From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17
Early in my ministry, I stood outside the parsonage one spring afternoon and noticed that a handful of massive raindrops were beginning to fall on the sidewalk and the driveway. Every few seconds, another would land with an audible “smack,” resulting in a small explosion of tiny droplets. I retreated to the carport to watch the approaching storm and the dribble of giant rain drops continued for a time. Then suddenly it began to pour. I was quickly driven inside by windblown rain and I retreated to the family room to watch the storm through the patio door. By the time I made it to the family room, however, the smattering of rain drops had become a horizontal torrent. I opened the door to gauge the intensity of the storm, but something struck my head. I slammed the door shut. Visibility dropped to zero and the wind roared. Every second seemed to bring a new level of intensity. Now frightened, I retreated once more to the shelter of the hallway, knelt down and put my head between my legs. Shortly, the din subsided as quickly as it had arisen. I stood up, walked to the front door and stepped outside. Where a thick stand of pines once stood, now stood the stumps of trees that had been twisted off like match sticks. Across the pasture, I could see the remains of a barn that had been knocked to the ground. I later learned that a small tornado had passed between the parsonage and the house across the street.
Those first big drops of rain that I observed were signs that a storm had drawn near. They were a part of the storm, but not yet its full fury. They were the storm’s advance guard, a taste of things to come, a sign that everything soon would get very wet.
Similarly, Matthew tells us that Jesus announced that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near, and he spends the rest of the gospel showing us what the first big drops of the kingdom looked like.
Deeds of Power
Matthew begins showing us the kingdom’s drawing near in verse 23.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
What does Jesus do? He heals the sick, the blind and the lame. He casts out demons and evil spirits. He feeds a multitude. He calms a stormy sea.
Jesus explains what these things mean in Matthew 12:28.
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28)
Jesus’ mighty deeds are the first big drops of the coming kingdom in which there will be no more sickness, sin, hunger or disaster.
Deeds of Mercy
But it’s not just in his deeds of power that kingdom draws near. Jesus forgives sins and welcomes those who are far from God into his presence. Take a look, for example, at chapter nine of Matthew’s gospel.
It begins with the story of Jesus telling a paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven. The audience was shocked, not because Jesus made an insensitive remark to a sick person, but because he claimed the authority to forgive sins. Jesus’ acts of mercy get him in as much trouble as his deeds of power do.
And then the gospel tells the story of Matthew himself, the apostle for whom the gospel is named. Matthew was a Jew, a descendant of Abraham and an heir of the covenant. Yet, he had chosen to work as a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers of God’s Promised Land and a member of a group known for abusing, cheating and stealing from their neighbors.
Jesus called Matthew to follow him, and he did. Then Jesus went to eat dinner, a crowd of Matthew’s tax collector buddies and other sinners came to eat with him. Sharing the table was one of the most important things that you could do with another person in that culture. People complained that Jesus was eating with sinners, and Jesus replied
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
Jesus’ great mercy and compassion are also a sign of the kingdom’s coming. God is pouring out his mercy in Jesus.
Power and Mercy Meet in Jesus
Deeds of mercy and power are both signs that the kingdom has drawn near. We’ll see the deeds of mercy culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross for our salvation. We’ll see the deeds of power culminate in his resurrection from the dead, the first fruits of the age to come.
When you think about it, Jesus is at the heart and soul of every one of these big drops of the coming kingdom. Jesus is the kingdom! The kingdom of heaven has drawn near in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
The kingdom has drawn near in Jesus, so we should be repenting. So what is repenting?
Repent = Feeling Sorry?
Matthew doesn’t have much to say about remorse. It’s in Luke’s gospel, not Matthew’s, that we find the story of the penitent tax-collector who beats his breast and cries out to God, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Certainly feeling sorrow over one’s sins is appropriate, but feelings of remorse are not at the forefront of Mathew’s thinking. Rather, Matthew seems to have something else in mind.
So what does Matthew show us in his gospel? Matthew shows us, not expressions of regret or heartfelt sorrow, but first of all responsiveness to Jesus’ call.
Calling the First Disciples
Jesus approached Simon Peter and Andrew who were fishing in the Sea of Galilee and he called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Without hesitation, they left their nets and followed him.
Then Matthew reports that he approached James and John, whom he also called to follow him. Likewise, they left their nets and their father in the boat and followed after Jesus.
There is a pattern here worth noticing.
- They changed their priorities and left their old life behind.
- They joined themselves to Jesus, identifying with his kingdom cause and staying with him on journey.
- In their journeys, they would see him perform deeds of power and mercy, the signs of the kingdom.
- But they would also listen to him teach with authority, revealing God’s fullest intention for life in his kingdom.
We might call this the “Align – Learn – Change” model of repentance.
First of all, repentance is a change of alignment and focus. It is a new way of seeing, in which Jesus becomes the lens through which you look at the world. It is a change in life’s direction and an orientation around a new goal. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Repentance is the reorientation of one’s life around Jesus and the kingdom he brings. It is a Copernican revolution of the heart, in which I move from the center of the universe and I recognize that everything doesn’t revolve around me. When Jesus and his kingdom take their proper place at the center, everything else finds its proper orbit.
The word Matthew uses for repentance means “change your mind” in everyday speech, and part of this change of mind has to do with how we think about the world. Jesus not only has to teach us what we don’t know, he has to fix what we think we already know. As you read the Gospel of Matthew, you see that the righteous Pharisees and the scholarly all wrong in some way. Jesus is the one who teaches with God’s own authority.
This is where Matthew shows us the full extent of what repentance means. Repentance means changing our lives so that they conform to the truth that Jesus reveals.
Do you think “Don’t murder” is the extent of God’s will? No, love and mercy are what God requires.
Do you think hating your enemy is OK if you love those who love you? No, God loves even his enemies and so should you.
Matthew is the teaching gospel. He shows us Jesus the rabbi, the teacher. His book is filled with Jesus’ authoritative instruction on a wide range of topics. Within Matthew’s gospel, then, to repent – to change your mind – is to learn what Jesus taught and put it into practice.
That last part is really important. Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples so that they can say, “That was a good sermon, Padre. That was a really good story … a really interesting lesson … a really inspiring message.”
No, Jesus says,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Without moral transformation, even to share Jesus’ deeds of power is insufficient. Jesus continues:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:21-27)
Unless we put Jesus’ words into practice we’ve missed the boat.
There is a sort of logical progression in Matthew’s order of repentance.
One becomes connected with Jesus and then one starts to learn all that Jesus requires and then one puts into practice in one’s life. Jesus calls disciples, teaches them and their lives change.
You find these same associations at the end of Matthew’s gospel.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
One makes disciples, Jesus says, by baptizing them into the name, teaching them what Jesus commanded and leading them to observe his teachings.
And that leads to us.
The Church – The Sign of the Kingdom, the Place of Repentance
After Jesus died and rose again, how did people come in contact with the kingdom that Jesus said had drawn near?
In the church!
They connected with the kingdom in the “assembly.” That’s probably the best translation for the word that Jesus uses in Matthew 16:18.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
The church! That’s where they heard the story of Jesus repeated Sunday after Sunday. For 1500 years, almost no one had a Bible at home. If you wanted to hear the story of Jesus, you went to church. At first, they just told the stories to each other and passed them down by word of mouth. Eventually, our gospels were written down. About the year 155, a Christian named Justin described the early Christian worship this way:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (First Apology, 67)
It was at church where Christian disciples heard the stories of Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons and feeding the 5000. It was at church that they heard of Jesus living with the poor, eating with sinners and offering forgiveness. And it was at church that they celebrated both Jesus’ death and resurrection in songs, prayers and Holy Communion.
There may have been other signs as well, signs of supernatural power at work in and among the congregation. And certainly there were signs of love, mercy and forgiveness at work among the members of the assembly. The church itself is a sign of the kingdom drawing near. The church itself gives us a taste of the kingdom of heaven.
But while the church is a sign of the kingdom, it has not yet become the kingdom. We still fall short, both individually and corporately. We fall short in areas we do not yet all understand the same way. We even fall short in living up to what we most certainly do know and understand. This is a problem both for the individual Christian and for the church as a whole. This repenting to which Jesus calls us is a life-long process for each one of us, and an age-long process for Christ’s church. None of us have come to the point where we don’t need to think about Jesus’ teaching anymore.
The church calls us – and itself – to continue this process of repentance every time it reads the words of Holy Scripture, and especially the words of the Holy Gospel. The words themselves reveal that we have not yet fully become the people that Christ calls us to be.
We are united to Christ, but we are still learning what it means to be his disciple. I think I understand more of Christ than I did 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. I hope I do. Jesus’ teaching is so rich and powerful and my ability to comprehend so small, that I imagine that I should keep learning for the rest of my life. And this process of learning belongs to the entire church, as well.
And even when we think we’ve learned what Christ is getting at, there’s the whole question of obedience. Stubbornness, I would suppose, leads to more failures of discipleship than ignorance. Transformation takes more than just hearing Jesus’ words.
We need each other to encourage each other, and to hold one another accountable. And of course we fail from time to time – if “from time to time” is almost always – and we need God’s forgiveness, and each other’s forgiveness.
And the church is a place to change by practicing what we teach and preach. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. How do you learn to play the piano? Practice. How do you learn to shoot a free throw? Practice. In the Army, we talk about muscle memory and training how you fight. You repeat the desired action until it becomes second nature. You can do it in your sleep, with your eyes closed, in the middle of the night in a driving rain storm while everything around you is going to hell in a hand basket.
You don’t change by hearing what Jesus had to say. You change – your character changes – as you do what Jesus said to do, so that it becomes second nature.
We learn to love by loving. We learn to forgive by forgiving. We learn to give by giving. In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith reminds us that a lot of this learning and transformation takes place at the unconscious level. As we gather together week after week, month after month, year after year, the words and actions and environment of our worship slowly changes us.
If we are doing this right, the church is a sign that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. It is a sign both for us, and for the world around us. They will see the first drops of rain that signal the coming downpour.
And if we are doing this right, the church is a place where repentance – learning – practicing – and responding to Christ’s call continues to take place.
So what do you think, are we doing it right?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.