Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23
Today’s reading from Isaiah has incredible hopeful and wonderful news to share about the coming of the messiah. It states:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
This reading, however, seem incredibly jarring under the inauguration of Donald Trump. It is frightening to ponder what could happen when the leader of the free world is racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, who made fun of a disabled reporter and whose first order of business was to take away health care for 18 million people. Furthermore, his stance towards the environment could be catastrophic, and his foreign policy seems to benefit Russia the most. In other words, with this kind of leadership, the country will be in trouble and the rest of the world is worried. So, despite what the Bible has said, it appears as though a storm cloud has gathered blocking the light making life grim. It is surely a time like this when we wonder, “Where are you O God?” How can we manage to live in a time like this?
Despite what we will experience under Donald Trump as the leader of the free world, in other respects, it will not be as bad a situation in which Israel was living under the Roman military occupation. Under this precarious time, Jesus came. He too was concerned. He learned that his mentor, John the Baptist had been arrested. So, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, meaning Jesus was concerned about his safety. For Matthew, Jesus’ decision to settle in the regions of Galilee fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. But for Jesus, however, if the authorities could go after John, then they could go after his disciples that could have included him as well.
Under this situation of Roman military occupation, and under threat for his own personal safety, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Gospel of Matthew uses the kingdom of heaven, and the other gospels use the phrase, kingdom of God. Why the difference? Matthew was writing primarily to a Jewish audience who considers the name of God to be so sacred as not to readily say the name of God. So, Matthew changed the phrase kingdom of God to kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, “Repent.” In English, it has a connotation of being remorseful, but Biblically, it is a process of spiritual transformation. The original Greek word is a very fascinating which is metanoia. Meta means “beyond” like in metaphysics. Noia comes from the word “nous,” which means the mind. Metanoia thus means to go beyond the mind that you have. This means go beyond the way you think about things. Go beyond the way you view the world. Go beyond the way you see yourself. We do not have to hold onto the values we were raised in. We do not have to cling to our own narrow cultural values. Rather, we could live as though the laws of God are written in our hearts and we could live as if we are living with God in heaven. The other thing about metanoia is that we need to do it continuously. It is kind of like a Buddhist spiritual master who attained enlightenment. What I learned from them is that the enlightenment has to be maintained or one will lose it. It is like playing the piano, if we do not practice it, we lose the ability.
As for the concept of the kingdom of heaven, Biblical scholar N.T. Wright notes that Jesus was not talking about how to go to heaven. It is not about “our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for living a good life to be enjoyed after we die. Jesus was much more concerned about the here and now. He was concerned about the very lives of people who were oppressed. He was concerned about justice and dignity of the people who were poor, who wished for a better world for themselves and their children. The kingdom of heaven is about abiding in the ways of love, in striving for peace, in wishing and working for the best in all of us. It is very real, social and spiritual. Jesus also said, the kingdom of heaven is within you.
It is to this kingdom of heaven that Jesus called his first disciples whom he met on the shores of Lake Galilee. What was remarkable was that Peter and Andrew, James and John, were all willing to drop their nets, leave their occupation, and leave their families behind in order to follow Jesus. The question is why? I imagine that these ordinary fishermen witnessed in Jesus someone who was like no other they had met, that Jesus was filled with God’s spirit, and that they heard the voice of God speaking to them through the voice of Jesus. Secondly, they may have felt that Jesus could teach them things that could be life changing. They may have longed for a life beyond fishing. They may have asked themselves: “Is this it? Is there more to life than, fishing, eating, and putting a roof over my head? There’s got to be more!” Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like finding a treasure buried in a field. You go and sell everything you have and buy the field. That is what the first disciples did. They dropped everything for a chance to follow and learn from Jesus. It was that important and that valuable.
Jesus is continuing to call us. Come follow me and I will make you fish for people. Come follow me and I will make you bread for the hungry. Come follow me and I will make you water for the thirsty. Come follow me and I will make you medicine for the sick. Come follow me and I will make you hope for the downtrodden. Come follow me and I will make you light to shine in this world. We say yes because the kingdom of heaven has come near because 500,000 women gathered and marched in Washington yesterday plus 1.5 million more from all over the world hoping and marching for a better world. The kingdom of heaven has come near because the people of God everywhere are embracing the kingdom of heaven and saying no to hate, no to exploitation, no to oppression, and no to apathy. The kingdom of heaven has come near because we are saying yes to Jesus, yes to God, and yes to life. The kingdom of heaven is within us to be discovered like a treasure buried in a field.
When the disciples said, yes to Jesus, they dropped their nets, and their lives to follow him. It was an absolute commitment. German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lived during the time of Nazi Germany said, that the call “follow me” was a call “to absolute discipleship,” and that only in surrendering ourselves to Jesus’s command could we, paradoxically, know our greatest joy.” When Christ calls us, we are truly called to a new life, a new way of living in this world, and a new joy that comes with it. Let us say “Amen” to that. Thanks be to God.