, fasting, true treasure, loving our enemies, serving two masters, judging others, worrying about tomorrow, asking, searching and knocking, the Golden Rule, the narrow gate, false prophets and hearers and doers. In other words, he teaches us everything it will take for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven.
In that last lesson in his profound and deeply overwhelming sermon he sounds the note that we’ve already mentioned, the one that dominates all Matthew’s Gospel: Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of (God). (Mt. 7:21) So, here we are – anointed, loved, and seeking to do the will of God. God has shown us what is good. Jesus has taught us.
The poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are hungry and thirsty are not far off in the future. They’re right here. They need faith. They need comfort. They need food and water.
The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers are not for a time far off in the future. They, we, are for right now. We must be merciful, not vengeful. We must be pure in heart, not deceitful and conniving. We must bring peace through just practices, not conflict and strife through unjust ones.
Those who are prosecuted for righteousness sake and are “reviled” because they practice these Kingdom values are certainly not unfamiliar to us. They are all those who dare to not only believe in a Kingdom here and now, but to act to make it even more visible. They have been ostracized, imprisoned, assassinated, and crucified. Maybe that’s why we try to keep all this Kingdom talk for the next life. But, of course, we can’t. Jesus didn’t and we differ from him only to the degree we decide to do what he did – to proclaim the Kingdom come and to work toward it’s completion … on earth as it is …
We can read from the first Testament of our bible, the Hebrew scriptures, and find occasions of God’s “breaking into the world” in the nation of Israel, through the wisdom writers and the prophets. We can turn to the sacred writings of other faith traditions and find articulations of the Divine’s interaction with our world and its people. But for us, Jesus’ Way is the Way. His truth is the Truth. And his Life is the Life we must live. For us, Jesus announces and begins to usher in God’s Kingdom.
It’s certainly not unfaithful to believe that Jesus came to earth to die – His death destroys our own. But it is more faithful, more true to the Gospels – to the Gospel of Matthew, to say that he came first to live. In fact, it can be truthfully said that Jesus’ death takes on the power it has for us only in connection with what he lived for and proclaimed.
Any guesses as to what that was? God’s Kingdom. Wolves and lambs and lions and oxes. No destroying … one another.
Matthew signals the beginning of what God is doing in and through Jesus using the same words that he had John proclaim just thirty-four verses earlier: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus, like John, seeks to announce and usher in God’s kingdom. Jesus, unlike John, will announce that this kingdom will not come through death and damnation, but through life – through His life and the lives of those who would dare to do what comes next. That’s us. We’ve spent months recognizing and reassuring ourselves. It’s time.
The last verse in our scripture reading begins “From that time Jesus began to proclaim …” I’ve made the verb present tense and added the word “forward” to my sermon title to make this pressing for us. From this time forward. These words mark a transition: for Matthew, for Jesus, and for us.
Joseph Campbell, who did some deep work with symbols and archetypes in cultures all around the world, says that with words like these, from this time forward, “Destiny summons the hero (in Matthew’s case, Jesus – in our case, us) and transfers their spiritual gravity to a place unknown.” That’s the moment we all face when we finally accept the call that is ours from God in Jesus Christ, a challenge that “shifts our spiritual center of gravity” from a story of self alone to one that will mean something in a larger context, in the lives of others, for the good of the world. The kingdom of God has come near …
To what does God call us? We’ve heard some responses to that question this morning, but there’s so much more. Too often we answer that question in terms that don’t require enough of us. We say we’re called to belief, or church membership, or to service, or to all of these. But our call is to Life. Our call is to give all that we have for something worth infinitely more.
The kingdom of God has come near … through us … on earth. This morning a ministry begins … it is ours. Let us begin the morning’s response by singing, “Lord, Make Us Servants of Your Peace.” We aren’t going to sing verse five this morning, not because it’s not true, but because we are focused in these weeks before Lent on Life – abundant life, here and now, for all.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 10, 2019
 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1968. 58