I was asked to preach at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Helena, Montana this Sunday. Below you’ll find that sermon . The lectionary texts are Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23.
Here we are, a few weeks after Christmas, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. No longer a baby in the manger, four chapters later Jesus is a man, just baptized by John in the Jordan and tempted in the wilderness. […wipe tear] They grow up so fast!
The words with which Jesus begins his ministry are at the very center of his good news: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” What does this mean? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” The communal memory of Jesus contained in the Gospel of Matthew explains this message by putting it in the context of our reading from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” Good news! This coming-near kingdom is a light in the dark. This morning, I’d like to meditate together on this message — this luminous kingdom close-at-hand — especially in light of the end of our passage from Isaiah: “You have broken the rod of their oppressor…all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” Where there is oppression and violence, the “great light” of the coming kingdom means liberation, peace, and renewed freedom. How and why do we “repent” before such a reality? How do we move from darkness and welcome the light?
I’ll suggest that we think about this message through the lens of another passage—another way that Jesus illuminates the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew. You know the famous parable where the kingdom of heaven is compared to a shepherd separating out sheep from goats. The ruler in this parable (who seems to be Jesus) speaks to an enormous crowd—all the nations gathered before him. He says, “Remember! Remember when I was thirsty and you gave me a drink (or didn’t), remember when I was hungry and you gave me a meal (or didn’t), remember when I was naked and you covered me (or didn’t), I was unemployed and you gave me a job (or didn’t), cast out of my family and you welcomed me in (or didn’t).” But everyone looks around confused because no one remembers. And it turns out (for the sheep) that whenever they cared for any of their vulnerable brothers and sisters this way, they were encountering Jesus. And it turns out (for the goats) that whenever they ignored the needs of folks in their community, they were turning a cold shoulder on Jesus. And the ruler in the parable welcomes the sheep into the kingdom, but sends the goats back out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Ok… uncomfortable “interactive sermon” moment coming here. Raise your hand if you have provided for a stranger in need—someone who was alone, hungry, thirsty, hurting, or sick? Wonderful!! A room full of sheep at church, just as we’d expect! Now, raise your hand [raise hand] if you have passed by a stranger in need, thought that the problems looked a little too complicated for this (very busy) day, too messy to get tangled up in… Oh no!!! A church full of goats! A hotbed of hypocrisy! What will we do?! This apparently simple parable starts to get complicated as soon as we start to think our way into it.
Maybe the good news of this passage is not really about some final sorting of (purely?) good people from those (purely?) bad people. Maybe the kingdom of heaven doesn’t sort people out in that way either. Maybe the sorting out of the sheep and goats needs to happen within every one of our hearts. Then, this passage is more about ways of living together that resonate with the life of the kingdom of heaven — and ways of living that are out-of-touch with that kingdom. When the parable is no longer seen as a great sorting out among the masses of people and is seen instead as a great sorting within each person, within each life, within each community, it starts to shed more light on what it means, practically, to: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” No one is all sheep, no one is all goat, we all need to come into the light — and we do so by finding the life of God among our vulnerable neighbors.
At this point, the message of the kingdom coming near is also hard news—and we need to hear that too. Let’s remember those boots of the tramping warriors in Isaiah. Let’s remember those garments rolled in blood. The good news is that those boots and those garments are now fuel for the fire. Let them burn, and may God’s peace fill the earth! But those boots and those garments belong to real people. They fit on real feet. I’ll spare you the details of the politics of the Assyrian empire and the ancient Israelite monarchy, but let me assure you that this “great light in the darkness” is not vague, wishy-washy optimism—it’s liberation. And in the new light of this dawning kingdom, the warriors that used to tramp around in those boots are out of work. The great light that shines on those who dwell in deep darkness is also hard news, because in this real world, there are many, many people whose comfortable lifestyles are rooted in the darkness—who draw real benefit from the poverty, hunger, isolation, and misery of others. Those goats in the parable don’t withhold food, water, dignity, equality and companionship from their vulnerable neighbors because they’re nasty and mean… More likely, they’re just going along with the systems of their world. “Can’t take care of everyone…They’ll just have to help themselves…They seem like they’re getting by,…oooph, so sad, but that’s just how it is.” And we don’t need to look too much further than the tags on our clothes or the farms in which our meals are tended, picked, harvested, and packaged to see that we too benefit from the hardship of others. The political, economic, and cultural systems in which we live do not play fair. They concentrate their benefits in the hands of few and concentrate their burdens on the backs of many. No one is all sheep, no one is all goat, but the dawning light of God’s kingdom often shines on realities we’d rather not see too clearly.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” Good news! The kingdom of heaven has come near in Jesus’ ministry—and we are invited to join in and participate. And Jesus doesn’t just tell us about this kingdom in parables, he also shows us what the life of the kingdom is like in his interactions with others. Jesus gives food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, companionship to the lonely — and humbly receives meals and friendship in return. When Jesus encounters lepers or hungry crowds, he never says, “Oh…. bummer. That looks bad. Don’t worry, though, wait out a few more years of this and then you’ll be dead and everything will be better after that.” We laugh, but we sometimes reduce the gospel down to that kind of message. But Jesus heals the lepers, eats with the outcasts, and feeds those who are in need. The darkness into which a great light dawns is not abstract, it’s not a symbol; it’s real pain, real hunger, real isolation. The light that shines isn’t symbolic either — it’s real freedom, real liberation, real food, real healing, real community.
“Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” One of the deepest, hardest truths that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. learned from Jesus (and from Gandhi, who also learned it from Jesus) is that the people who benefit from systems of oppression need liberation from those systems too. When God “breaks the rod of the oppressor” as Isaiah says, this is clearly good news for those who suffer under oppression. But, ultimately, that broken rod is good news for the oppressor too. The end of exploitative and unfair systems is good news for everyone who benefits from those systems. It is not easy to hear, but Jesus’ assurance that “the first will be last and the last will be first” is actually good news for everyone, first and last alike! In the new light of the kingdom, there are only brothers and sisters, there are only neighbors, there is only the beloved community. Just as injustice anywhere is a threat that corrodes justice everywhere, our common good is always constrained and distorted by systems that leave people out in the cold, hungry, poor, and in isolation.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is good news! It’s also hard news. In our world where no one is purely sheep and no one is purely goat, the practical application of Jesus’ message is not so much about rolling around in the right amount of guilt and remorse, it’s about orienting our lives so that, more and more, we resist the deep darkness of hunger, isolation, discrimination, and deprivation and more and more work for the “great light” of sharing meals together, mutual support, looking out for those who fall through the cracks. Its about recognizing the ways that we have worn the “tramping boots” that hold others down and bowed before the “rod of the oppressor” so that we can take them off throw them into the fire and seek to make things right with the neighbors that we’ve overlooked for too long. None of us is all goat, none of us is all sheep, we all dwell in some darkness, we are all in need of light. The good news of the coming-near kingdom is that another world is possible, the hard news is that this great light won’t allow any of us to refuse the hard work of personal transformation. And that transformation is not abstract, its not a symbol, it’s not in the far distant future — it begins in the cup of water offered or withheld, it begins when a cry for help met with solidarity or silence, it begins in the struggle for a better way to live together or resignation to more of the same.
Jesus says, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And then goes out and finds some regular folks—salt of the earth fishermen—and draws them into the dawning of the great light of this kingdom. Jesus comes as an ordinary person–in need of food, water, shelter, companionship, and community—and says “follow me!” And then he goes around building a beloved community of mutual care that provides food, water, shelter, and companionship to all the people he encounters. Good news for ordinary sheep, good news for ordinary goats, the Christ is already out there waiting for us. The kingdom of heaven has come near for those with eyes to see it. In order to feel the warmth of that great light dawning, the life of God incarnate, we need only repent, look around, and get our hands dirty in the struggle to make life better together.