Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2017

Matthew 4:12-23 Commentary

We’ve come to call it “the Holy Land.”  From the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the country of Jordan in the east, from Syria in the north to the Sinai in the south, travel companies, tour groups, and tourists treat this piece of Middle Eastern real estate as a unity.  It’s where Jesus walked and that’s what now makes it “holy.”  It’s essentially one place with Jerusalem more or less as its center.  That’s how we think of the Holy Land today, and this way of viewing that part of the world influences the way we and our congregations read the Bible.

It matters little to most folks precisely where this or that gospel event took place.  One locale is as good as the next–it’s all the Holy Land, after all.  Jericho or Jerusalem, Capernaum or Bethsaida: the places matter little compared to the presence of Jesus in those places.  Unless we are actually in Israel on a tour group, we are typically interested in what Jesus said, not where he said it.  In fact, if we preachers gave the average congregation a quiz on gospel geography, even those who are quite biblically literate would not do too well.  “Where did Jesus meet Zacchaeus?”  “Where was it that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ?”  Many folks, off the top of their heads, wouldn’t have a clue (and might not even be so sure it matters where these things happened).

But knowing such answers ought to be more useful than merely helping someone win a game of Bible Trivia.  After all, geography is pretty important.  We’re shaped by places.  The philosopher José Ortega y Gassett once famously said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.”  Most of us sense the truth of that.  As Kathleen Norris pointed out in her book Dakota, people who live on the prairies think differently than do city folks, mountain folks, or those who live on the sea.  Place matters.

We may have a hard time describing just how and why that is, but all of us know that certain areas of the country carry certain associations.  Just listen to the political pundits in an election year as they point to different parts of the map.  Politicians tailor their messages for the sensibilities inherent in certain places.

The backlog of information and assumptions we have about different places shapes our reactions to certain events.  For instance, if you knew of a well-known, gifted pastor who for years had preached in a very upscale congregation in Los Angeles, California, how would you react if one day you heard he’d taken a call to pastor a tiny church in Grand Forks, North Dakota?  Well, you’d wonder about such a move.  You’d maybe even prognosticate that this could be a difficult transition for the family (who might undergo what we refer to as “culture shock”).

Yet in the gospels we often forget all this.  We shouldn’t, because in the stories of Jesus, place is important.  And not just because Jesus, as a real human person, always had to be somewhere.  But there is more theology involved in locale than we sometimes realize.  Matthew 4 is a good example.

Hard on the heels of his baptism by John and his wilderness temptations, Jesus preachers his first sermon upon hearing that John has been arrested, and as he does so, Jesus picks right up where John left off.  As Matthew reports it in 4:17, Jesus’ first sermon is a word-for-word repetition of John the Baptist’s sermon from Matthew 3:2.  On one level it is good to see Jesus affirming the ministry of John, telling people what John told them:  “Turn around, change your life: the kingdom of heaven is coming!”  But that’s what John said.  Shouldn’t Jesus be able to say something more?  John said the kingdom of heaven was near.  Well, with Jesus on the scene shouldn’t he be able to say, “It’s not just near it is now here!”?  But no, Jesus echoes John: it’s near, so get ready.

That’s the first surprise about Jesus’ inaugural sermon: it’s just a knock-off of John the Baptist’s work.  But the second surprise is even bigger: namely, the locale Jesus was in when he gave the sermon.  No sooner does Jesus hear about John’s arrest and he high-tails it north some eighty miles to Galilee.  Jesus then moves out of his backwater hometown of Nazareth and settles in at an equally out-of-the-way place called Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In other words, Jesus has gone out into the sticks.  Eighty miles may not sound like much to those of us accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour, but in a day when nothing moved faster than a donkey could plod, eighty miles was quite far indeed.  Jesus has taken himself very far away from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from all things religious.

So surprising is this shift in geography that Matthew feels the need to bring in a prophetic heavyweight like Isaiah to re-assure his readers that this move makes some biblical sense after all.  Matthew was right: Isaiah did associate God’s promised One with Galilee.  But even those familiar with Isaiah did not necessarily think this is where the Messiah would begin his work!  Maybe God could grandfather in the outlying regions once Jerusalem was taken care of, but to start out in the sticks?!  It did not look like a logical choice.

It may not have been logical but it was theo-logical!  The nearness of God’s great kingdom of shalom has already been announced in the vicinity of Jerusalem.  So Jesus makes a point to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom also to others.  Jesus has come to this world for the sake of this world–for all of it.  There are no unimportant places.  There are no places where the presence or preaching of Jesus would be “wasted.”  Ultimately the whole world needs Jesus, and so Jesus begins by making a foray into the wider world.

Place matters.  Every place.  Every person in every place.  Because in the end the “Holy Land” is not over in Israel: every place where the Spirit comes into a person’s heart is holy ground.  Our goal should be to keep proclaiming and living out the kingdom until the knowledge of God covers the earth the way the waters cover the seas.  For then it will indeed be true once more to say, “The earth is the Lord’s and all who live on it.”

Textual Notes

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  That is what Jesus says (cribbing from his cousin John) in Matthew 4:17.  In his wonderful commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner paraphrases this, “Move, because here comes the whole new world of God!”  The verb translated as “is near” is the same word Jesus uses later in Matthew when he sees Judas in Gethsemane and says, “Here comes my betrayer.”  So when Jesus says in verse 17 that the kingdom of heaven “is near,” he means it’s marching straight toward you!  If you’re crossing a street and see a garbage truck barreling down on you, you may well say, “Hey, look out! ”  Jesus’ words have that same urgency.  “Look out!  Move!  A whole new world is headed straight toward you!”

As Bruner says, every word of Jesus is nuclear.  These words are urgent and the implications of this kingdom’s approach are immediate.  If someone tells you to “Watch out!” when you’re crossing a street but then you just stand there, something is going to happen quite soon.  Jesus’ point is the same: you cannot hear him tell you that the kingdom is approaching but then just stand there like a statue with your hands in your pockets.  You need to repent, literally to turn around, so that you are ready to embrace this kingdom, so that you can hop onto the kingdom instead of getting crushed by it as it rolls over you.

Illustration Idea

If you are going to try to establish yourself as a public figure, you try to nudge your way into the limelight, not out of it.  Today if you are an author and get the chance to plug your book by being interviewed on the Today show, you snap up the opportunity!  If Oprah Winfrey wants to make your novel one of her Book Club titles, you are only too glad because every book Oprah puts onto her list appears on also the New York Times bestseller list soon thereafter.  So what would we think of an author who turned down the Today interview and the Oprah Book Club offer in favor of driving over to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to be interviewed by a reporter for the Broken Arrow Gazette?  We’d say he was out-of-touch!  That’s not how you sell a lot of books.

To the minds of his contemporaries, Jesus messed up, too, by giving up the potential spotlight of Jerusalem in favor of Capernaum way out in the backwaters of Palestine.  Even Matthew feels the need to muster a biblical heavyweight like Isaiah to show that Jesus did not go wrong when he went north but instead Jesus went north to fulfill a prophecy.  But the point is that it is only after Jesus had put a lot of miles between himself and Jerusalem that he announced the advent of the kingdom.  Maybe it was Jesus’ way of saying that the kingdom of God is not tied down to a single location, and certainly it cannot be restricted to the spots on the map we deem important.  The kingdom can come, and does come, most anywhere and everywhere.


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