“Kingdom of Heaven”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 22, 2017

Matthew 4:12-25

 

When I was in high school and college, I carried a spiral-bound notebook with me everywhere.  It resided permanently in my teal-green L.L. Bean backpack, the kind with the diagonal reflective stripe, along with several pens of different colors.  I called it my “quotebook notebook,” and in it, I recorded words that struck me.  Snippets of poetry… sentences and paragraphs from the books I read… lines from posters and bumper stickers… phrases my friends shared with me… words of wisdom from my teachers and mentors…  I guess you might say I was a verbal pack rat, perhaps even a hoarder, because in collecting the words and phrases in which I found meaning and inspiration, I filled a series of such notebooks over the years.

I don’t know if Jesus had a “quotebook notebook” of his own.  Probably not, given the itinerant nature of his travels and the scarcity of writing materials in his generally illiterate society.  But he clearly kept a catalog of words and phrases in his mind, because the gospels record many instances in which Jesus quoted from scripture in his preaching and teaching, in his conversations with his disciples and in his debates with the various authorities of his day.  And, in today’s reading, we hear Jesus quote someone else—not the prophets and poets of the Bible, but his cousin, John the Baptist.

Last week, we heard a reading from the previous chapter of Matthew’s gospel that told the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.  If you listened closely last Sunday, and if you listened closely this morning, then perhaps the first words Jesus spoke in today’s reading sounded a bit familiar.  Jesus would likely have heard John’s preaching as he stood in line with all the others who had come out to be baptized into the new way of life John offered, and this line stuck with him.  He filed it away in the “quotebook notebook” in his mind, and later, when his time came to preach, he began the same way.

After all, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that if it’s worth saying once, it’s worth repeating.  Or, in the words of Pete Seeger, “Plagiarism is the basis of all culture.”  Jesus must have really appreciated these words from John, as he quoted them exactly in the first recorded words of his public ministry.  And since they were important enough for Jesus to remember and repeat, they are probably important ones for us to hear again, too.

Here they are:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

Now.  If you’re like me, this phrase might not be the most comfortable one for you.  It might not be one you’ve taken to reciting regularly as you go about your days.  It might conjure up images of street corner evangelists wearing sandwich board signs and handing out tracts about what precise prayer you need to recite in order to avoid the flames of hell and the fires of eternal damnation.  It might feel a little, well, judgmental for our progressive, open and affirming faith.

But John and Jesus were not talking about future salvation, about the destiny of our immortal souls when our mortal bodies have perished.  They were talking about here and now, this world, this life.  John and Jesus were not talking about magic words to recite so that we can dodge the punishment we would otherwise suffer.  They were talking about a whole new way of living, a life that really is life, a way that changes everything.

John and Jesus proclaimed that God’s realm is already at hand.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  They spoke of a world where there is enough, more than enough, for everyone.  They spoke of a table that has room for us all to join in the joyful, abundant feast.  They spoke of outsiders brought in, of outcasts included, of rejects accepted, of excluded ones welcomed.  They spoke of protection for the vulnerable, and safety for the fearful, and healing for the sick, and peace for the suffering.

John and Jesus both called their people to repentance, which is a fancy theological word that gets interpreted to mean many things, but really has its roots in the idea of change, of turning around, of beginning anew.  In both Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Bible, the words we translate as “repentance” literally mean turning or returning, transformation or change of heart.

John and Jesus said to their people, “You don’t have to be afraid, or selfish, or defensive.  You don’t have to be stingy or violent.  You can be generous, and gentle, and kind, and courageous.  You don’t have to worry about who’s in and who’s out.  You don’t have to get yours before someone else gets theirs, because God’s love is overflowing in this world, and it will never run out.  If you tap into that, you can live in a whole new way; you can be part of the new thing that is coming to pass, the new world that is even now being born.  Don’t you want to be part of that?”

And the people did want to be part of that.  They came; they listened; they followed.  They traveled to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  They left their nets and their families and followed Jesus when he walked by and called them.  They brought him their sick and afflicted, and he healed them.  Great crowds followed him from all over the region, attracted by these people whose very lives bore testimony to the free-flowing grace of God.

The stories continue beyond today’s reading.  You know some of them.  Stories of crowds fed miraculously from just a few small loaves and fishes.  Stories of meals shared with tax collectors and sinners.  Stories of paralyzed people walking, of blind people seeing, of afflicted people restored to health.  Stories of children welcomed, for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.

And the stories continue even here and now, millennia later and worlds away.  Stories of Community Kitchen meals shared joyfully with an ever-widening circle of guests, where no one is turned away and there is always enough for everyone.  Stories of people who have been told by others that they are an abomination seeing a rainbow on a church sign and discovering that God’s embrace is wide enough to hold them, too.  Stories of refugee families displaced from their homes by terrible violence finding a new home and a new community here in the Quiet Corner.

Stories of young people gathering on a Saturday morning in January to make soup to be delivered to people who are recovering from surgery, or grieving a loss, or welcoming a new baby.  Stories of people digging deep and giving generously, raising your pledges or pledging for the first time, because you have been touched by the power of God’s Spirit moving in this community.  Millennia later and worlds away, people—you—continue to answer Jesus’ call to be generous, and gentle, and kind, and courageous, to help live God’s new world into being.

 

But…  (Of course there is a “but”…)  Even as this new realm comes to be, it is not all sunshine and butterflies and unicorns.  If you remember the first sentence of today’s reading, you’ll remember that the story began with the news that John had been arrested.  John was languishing in prison, and a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, he would be executed by King Herod for sedition.  And if you remember what comes toward the end of each of the four gospels, you’ll remember that Jesus would meet with a similar fate at the hands of Pontius Pilate, the governor, and his minions.

Then, as now, there were powers that be that benefited from fear, and scarcity, and oppression, and affliction, and hunger, and poverty, and division.  Then, as now, there were rulers who claimed that might makes right, and flexed their muscles to prove it so.  Then, as now, there were powerful people who preferred that the masses continue to feel powerless.

And now, as then, John and Jesus offer another way, a better way.  Now, as then, John and Jesus say to their people, “You don’t have to be afraid, or selfish, or defensive.  You don’t have to be stingy or violent.  You can be generous, and gentle, and kind, and courageous.  You don’t have to worry about who’s in and who’s out.  You don’t have to get yours before someone else gets theirs, because God’s love is overflowing in this world, and it will never run out.  If you tap into that, you can live in a whole new way; you can be part of the new thing that is coming to pass, the new world that is even now being born.”  They say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

You can write it down in your “quotebook notebook” and carry it with you everywhere you go.  Or better yet, you can inscribe it on your mind and your heart, and you can follow John and Jesus into that new world that is already dawning, that realm of God that is already at hand—where there is enough, more than enough, for everyone… where outsiders are brought in, outcasts included, rejects accepted, excluded ones welcomed… where the vulnerable are protected, and the fearful are safe, and the sick are healed, and the suffering find peace… where the table has room for us all to join in the joyful, abundant feast.

Don’t you want to be part of that?

 


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