Sunday, January 27. Third Sunday after Epiphany. Matthew 4:12-22
2008-01-19 by Ron Allen
A good rule to follow when reading documents from antiquity is to pay close attention to the first and last words that a character speaks. These often (though not always) reveal major themes about that person’s life or the document in the character appears. These things are true in today’s text in which we hear almost the first words of Jesus and, thereby, get an explicit statement of the major theme of his life that of the Gospel of Matthew.
Of course, Jesus has already spoken (during the temptation, Matt. 4:1-11), but today’s text makes explicit the major theme of Jesus’ ministry.
As today’s text begins John the Baptist has been arrested. This statement is more than an incidental detail. Matthew views John as a prophet of the end-times, a preacher with an apocalyptic message. John announces that God is about to end the present evil age and to bring a new one (the Realm of God). John invites people to become a part of the new age by repenting and being immersed (3:1-12).
By mentioning that John has been arrested, Matthew intensifies a theme that is already prominent in the first gospel. Herod had already massacred all the children two years old and under around Bethlehem in order to eliminate the infant Jesus (2:16-18). These incidents—the murder of the innocents and arresting John—warn the listeners to keep their distance from the Roman Empire and its agents. For the murder and the imprisonment reveal the character of the Empire. The Empire and its agents are entrenched in the old age and resist the coming of Jesus and the Realm to the point of violence.
For Matthew, the characterization of the Empire and its agent is a pastoral warning. Those who accept the invitation of John (and Jesus) to believe that God is ending the old age and bringing in the Realm and who become disciples who witness to that transformation can expect similar resistance from Rome. Matthew wants the followers of Jesus to be prepared to endure difficult times, such as the possibility of arrest.
Where do we see leaders and institutions and movements today resisting the realm? Of course, immediate instances from the leadership of our nation come to mind (at least to readers of this blog from the United States). But we could press this question to any form of leadership—state government, city government, the denomination, the congregation.
Against the sober backdrop just discussed, Matthew provides important geographical symbolism. The events of today’s text take place near the Sea of Galilee in the area around Capernaum in the land historically attributed to Zebulun and Naphtali. In Matthew’s mind, these are areas with significant gentile populations. According to Judges 1:30, the ancient leader Zebulun did not drive the Canaanites from the land. In 4:17 when Matthew cites Isaiah 9:1-2, Matthew includes the part of the passage mentioning “Galilee of the gentiles” to make explicit the gentile connection.
Matthew uses geography here to make a theological point. Jesus’ ministry begins in an area in which Jewish people and gentiles live alongside one another. Christians today sometimes think that Jewish and gentile peoples were hostile to one another. I still hear sermons in which preachers refer to “the hated Gentile.” In fact, Jewish and gentile peoples seem generally to have lived in fairly harmonious relationships as next door neighbors in communities such as Capernaum.
From a Jewish perspective, the biggest gentile problem is that they did not know and serve the God of Israel and, therefore, did not experience fullness of blessing. Idolatry, a common gentile practice, gave gentiles an incomplete perspective on life and led to typical gentile behaviors that undermined covenantal community and blessing for all. For example, when gentiles were in control of the government and the military, they often engaged in Injustice and violence. To wit: Rome sentences Jesus to death. That, of course, is gentile behavior in the extreme. The typical gentile was more a garden-variety idolater.
Who in today’s world is in a situation similar to that of the gentiles of Matthew’s day?
Many Jewish people believed that God wanted to bless gentiles. Indeed, according to Genesis 12:1-3 and Isaiah 42:1-9 (esp. vs. 6), the mission of Israel is to model for gentiles the way to blessing. Several apocalyptic writers at the time of Matthew anticipated that God desired for gentiles to be a part of the new age, the Realm, and thereby to participate forever in eschatological blessing. Indeed, the reunion of Jewish and gentile peoples would be an important aspect of the Realm. In this way, God would restore the human family to the solidarity of community intended at the creation.
Jesus made his home in an area that included both Jewish and gentile groups. Jesus is thus indicating that from the beginning, Jesus was (literally) at home in gentile as well as Jewish culture. From childhood, Jesus embodied the reunion aspect of the realm.
Many of the apocalyptic writers (Matthew among them) believed that God had an established time line along which events would take place as history moved from the end of this age to the beginning of the new. This is what Matthew means by saying that Jesus “fulfilled” what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: the ministry of Jesus is an event participating in this transformative process.
Today’s exegete, informed by historical and literary criticism, would say that Isaiah was speaking about circumstances in his own time and did not foresee Jesus. Nevertheless, without doing too much violence to Matthew, today’s preacher can understand the gospel writer to use this passage from Isaiah (and other passages from the First Testament) to interpret the ministry of Jesus from a theological point of view. One does not have to subscribe to a wooden (and exegetically abusive) understanding of prophecy-fulfillment to recognize that Matthew uses theological ideas and symbols from the First Testament to communicate to the reader how Jesus fits into the flow of Israel’s history and God’s purposes.
From this perspective, Matthew uses Isaiah 9:1-2 to make explicit the idea that the ministry of Jesus (and the apocalyptic coming of the Realm in its fullness) bring light to all who have dwelled in darkness and have sat in the shadow of death. The prophet Isaiah specifically had Israel in mind: the ancient community had fallen under judgment and were sitting in darkness and in the region and shadow of death. But God was about to redeem them. Matthew uses this powerful imagery to affirm that Jesus is God’s apocalyptic agent in bringing light (redemption) to them. Matthew includes the gentiles in those on whom God’s regenerative light shines through Jesus.
This is a provocative invitation for preaching. Who in the congregation, and in the larger world, is dwelling in darkness and sitting in the shadow of death?
Matthew 4:17 is the pivotal sentence in today’s text, and indeed, in the gospel of Matthew. Here in simple and direct language, the Matthean Jesus says explicitly that the realm of God (“the kingdom of heaven”) “has come near” or “is at hand.” Matthew’s expression “realm of heaven” is a synonym for the realm of God.
By “has come near” or “is at hand,” Matthew means that the realm is coming close, and is even becoming partially manifest in the present, but will arrive in its fullness only after the second coming—the apocalyptic return of Jesus from heaven to the earth to complete the manifestation of the realm (Matt. 24:3-31). For now, the ministry of Jesus manifests aspects of that realm. Jesus announces it (preaching), explains how to live in response to its presence (teaching) and demonstrates its character (miracles).
Preachers often speak of this quality as “already” (partially present) and “not yet” (to be realized fully only after the apocalypse). The congregation lives “between the times.” Oscar Cullman’s famous analogy is the relationship between D-Day and the allied victory in World War Two. With the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the victory was already assured and was being manifest in the liberation of each mile of France, but the ultimate conclusion would not occur for almost a year when Germany surrendered and victory was complete.
How should people respond to the news that the Realm is at hand? By repenting. To repent is to make a conscious and critical choice to turn away from complicity with the old age and to become a part of the community awaiting (and witnessing to) the new age.
The rest of the gospel of Matthew is a footnote explaining in narrative fashion how Jesus manifests the Realm and
Although preachers often mention the realm in passing, few sermons really focus on it in detail. Today’s passage offers the preacher a natural opportunity to explain the realm as the overarching perspective within which to understand Jesus and Matthew.
Moreover, Matthew’s perspective is very attractive for bringing the text into the contemporary world. The preacher might reflect on the significance of the realm for today. Where do we see it becoming manifest? Where and when and how does the congregation experience the realm? Where and how can we becoming a part of its movement, that is, where and how can we? Where do we see resistance to it? How we ourselves (as individuals and as a congregation) resist it?
At the same time, the preacher needs to be help the congregation reflect on the degree to which they really accept aspects of the apocalyptic world view, especially the idea that Jesus will return in singular apocalyptic event. To be sure, the congregation cannot understand all things. But, 2,000 years have passed and Jesus has not returned. Apocalyptic thinking was part and parcel of the mythological first century world view whereas today’s congregation probably lives out of a more scientific world view.
From a hermeneutical point of view, a congregation does not have to believe that history is literally divided into two ages and to keep looking out the window for an apocalypse in order to derive positive theological meaning from this text. A deeper and more abiding perspective on the realm is God is dissatisfied with the world the way it is and is at work to help its quality of life more closely resemble the realm. To be honest, we cannot know what ultimately lies ahead. But we can adopt perspectives and take actions that are realm-like.
To be sure, the world is not getting better and better every day in every way. At times, the condition of the world seems noticeably worse than it was in first century Palestine. Nevertheless, the enduring affirmation empowering the notion of the realm is that God never abandons the world, never gives up, and is always present to offer the world opportunities to move in the direction of the realm.
In apocalyptic world of thought, human beings do not bring the realm. God brings the realm, but human beings witness to it, interpret it, and call other people to embrace it. Human beings can facilitate its coming by joining its movement. Today’s congregation probably envisions a more active role for human beings (as individuals and communities). The preacher might encourage the congregation to consider concrete situations of darkness and death (per Matt. 4:16) in which they can take actions to help the light shine and thereby manifest the realm.
Matthew 4:18-22 depicts the call of the first disciples. Matthew uses the figures of the disciples to speak to the Matthean church. The writer of the first gospel does not allegorize the disciples (as if the disciples are the church) but what Jesus says—and does—relative to the disciples is direct instruction to the Matthean community. The term “follow me” in Matthew is a technical term for following Jesus, that is, for turning away from the old age and turning towards the new. To follow is to accept Jesus’ interpretation of the realm and to seek to manifest the realm in individual and communal life.
The vocation of the disciples is to “fish for people.” When I was a child in the church in the 1950s, we had a rhythmic song that we belted out with gusto, “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” I mention that because every time I come to this passage, that music is in my head and my temptation is to think about discipleship from the perspective of that 1950s experience which interpreting fishing for people as evangelism. In those days that meant recruiting people for the church. That dimension is included in Matthew, but Matthew means much more.
This image derives from the practice of fishing in antiquity and from Jeremiah 16:16-18 and Ezekiel 47:10-12. In those days, people did not fish with hooks and poles (as we usually do) but used nets. They would gather fish into a net, take them to shore, and sort them. In Jeremiah, the fishers are agents who capture the disobedient community for judgment. Ezekiel describes people fishing on the edge of the regenerated Dead Sea (yes, catching fish from the Dead Sea).
This is what disciples are called to do: alert people to the coming apocalyptic judgment (and call them to repent) and invite them to prepare for the realm which so renews the cosmos that places as dead as the Dead Sea becomes sources of life. Matt. 13:47-50 uses the imagery of fishing and sorting to speak explicitly about the coming apocalypse (and judgment), the final sorting and consequences.
This way of thinking about discipleship is entirely consistent with our earlier remarks about the realm. Jesus followers are to do much of what Jesus does: preach, teach, and heal (embody the realm), as and, of course, to expect resistance.
How does live as a disciple? By doing what Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew. The rest of the gospel of Matthew—Matthew 4:23-28:20—explains what it means to fish for people.
Deconstructionists point out that the image of fishing (in and of itself) contains a violent dimension. The person fishing captures the fish in a net and deprives the fish of freedom. Today’s preacher, however, can critique this aspect of the image while retaining the fundamental purposes of discipleship in Matthew. These purposes do, indeed, respect human freedom.
Ron Allen is Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary. His recently published (and mercifully brief) The Life of Jesus for Today enlarges on the themes developed in this blog and is designed (with questions for small group discussion) for use in Bible study groups and Sunday School classes. It is available from Westminster John Knox (www.wjkbooks.com).
"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-01-17 by David von Schlichten
It's been fun sitting here in the hot tub with guest blogger Jill Crainshaw and listening to her conversation with hot tub-regular Tom Steagald. Scroll down to read their exchange, as well as Jill's initial blog entry for this week.
Also, go to Share It! to read for free Anna Carter Florence's “Preaching the Lesson” article for this week. With her description of her experience at the Taize community as well as her thoughts on the statement “Come and see,” Anna is her usual insightful self.
Below are some highlights from this week's articles in Lectionary Homiletics. Soak 'em up.
Timothy B. Cargal teaches us preachers that, in John's gospel, John the Baptist's baptizing is not connected to repentance but to the revelation of Christ to Israel (vv.30-31). Forgiveness is not done to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah but instead is the Messiah's “chief work” (p.59).
Charles Allen reminds us that there is no “official list of Jesus' disciples” (p.60), and perhaps the absence of such a list suggests a “more collegial model of discipleship” (p.60).
Also, unlike in the Synoptic gospels, Jesus does not call the disciples per se. Rather, they seek him out. This feature may fit with John's “vision of mutual indwelling” (p.60). Discipleship is not merely about obedience but also about “shared responsibility” (p.60).
“Scripture and Screen”
Dan R. Dick compares Simon/Peter to Clark Griswold from the National Lampoon's Vacation movie series. Both figures have good intentions, both mess up a lot, and both ultimately have strong faith. Clark Griswold is trying to give his family the best vacation possible and keeps trying even when his plans go ridiculously wrong.
Similarly, Peter means well, professes belief in Jesus, but is clueless about who Jesus really is and so makes one mistake after another. Even so, Peter remains committed.
“A Sermon: Sacred Seeking”
Susan R. Andrews preaches that discipleship, “knowing Jesus[,] is not about intellectual certainty. It is not about ethical perfection [ . . . Rather,] [T]o know Jesus is to come and see, to remain with him, to abide with him, to simply hang out with Jesus for a while, and to see what happens” (p.66).
These words are liberating, because they remind and assure us Christians that we do not have to have all the answers as part of discipleship. Discipleship is more about having a relationship with Jesus than about having all questions answered or about having no doubts or about being comfortable with every aspect of the Church.
My seventeen year-old son is going through a phase of not believing in Jesus and of rejecting the Church. This message from Susan Andrews may be of help to him.
My fingers are all pruny now, so I'm getting out of the tub, thinking about the sermon, ever
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Nat "King" Cole
2008-01-14 by David Howell
Nat "King" Cole is in the Sermon Feed Back Cafe. Actually, Tom Steagald has posted his sermon that reflects on the "King." Have a cup of "Mighty Mocha" and enjoy.
Nearly 700 pastors are already registered for the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. We have added Otis Moss III as a preacher. He is homiletical dynamite. Also starting February 4, you may sign up for Concordia University housing. Go to Festival of Homiletics link on Homepage.
If you have not yet subscribed to GoodPreacher.com, there are 50 or more excellent resources per week for you to use in "growing" your sermon.
2008-01-14 by Jill Crainshaw
Thank you, Tom, for your excellent comments. I, like you, wrestle with (and sometimes relish) the awe-inspiring ambiguities of texts like ours from John this week. I concur with you that the "edgy" places are often fruitful for homiletically entering a text. One of those ambiguous or edgy places in the text from John, it seems, is in that wonderful phrase, "come and see." When we really pay attention to the world around us, we can't help but see that many human abodes reveal both the arrogance and fragility of human living.
Also, as you wonderfully put it, Herod stands in the shadows of Bethlehem light. To speak about "dwellings" or "staying places" in light of Bethlehem's cattle stall and in the face of Herod's threat seems a profound preaching opportunity. My friend and colleague Ed Foley has co-written a book entitled Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (Jossey-Bass, 1998). In this book, Foley (and his co-author Herbert Anderson) urge preachers always to pay attention to both mythic and parabolic dimensions of texts and liturgies. A human tendency, they write, is to turn our eyes more readily toward the mythic, toward the idyllic dimensions of our faith. More true to the Gospel, however, is the reality of the parabolic, the reality of life contradictions and ambiguities. The image of "dwelling" or "abiding" contains of course both, mythic and parabolic. Teasing out both and then standing homiletically in the tension could indeed be quite powerful.
2008-01-14 by Tom Steagald
I am writing from just down the road in Stanley, NC! Thanks for your post...and I have added the website you included to my list of favorites!
I am wondering how /when/ if the desire to incarnate grace demands the preacher makes use of and interpret the sharp edges of that grace--which is to say, the Good News is also bad news and judgment is woven into the proclamation of forgiveness (as you hint in your story about the retreat in the NC mountains). Jesus' abiding with us in not unequivocal. The star casts a shadow on Herod. John loses disciples as Jesus gains them. Even existentially, or spiritually, we (or parts of us) must decrease as he increases. As Luke would tell it through Simeon, this child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel and a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many may be revealed.
I am just thinking that to bespeak the Word is to wield a two-edged sword--I am not at all suggesting we think of it or use it as a blunt instrument--and for my part, and I am thinking to use the the discomfort in this passage as a place to enter into consideration of the text.
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