Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 26th January 2020 (Third Sunday of Epiphany)
Isaiah 9.1–4; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1.10–18; Matthew 4.12–23
The Old Testament reading today prepares the way for Matthew’s account of Jesus’ proclamation of the reclamation of a lost world into the reign of God. This section of Isaiah was written at the moment when some outlying provinces of Israel had been invaded by the Assyrian troops of Tiglath Pileser II in 733 BC. Large sections of the population were beginning to be sent into exile. Isaiah warns King Ahaz that this is only the start of further conquests, brought on by Israel’s lack of faithfulness. However God will finally restore Israel’s fortunes, when a heroic prince will be born to become a Messianic King, bringing in a reign of peace and justice; a mighty and wonderful counsellor. This mornings first reading follows on from that song of hope we hear every Christmas: ‘For unto us a child is born’. Scholars think that this song may be adapted from the ritual chant sung in the Temple when a new King acceded to the the throne of his ancestor King David, to be hailed as the adopted son of God. In the time of this saviour-king Isaiah foresaw that God’s people would be restored to freedom. He uses the powerful image of a tethered animal laden down with a yoke of iron, and relegated to a life of servitude to describe the plight of the nation. But God, through the reign of this future King will remove that yoke of slavery from their necks.
This message of hope is quoted again in the Gospel today. Matthew is always keen to make the link with those messages of future hope in the prophets with the life and ministry of Jesus, and see him as their ultimate fulfilment. So in this morning’s Gospel at the opening moments of Jesus’ public ministry, and his proclamation that the Kingdom of God has arrived, Matthew points us to this coronation text to underline what the descending of the Spirit and the voice of the Father had already announced at the Jordan, that this is that Messianic King, Son of David, Son of God. Now, as John Baptist’s own mission of preparation has been brought to an abrupt halt with his imprisonment at the hands of King Herod Antipas, Jesus steps forward. And he moves from Nazareth to Capernaum, a busy and cosmopolitan city, set at the borderlands with the pagan world and on trade routes, open to passing traffic. Jesus places himself strategically to spread his message and answer the vocation his Father has revealed to him. Isaiah had prophesied that it would be here, the territory of Zebulun and Napthali, the first of the provinces to fall to the Assyrian oppressor that God would announce the message of liberation. Jesus speaks of the arrival of the reign of God, or in many translations ‘the kingdom of heaven’, ‘heaven’ being the respectful way that devout Jews would speak of God, avoiding the use of his sacred name. Jesus announces that God is about to reveal his power and mercy.
In telling his version of the calling of the first disciples at the sea of Galilee, Matthew wants us to realise that Peter and Andrew, James and John respond without hesitation to Jesus’ call, despite the fact that they know very little about him, perhaps only rumours of remarks that the Baptist had made about the true identity of this new prophetic figure. He urges his listeners in his own community of faith, probably in Antioch, to have the same generous and open response to the call that Jesus makes to each one of them – and to each one of us. There is no thought that these fishermen might first settle their affairs or return to their former occupation. Matthew goes on to describe in a nutshell what Jesus will now embark on, a tour of synagogues where he will heal disease, drive out evil, and teach wisdom. This threefold pattern is one that later he calls on his followers to continue, speaking words of hope, relieving suffering, and challenging injustice and evil.
Matthew sees this threefold activity as our task as the Christian community. He has just described the time of testing Jesus experienced in the wilderness. The Evil One is portrayed as a very eloquent Rabbi, quoting scripture, offering ready solutions, quick fixes and overwhelming power to the newly anointed Messiah. Matthew’s reveals the spirit of this world as very persuasive, offering apparently simple solutions to the problems of a disordered world. Jesus himself has just faced the common human dilemma, the lure of becoming hell-bent on self-survival, performing quick fixes, hankering after popularity and success. Those issues of trust and power and dependency are all there in the desert of human experience.
Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew tells us, we are ‘called’ to this work of care and restoration. We are warned that our own times of testing will need endurance, but we are also reassured that it need not be endured alone.
Rowan Williams speaks of this hard realistic place that we are called to inhabit as Christians, the call to stay put in the places where tough and resilient choices have to be made. His own ministry as Archbishop revealed the same quiet, but determined, readiness to endure, and refuse easy options in the work of speaking hope, healing suffering and challenging injustice. In his book describing the vision of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, (Silence and Honey Cakes) Bishop Rowan reflects on Jesus reaction to the chance of making quick fixes to what is wrong with the world. He says, “Jesus refuses, determined to stay in the desert with its hunger and boredom, to stay in the human world with its conflict and risk. He refuses to manipulate people into faith…”
If we are to be part of the process of healing and making whole, the bringing in of the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven, then this work will mean us engaging in an active invasion of the places where fantasy, lies, distortion and oppression have their home. This takes courage and tenacity, and not a little wisdom. Jesus assures the twelve that all will go well, that the “gates of the underworld will not hold out against” them. But this is to be an invasive action on our part; there is an expectation that we will make the first move towards those infernal gates (Matthew 16.19). The gift of the keys of entry into the Kingdom does not imply a retreat into a safety zone. It is a call to travel in the opposite direction, outwards to occupy the places where resistance and delusion hide, opening them up, and working within them.
The discipline of caring and working for healing and well-being, whether it is for ourselves or for others, will involve parting with possessiveness, entering narrow spaces, tight corners. The journey we are called to make will have us simplifying our lifestyle, developing a deepening trust for others, and amassing resilient spiritual resources. Lent is not far off! That’s what we should be preparing to look at then. Only by this will we equip ourselves adequately for the task of staying put, mercifully, but also realistically; effectively present with ourselves, as well as with one another. Sadly we have all sorts of tactics for avoiding change, even change for the better. The response that the four fishermen, and now we, are called to make is the journey towards healing, and truth and justice, the reawakening of our love, the restoration of our intimacy with God and our neighbour.