Friday, January 25, 2008

Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25 - "Repenting of the Gospel"

KNU International English Church
January 27, 2008

Read Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25.

Jesus traveled around Galilee “announcing the gospel” (4:23). “From then on Jesus began to preach” (4:17). The word “preach” here means to proclaim, to deliver the message of a king, to announce the king’s “good news” or “gospel.”

“Gospel” is a very important word for us Christians. We talk about explaining the gospel, preaching the gospel, living the gospel, bringing the gospel, even giving our lives for the gospel. This “gospel” is definitely a big deal for us Christians. But maybe we have misunderstood the gospel.

I remember a time during my first year here. I was preaching about the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. I drew the Bridge Illustration on a white board, and I talked about how our sins separate us from God and how Jesus’ cross makes a bridge for us to return to God and to experience God’s life.

After the sermon, one of the people came up to me, shook my hand with both of his hands, and said, “You preached the true, pure gospel today!” At the time, I felt like that was a great compliment. But now I’m not so sure.

One of my favorite writers is Brian McClaren. He is helping me and lots of other people better understand the gospel. Almost 20 years ago, someone did the same thing for him. McClaren was having lunch with a friend, and his friend leaned across the table and said, “You know Brian, most evangelicals don't really know what the gospel is."

Brian, an evangelical, just stared into his soup and tried to avoid the implied question. His friend pushed on, “For example, what do you think the gospel is?” No getting out of it this time. He’d have to answer.

Brian pulled out all of the heavy theological words that evangelicals like to use: “justification … by grace through faith … not by works … the atoning work of Christ on the cross.” If you didn’t get all of that, don’t worry. He was stating the standard position described in that “bridge illustration”: the gospel is that God forgives our sins through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Brian’s friend said, “Well that's exactly what most evangelicals think.”

Brian turned the question around: “Well, what do you say the gospel is?”

And this is where the change started coming for Brian McClaren. His friend replied, “Shouldn't we let Jesus define the gospel for us? For Jesus, the gospel is ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.’”
Hmmm … that’s from our passage today: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus traveled around “announcing the Good News (the gospel) about the Kingdom” (4:23).

Brian McClaren says that he distinctly remembers thinking that his friend was “probably a heretic.” But he never could get away from that conversation. For years and years, he went back to that simple conversation. He kept thinking about it: “For Jesus, the gospel is that the kingdom of God is at hand.”[1] What does that mean?

When we read this text, we need to ask some basic questions. What did Jesus preach? What was his message? Did he preach what most Christians today preach? Did he say, “Come get your sins forgiven? My death will pay the price for your sins so that you can be forgiven and be close to God and live happily ever after in heaven?” Was that the “gospel” Jesus talked about?

Jesus actually preached very little about the forgiveness of sins. And when he did preach about forgiving sins, he was usually talking about people forgiving each other. If Jesus hardly ever talked about forgiveness of sins, then that can’t be the summary of the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” We have to look for something more, something closer to what Jesus did actually preach and teach.

What did Jesus preach? What was the focus of his message? Matthew gives us a one sentence summary of all of Jesus’ teaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (4:17). Let’s take some time to think about each part of this basic message.

What does “repent” mean? Matthew says that in Jesus a light has shined us people who live in darkness. Brian McClaren says that repentance is a “profound rethinking … It means looking at every facet of your life again in this new light – from the way you think about God to the way you treat your spouse, from your political affiliations to your spending habits, from what makes you angry to what makes you happy. It doesn’t mean everything changes all at once, but it means you open up the possibility that everything may change over time. It involves a deep sense that you may be wrong, wrong about so much, along with the sincere desire to realign around what is good and true.”[2]

We need to repent of our old understanding of the gospel. We don’t need to abandon it or leave it behind, but we need to rethink it. We need to enlarge it. We need to admit that the way we have understood the gospel is too small. We need to put that old understanding of being “saved by grace through faith” within the larger picture of the gospel that Jesus preached: “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

OK, then, what does “the Kingdom of Heaven” mean? Well, for starters, “the Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of God” are the same thing. “The Kingdom of Heaven” is just Matthew’s conservative Jewish way of saying “the Kingdom of God.”

So what is this “Kingdom of God” that is so central to Jesus’ teaching? Matthew quotes Isaiah 9 as a background for Jesus’ preaching on the Kingdom of God, so let’s read that now.

Read Isaiah 9:1-7.

I just can’t read this without thinking of Handel’s Messiah: “And He shall be call-ed: Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And the government shall rest upon his shoulders!”

This passage from Isaiah 9 tells us a few things about the Kingdom of God which are important for us.

First, the Kingdom of God shines a light. This light is for people who are “walking in darkness.” The light shines and shows the right path. It shows us where and how to walk.

Second, this light shines among the “Gentiles.” In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “Gentiles” means “outsiders” or “those who are different from us.” It’s amazing to me that the light will shine among people who are living among outsiders or “others.” Maybe the Kingdom of God is seen best when we establish community with people who are different from us.

Next, there is great joy in the Kingdom of God. “They will rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest and like warriors dividing the plunder” (Isaiah 9:3). Some people say that one modern way to translate “the Kingdom of God” is “the party of God.” Jesus seems to agree. He said the Kingdom of God is like a huge wedding party, where lots of different people are invited.

Then, Isaiah explains that the people are so joyful because they are finally experiencing justice and peace. “For you will break the yoke of slavery and lift the heaven burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor’s rod … The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned” (9:5). In the Kingdom of God, people don’t use and abuse each other. In the Kingdom of God people are set free to live in peace with each other.

Finally, this Kingdom will never end. “His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice … for all eternity” (9:6). Sometimes our experience of God seems so temporary – here one minute and gone the next. But Isaiah reminds us that the Kingdom of God lasts forever because the King will rule forever.

So what is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is basically the experience of God as King. It is a return to God’s dreams for the world. It is the reinvasion of God’s grace, peace, and justice into our world. It is a revolution of love. It is a grassroots movement of mercy.

Since I’m in the singing mood, let me summarize it like this. When Jesus says “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he is basically calling out like Aladdin in the Disney classic:

I can show you the world
Shining, shimmering, splendid …
I can open your eyes
Take you wonder by wonder
Over, sideways and under …
A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view …
Unbelievable sights
Indescribable feeling …

A whole new world …[3]

OK, so maybe Jesus wasn’t that cheesy. But this is exactly what Jesus was saying, “Hey, there’s a whole new world out there, right here. It’s way different from the way you’re living. It will turn your mind upside down, sideways, under. It’s life ruled by the grace and peace of God. I know – it’s almost unbelievable, indescribable really, but I can take you there if you dare to follow me. You can have it right now if you will just live like me.”

Last question: What does “at hand” or “near” mean? The Kingdom of God is at hand. To explain this let me tell you a little story.

Last week, on Thursday night I went to bed about 3 am. The next morning I was tired and grumpy, and I had a headache. I’m not a very nice Daddy when I’m tired.

I asked Emma to get ready while I was taking a shower. She didn’t.

I went into her room and picked out some clothes for her, and I asked her to get dressed while I was getting dressed. She didn’t. I was frustrated and grumpy. I said, “Emma put on these clothes right now!”

Emma immediately started crying, “I don’t want to wear these clothes! I want to pick out my own clothes!”

“Fine! Pick out your own clothes. Just get dressed.”

“But I don’t want to wear these clothes! I want to pick out my own clothes!”

“Emma, I said you don’t have to wear these clothes. Pick out whatever you want to wear, and get dressed!”

“But I don’t want to wear these clothes! I want to pick out my own clothes!”

At that point, something in me broke and my grumpiness turned into meanness. I picked up the clothes off the bed, and I threw them in her wardrobe and slammed the door, and I said, “See, those clothes are gone! Wear whatever you want! Just get dressed!”

As I walked out of the room, Emma said, “You’re making me even more sadder!”

OK, I know, I was a big meanie! I was sleep deprived! Try to get past my meanness to see the point here. Emma’s clothes were “at hand.” She could wear whatever she wanted. She could reach in her closet and pick out anything she wanted to wear. They were “at hand.” She spent her morning crying about wanting something that was already “at hand.”

Jesus is saying, “Look people, the Kingdom of God is at hand! God’s revolutionary way of life - filled with joy, unity, peace, justice, freedom, compassion – this life that we all want is right here right now. All we have to do is reach out and take it. Start living it right here, right now. Quit complaining about the world not being good or loving or just, and make it fair and loving and just in your own actions. The Kingdom of God is here, available to all of us. We just have to start living it.”

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God is here at our fingertips. God’s grace, God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice are right here for anyone who is willing to live them. This is the gospel. This is the good news. May God help us to live the gospel of Jesus Christ!

[1] Eric Hurtgen, “The Secret Message of Jesus,” Relevant Magazine,, downloaded on 1.24.08.

[2] Brian McClaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, (W Publishing: Nashville, 2006), 105.

[3] “A Whole New World,” from the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin, lyrics by Tim Rice.

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