The following is a transcript of Professor Ken Herfst’s September 13 chapel message. As such, it is written in a conversational tone. The scripture accompanying the address is from Matthew 4:12-25.
If you look at the way Matthew sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry, he doesn’t exactly start with a high note. If John is the one who announces the coming of the King, it isn’t exactly an encouraging prospect.
John in prison, and yet, Jesus takes this as his cue to start his public ministry. You might think that he would have thought, “I’m supposed to follow him, and he’s in prison because he was faithful?” This is serious stuff. I mean, Jesus follows John, he will bring the same basic message and precisely because of his faithfulness to his calling, he ends up in jail. We know the story. John will lose his head. Sobering. Perfectly understandable if Jesus would have said, “I need a bit more time to get things ready. I better wait until things calm down a bit.” It’s not exactly a friendly context, but rather than hide, or wait, or suggest to his Father that he should probably postpone this business of preaching the kingdom, Jesus steps forward. There will be a price, and Jesus will pay the ultimate price! But Jesus will do this precisely because he fundamentally understands the nature of the Kingdom of God and its urgency!
The first thing to notice is that this kingdom is probably bigger than we think.
This is a key moment on the world stage. Matthew reminds us of this as he places the appearance of Jesus in the context of the fulfillment of prophetic announcement made centuries earlier, by Isaiah.
This isn’t just some literary preamble to the real deal. This IS the real deal.
By presenting Jesus in this way, Matthew reminds us that Jesus is part of a larger history, a story that stretches way back. He brings us back to Isaiah the prophet who penned these hopeful words in a time of exile. And now, the Hebrews might not be in exile, but their land is occupied by a world superpower. A rather hopeless situation. But precisely at this moment, on this particular world stage, Jesus of Nazareth shows up.
Matthew has already set the wider stage with his genealogy in chapter one where he traces Jesus’ origins back to Abraham. (Key element in telling the story to the Hebrew people who also trace their origins back to Abraham). This man is legitimate. He can trace his roots to the patriarch. Luke, you’ll remember, goes further back in his account of the genealogy and traces Jesus’ origins to the first human: Adam — the son of God. Of course, John (one of the disciples Jesus calls in this passage) helps us understand the identity of Jesus in more theological terms and astonishes us by tracing the story of Jesus right back to the very beginning. What is more, he is God: “through him all things were made, without whom nothing was made that has been made… In him is life itself!”
And other New Testament authors try to unpack the identity of this Jesus, they will remind us that he is the cosmic Christ. The Lord of the Universe: creator of galaxies, and powers and principalities, and thrones and dominions, the heavens and the earth —everything holds together in Him!
This is the king whose kingdom is announced and who shows up on the shores of Galilee. The kingdom is probably bigger than we think. It is a cosmic kingdom. This is important because there is no legitimate kingdom without a king, and no legitimate king without a kingdom.
“This kingdom is provocatively different and politically incorrect to the extreme.”
You cannot understand Jesus without the kingdom; you will not understand the kingdom without knowing Jesus.
The kingdom is not an ideology, program or social agenda. It will undoubtedly impact society, but it has very much to do with the king. It is very much the place where the king exercises his authority. It is the place he rules and reigns as he seeks the good of his subjects.
And Jesus is no ordinary king.
All eyes are on the king!
The second thing to notice is that the kingdom is probably more unkingdom-like that we think. This kingdom is provocatively different and politically incorrect to the extreme.
The Kingdom of God is undeniably the most important rule or government in the world. It has a global scope!
So, you’d expect Jesus to move right into the center of power and enter the limelight in Jerusalem. Rally support of the religious establishment. Surround himself with key public officials, theologians and leaders.
But, no, look what Jesus does! He goes to Galilee of the Gentiles. The backwoods of Palestine. A place that Matthew, following Isaiah, describes as a place of darkness and the shadow of death. This is where he chooses to start.
He announces the kingdom with the notice that living in this kingdom requires a different way of life. So he gives a regal demand: repent — change your way of thinking. Restructure your priorities. Turn your life around. Come back to God!
As he begins his work, he forms a group of supporters, followers, apprentices, or disciples. The next surprise: his choice of co-workers, followers. A bunch of fishermen from Galilee. Try to picture the scene. Two brothers are fishing together and suddenly Jesus walks over to them and says: “Come, follow me!” I’m going to train you to fish for people.” Simon and Andrew drop everything and follow Jesus.
Two other brothers, with their dad, Mr. Zebedee, fixing their nets — and Jesus calls to them — and they leave everything too. They get up and follow Jesus. How well they knew him at this point is subject to debate. But even if they had spent some time with him, this is astounding! Jesus hasn’t done much yet. He is just getting started.
What is it about this man Jesus that he has this kind of authority that would make people drop everything, turn their backs on their work, their family and join him? He walks in unannounced and takes over their lives! How can they make this kind of radical commitment? There must be something going on here.
I kind of look like a grandfather. And so you you think that it would give me some credibility with my family. But, I can’t even get my grandkids to eat their broccoli!
How do you get someone to just pick up and leave everything and everyone behind and follow someone they hardly even know?
So right from the outset as Matthew sets the stage and focusses on Jesus, he’s telling us to pay attention to this man. At some point in the story of Jesus you and I will be confronted with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” It’s the question that ultimately shapes both our lives and our destines.
But there’s more: Jesus is a man on a mission, on his Father’s mission, he goes throughout Galilee teaching, preaching and healing.
He is passionately committed to teaching truth and he uses the venues available to him to do that. There is ignorance and uncertainty that needs to be addressed! He teaches in the synagogues.
He’s passionately committed to telling people some pretty amazing news from God, about God who is faithful to his promises. He preaches the Good News of the Kingdom. Not just some good advice. No, this is GOOD news from God.
He is passionately committed to the transformation of people as integral beings. The good news of the Kingdom isn’t about spiritualized truth; it is truth, but also takes the shape of healing sick bodies, freeing people possessed by demons. His compassion is remarkable: the stress is on every and all. It is good news that you can see with your eyes and hear with your ears and touch with your hands. It is all about restoration! This is a glimpse into God’s restoration project! Wholeness, wellness, life!
This is the incarnate love in action that is at the heart of the GOOD NEWS from God. He is truly is EMMANUEL: God with us! The God who one of these same followers will later say: this GOD IS LOVE! God with us in our pain, and sickness, in our darkness, as we walk through the shadow of death. God with us as we face our demons.
This is precisely why the kingdom is more urgently needed that we probably imagine — this is the third part.
Matthew describes Jesus as healing EVERY disease and sickness among the people.
This is so remarkable that news spreads quickly. All over Syria and beyond Israel’s borders. This isn’t good news limited to a particular ethnic group or racial category or gender. It starts in Galilee of the Gentiles and soon it is sweeping right across the map to Syria.
As the news goes out, as contagious hope goes viral, people bring to him ALL — all who were ill with diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed and he healed them.
Generous, tangible signs of the Kingdom, yes, but there is something shockingly radical about this.
“The kingdom is more hopeful than we probably dare to dream is possible, even on our best days.”
Jesus’ sphere of kingdom ministry where he begins his work, is among the sick, the demon possessed, the paralyzed, those considered outcasts of society. those that society generally thought had been abandoned or even punished by God. This is not just a bit of cosmetic touching up! It’s not a photo-op. This is real transformation. Notice: Jesus doesn’t just visit; he lives there!
So, starting from the margins, the news of Jesus, his message and his ministry makes it way back to the centre. Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea and the region beyond the Jordan.
This is a message and a project we urgently need in our day. We live in deeply challenging and troubling times. We can be completely overwhelmed by the challenges our world faces. The threat of nuclear war is very real, monster storms and monsoons bringing wide spread destruction, anguish and death. Fires and earthquakes. We witness the persistent breakdown of society through systemic racism and unjust, insensitive global and local economics, the dehumanizing of society through technology. There is violence perpetrated in the name of religion. The list goes on and it is much, much longer. There is a lot we can be anxious about!
We desperately need this kingdom!
This bring us to the fourth point: The kingdom is more hopeful than we probably dare to dream is possible, even on our best days.
Jesus brings real and lasting change. He completely restores that which is completely broken.
Years ago, as I was working in one of the poorest places in Guatemala, in neglected communities that no one wanted to go to because it was literally the end of the road — and it wasn’t much of a road. I came face to face with misery, suffering, violence, exploitation, human trafficking, sickness and preventable death. I was completely overwhelmed and I realized that my theology wasn’t big enough to face the day to day challenges. Never mind thinking about life after death. Most people I served and who shared our table were struggling with the question “is there life before death?!” I could walk away, but the people I lived with couldn’t. It was then that God mercifully brought Moltmann’s theology of hope into my hands. Moltmann introduced me to a passage John Calvin on the whole question of hope that has seeped into my soul. Listen to how he describes the contradiction we live:
To us is given the promise of eternal life — but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us — meanwhile we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous — and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness — but meantime we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things — yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. HE THEN ASKS: What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of darkness upon the path illumined by the Word and Spirit of God!
Don’t misunderstand. A theology of hope doesn’t give up and say, don’t worry things will get better in the end. Grin and bear it. Just hang on. There will be pie in the sky when you die!
Rather, it is a hope that strains for the future of the New Creation. It is hope that not only finds a comfort with Christ in the middle of suffering, but it is also a hope in Christ and with Christ that expresses itself as a protest against suffering.
“The Kingdom of God demands a commitment that is far more personal and far more all-encompassing than we often imagine.”
God the Son doesn’t leave us in a place of darkness or the shadow of death, but he becomes incarnate to dismantle all that causes suffering and death and replace it with LIFE, even when it will cost him his own life!
No, Jesus has come precisely to give flesh and bones to the Biblical message of hope. Everything he does, everything he says, is to give us a preview (authorized and approved for all audiences, I might add) of the main feature of the coming New Creation.
So the prayer “YOUR KINGDOM COME” impels us to strain for the future, to lean into the future — refusing to give into the sin of despair or to be deluded by the sin of presumption.
It’s tremendously hopeful.
The fifth point: The Kingdom of God demands a commitment that is far more personal and far more all-encompassing than we often imagine.
The Kingdom of God is not a spectator sport. It is not for armchair theologians. Jesus doesn’t need fans. He doesn’t need anyone to clap for him or to cheer him on from the bleachers. He doesn’t give autographs. He calls us to be HIS disciples. We need to enter the kingdom through repentance and faith, through a supernatural rebirth. Through a conversion process, and then, to apprentice ourselves to him.
It simply will not do to give him a polite nod at Chapel or on a Sunday morning or at CITB or think we’re done because we have a personal ‘quiet time’ — as important as prayer and personal Bible study is.
Jesus seeks followers who share his journey to the cross and through the resurrection to the New Creation. Followers who bear witness to HIM in the Galilees of the Gentiles we find all around us.
The message of the Kingdom, the lifestyle of the kingdom, the mission of the kingdom is radical. It calls us to align our dreams with God’s dream, to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” So, we too will learn to announce the Good News of the Kingdom, to love enemies, turn the other cheek, be reconciled with an offended sister before we kneel to pray, seek both peace and purity of heart, go the extra mile, to serve the lowest, the least and the lost. To be merciful as our Father is merciful.
It involves a radical commitment that defies any kind of half-hearted mediocrity. It challenges the kind of thinking that believes we can use Jesus whenever we need him or follow Jesus on our terms.
I’m reminded of those great lines from Wilbur Rees that are so appropriate for a consumer religion of our consumer society:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
The Good News of The Kingdom of God won’t let us do that. It is a treasure hidden in a field for which we sell everything. It is a response to God’s call that is costly because it demands everything we are, everything we do. It is a call to carry our own cross, right at the very beginning!
But, the way of the apprenticed disciple is also the way of grace, precisely because if we are to follow Christ, it necessarily means that he walks with us. You can’t follow someone you aren’t with. This Jesus accompanies us with the same Spirit with whom he was anointed. And so, still dripping with the promises of our Triune God, showered on us at our baptism, nourished by the bread and the wine of our Risen Lord’s table we dare to dream that another world is possible. A world in which the kingdom has already broken in and given us real and lasting hope because the King of this Kingdom is none other than Jesus Christ! And he is making all things new.