The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 2, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 14:1-12
Jesus: Something New
Well, we’ve stepped into this year … The River, I mean – of course. And the truth is, this isn’t the first time. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the remembrance of Jesus’ Baptism always brings us to, and into the river. Every year. This year, however, the water is deeper and the current is stronger, moving us along in the “Way of Jesus” more provocatively than ever before.
Jesus was fully human. Like us in every way. “Those who lived and walked and ate and talked and companied with Jesus saw absolutely nothing unnatural and abnormal about him. His (humanity) was complete (Barclay).” Ours must be, too. We do not differ from Jesus in kind, only in degree.
Jesus was divine. Like us in every way except, “without sin.” Might this be a definition of “divinity” for the 21st century, “full humanity.” Without sin most thoroughly and properly understood as “without separation;” without being apart from the will of “God,” the walk of Life, the Way of Love; understanding that God and God’s Kingdom are within us and among us; living our lives as ones who have died to all that separates us from this Kingdom for a Truth in this world no less real than any God beyond it. Jesus claimed his divinity through his humanity. What about us?
That’s the question for the weeks ahead. What will it take for us to accept our divine nature through living as fully as Jesus did and loving as wastefully as he loved? We will use these moments in our communal worship, our sermon time, this month to explore more deeply than ever who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the 1st century so we might find the courage to be and do the same things in the 21st century.
Let’s pray …
So, we begin this month with a deeper exploration of something new, brand new, that Jesus proclaimed, namely: The Kingdom of God is here. Many “eschatological prophets,” those who preached of “end times,” before and during Jesus’ life spoke of an imminent arrival of God. Jesus preached, and lived, the “realized arrival of God.” God is already here, now, Jesus told those who listened and would follow him.
This may not have always been his message, however. And, in our ongoing effort to understand Jesus as more human than we usually allow, I want to share with you a history, a possibility, that Jesus, too, learned how to live “without separation” by learning how “God” is at work in the world. He may have learned this profound lesson from his cousin, John the Baptist.
We left John on the river’s edge weeks ago when we stepped into it and got swept away with Jesus. There isn’t any way to know with certainty exactly when John died; but sometime after baptizing Jesus, John was imprisoned by Herod for denouncing his marriage to Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother. Such a marriage was illegal according to Jewish law. Herod was Jewish. John condemned him for his actions and Herod arrested John. And more …
Listen for the Word of God in our reading from Matthew, chapter fourteen, beginning with the first verse. Read Matthew 14:1-12. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Always a curious scripture reading, especially on Sunday morning. While it’s true that Salome’s dance and John’s beheading have fired the imaginations of artists in many fields, they’ve not inspired too many Sunday morning sermons. But I’ve come to believe that the death of John was a turning point in the life of Jesus. These two are cousins whose mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, were sisters. John is a bit older if we follow our scriptural accounts of their births. And surely, surely they met before that fateful day at the River Jordan. Their mothers are sisters in a Jewish community. We don’t have any authoritative recorded history of who these two boys were or how they grew up to become young men, but at some point John got into some “over the edge” stuff that took him out into the wilderness to eat locusts and honey and wear animal skins. And eventually Jesus and John met up, for the first time we’re led to believe by what’s recorded, when they were about 30 and John baptized Jesus in the Jordan to fulfill Hebrew scripture and begin Jesus’ formal ministry. But again, of course they had met before.
What did these cousins, Jesus and John, have to do with each other “in-between” their birth and Jesus baptism. And how did that history influence Jesus’ ministry. It’s speculation, and not original to me (confer God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan), but their association almost certainly included more than a baptism.
At some point as we’ve noted, John headed into the wilderness and that’s about all we’re given scripturally. Our focus is, of course, on Jesus when they meet on that day at the river; so we ignore any attempt at better understanding John and his ministry. But John was a prophet, too, not just a “baptizer.” He was an “eschatological prophet,” one concerned with the end times, and he wasn’t alone. There were others like him (many others) and he had disciples, himself. We picture John as a loner, but he’s not alone. He plays his part in the salvation story of Jesus, but he had a ministry of his own. That’s why he was at the river that day. He was concerned with the “end times” and he proclaimed the imminent arrival of the avenging God. Any day now, God would be arriving to “purify and justify an earth grown old in impurity and injustice.” A critical mass of “repentant,” baptized people were needed. They would prepare for, and perhaps hasten, this coming event, so John is baptizing. “No matter how non-violent his proclamation was in theory, (or how much we’d like to whitewash it), John was planting ticking time-bombs … all over the Jewish homeland” and so Herod had him arrested.
Having been baptized by him, Jesus on some level must have accepted John’s message of an imminent arrival and an apocalyptic and avenging God, at least originally. He very likely could have been one of John’s disciples. That’s not hard to imagine when we consider the plight of the poor in first century Roman Palestine; when we imagine the boy Jesus growing up in the shadow of an Empire that killed and enslaved all who opposed them, surely men, women, and children that Jesus and his parents knew. On some level Jesus must have accepted, even hoped for, God’s revenge.
We’re very uneasy with that. This is not living “without separation” from a God of Love. This is not a picture of the Prince of Peace we proclaim or the Lord we profess. But, if something like this “history” actually happened, then – given what more we know of Jesus – something else happened to change everything. And, we’re back, now, to this odd and “seldom preached” scripture passage. This event was formative for Jesus, I believe. If (and I understand fully that this is huge, speculative “if,” but if) Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of a violent God’s imminent arrival, he changed from that to a theology of God’s non-violent presence precisely because of what happened to John. Let’s take a closer look …
This story is presented in flashback. Herod has heard reports about Jesus and tells his servants that he is John the Baptist “raised from the dead.” John is already dead, you see, in the first two verses. Beginning with verse three, our reading “flashes back” and tells us when and how this happened. Presumably what is meant by Herod is that “Jesus is another John,” or John’s successor and he will have to be dealt with eventually. However, though Jesus did “come after John,” Matthew 3:11 Herod was wrong about him being John’s successor.
The very last sentence of our passage notes that John’s disciples went and took the body and buried it and then they went and told Jesus. What must Jesus have thought? “John expected God’s (coming), but (Herod’s) cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence.” And this is the moment when the one who came after changed our world and the world recognized the Christ.
Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Maybe …
God’s ways are not the world’s ways.
Maybe we can’t envision a violent God to legitimize our human violence.
Maybe we must stop waiting for God to act, like a flash of lightning beyond time and space, and understand that God has already, and still is, acting.
Maybe the Kingdom of God is not imminent, but present.
Maybe it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us.
God’s “purification and justification of a world grown old in impurity and injustice” has already begun, Jesus began to proclaim, and this justification and purification is an “interactive process.” “To see the Kingdom of God,” Jesus began to preach, “come and see how we live and then live likewise: with justice, in kindness and humility, worshiping not a vengeful, violent deity, but a non-violent God of love and righteousness and peace. That is how God is. That is who God is.
This is the “something new” that began in the life of Jesus two thousand years ago. This is the “nothing new” that we are called to live and proclaim in and through our own lives today. Can we do it? Yes! I believe that with all my heart. We can.
Will we do it?
I’m not going to answer that question with as much certainty. I can’t, of course, answer it for you. And, I’m afraid to answer it for myself in front of you. But, we can’t ignore it. Or more precisely, we mustn’t. “Can we live as Jesus lived?” What needs to change in our own lives to make us realize that our ways, and the messages of this world – even those who claim to speak for God – are not the ways and messages of God if they do not reject violence and hatred, provide an opportunity for deeper compassion toward all, and offer a path into Love itself. That’s all we have to do (!). Something new begins with remembering something ancient. And guess what?
Our table is set for us. Memory is its main course. Let us prepare to gather at the table so Christ may come again. Amen.
Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 2, 2020
 Crossan. God and Empire. 111.
 Ibid. 112.
 Ibid. 115
 Ibid. 116.