This morning’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville. The text is Matthew 4:12-23.
As 4:30pm on January 8, 1956 came and went, Marj Saint knew she had reason to be worried. Her husband Nate had a reputation for being meticulously punctual. He had last called at 12:30, saying he would check in again in four hours. Nate and four other colleagues were working as missionaries among the Huaorani people in Ecuador, South America.
Outsiders had tried for years to make contact with the reclusive Huaorani, but every attempt since the 16th century had ended in death. By 1955, oil companies had taken an interest in developing Huaorani land but were growing more and more frustrated with the uncooperative natives. After numerous armed conflicts, the oil companies began working with the Ecuadoran military, which was considering a mass murder campaign to rid the jungle of the Huaorani “nuisance” once and for all.
Determined to prevent further conflict and genocide, Nate Saint, his friend Jim Elliot, and three other American missionaries gradually built rapport with the Huaorani through regular flybys and gift exchanges. They had a few brief but friendly encounters with villagers. They named their new mission Operation Auca. Finally, the breakthrough seemed to come on January 8 when a group of Huaorani were spotted moving toward the area where the missionaries’ had established a landing strip. Nate radioed his wife with the good news. They would fly out to meet them and check back at 4:30. The call never came.
The next day, another missionary aviator spotted the stripped remains of Nate’s plane on the landing strip and a body floating in the river. The speared bodies of the rest of the men were found several days later. It seemed at the time that Operation Auca had come to a sudden and violent end.
John the Baptist was a fiery and charismatic leader among Jews in the first century. He never failed to say what was on his mind. He regularly challenged the political and religious establishment in Judea. His simplicity of life stood in stark contrast to the luxurious tastes of the aristocracy and made him popular with the people. They regarded him as one of God’s prophets. Jesus himself joined up with John’s radical movement, saying, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”.
When John began to publicly criticize the private indiscretions of Herod Antipas, the puppet king set up by the Roman Empire, the powers-that-be finally decided that they’d had enough. John the Baptist was arrested and thrown in prison. While his followers were allowed to visit and maintain contact, the movement suddenly found itself without a present and visible leader. This prophetic endeavor seemed doomed to fizzle into obscurity, perhaps earning itself a footnote in a history book. In this moment of crisis, Jesus steps into the limelight and picks up right where John’s message left off.
Jesus tells the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is a difficult sentence to unpack. You and I are used to seeing it painted on the signs of street preachers who yell at passers-by from their soapboxes. But Jesus isn’t trying to use fear and guilt to secure religious conversions. He’s giving them a new vision for what God is doing in their midst. Key to understanding the meaning that Jesus intends are the words “repent” and “heaven”. I’ll deal with them in reverse order.
When Jesus talks about “the kingdom of heaven”, he is not referring to the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven is not a happy place in the clouds where good people will go when they die. When Jesus uses this phrase, he is talking about a present reality that’s easier to describe than it is to define. When blind people see and deaf people hear, that’s the kingdom of heaven coming near. When lame people walk and lepers are cleansed of their sickness, that’s the kingdom of heaven coming near. When the oppressed go free, sinners are forgiven, and outcasts are welcomed, that’s the kingdom of heaven coming near. The message of the kingdom of heaven is something that Jesus preached with his life as well as his words. The kingdom of heaven is a growing thing. It starts small, like a mustard seed, but gradually builds. Just like a mustard seed becomes a large bush where birds can make their nests, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven will grow into a place where all people can find a home.
The kingdom of heaven did not fully come during Jesus’ earthly ministry, nor has it yet come in our lifetime, but this is what we pray for each week during the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians are looking forward to that time when all death, disease, and dysfunction will be erased from the face of the earth. This won’t happen through human effort and ingenuity, but through the inexorable will of God. God will make this happen. While the kingdom of heaven won’t be fully established until the completion of history, we can see signs of its coming now through God’s small miracles of healing, inclusion, and reconciliation. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “heaven”.
What about the word “repent”? We’re used to associating this word with sorrow and remorse regarding one’s sins. That can certainly be part of it. However, the Greek word for “repent” is metanoia, which literally means, “change the way you think”, “think different”, or “think beyond”. When Jesus urges people to “repent”, he is inviting them to open their minds to a new way of looking at reality. Specifically, he’s talking about the present reality of the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “has come near” or, as earlier translations have put it, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Think about what that means. Hold your own hand out in front of you. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The reality of God’s presence and God’s healing/forgiving activity in the world is that close, right in front of us! The only question is: will we open our minds, open our hearts, and open our eyes to see it? This is the challenge that Jesus puts before us when he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
In times of tragedy and crisis, it’s easy to get a kind of tunnel vision where all we can see is what’s wrong with the world. Our problems seem so huge that we feel like there’s no solution. In those moments, can we find enough faith and courage to “repent” (metanoia)? In other words, can we “think beyond” the present crisis in order to look at it through the eyes of faith?
As impossible as it seems, people can do this and people have done this. Jesus took the momentum of John the Baptist’s movement and led it in a new direction as he followed his own destiny as Israel’s Messiah. We read in today’s reading how Jesus called his first disciples, some of whom may have been involved in John’s movement. They looked beyond their lives as fishermen and discovered their true calling as those who “fish for people”.
In the years following the massacre of missionaries in Ecuador, the sister of Nate Saint and the widow of Jim Elliot returned to the Huaorani people. Rather than facing martyrdom like the previous group, these women were welcomed by the village. The people had been haunted by the memory of those foreigners who did not defend themselves when attacked, even though they had guns at hand. Huaorani culture placed a high value on vengeance, so they were even more amazed that the families of those men returned with medicine and Bibles instead of weapons. Eventually, the women managed to set up clinics and plant churches among the Huaorani. The kingdom of heaven came near as faith and forgiveness triumphed over fear and fury. These bereaved members of the Saint and Elliot families looked beyond tragedy and crisis to discover their true calling.
Aren’t we called to do the same? Doesn’t Jesus invite us to “think different” and look beyond our present circumstances to see what purpose God might have for us in the midst of crisis and tragedy? I believe this congregation has done just that in these years that you’ve been without a pastor. During that time, you’ve learned how to keep the ministry of your church alive using your own God-given skills and talents. You’ve taken ownership of the ministry of this church in a radical new way. You’ve lived the reality that many churches in this country are just now waking up to: that all God’s people are ministers. The ministry of the church is something that we all participate in, not just those of us who are paid professionals. This is a revolutionary truth that I hope we can carry with us into our new phase of life together as a congregation. It was not an easy truth to learn, but you learned it because you had to. And in doing so, you’ve allowed God to grow you in a new direction. I believe this congregation is standing on the brink of an amazing future as a force for real ministry in this community. The kingdom of heaven has come near!
For most of you, I have no idea what crises or tragedies you’ve faced in your lives. I’m clueless as to how you’ve already discovered meaning and purpose in the midst of your suffering. In whatever ways you’ve been able to do so, I want to encourage you to keep going. You’re participating in the kingdom of heaven right now! If you haven’t experienced that kind of enlightenment, then now would be a great time to ask God to open your mind. Ask God to show you what kind of meaning and purpose can be drawn out of your tragedy. Give it time, but with prayer and patience, I’m confident that you too will find a calling in your crisis and you too will see the kingdom of heaven coming near.