Darkness and dawn.
Darkness was spreading over the land of Israel. John the Baptist had been arrested. It was time for the dawning of a new day as Jesus began his public ministry by preaching a message of repentance. There was a difference, however, in John’s message about repentance and Jesus’ message about repentance.
The Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist’s message about repentance by focusing on how John prepared the way of the Lord and the dawning of a new day for God’s kingdom by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 1:2) and “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 1:3).
In today’s scripture lesson, Matthew describes how Jesus proclaimed the same message of repentance that John did about as he began his public ministry by stating, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is what Jesus does not say following his message about repentance that makes a huge statement about the difference between John’s message about the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ message about the kingdom of heaven. The substantial difference is that John’s message about God’s kingdom focuses on preparing the way of the Lord as John said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom does not contain a command to “prepare the way of the Lord” because Jesus was the Lord whom John had preached about. Jesus was the Lord of the kingdom of heaven for whom John had prepared the way.
As the Lord of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was the dawning of a new day. Matthew described the dawning of this new day by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “the 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” (Matthew 4:16). To appreciate what Matthew is writing, it is important to understand that the ancients of faith like Isaiah believed that the light of dawn was a sign of the kingdom of heaven and of God’s faithfulness and hope.
There were two aspects of the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew. The outer aspect of the kingdom of heaven includes everyone who acknowledges the general truth of God’s faithfulness and hope for life. The inner aspect of the kingdom of heaven includes believers who have repented and chosen to live in the dawning of a new day as the reality of their lives is defined by God’s presence.
Matthew offers evidence of the outer aspect of the kingdom of heaven as great crowds follow Jesus as he teaches in synagogues, proclaims the good news of the kingdom, and heals (Matthew 4:23-25).
Matthew offers evidence of the inner aspect of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him. The calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John is a reversal of the normal order of disciples seeking out a rabbi. Hearing Jesus’ call to follow, they must make personal decisions about the inner reality of their lives by living in the dawning of a new day for their lives.
Prior to Jesus’ call to follow, these two sets of brothers likely had a contract with the Roman Empire that authorized them to fish in the Sea of Galilee, either through the purchase of a lease or through a contract, that obligated them to supply a certain quality of fish.
Jesus’ call for them to follow was an inner call to leave behind their allegiance to Rome and to pledge their allegiance to Jesus, the Lord of the kingdom of heaven. Dr. Jillian Engelhardt describes this calling as a tale of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Rome.
“By choosing Jesus, the brothers choose God’s rule over Rome. They choose to “fish” their land and the people in it for God’s purposes rather than exploiting it for Rome’s gain. They chose to join Jesus’ ministry in the Promised Land rather than to align themselves with the interests of the occupiers. Rome wanted the men to catch fish to advance their imperialist expansion. Jesus wants them to catch people for God’s rule, which as Jesus will demonstrate throughout the rest of the Gospel, is a rule of mercy and justice and plenty.”
The best description I have read of what it means to accept Jesus’ inner call for life in the kingdom of heaven is from a book entitled Grace Matters. This book is the story of two persons, Spencer Perkins, the son of John Perkins, a civil rights leader in Mississippi and the pastor of Voice of Calvary Church, and Chris Rice who was from Vermont and participated as an intern in a ministry for racial reconciliation. Chris arrived at Voice of Calvary as an intern in 1981 and ended up staying for 17 years as Spencer. Part of the ministry they oversaw was the orientation of interns. During one of the orientation sessions, Spencer shared the following insight on what it means to accept Jesus’ inner invitation to live in the kingdom of heaven.
“Christianity ain’t between you and God. It’s about joinin’ in God’s agenda and becomin’ part of a new people–a body that together witnesses God’s truth to the world…”
Tom Tewell tells the story of a wealthy corporate executive named Jack whom Tewell knew while serving as a pastor in New York City. Jack and his wife raised three children who grew up going to worship and Sunday School nearly every week. They were confirmed in the eighth grade and went on mission trips each summer. Their middle daughter, Anna, left New York City to attend college in Atlanta where she found another church to attend.
During Anna’s sophomore year, a speaker came to the church to report on his work at an orphanage in a part of Africa ravaged by civil war. At the end of the talk the speaker said, almost in passing, that he need support for his ministry – not just financial donations, but people who would work with him at the orphanage for a week or a month or a year at a time. Anna called her parents after the talk and told how amazing this ministry was and how she wanted to get involved. They listened appreciatively, and they made a sizable donation.
A few days later, Anna called back and said, “I think I need to go to Africa.” Her parents said, “It sounds dangerous. Can’t we just make another donation?” Anna was determined to go. She had to be there, to see it for herself, to learn from the people and to serve the children of this orphanage. Her parents relented and said, “Okay, fine. Why don’t you make arrangements to go this summer for a week or two.”
“No,” Anna said, “I don’t want to just go and dip my toe in. I want to be part of this work. This is what God is calling me to do. As soon as the spring semester is over, I want to go for a year. At least.” It took a while for Jack and his wife to come around to the idea, but as much as they worried about her physical safety, they could not help but be moved by her sense of call. Finally, they stopped trying to convince Anna to stay and instead helped make the arrangements for her to go. When Jack told the story later to his pastor, he had tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe she’s doing this,” Jack kept saying. “You know, we raised our daughter to be a respectable Christian. We didn’t actually want her to be a real one.”
How is God calling you to witness to the dawning of a new day?
Darkness and Dawn
by Pastor Marc Brown
January 22, 2023
Accompanying Scriptures: Matthew 4:12-25
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for January 22, 2023
Scripture Lesson Matthew 4:12-25
The Good News “Darkness and Dawn”
Music “Morning Has Broken” #145
Closing Music “Shine Light Eternal” by Edward Broughton