Searching for the kingdom of heaven: A sermon for First Parish of Newbury

Text Matthew 4:12-23

   12Now when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; 13and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —  16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

 17From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    (literal translation from Koine Greek: from then began the Jesus to proclaim and to say, change your mind for approached is [pf.] the dominion of the heavens)

    18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

    23And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.


Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our Lord and savior Christ Jesus.  Amen.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” says Jesus and John the Baptist before him.

Where is this kingdom of heaven?  What do Jesus and John mean?  “At hand?” Does it mean it’s already somewhere around here and we can’t find it?  Does that mean it’s “coming soon?”  Let’s puzzle over this. It’s worth our wondering; the kingdom of heaven is something to yearn for.

Where is the kingdom of heaven for you? Is that even the right question? Where is it?

Let’s start with the geography of the lands just east of the Mediterranean Sea. That’s, generally, the location of Jesus’s and John the Baptist’s earthly ministry. John the Baptist did his baptizing and preaching in the Jordan River. We can guess this all happened down the mountain range to the east of Jerusalem, of Mt. Zion.  Matthew tells us  “then, went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”   So Jerusalem must have been nearby.

He told them all, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  The literal-minded people in the crowd might have believed the kingdom was right there in the muddy water of the Jordan.

We know even some temple bigshots – Pharisees and Sadducees – came down to the river to see him. Now, THEY likely wanted to believe the kingdom was coming near   to the temple   on top of Mount Zion, at Jerusalem. That would have been good for them: they enjoyed power and wealth based on the centrality of the temple in the life of those people.  But John wasn’t playing to their agenda – he famously chewed them out for claiming Abraham as their exclusive heritage. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”.  He gave them a hard time, but he did not tell those bigshots that the kingdom of God was far from them, not at all.

Where is the kingdom? Let’s look for it. Let’s follow the biblical narrative.

Right after he finishes going off on the Sadducees and Pharisees, John baptizes Jesus after a brief argument about whether it should be the other way around.

Then, the Spirit leads Jesus up out of the river valley into the wilderness. There he fasts for forty days and forty nights. The devil takes him to the top of the temple, and then to the top of a mountain, to a spot with a great view of “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” Satan tries the old line, “all this can be yours,” but Jesus tells him to get lost.

That mountaintop might very well be a real place. Mount Hermon, to the north, looms over a large part of that territory.  My dad climbed that mountain in 1963. He went with a boy scout troop. (I was too young, so I missed out). He told me they could see north to Beirut, east to Damascus, south to Jerusalem, and west to Sidon and across the sea to Cyprus from the summit. The sea of Galilee is in the foreground. “All the nations of the world” was not a gross exaggeration in Gospel times. If you suffer from delusions of power and glory, you probably should stay away from there.

Jesus didn’t say, “wow, check it out, the kingdom of heaven!” on that mountaintop. He did tell off the devil , saying ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ He looked to the Lord, not to the kingdoms at his feet.

So, we’re still left wondering: where is the kingdom of heaven? It doesn’t seem to have been at the top of the temple or on the mountain.

Today’s Gospel reading picks up the narrative right after Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. He gets word that John’s been arrested, and decides to go to Capernaum in Galilee.

Geography: Capernaum is 70 miles from Jerusalem. It was a hard trip in those days. (It’s a dangerous trip to this day.)  Geographically speaking, Capernaum is a strange strange choice. It’s like a famous author choosing Newbury as the first stop on a book tour, not New York City.  It’s like the mayor of Boston resigning, moving here and running for selectman. We know there’s nothing wrong with public service, or with saying hello to fans, right here in Newbury. We know this is a fine place. But the rest of the world might wonder at such a choice.

For his part Jesus is unlikely to see any Pharisees in Capernaum: temple bigshots don’t make long journeys out of curiosity.  Jesus’s choice means this: he’s not claiming John’s followers as his own. He’s starting over. It’s a clean break between John’s movement and Jesus’s.  And it starts with geographic humility. Not the temple mount. Instead, a remote fishing town.

And what does Jesus say? In that humble place, Jesus picks up exactly where John left off, proclaiming the same words, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Where is this kingdom? We’ve learned that it’s not located at the top of the temple, or the summit of the mountain, places that signify worldly glory. We’ve learned that it’s nearby at hand both at the Jordan River and the Galilee shore.  We’ve learned that it doesn’t depend on a movement with many followers.

For much of the history of Christianity, when people have heard “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” we’ve interpreted it to mean “coming soon.”  We’ve heard the urgent call to “Repent!” from  John and Jesus as meaning “Repent right now! Turn from your wicked ways and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior! Hurry! It will be too late when the kingdom of heaven – the day of judgement – arrives here.  Repent, or it’s the lake of fire for you.”

Maybe the kingdom can be found in that day of judgement bearing down on us. Maybe it’s the place of peace imagined in the old song, “Stop drinking, stop gambling / stop staying out late at night / come home to your wife and family / sit down by the fireside bright.”

I have a friend called Harvey. He has a gigantic Harley, and belongs to an evangelical Christian motorcycle club.  (He invited me to ride with them on my little motorscooter. But, when he found out it only goes 50, he admitted I might not be able to keep up.) I asked him why he joined, and he told me he wants to set an example – be a witness, he said – to other motorcyclists that it’s possible to live in that world and still say “no” to the bad stuff – the sinful stuff – some of them do.  It’s not news: some of Harvey’s fellow motorcyclists do indeed stay out late at night fighting and gambling and drinking.

Part of the mission of Jesus is to teach us to lay aside our own personal quests for status and pleasure, and live our lives for others.  “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said.  Each of us can turn from sin to love (even if we only have little scooters). Harvey is teaching that gospel of repentance to his friends. He’s teaching them that the joy of heaven awaits them if they change their lives, but not if they don’t.  Can we find the kingdom of heaven in that Christian motorcycle club and in Harvey’s teaching? …

Maybe we can find the kingdom of heaven in the promise that oppressive people will get what’s coming to them unless they wake up and change their ways.  This can be found in John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit that befits repentance! …  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Can we find the kingdom of heaven in the Baptist’s invitation to those powerful people to bear fruit worthy of repentance? …

In today’s Gospel narrative, Jesus recruits some helpers. Then, he doesn’t stand around shouting at people. Instead, with his helpers he goes all over Galilee, caring for people, teaching them, and proclaiming the good news. They proclaim the good news by what they do, what they say, and who they are. Is that where we find the kingdom of heaven? In places where people make it their mission care for each other: there in Galilee, and in other places – such as here, for example?  …

Where is this kingdom? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” says our translation. A literal reading of the Gospel Greek says, “Change your minds, for the realm of heaven is come near.” If we’re supposed to repent before the kingdom arrives, friends, we’re in trouble. It’s already too late. It’s coming near, and it’s already near.

In Mark’s narrative (1:15), Jesus starts his ministry saying “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” But Matthew quotes him saying “kingdom of heaven.” When we read those Gospels next to each other we can believe Matthew copied Mark. When Mark used the name of God, Matthew often rewrote it “heaven.” To this day there’s a powerful Jewish custom to refrain from speaking the holy Name. We know Matthew was writing his Gospel to be read by Jews, so he wrote “heaven.”

So, what do we mean, “heaven?”  Is it the place of eternal life? Is it pie in the sky by and by when we die? Yes. We do hope for heaven. We hope for Harvey’s violent motorcycle buddies and arrogant Pharisees and you and I, and all who stumble through this world, to enter into the joy of that heaven.

But, is that all John and Jesus meant? It’s hard to believe.  That vision of heaven may be coming to us, but it has certainly not already arrived. And their words are crystal clear: the kingdom of God (heaven, says Matthew) is already near and is still coming near to us.

So, where is the kingdom of heaven? Here’s one way to think about it. It’s near. It’s been near all along.  Here’s a picture of a lampstand: surely you’ve seen this before.

Change your mind: change the way you look at it! It is two people having a conversation. The lampstand is the world, and the two people are the kingdom of heaven. Heaven is near.

Where is the kingdom of heaven for you and me? It’s where we look for it in humility. It’s where we repent and say “sorry” for mistreating each other, for seeking personal glory, and for abusing power.  It’s where we take up our crosses and follow Jesus by serving each other. It’s where we open our hearts and souls to seeing it the kingdom in this world.

We do yearn for heaven, and for eternal life. The good news of John and Jesus is that the kingdom of heaven is among us. The eternal life we hope for has already begun. It’s my prayer that each of us, in the days to come, will look for, and find, the kingdom of heaven in one another.

Let us shape our souls and minds to bear fruit worthy of God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and peace.

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