The Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
St Paul Lutheran Church, Manito, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
It is interesting to compare Matthew’s account of the beginnings of the preaching ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. He introduces John’s preaching in the third chapter of his account of the Gospel. In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1–2) Then in today’s reading he informs us that Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) The words of Jesus and John are identical. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Both John and Jesus call on their hearers to repent.
When I repent, I encounter the certain knowledge that I daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. I deserve punishment here in time and forever in eternity. This is a terrifying activity. Never the less, both Jesus and John call on me to do this. They call on you to do this as well.
Why? Why would these two preachers call on us to confront the terror of sin and its punishment? They do so because there is more to repentance than acknowledging the truth of sin. Acknowledging sin is only the first step of repentance.
When I repent, I acknowledge my sin and the terror of its punishment before God. Then I beg Him to save me from sin and its punishment. It is impossible for me to cope with my sin. That is the reason that I must bring it to God and ask Him to deal with it. I do this in the faith that He will not deal with my sin as I deserve, but according to His mercy. This is the reason that both Jesus and John call on you to repent … that you may present your sins to God in faith that He will forgive your sin, comfort your conscience, and deliver you from terror.
Both Jesus and John reinforce their call to repent by informing us that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” has a special meaning in the original Greek that is almost impossible to bring over into the English. A kingdom is not just a place. The Greek word for kingdom is also an action. A king rules or reigns. In the original Greek, a kingdom is the ruling or reigning activity of the king. When Jesus and John tell us that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” they are saying that the ruling activity of heaven is near. The one who rules in heaven is near.
Ordinarily, the idea that we are under the reign of any king would not be good news. We have too much experience with the kingdoms of this world. The absolute power of a monarchy would be great if we could guarantee one thing … that the ruler has the welfare of the citizens as his or her number one priority. The problem with this is that we live in a sinful world.
Sooner or later every ruler fails. Sooner or later every ruler makes a decision that is in his own best interest instead of the interest of the country and its citizens. Sooner or later any form of government that relies on absolute authority will develop a small royal class that lives in luxury and an oppressed class that lives in abject poverty.
So as we study today’s Gospel and hear about the Kingdom of Heaven, we might wonder if we really want to live in a kingdom. Which of us, living in a democracy, would really want to live in a kingdom? Wouldn’t that be a step back into the Dark Ages, when subjects had no freedom or voice in their government, when they lived at the whim of their rulers? Wouldn’t that be more like living in a dictatorship? Wouldn’t that be bad news?
The difference is that the kingdom of heaven is not subject to sin. God is kind hearted. He has our best interests at heart. Most important of all, He cannot be corrupted. He will never change. Although absolute rulers always fail on earth, the absolute ruler of all things never fails.
The kingdom of heaven is the deeds of God, performed in and through Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. The kingdom of heaven includes the perfect life that Jesus lived in our place. It includes His ministry of preaching and healing. It includes His passive obedience to the suffering and death of the cross. It includes the promise of eternal life that comes in his resurrection. It includes His presence with us now in Word and Sacrament. It includes His final coming on the Last Day to raise our bodies and take us body and soul into His eternal presence. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” tells us that Jesus is here, with us, now.
The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to quote the prophet Isaiah and tell us that this message is for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death. (Matthew 4:16) That means that if death affects you in any way, this message is for you. The last time I checked, the death rate in this world is one hundred per cent. That means that this message is for me and this message is for you. The message “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is for everyone.
Since this message is for everyone, Jesus needed to provide a way for everyone to hear it. In the second part of today’s Gospel, we learn how Jesus provided for this proclamation down through the generations. Even while He proclaimed this message, He trained other men to pass this good news down through the ages.
In the second part of today’s Gospel, we learned about four fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James, and John. These fishermen had all been disciples of John the Baptist. Last week, we heard how John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29) With these words, he encouraged them to become disciples of Jesus. Eventually, these men followed Jesus in the same way that they used to follow John.
In today’s Gospel, we heard Jesus change their calling. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19) They would not just be His disciples, but they would also be His apostles. Over the course of about three years, Jesus would train them. They would witness Him as He taught and healed. They would also have private time with Jesus for extra instruction. Jesus would prepare them so that they too could proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The word apostle comes from the Greek word that means to send. While a disciple constantly studies, believes, and supports the teachings of a master, an apostle is one who is, in addition, specifically sent out by the master to teach the teachings of his master. In today’s Gospel Jesus specifically called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to witness His ministry and receive His teaching for several years. Then they were to pass along those very same teachings to the people around them – especially to the next generation – so that the teachings of Jesus Christ would go out into the world.
In this way, they would be fishers of men. As a fisherman throws a net into the water, so the apostle proclaims the teachings of Christ. As fish are caught by the net so the Holy Spirit uses the teachings of Christ to bring people into the church. In this way, these newly called apostles would become fishers of men.
The apostles are still fishing. We have their words in the books of the New Testament. As these words continue to attest to the teachings and work of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit continues to use them. The Holy Spirit still uses the eye-witness testimony of the apostles to draw people into the ark of the church. Their words still urge us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Amen