A sermon preached at the Metropolitan Community Church of New Haven, Connecticut, January 23, 2011
Scriptural reference: Matthew 4:12-23
Every year at this time, about four weeks after Christmas, we have finished telling the wondrous stories of Jesus’ birth, of the visit of the Wise Ones, of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. We remember that Jesus spent forty days in the desert, successfully resisted the temptations of the Evil One, and now we hear of how “Jesus begins his public ministry." This morning, I invite us to reflect on what Jesus does in this story, how the people around him would have received it, and what it says to us today.
I heard this story for decades without really paying attention to the seven words with which it begins: “Jesus heard that John had been arrested.” Somehow, what I remember having learned is that John the Baptist had to fade away so that Jesus could take center stage, as it were. Maybe that is an appropriate interpretation to teach children, but it misses a very important historical context. It would have been reasonable to assume that John’s arrest would be followed by John’s death. It would also have been reasonable to assume that if John had been arrested, Jesus could have been next. It finally dawned on me that a very human Jesus would have been very mortally frightened at John's arrest.
So what does Jesus do? Let’s take a look.
First of all, Jesus gets out of Dodge. He heads from the wilderness area to Capernaum, at the opposite end of the Sea of Galilee, at the outer edge of Herod’s territory. That ought to be far enough away.
Next, Jesus gets busy. He has things to say, and healing to bring, and he needs to make sure that it will not end after his death. For Jesus knows that he is living in unsettled and violent times. It is very easy for us to forget this!
Many years ago, I read a classic work of comparative religion by D.T. Suzuki, called Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, and in this work Professor Suzuki complains that Christianity is a violent faith. He contrasts the image of Jesus on the cross, dying in agony, with the image of the Buddha dying peacefully, surrounded by his disciples. In Suzuki’s view, Christianity is a religious system that glorifies suffering and horror. There is certainly some truth in his comments: in depicting the suffering and death of Jesus, the Christian tradition has certainly gone overboard in some times and places, suggesting that pain and distress are worthwhile for their own sake; that idea alone would be another sermon. However, the contrast between the deaths of Jesus and Buddha is ultimately an unfair comparison.
The Buddha was a prince, born into privilege, who renounced his station; but Jesus is the Holy One made human as a peasant in an occupied nation. Jesus will not have the luxury of dying in old age, and he knows it. He has been born into a social class in a time and place that will not allow it. Jesus has no time to lose. He not only begins to bring the Message, but at the same time, Jesus begins to train his own replacements.
This part of Jesus’ story closes by telling us what this “Message” is. Jesus tells everyone that the basileia -- the Realm, or Kingdom, or “kin-dom” as we heard in this translation – the kin-dom of the Holy One is coming and, in fact, is already in their midst. In the light of the Isaiah passage that Matthew cites, this means that the overlords who are beating the people down are about to find their power destroyed. In the meantime... there is something that everyone can do while waiting for this liberation.
The time and place where God is in charge, call it the Kingdom of Heaven or the kin-dom of the Holy One or God-space, is accessible to all of us. Live into it, Jesus says. If you have been victimized, you can at least refuse to be a victim in your spirit. If you have been ill, be healed. Take charge of those things that you can, and be just and generous. Help those around you who are in trouble.
All of this, again, is in the shadow of the arrest of John the Baptizer, the foreshadowing of Jesus' own death. There is no time to lose.
So what is the meaning for us, this morning, the 23rd day of January in the first year of the second decade of the third millennium A.D.?
I understand that there are some folks in the USA who believe that we all have no time to lose to get ready for an important event; who believe that Jesus will return in glory on May 21, 2011. They could, of course, be right. Personally, I am skeptical. They would not be the first ones, by a long shot, to predict the second coming, only to be disappointed. I was raised on the message given in Matthew 24:43-44; no matter when (or whether) the Parousia occurs, I only know one way to make sure I am prepared for it. In fact, somewhere I have a T-shirt that, I think, says it best. On the front of the shirt is a drawing of Jesus. Above Jesus’ image are the words, "Christ is coming.” And below the picture of Jesus are the words: “LOOK BUSY.”