The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2017
The stage was set. It was time for this new man, the man selected to begin this new term, to inaugurate this new new age. They all knew his background. His story. Where he had come from. They knew his family, his people, his work. His predecessor’s term was over. It was time for someone new. The path had been cleared, everything was ready for this new man. He’s selected his top aides, the ones he’ll be working with closely to pursue his agenda. And so he sets off from his hometown, to come to this well-known place to begin the new era.
Everybody knew this new man’s slogan, they had heard it enough, that they could probably recite it in their sleep. And so the crowds gathered, the crowds gathered to see if this new man would follow up on his promises. To begin a new age. To turn a corner. The crowds were gathered to see the spectacle, because they all pinned their hopes on this new man.
The man of which I am speaking, is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. In today’s gospel lesson we hear the inauguration of his ministry – his preaching, gathering his first followers, his healing. John the Baptist, his predecessor, has been arrested. He got in trouble with the local authorities for telling them that they were a bunch of sinners. Turns out that corrupt politicians don’t like protesters. They’re just so inconvenient.
Jesus has made his way to Galilee because it is from there, says Isaiah, that the deliverer will come. It is from there, Zebulun, Naphtali, Galilee, that deliverance will come. So the way has been cleared – at this point in Matthew’s gospel Jesus has been born, he’s been baptized, he’s been through his temptation with the devil. The way is ready and the new age is inaugurated. And so Jesus begins by repeating his slogan. A slogan we should all know and be able to repeat in our sleep – “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the crux of Jesus’ campaign to the people. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent, actually, turn around. You must turn from your ways of hatred and turn toward love. You must turn from thinking about yourself, to thinking about others. You must turn away from the little gods you worship – gods of money, greed, ambition, power, security, safety – and turn to worship the one, true God. Repent, turn around. For the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Notice, Jesus is not going around saying, “repent, so that you can go to heaven.” No, the kingdom of heaven has already come near. It’s here, it is now, in our very midst. We can get so caught up thinking about life after death that we miss out on life before death. We can get so enamored with seeing Jesus when we die, that we miss seeing Jesus right here, right now, in our brothers and sisters, in the created world. We miss seeing Jesus in the sacraments and in the new life that Jesus gives us. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is not a call to be transported away to another place. It is a call for that other place to come here. Our life of discipleship is not about earning our way into heaven, it’s about living the heavenly life on earth. If we truly believe that heaven is a place of love, of perfect communion with all people and with God – then we can prove we believe that by living it now.
As Jesus begins teaching and preaching, he picks his top aides. His cabinet. His inner circle. They are four fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They are not wealthy, they are not powerful. They are weather beaten, hardened men who smell of fish. But what they have is great courage and great devotion. They give up their livelihoods, their families, their old ways of life in order to take on this new way of life. The first four disciples indeed have repented, they have turned around, for they have witnessed the kingdom of heaven.
And notice this little detail about the nets. James and John are mending their nets when they hear Jesus calling to them. They drop their nets and follow him. They drop their nets. They close their laptops. They put down their cellphones. They turn off their televisions. They hear the words of Jesus and follow him. They put God first.
Close your laptops. Put down your phones. Turn off your TVs. Make God first in your life. The kingdom of heaven has come near. James and John don’t say to Jesus, “hold on a minute. Let me finish mending this net and I’ll be right there.” The time is now. We all think aspirationally in our life with Jesus. “One day, I’ll go to church more. One day, I’ll read the bible. One day, I’ll go on a mission trip. When I have a family, I’ll start paying more attention. When my kids are out of the house, that’s when I’ll start saying my prayers. Once I finish this job, then I’ll focus on Jesus.”
But remember that slogan – “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The only thing promised to you is today – you may not have a tomorrow. Now is the time to follow Jesus. Now is the time for you to drop your nets, to drop whatever it is that prevents you from following Jesus, and to make Jesus first.
And notice, too, the crowd. The throngs of people coming to Jesus. They are hopeless, and bringing to him the sick, the hurting, the diseased, the possessed, the forgotten. This crowd functions almost as a character itself throughout the gospel of Matthew. The crowd of five thousand is fed by five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd of four thousand is fed by seven loaves and a few fish. The crowd is there in Jerusalem as Jesus makes his way into the city for the last week of his life. The crowd praises Jesus. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes are afraid of the crowd because they adore Jesus. But their enthrallment with Jesus doesn’t last long.
It is this same crowd that shouts, “crucify him! Crucify him!” The crowd is all too happy to see Jesus executed. The catchy slogan, the healings, the feedings – the grace, the love, the mercy – all forgotten. It’s like watching the presidential polling numbers – up and then down. When things are good, the crowd adores Jesus. When things are bad, the crowd turns on Jesus.
Herein lies the warning. All too easily, we become the crowd. When Jesus is doing and saying things that we approve of, we like him. But the instant things become difficult, the instant Jesus says a truth that cuts to our souls, the instant we have to love our neighbors as ourselves, or pick up the cross, or forgive someone for wronging us, we turn our backs on Jesus. When we are getting free bread and free fish, everything is great. But when we are presented with the cross, we shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
The crowd puts themselves first. They put their desires first. They put what they want first. They put their earthly kingdoms first. But the disciples, dropping their nets, they make God first.
Make Jesus first. Everything, absolutely everything, must come second. We have been, and are tempted to be, much more influenced and formed by the politics of the day than by the true ruler of this world. We have put things second that should be first.
So, what was said two thousand years ago, I say to you today, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Turn around. Turn your hearts from mere mortals who walk this earth but pretend they are gods. Turn your hearts and your hopes toward the living God. Toward the God who loves this world, and bids us to love each other.
The stage is set. The inauguration is over. Jesus is the true ruler of this world and his agenda is to be a light to all people. And live your life by his slogan – it does not go on a bumper sticker, or a T-shirt, or a red hat. It goes on your heart, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”