The proclamation - Matthew 4:12-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The speaker was a prominent businessman addressing a conference at Woodstock near Oxford. ‘As you know’ he told his captivated audience, “ I have been very fortunate in my career and I’ve made a lot of money- far more than I ever dreamed of, far more than I could ever spend, far more than my family needs.” His steely determination showed through his well-tanned face, but then a single tear betrayed a much deeper emotion. “To be honest,” he went on, “one of my motives for making so much money was simple- to have the money to hire people to do what I don’t like doing. But there’s one thing I’ve never been able to hire anyone to do for me: find my own sense of purpose and fulfilment. I’d give anything for that.”
Deep down we all have a desire to feel that we are fulfilling a purpose; that our lives are going to count for something. Thomas Carlyle wrote: ‘The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder- a waif, a nothing, a none-man.’ You see, at different stages in our lives this quest for purpose rises within us. Teenagers feel it in terms of the world of freedom beyond the home with its dizzying array of choices. Graduates feel it as the excitement of the ‘world is my oyster’. People in midlife feel it when a mismatch between their gifts and their work reminds them daily that they are square pegs in round holes. Those in their later years often face it again. ‘What does life add up to?’ They ask, ‘Were the successes real and lasting? Were they worth the trade- offs? Having gained the whole world, what have we sold our souls for?’
But there was one man who was consumed with a purpose, whose whole life was a mission of one thing and that was the Lord Jesus Christ. No one ever lived a fully integrated life like this man; he understood just who he was and what he was about. What is more, he claims to satisfy the deepest longings of everyone’s heart- offering not what we necessarily want, but what we desperately need- a direction and purpose in life which is inextricably linked to who God is and the way he has made us and what he has made us for. And what Jesus offers makes all the difference in the world it’s called the kingdom of heaven.
As was made clear at his baptism, Jesus is the Christ of Psalm 2, God’s King before whom everyone will one day bow, either in gratitude or fear. He is the suffering Servant, God’s ‘nobody’ whom people would despise and not give a second thought to, but who would offer his life as a sacrifice for their sins. And so just as you have two natures, the divine and human in one person- Jesus- without any contradiction, you have two roles, King and Servant in one person to carry out the eternal plan of his Father; and it is as we get connected to that plan by getting connected to this person that we find real significance. So let’s take a look at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry under three headings.
First, the place, vv12-13, ‘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 area of Zebulun and Naphtali.’
The forerunner, John the Baptiser, had been removed from the public scene by Herod Antipas, the ruler of the northern region, and this was the cue for Jesus to enter centre stage- well sort of. Because he didn’t do what many folk might have expected him to do, head to the big city, the centre of religion, politics and finance- Jerusalem. He did precisely the opposite; he withdrew to Hicksville- Galilee, as far removed from the hub of national life as the Highlands of Scotland are removed from Westminster or even Holyrood. The province wasn’t that large, only 50 miles by 25 miles. But it did have a large population, something like 204 villages none of them less than 15,000 people- and so in that sense it was a good place to start. But it was not well thought of by the Jews in the south because for half a millennium before the second century BC, it was in pagan hands, under the influence of Greek culture and Greek language with a good number of gentiles- none-Jews, living there- why in some areas they even kept pigs for goodness sake, not very kosher at all! The historian Josephus, who was once its governor, said that Galileans were fond of innovation, by nature disposed to change and always ready for sedition. In short they were a rum lot. And this is where Jesus not only began his ministry but carried out most of his ministry for nearly three years. Not amongst the decidedly religious, or the rich or influential- the movers and shakers, but amongst fishermen, builders, dodgy dealing tax collectors, blind people, sick people- and yes, some prosperous people, especially around Capernaum. I remember when I visited Capernaum thinking how incredible it was that when God came to earth as a man he spent most of his life growing up and then working in an area equivalent to the region around Bridlington. And do we think that God has changed his method in going for the looked down upon regions and people to do his amazing work? Some folk seem to think so. I remember being at a meeting in London of some Anglican evangelical clergy a couple of years or so after I had moved to Hull and relating how much I was enjoying being here getting on with Gospel work, and one well known minister, from a very well-heeled university town which will remain nameless, literally burst out laughing in such a derisory way at the thought that anyone could consider ministry in Hull to be a pleasure let alone ‘strategic.’ Well, God initiated a revival in England not through the Oxford don John Wesley, but by the lowest of the low student and son of an innkeeper, George Whitefield. And if in his mercy he decides to bless this country with Revival, why should it not begin in a place like, Hull, or Cleethorpes or even Scarborough?
But the place Jesus goes to is closely linked with the prophecy, this was to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 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.’
We have been seeing throughout this series how the fulfilment of prophecy by Jesus is very important to Matthew in order to show that he is no ‘Johnny- come –lately’ but the consummation of all of God’s plans and purposes going back to the book of Genesis. And where Jesus begins his ministry is no exception, hence this quote from Isaiah 9 which is a standard reading at Carol services. You see, when that prophecy was delivered some 750 years earlier, it was through this very region that the Assyrian army was going to come and ravage the land. In fact, all the invading armies made their way through this region wreaking murder and mayhem- not the best place in which to live if you were set on living a peaceful life. Just as during the Second World War Hull was inevitably bombed twice a night during the Blitz; first by bombers coming over the North sea, hitting Hull and then moving on to Liverpool, and then later when the bombers travelled back to their bases and shed whatever loads they had left on Hull, and similarly the land of Zebulun and Naphtali was always on the brunt end of enemy action- a place of misery and darkness. The only news they tended to receive was bad news, ‘lock up your daughters the invaders are on their way’. But Isaiah said it wouldn’t always be like that for there is some good news-gospel- coming your way. How? Because of what he goes on to say later in the same chapter, ‘Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.’ Well, in the first two chapters Matthew has shown that he has been born, the inheritor of David’s throne has come and his name is Jesus.
And the first thing he does is to do what John the Baptiser had been doing, and so we come to the proclamation, v 17, ‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Did you notice that Jesus’ comes not telling entertaining stories, or giving some insight on how to improve your self-esteem, but bringing a decisive and dramatic call for action- repent. It means change your mind and your direction. That is pretty confrontational isn’t it? Because it carries with it the clear implication that the people he is speaking to are wrong. They are thinking wrong things and going in the wrong direction and they need to change. When Heather and I were in Texas last it was interesting to see signs on the ramps coming off the freeways in big bold letters declaring ‘You are going the wrong way’. First of all I thought how do they know where I am going so they can tell me I am going the wrong way? But of course it was a ramp coming off the freeway and if you were not paying sufficient attention you could easily mistake it as a ramp going onto the freeway and so try getting on that way- especially if you were from Britain used to driving of the correct side of the road. That is part of the news Jesus brings the human race, Jews included- that they are going the wrong way because of wrong thinking. The wrong thinking involves believing that God has no right of say-so over the way we live our lives, and if anything he should be accommodating to our beliefs and values. If we continue down this path of rebellion we will end up in the outer darkness Jesus calls hell. That is definitely going the wrong way!
And the reason people need to change now is because the kingdom of heaven, God’s saving rule, has come because the King of that kingdom has come, so there is no excuse. The king himself is making a personal appeal. Let me ask whether you yourself have personally responded to that call? Tonight Jesus is not asking you to give him your approval but your allegiance. He is not advising you to change your mind he is commanding you and he has every right to do so because he is your Creator and owns you.
And just what a response to that call looks like is seen in what happens next in v18ff ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.’ It is that word ‘follow’ in connection with Jesus that is at the heart of what Matthew means by a Christian. Martin Goldsmith, in his little book, ‘Matthew and Mission’, writes after a lifetime of missions, ‘When my wife worked in Karo Batak Protestant Church, in North Sumatra, Indonesia, we were struck by the fact that at that time the Christians there did not normally use the terms “born again” or “new birth”. They generally expressed true faith in Jesus in terms of following him and would ask, “are you following the Lord?” To follow Jesus stood in contrast with being “skin Christians” – people who look outwardly quite Christian, but inwardly in their hearts they might be quite pagan. Biblically to follow Jesus conveys several aspects of discipleship. Those who follow Jesus will firstly form a close relationship with him. They will also obey him as their Lord and King. And they will follow him as their leader, modelling their lives on his pattern of holiness and love.’ That is the big question isn’t it- are you a skin Christian or a follower? And as you follow him then he will involve you in the Kingdom business which is really the fishing business, but fishing for people. That is how this kingdom grows, not by politics, not by clever gimmicks but ordinary people telling other ordinary people about an extraordinary King-Jesus.
And it must have seemed to these disciples that they had made the right choice because of what happened next, v25, ‘Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’
Where the crowds come from is very impressive, for when you look at a map you see that the people have been travelling some considerable distance. From Jerusalem up to Galilee was about 95 miles as the crow flies. Given that in those days you did not have ‘A’ roads and motorways, but small dirt tracks which had to go around mountains, that meant that you could add on a further 60 miles before you get there. And that is if you go straight through Samaria which most of the Jews didn’t like, so they tended to avoid that and take the longer route across the Jordan river, which meant dropping down a couple of thousand feet and then up another couple of thousand feet when they crossed. So we have a situation in which people are travelling over 300 miles there and back. And given that they didn’t have the latest Cruiser Espace, they had to travel on foot or at best a donkey. So how long are you going to be travelling 150 odd miles in order to see this man? Well, quite some time isn’t it? But it is in fact worse than that. Why have the crowds come? Look back at 4v23-24. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them’. They were not travelling on foot quickly, they were travelling carrying sick people, and sick people do not travel very fast. How many of you having a fever, feeling totally washed out, would be keen on taking on a hike from Hull to Carlisle? That’s about 150 miles. How long is it going to take carrying your relatives and friends in that sort of condition, paralysed, dehydrated? At least a week, two weeks there and back if not longer. And we are talking about crowds coming from everywhere, the whole place was heaving with hundreds, thousands even. Now that is what happens when you do real miracles.
But what is Jesus doing primarily? v23 ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.’ The crowds are coming because of the healing, but Jesus is teaching about the kingdom, that is the message of God’s saving, restoring rule breaking into the world. And as he teaches about the kingdom he is bringing about its effects - sick people are made healthy, demon possessed are set free- the effects of the fall are being reversed and salvation is being ushered in by the King. But the King is preaching.
So how is this Suffering Servant King going to change the world? Well, not by being self-centred and waited on. Not by impressing the crowds with knock down miracles. Not by wheedling his way into the court of Herod or the council of the Sanhedrin and engaging in political machinations. He is going to do it through a handful of nobodies who also preach like him.
The King is out to fish for people. And no doubt the disciples looking at the crowds would have thought- ‘What a catch! What a fishermen! If anyone knows how to do it-he does. Anyone who can get people to travel these distances can get them to do anything. We have hitched our wagon to a star.’ So here they all are, and what does Jesus do, he pulls away from them, goes up a mountain and preaches a sermon- 5:1ff. What is he doing?
As we shall be hearing in a couple of weeks’ time, the sermon is really about the kingdom, what marks out Christians from non-Christians and so what will both attract and repel people at the same time. If the King is first and foremost a messenger, calling people to repent and trust, can we do any less? If it is through proclaiming a God given message and living a new God empowered life that men and women and boys and girls are caught like fish, then surely that is what we are meant to be doing? And what that involves in detail is the subject of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. But the question I want to leave you with tonight is this: what purpose is driving you, shaping your plans, your ambitions, you future? If Christ, his kingdom, his honour doesn’t figure in your answer, then you are on the wrong track. You need to stop, turn around and get on track. And the only way to do that is by coming wholeheartedly to the Servant King.
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