The Gospel of the Kingdom

Sermon for Sunday, January 22
Matthew 4:12-17

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the land by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We’ve just celebrated the baptism of the Lord by John the Forerunner, in the Jordan river near Jerusalem.

Now that John the Forerunner has been executed, the Lord returns to Galilee, where he was brought up. His stepfather Joseph had settled in Nazareth, about eighty miles north of Jerusalem; if Jerusalem is Walla Walla, then Nazareth is around Moses Lake.

Scripture calls Joseph a builder, not just a carpenter; so Nazareth is where you’d find the construction firm of Joseph & Sons, General Contractors – and their little stepbrother Jesus.

Now, from the Jordan, the Lord doesn’t return to his hometown – but instead goes to live in nearby Capernaum, right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Nobody knows him there.

Incidentally, you hear about a lot of bodies of water in the New Testament. But the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Kinnereth, the Sea of Tiberias, and the Lake of Gennesaret are all the same place. The Dead Sea is way down south, next to Jerusalem, but otherwise pretty much every lake and sea you find in the Gospels is this one.

So the Lord returns to Galilee. What matters about that is this: Galilee is not in the land of Judah, where the Jews live. If you’re a practicing Jew and you want to go to the Temple at Jerusalem, you’ve got a few days or a week’s walk ahead of you to get there. This is land the Lord once gave to the Hebrew tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, but they’re long gone, so you’ll be living in the midst of a mixed population: Many languages, religions, and ethnicities, all mixed up.

Saint Matthew quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah to say that when the Lord comes to preach in Capernaum, “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2).

From that time on Jesus began to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

In an online forum recently, someone asked how to summarize the Gospel in seven words. After thinking about the apostolic preaching in the New Testament, I decided that the Gospel in seven words might be: “The promised King has begun to reign.”

If that doesn’t sound much like the preaching we’re used to in our culture today, it might be because popular religion has substituted another gospel.

It’s not hard to figure out what the original Christians meant by “the Gospel.” In the book of Acts we see many times the apostles preached what they understood to be the Good News of Christ – that reality that four of the eyewitnesses expressed in writing, in the books we call the Gospel.

The apostles don’t preach about getting saved or going to heaven or hell when you die – they preach about Jesus Christ.

The messages preached by the apostles boil down to four points:

  • History: God set apart the Israelites with deliverance, a law, and a promise of an eternal King.
  • Current events: The King came to us, you rejected and crucified him, and God vindicated him by raising him and seating him at the right hand of glory.
  • Future events: The King is coming again, to judge the living and the dead.
  • Action: Repent and be baptized: become one of His faithful subjects.

But in our culture, the American Gospel is mostly about you, not about Christ. How to be saved from hell, how to learn to love yourself. And those aren't bad topics – but they're not the apostles' Gospel.

The Kingdom of God is one of, if not the top topic Christ preached about. How curious that so much preaching in our culture and generation does not center on the consequences of the Kingdom of God! Why is this not the axis around which all our Christian ethics and dogma revolve?

Maybe we need to unpack the topic a little so we hear it the way the first Christians did. Here's a little background.

You remember the prophecy of Isaiah:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for evermore (Isaiah 9:6,7).

The prophet Daniel saw the ascension of Christ, and wrote:

Behold, one like a Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came before the Ancient of Days… And to him was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom… which shall not pass away (Daniel 7:13-14).

But not only were the Jews confidently awaiting an eternal King whom they called the Anointed One or Christ – they had already learned what a “gospel” was.

About thirty years after the Resurrection, Saint Mark began his account of Christ’s life with “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” But that formula was already familiar.

Read more about the Calendar Inscription of Priene

About 70 years before Mark 1:1 was written down, an announcement was broadcast throughout the eastern Roman Empire, announcing that as Emperor Augustus had begun to reign, a new calendar was to be instituted: “The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him.” Copies of this announcement, this “gospel,” have been found in inscriptions in several different cities in the Roman East.

For the Romans, “the beginning of the Gospel” was the birthday of the new king of the world. The order of ages had begun anew. This beginning was accompanied by reports of the king’s victories and the deliverance he has brought to all people. The Good News to Asia Minor in 9BC is that you have been saved and made members of this kingdom.

The word “gospel” meant the announcement that a new and victorious King had begun to reign, and now he required all to become subject to his law, because a new order of ages was established from this day forward.

So “gospel” was already a powerful word when the Lord began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” By the time Saint Mark quoted the familiar text of Augustus’s announcement, the whole Church understood that “The Beginning of the Gospel” (as the Lord preached it) is the announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This Kingdom is not a country, with a border and a flag. This Kingdom is the condition of Christ being enthroned, as the divine Person who is the Son of Man, and inaugurating his reign on earth.

At Sunday Matins, the prokeimenon for tone 3 is, “Say among the nations that the Lord reigns, for he has established the world never to be moved; He shall judge the people in uprightness… He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth (Psalm 95:9-10,13lxx).

Of course that raises a question: If the Lord God is King before the ages and his throne is established from of old (Psalm 92:1-2lxx) then what does it mean for him to begin to reign as King here and now?

Within the new nation called by his name, we have a law of love. And to the extent that we are faithful to him, we can be seen to be different from the nations around us.

God has always been King. But now, in the Church, he is – or is meant to be – honored and served with faithfulness as King, in advance of his coming to judge the world.

When I lived in the Philippines, I was subject to the laws of two different countries. If I had taken a salaried job, I would have had to pay income tax to the United States as well as to the Philippines. If I married a Filipina and then moved to America I could divorce her – but since that country has no divorce, if I remarried and returned to the Philippines I could be tried for bigamy.

As an American I am free to hate, gossip, and refuse to forgive. I can lust, condemn others, overeat, drink to excess, and scorn the poor. But as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, all these things are forbidden to me. I am a citizen of two countries; one is passing away but the other is eternal. “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). For “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 3:20).

Christ our King will come again and judge the earth – but through a kind of time travel we are already living under both his laws and his protection. What does that look like in practical terms?

I’m going to read a little from a letter written about a hundred years after Christ’s resurrection. The writer describes what he has seen of how these Christians live:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based on dreams inspired by the curiosity of men… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of foreigners. Any country can be their residence, but for them their residence, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not reject their children as unwanted. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the body, but they are not governed by the desires of the body. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, yet they live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all, but all men persecute them… They are slandered, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, meekness their response to insult. (From the Letter to Diognetus, ch. 5-6).

Did you notice what the writer did not say? “They fast twice a week and go to church.” Although we know the early Christians did in fact do that.

The writer, describing how Christians live in the world as citizens of another Kingdom, doesn’t describe disciplines or canons.

You see, even if someone is an Orthodox Christian, and they pray in the evening and morning, go to church, never skip services, prepare and participate in all the sacraments — that doesn’t describe their heart.

On the Day of Judgment, Christ our King is going to look at your heart. How do you treat your family, your friends and enemies? What do you make room for in your thoughts and words? “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brothers, ye did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

All our disciplines, the fasting and the prayerbook and standing in services and practicing the Prayer, are not ends in themselves – they’re methods. Methods that work; but if we put our faith in our tools, if we devote ourselves to correct performance of our methods – then what has become of the Gospel of Christ?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). That is where the law of the Kingdom begins. “Therefore… let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

There is a tendency, in Orthodox Christianity in our time and generation, to put a lot of focus on our sins. On regret for the wrongs we have done, on our fear of offending God by repeating our sins, on asking protection and preservation from angering the divine wrath.

That’s a real thing, and it’s in our prayer books for a reason – but it’s not the whole story. If your diet of prayer and reading consists only of the prayerbook, and you miss the light and praise and hope and celebration in the rest of our scripture and hymns, then you could get the impression that your life in Christ revolves around begging pardon for your sins.

It doesn’t.

Here’s Elder Joseph on what to do about your sins:

Don’t despair when you fall, but get up eagerly and do a prostration saying, “Forgive me, my dear Christ. I am human and weak.” The Lord has not abandoned you. But since you still have a great deal of worldly pride, a great deal of vainglory, our Christ lets you make mistakes and fall, so that you perceive and come to know your weakness every day, so that you become patient with others who make mistakes, and so that you do not judge the brethren when they make mistakes, but rather put up with them.

If you’ve been Orthodox for long, you’ve heard or prayed, “O Most-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, blot out our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

In that concise prayer we ask the Lord for mercy because of three things.

Sins are errors. The Greek word is for an arrow that misses or falls short. For our failures and errors we ask the Lord to cleanse us, blot out the record. We serve a merciful and loving Father, and not an accuser.

Transgressions, iniquities, or offenses are literally “lawlessnesses.” This is overstepping or violating commands – knowingly or not, intentionally or not. If you consciously chose an easy or pleasurable option instead of honoring the Lord’s command, how long should you wait before coming back to ask forgiveness? Don’t wait! The Lord has no ego; he is not offended, he is not surprised – he wants to apply the remedy of pardon and encouragement as soon as you stop condemning yourself. Remember the Prodigal Son: He planned to return and beg forgiveness from his father, but the Father was already running to him with forgiveness and welcome. “Master, pardon our iniquities.”

Finally, Infirmities are weaknesses and ailments of soul and body, especially ones that tend to cause you to make errors or commit transgressions. We also call these the Passions. Infirmities need healing.  

By all means avoid and repent and seek healing from all the above. 

But know that you have never surprised God, nor made him furious at you; the Savior has never had any plan for you but wholeness, holiness, righteousness and hope. And he has bound himself by a COVENANT to bring this to pass in you, if you'll permit.

Evangelicalism taught me to hate and dread sins. Christ in the Gospels invites me to walk into the light with him. We could do with less of managing sins and more of walking (and even stumbling) in hope.

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

One more thing to know about the Kingdom of Heaven: You were created for this.

“Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? …Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).

But the saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever… And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him (Daniel 7:18, 27).

“He has made us kings and priests unto God his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:6).  

“But he that shall endure unto the end shall be saved. And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; before the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:13-14).

In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord begins his ministry on earth by settling in the territory of unbelievers, so that “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The reign of Christ our King has begun, and by baptism you have been born into his Kingdom. “So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God's household” (Ephesians 2:19). “So let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.