12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
There was a very dear grandmother who wanted to send her grandson a care package while he was at college. So she filled a box with cookies, homemade bread, a couple of pictures, and a brand new Bible. She took the box to the post office and the clerk asked her the standard questions, including, “Is there anything breakable in this package?”
The grandmother replied, “At least 10 Commandments.”
Our text begins rather abruptly today so I feel that it is important to be reminded of what occurred immediately before today’s lesson. Matthew chapter 3 tells of Jesus’ baptism where upon rising out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord descends upon him. Jesus then goes out into the wilderness for a period of forty days where he fasts, prays, and is able to resist various temptations.
We pick up at the end of those forty days with Jesus receiving a message: John has been thrown in prison. To avoid the same fate, Jesus leaves Nazareth and goes to Capernaum. Upon arriving, Jesus begins preaching a message, which we find in verse 17: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
It seems a little odd to me that Jesus felt he needed to pick up and move to a different location to being his ministry. I understand that there would be a certain amount of fear knowing that his cousin John had just been arrested. But surely John was doing something that the authorities must have understood to be threatening. They aren’t going to throw John in jail for just preaching a simple message like Jesus did, right?
So just what did John say that was so threatening, so offensive, and warranted being arrested and later being executed? Let’s turn back a chapter and look at Matthew 3:1-2, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
If we put those phrases side-by-side, you will see that Jesus’ message is exactly the same as John’s. Even in the Greek, it is the same, word for word.
So the question is Why did John get arrested and Jesus think he might get arrested for preaching this simple message? We will get there, but first, let’s dissect this short phrase.
The first thing that I want to note is that Matthew often uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” while other Gospels use the phrase “kingdom of God.” Essentially, these phrases are used interchangeably and it seems that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” because Matthew is a Jewish man who is trying to observe the commandment to not use the Lord’s name in vain. So even though Matthew was writing in Greek, he chose to use a word other than God to differentiate between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God.
The word that Matthew uses is οὐρανός, which literally means the sky. But to translate Matthew’s text as “kingdom of the sky” doesn’t quite capture the meaning. I personally would translate Matthew as saying “kingdom from above,” but nobody consulted me before printing the book of Matthew in English. So we have what we have, and it means the same thing as when Mark, Luke, and John say “kingdom of God.” Jesus is talking about a kingdom distinctly different from the kingdoms of this world as we know them.
The other word of interest for us this morning is “repent.” I wonder how many people feel uncomfortable when they hear this word. Does it bring up some memory of a well-meaning, yet unnecessarily harsh preacher or bishop with fire in his eyes and brimstone in his voice yelling at the top of his lungs, “Repent or you shall burn for all eternity!”?
If so, know that repentance does not have to be something that you are scared into. It is something that you should want to do to make your life and the lives of those around you better.
The Greek word that Matthew uses here is μετανοέω, which literally means “to change one’s mind.” And if you really want to know what Jesus was calling for his listeners to do, keep in mind that Jesus was a Hebrew and would have thought like a Hebrew. The Hebrew equivalent to metanoia is “shuv.” Shuv means “to turn or re-turn.”
So when I think about repentance, I like to think of driving a car. When you drive you usually have a destination. I drive from my home to the church several times a week. Imagine I could drive a straight line from my house to the church, which would really tick off the folks out golfing at the park, but imagine it anyway. So I get in my car with my destination in mind and I just hold the steering wheel straight.
Now if my wheels were pointed a little off target, and I made no corrections, I might end up at the Middle School or the gas station. So when I know that my course needs some adjustment, I turn the steering wheel. Sometimes I need to adjust it more than others, and usually it will require constant adjustments, little tweaks along the way.
It is especially important to make these small adjustments as I go because when I leave my home, I cannot see the church. I may know what my destination is and I may know how to get there, but if I can’t clearly see my destination it would be impossible for me to start driving toward my destination and assume that my wheels are going to be pointed in the exact direction required to get me where I need to be.
This is repentance from a biblical perspective. Repentance isn’t just something that those heathen pagans need to do. This isn’t just for the murderers, the rapists, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes. This is for a sinner such as me.
When Jesus and John went through the towns preaching this simple message of repentance, they weren’t in Nineveh or Las Vegas (aka “Sin City”). They were in Nazareth, Galilee, and Capernaum. They were among religious people, devout Jews, and even family members. These were their friends, their childhood companions, and their teachers. Neither Jesus nor John discriminate, they deliver this message to everybody. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Whether you need to adjust your steering wheel a little or adjust it a lot, we all need to be performing those tweaks along the way.
So what if rather than picturing the angry bishop standing at the front of the church saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” we think of Jesus and John proclaiming that everyone needs to make constant adjustments to their lives because the kingdom from above is closer than you might realize? What if we hear Jesus’ message less as condemnation and more as encouragement? “Make some adjustments as you go. You are very close to the kingdom!”
We come again to the question of why this message of repentance was threatening and considered a cause for arrest. With this broader definition of repentance as a turning we can begin to understand how this message could cause some dis-ease among the leaders. Nobody is going to stop Jesus or John if they are calling people to just give up sexual immorality or stealing. But if repentance includes turning away from the powers and ways of this world and turning toward this kingdom from above, then Herod is going to get a little nervous.
For instance, Jesus had a lot to say about money. He said things like “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What Jesus was calling for when he spoke a repentance wasn’t just to ask for forgiveness for thing like sexual impurity, idolatry, and stealing. No, Jesus was calling for a whole new order, for a world where the wellbeing of others was put on the same level as your own. And when Jesus and John before him began to question the world order and calling people to turn from the established practices of the day for a kingdom from above, Herod got a little uneasy.
I remember a story I heard Shane Claiborne tell a number of years ago. Shane lives in an intentional Christian community which seeks to bring good news to the poorest of the poor in the Philadelphia area. He has intentionally chosen a life of poverty to connect with the people in his community.
Shane tells the story that he was talking with a young Christian who said he had found Jesus after spending his teenage years in trouble. This young man was always getting into fights and he was abusing various substances. So when this young man met Shane Claiborne he said, “I just love Jesus. When I met Jesus he really straightened my life out.” Shane replied, “Really? Because when I met Jesus, he really messed my life up, brother!”
I get that. I was talking with a woman at Virginia Mennonite Missions on Friday and she said to me, “I bet you didn’t expect to be where you are today 10 years ago, did you?” Honestly, I did not.
I graduated from college 10 years ago in December. I had been married for about five months. At this time I did have the career goal of being involved in pastoral ministry, but I never dreamed I would be living in Virginia and raising two children in Staunton. If we turned the clock back another two years I had not yet planned to go to seminary and was planning to do graduate studies in mammalian reproductive physiology. Turn the clocks back another two years and my career goal was to take over and manage the family farm.
So what happened? I guess you could say that I repented.
There is nothing in the world wrong with running the family farm or studying reproductive physiology. So when I say that I “repented,” I’m not saying that I asked for forgiveness. I’m saying that I turned. I turned toward the kingdom that comes from above. I turned toward what I now believe to have been God’s leading in my life. So like Shane Claiborne, I feel that I can say that Jesus not only helped me to straighten out part of my life, he also messed up a lot of the plans that I had in place. And that is a good thing! God wants us to turn because God wants to make something beautiful out of us.
I have learned to avoid the Christian Pop music scene for some time now. Sure, in my early 20’s I was excited to learn that there were songs that sounded like the secular music on the radio stations that were wholesome and uplifting. But I soon found that they were also theologically shallow and overly repetitive. So I haven’t really listened to Christian music for some time. I listen mostly to talk radio, news programs, and podcasts anymore.
However, I have been hearing a lot about this group simply known as Gungor for some time from my progressive Christian friends. Michael Gungor grew up in Wisconsin as the son of a pastor, and he studied guitar at college. I didn’t even know one could study guitar in college. When I first heard about Gungor my friends were all saying things like, “Gungor sings about important things like brokenness, pain, disappointment, and redemption. His music really cuts to my soul.” I checked them out online and thought, “Mehh.”
Last week I attended a conference where they chose a Gungor song as a theme for the week’s worship services. The song is called “Beautiful Things,” and I can now say that my opinion on Gungor has officially changed. Perhaps Christian music can still be redeemed.
The song begins by calling our attention to the pain that we all know is all too real. Gungor compares this pain to the soil, the dirt, the dust of a garden and how God makes plants spring forth from the dirt of the ground. The refrain goes like this:
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust.
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us.
God doesn’t just make good things out of our dirt and dust, God makes beautiful things. Beautiful things out of us. This whole idea of repentance isn’t simply coming from a God who is angry and wants to punish us because we have done wrong. This call to repentance is coming from Jesus himself who called God “Father.” And sure, fathers get angry when their children do things that they don’t like. I get angry at my children, my parents got angry at me, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that your parents got angry at you when you did things that were not what they had hoped you would do. But they were not angry at you just to be angry at you. No, they were angry because you were making choices that were not leading you to the best possible existence on this terrestrial ball.
Yes, God is angry when we sin, but think about it, what does God have to gain or lose by our sinfulness? Nothing. The creator of the heavens and the earth isn’t going to become more powerful, more creative, more great than he already is if we are all good little Christians. God’s anger is the result of a loving father looking out at the children he made and loves and seeing them not living the life that brings the fullest experience of his kingdom here on earth.
So we receive the call to repentance. Repent, make not only that first, original decision to follow Jesus, but make the daily adjustments that bring us in line with God’s kingdom. Those daily adjustments will sometimes be major. Other times they will only be a minor tweaking. But this repentance has the ability to bring healing and hope and to mess your life up for Jesus in a glorious way.