A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. January 26, 2014
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 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 (NRSV).
Some of you are here for the first time today and may not know that in these past few Sundays we have been opening the gift of Christmas “one truth at a time.” Three weeks ago, through the visit of the wise men, we learned that Jesus was not only the king of the Jews, but also the king of the world. Two weeks ago, in the story of his baptism, the heavens opened up, the Spirit fluttered down, and God said, “This is my beloved son.” Last week we learned that Jesus was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. So, again, it’s not just a beautiful baby boy we found under the tree on Christmas morning: it’s the Savior of the world, the King of Kings, the beloved Son, the Lamb of God. We are opening the gift of Christmas one truth at a time and today, with a little help from the Gospel of Matthew, we will learn that Jesus is the Proclaimer of the Kingdom, but maybe I should warn you from the beginning that in Jesus’ time the word kingdom was a political term.
Nine years ago I listened to George W. Bush deliver his second inaugural address. It was a beautiful day in Washington. Just enough snow had fallen the day before to cover everything in a thin blanket of white and the sun was reflecting off of it in a way that provided a perfect, dazzling backdrop for all the red, white, and blue bunting on the Capitol’s west portico. The cameras took in scenes of the listening crowds, the fluttering American flags, and, of course, the president himself, talking about his dreams for the next four years.
The night before I had watched a television show called “The West Wing,” where the fictional president of the United States—Jed Bartlett—was down to his last year in office. There was a moment when his chief of staff called everyone together and told them something like, “Look. We can effect more change in one day in the White House than we can in twenty years once we’re out of here. Now, we have 364 days left. What do you want to do?” And one by one they began to call out their own dreams.
Here was our elected president, thinking about his next four years, and a fictional White House staff, thinking about their next 364 days. But what if you were Jesus, and had a good bit less than four years—some would say less than one year—to save the world? What would you do? Where would you start?
Matthew says that Jesus started after his baptism and after he was tested in the wilderness. At the beginning of today’s reading Matthew tells us, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” It sounds as if Jesus is retreating, pulling back from the dangerous business of public ministry, going back to his hometown of Nazareth where things are a little bit safer. But, no! That’s not it at all. He left Nazareth, Matthew says, to make his home in Capernaum, by the sea. Matthew explains that he did this to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, that the people of that region who sat in darkness—the Gentiles—would see a great light, but I believe he did it for at least one other reason. I believe that of all the places Jesus might have gone to start his public ministry Capernaum was the most . . . public.
You wouldn’t know it to look at it now. All that’s left of Capernaum is the ruins of a small town that died out hundreds of years ago. But one of the things you can still see there is a milestone that used to stand by the side of the Via Maris—“the way of the sea.” This road was the major highway between the continents of Asia and Africa. If you wanted to get from one to the other, you went this way, the way that led right through Capernaum. And you really couldn’t get from Europe to Africa, either, without going that way. Which means, of course, that Capernaum was the crossroads of the ancient world, and if you were trying to reach the world with good news you could not find a more strategic location. And so, for all the talk about fulfilling prophecy, Jesus may have made the decision about where to begin his ministry based on the same three rules so many people use today:
Location, location, location.
I’ve been trying to imagine Jesus’ first day on the job. I picture him going out to the Via Maris with his soapbox, setting it up right there next to that milepost where clouds of dust filled the air, and camel caravans trudged by, and you could hear the sounds of people talking and laughing, their sandals slapping the cobblestones. It was in that kind of setting, as I picture it, that Jesus climbed up on his soapbox and began to preach. And, according to Matthew, this is what he said: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” That’s it: that’s the whole sermon. Of course it would have to be short. Ask any street preacher: when people are passing by like that you have to get to the point in a hurry. You can’t waste a lot of time on flowery introductions. “Repent,” Jesus said, wasting no time at all, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
I can’t imagine that a sermon like that would stop people in their tracks, but I also don’t have any experience of living in a kingdom. The people Jesus was preaching to did, and the kingdom they were living in was the Roman Empire, the biggest and most powerful kingdom ever. Roman soldiers would have walked the streets of Capernaum on a regular basis, an occupying army making sure the people abided by the rules and regulations of the Empire. We get hints in the Gospels that the rule of Rome could be oppressive. John the Baptist told some Roman soldiers not to extort money or accuse people falsely. Jesus seems to have had those soldiers in mind when he said, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” And of course it was the Roman soldiers who mocked and scourged Jesus, and nailed him to a cross. Imagine the kind of Kingdom where such things happen and you may begin to understand how Jesus’ preaching would sound like good news. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” he said, which would be another kind of kingdom altogether, and the suggestion that it had “come near” meant that it was just around the corner, and that it could be here any minute.
Maybe I should take a minute to remind you what the Kingdom of Heaven is. First of all, it’s only Matthew who calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. The other Gospel writers call it the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is wherever God is king. So it could be a whole country, a commonwealth, or a particular community. God could be the king of your home or the king of your heart, but wherever God is king there is the Kingdom. So, for Matthew, heaven was an obvious choice. He knew God was king there. And in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray he teaches them to pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Because in heaven, God always gets his way. “Just imagine,” Jesus might have said, “what the world would be like if God always got his way here! It would be like heaven! And that’s how it’s going to be,” he might have said, “soon!”
So, for those people making their way along the Via Maris, trudging from one oppressive part of the Roman Empire to another, the good news might have been that things could change, and that they were about to. If I were going to preach the same kind of good news to you I think I would say, “Listen. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Things don’t have to stay the way they are.” And I think that for some of you that would be very good news indeed.
§ For example: what about those of you who are stuck in jobs that don’t seem to have much future and no longer offer much satisfaction, the kind of jobs where you hate to hear the alarm clock go off in the morning because it means one more day of grinding monotony? Wouldn’t it be good news to hear that things don’t have to stay the way they are?
§ Or, worse, what about those of you who need a job and can’t find one, whose resources and savings are coming to an end, who find yourselves on the brink of a poverty like you’ve never known before and a fear that settles in your bones? Wouldn’t it be good news to you to hear that things don’t have to stay the way they are?
§ What about those of you who are lonely and sad, who have never found your one true love? Or those of you who have found that love and lost it? Or those in relationships that are difficult and draining, or others whose love seems dead and gone? Wouldn’t it be good news to you to hear that things don’t have to stay the way they are?
§ What about those of you whose lives are near their end, with sickness and death ahead of you and no way that you know to go back; lives that are filled with feebleness, and a growing number of doctor’s appointments, and the funerals of all your friends? Wouldn’t it be good news to you to know that things don’t have to stay the way they are?
You can fill in the blank with your own set of circumstances but I would guess that for any one of us in this room there are things we wish could be different than they are.
And so we come to Peter and Andrew, James and John, who were commercial fishermen, living and working in first century Capernaum. I don’t know. They may have loved their work. But it’s not hard for me to imagine that they, too, would be glad to hear that things didn’t have to stay the way they were. You could come to that conclusion just by noticing the way they were willing to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. I’m guessing that by then they had heard Jesus’ preaching a few times and something about it, something about him, appealed to them in such a way that when he asked they didn’t even have to think about it, they just dropped their nets and fell in line behind him. And I’m also guessing that if you had asked any one of them a few months after that day if things were still the same they would have said no.
When Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven has come near he doesn’t just mean that things can be different; he means that things will be different. He uses a word that means the Kingdom of heaven is already breaking into the world, that somehow, in him, the Kingdom that will come has already come, and here is how you take hold of it: you follow. You stop leading your own life and let him lead instead. You become a citizen of that kingdom Jesus was always talking about by allowing God to be king. It is a matter of submission, really, which means, literally, to “put something under.” In this case it means to put our will under his will, and that’s hard for us. It seems completely unnatural. But when I say to you that things don’t have to stay the way they are I mean it. To submit your will to the will of God, to let him become your king, is to guarantee that things will change.
It happened for those disciples, and it happened in a place called Capernaum, but it could happen for you in a place called Richmond, on a cold winter morning when you are wondering how much longer you can put up with things the way they are. Maybe today, in this place, you could hear Jesus himself say to you: “Listen. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Things don’t have to stay the way they are. In fact, they can start changing today. And all you have to do…
…is follow me.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.