|Minister's Sermon - 26th January 2020|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sermon for Sunday 26th January 10.30am|
Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church
Matthew 4. 12-23
Today’s Gospel reading, is a moment of transition in Matthew’s Gospel, as the responsibility for inviting people to commit to the kingdom of heaven shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus. And it happens because Jesus hears that John has been arrested. What’s surprising ‘though, is that instead of telling us about Jesus’ message or the call of the first disciple, the first thing Matthew says is that Jesus “went away” or “withdrew to Galilee.” This is completely unexpected. And to understand what’s going on, we need to recognise that there are several layers to this story, that aren’t immediately obvious. The first layer is the story of what Jesus did when he realised that John had been put in prison, which includes his call to a group of fishermen, to come and fish for people with him. The second is the implicit invitation that the story of him calling his first disciples contains for the community Matthew was writing for and through it, he extends Jesus’ invitation to join him in “fishing for people,” to them and to his readers in subsequent generations – including us. But this is often where our reading stops. Especially now, when we want to encourage everyone, to share in evangelism and become fishers for people. It’s not that that’s not important. But that it’s not enough on its own. Because there’s a third layer to this reading. A layer that often gets left out. The social, political and religious context in which Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, lived. And it’s important, because our faith is not a disembodied faith, that separates us from the world in which we live. When we become Jesus’ disciples, we’re called to live as disciples in the world, and I suspect that our evangelism might be a lot more successful if it was clear to the wider world that Christians took their lives and concerns more seriously.
The context of today’s reading is revealed in three ways. First in what it says about John the Baptist. The second in what it says about Jesus. And the third is in the passage Matthew quotes from the prophet Isaiah – a version of our first reading.
When John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, and started preaching, his message is the same as Jesus’ (or maybe Jesus’ is the same as his). “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Crowds of people came from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and he baptised them, and they confessed their sins. ‘Though he did refuse to baptise the Pharisees and Sadducees, because they were colluding with the Roman empire, and he didn’t believe that that would change. The Gospel writers tell us that John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, because he criticized his immoral life, but this wasn’t the only reason. Given that when John’s death comes, it’s seen as a precursor to Jesus’ death, it wouldn’t be surprising if the religious leaders had also been involved. And Josephus, a contemporary historian, suggests that John had challenged Herod’s economic practices. Practices that had led to the deaths of many people. This isn’t surprising. The Roman Empire was well-known for intimidating and killing people who threatened it and for not caring about the numbers of people who died under their rule.
Jesus understood this political situation. He’d grown up with it. So, he knew that John’s imprisonment, might signal an even more dangerous crack-down on those challenging the Roman Empire. And because there was no safe space in the Empire it wasn’t possible to avoid their violence. Yet we’d be surprised if any of this deterred him. Especially since he’s just come from the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil and rejected the devil’s offer of food, security and power. So, what’s going on when he “went away,” when he “withdrew to Galilee”? Was he withdrawing for good? Fleeing to safety for fear of his life? Matthew is a writer who chooses his words carefully, so it’s helpful to look at them, here. The Greek word for “went away” or “withdrew” implies that he fled. The same word is used to describe Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt because of Herod and then from Judea to Galilee. And also when Jesus flees into the wilderness after John the Baptist is beheaded. Each time, they flee because of the violence of the Roman Empire, or of the possibility if violence. And this time Jesus flees to Galilee – the land of the Gentiles – which suggests his work is about more than his own people. It’s also a place where he cannot escape the Roman Empire – though it might be a little further away from their attention.
One of the differences between Matthew’s Gospel, and the other Gospels, is the number of times he quotes the Hebrew scriptures. Each time he does it, he adds another perspective, to the third layer of his Gospel. Because as well as speaking of how Jesus fulfils the Jewish scriptures, Matthew also introduces an ancient comparison, to the situation he’s writing about in Jesus’ time. The passage he quotes from here, is where the the Prophet Isaiah introduces the messianic king, who will lead people from darkness to light. He was promised when the Assyrians were occupying Israel. And the people were hoping God would send a messiah who would shatter the yoke that was burdening them, reign like King David had, and bring justice and righteousness. This is the context in which Matthew introduces Jesus’ ministry.
Raj Nadella, a new Testament scholar, says this of the comparison. “The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death integral aspects of the society and tried to normalize them. Matthew uses Isaiah’s prophecy, to say that Jesus will lead people from darkness to light, and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the destructive ethos of the Roman empire and demonstrate that darkness and death need not be accepted as normal… Jesus withdrew into Galilee spatially, but he stepped right in the dangerous heart into the empire… so he could lead others to safety.” (1)
You might be wondering what this has to do with us. because we do not live in an empire. And we each have a vote that gives us a share in choosing our government. Yet, we also live in a world where the power of individual nations is limited by businesses and organisations, that operate globally. So, unless we’re off grid and self-sufficient, we’re dependent on them for our energy, food, clothes, transport, and technology. They influence our media, financial services and health systems. And governments are lobbied by them whenever the market is threatened. This isn’t new. But it’s been hastened by the industrial and technological revolutions and the global movements of people. And they’ve led to some trying to defend themselves by turning against people who are different. Walter Brueggemann was an Old Testament theologian. He sees this as the contemporary version of the Assyrian or Roman empire. Like the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time, and like the people living in Galilee in Jesus’ time, our lives are not our own. Let me explain using a few examples from this week’s news.
The meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, is one that I have contradictory feelings about, especially this year. Each year, it identifies the biggest global risks for the coming year, and this year the environment filled the top five places. Yet people still arrived by private jets, and reviewed papers on social inequality, from 500 dollar plus hotel rooms. Their analysis on climate change, is important ‘though, and I was heartened by this comment – even though you might not be. “Capitalism as we have known it is dead. This obsession we have with maximising profits for shareholders alone has led to incredible inequality and a planetary emergency.” (2) The other thing that struck me was a spat between President Trump’s treasury secretary, and Greta Thunberg. After she’d spoken, Steven Mnuchin asked, “Is she the chief economist? ... After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us.” She responded, “It doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realise that our remaining 1.5-degree carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up.” I think the spat was important, because Thunberg is getting a hearing, right in the centre of the empire. And her voice is the voice of the ordinary campaigners and people, whose daily lives are being affected by climate change now and who will continue to be, long after our current world leaders have gone. It’s an important voice. So, I was appalled by this week’s news that campaigning organisations like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and Stand up to Racism, are on the counter-terrorist police’s list as domestic extremists. They’ve denied it. ‘Though teachers and others have said that they’ve been given the list, so they can identify those who are a danger to society and direct them to Prevent. The list isn’t new and it’s has traditionally included radical religious and right-wing organisations who use violence. And although other campaigners have been put under surveillance – including Doreen Lawrence after the death of her son Stephen - it’s not usual for peaceful campaigning organisations to be included. Some will think, that because they threaten our economic and political stability, they should be included and that’s a legitimate view. But I worry about the way the right to protest is being limited now. Because some of those organisations have played a significant role in getting climate change onto the global agenda. And it all reminds me of this poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller.
First they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor, who was initially a supporter of Hitler, but was opposed the Nazi’s antisemitism and their wish to control the German churches. He was imprisoned in 1938 and only released in 1945. After the war, he expressed deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis, and this poem reflects that regret. Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. The day we remember the 6 million Jews, and 5 million others - including Roma people, so-called political and religious “dissidents,” disabled people and gay men - murdered by the Nazis. As well as the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Last Thursday in Jerusalem, world leaders said “never again” and ‘we must learn from the past,” over and over again, while also recognising that antisemitism, genocide and discrimination continues. And their point was reinforced when on Friday, the UN Court of Justice decided that Myanmar’s violence against the Rohingya Muslim people is genocide and asked the government to stop using violence against them.
The question all this invites Christians living now, to ask, is how we should respond. How do we respond when those, who challenge power and authority as John the Baptist and Jesus did, risk being intimidated, imprisoned or killed? Do we carry on as we are, running to seemingly safe spaces, to live in peace with economic security? Or do we confront them to realize the kingdom of heaven? Raj Nadella comments that “there is inevitably some cost for confronting the empire but the cost of not confronting it is much greater—the very loss of our identity as church, which was founded on the ethos of challenging the empire. A church that joins hands with the empire, or remains silent in the face of it, is a contradiction in terms.” (1)
When Jesus’ ministry began, it began with the same message, as John the Baptist’s. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The meaning of the Greek word for “repent,” is to “change one’s mind,” or turn around and face the other way. Thomas Keating, says it’s an invitation to seek happiness, from another direction. It has little to do with sorrow or remorse and everything to do with a new way of life. And in the context of today’s reading, it’s about changing our way of life and choosing one that will usher in the kingdom of heaven so that those living in darkness now might be led to safety.
Jesus’ response to the Roman empire, is to invite a group of fishermen to share in that task, with him. To follow him, and fish for people. The traditional view of this story’s context, is that the fishermen belonged to prosperous family businesses, but recent research suggests that this was not the case. By the time Jesus started recruiting disciples, Caesar owned every body of water, and the fishing industry was controlled by the Roman Empire. Fishermen couldn’t get licenses to fish unless they joined a syndicate. Most of the fish caught were exported, leaving local people hungry and deprived of the staple food, they’d eaten for centuries. The Romans collected taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. And catching even one fish outside this system was illegal. (3) When Jesus invited Simon, Andrew, James, and John to “fish for people,” he used a phrase that was also used by Amos, Ezekiel and Jeremiah as a metaphor of judgment against the rich and powerful in their time. And this suggests that he was inviting them to work with him to bring light into the darkness of the Roman Empire by sharing in the work of realising the kingdom of heaven. (4) A kingdom of justice for the poor, mercy for the oppressed, and abundance for all. Even ‘though this is a risky task, they leave their families, livelihoods and instantly join him. It’s amazing, given that they knew about the Roman Empire’s violence, that they followed immediately. There was no hesitation. And they didn’t ask any questions. Why? They’re hardly men of superhuman courage. And later in their journey with Jesus they doubt, deny, and abandon him. They’re as fallible and as ordinary as the rest of us. (4)
Raj Nadella suggests that, “the disciples were inspired by the movement Jesus was inviting them into.” He says. “The Roman empire relied on threat, coercion and enticements to recruit people into its military. [Whereas] the new kingdom … inspires them to participate in it.” (1) And Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls the story a “miracle story,” echoes this. She says “This isn’t a story about us. It’s a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for…” (5) Matthew goes on to tell us what the light in the darkness – the kingdom of heaven – the sort of community that Jesus gathers round him – looks like at the end of today’s reading. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom … his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” This is a picture of the community - the fellowship – the kingdom - that Jesus’ work was realising. A community that included all sorts of people, including those who are sick, or have disabilities. As well as people of all sorts of ethnicities and religions. Not just Jews from Galilee, but Syrians and other gentiles, too.
There are movements, communities, fellowships, that people are joining right now, that are inspiring people – including some of us - to change our lives, and to think beyond “me and mine,” to “ours.” Many of those joining them are younger people who aren’t particularly inspired by what Christians or the church is offering. And I don’t think that has much to do with the sort of music we play or the worship we offer to God. It’s because they’re speaking about ultimate things. About life and death and the future. For all God’s people. For the planet. That leads me to wonder whether churches would be fuller, if our lives were more obviously inspired by Jesus’ call to share with him, in realising the kingdom of heaven now? I wonder whether people might be inspired, by the lives of Christians who seek happiness by turning away from the things of the world as far as we can, rather than trusting its ultimately empty promises about what happiness looks like? And I wonder what might happen when churches become communities where people of all ages, races and nations, regardless of their gender, their health or their political views, work together for justice, peace and abundant life for all? We can’t be sure. But maybe the world would say, once again, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.” I t’s what I pray for. And it’s what I hope for. Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
26th January 2020
References(1) Adapted from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4366
(3) K.C. Hansen, on “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.” http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html
(4) Ched Myers et al. “Say to this Mountain” 1996, p10.
(5) Cited by Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2507