II Epiphany 1/22/17
Christ came into the world for purposes of saving the world,… to leave behind Him footsteps for those who would attach themselves to Him, who thus might become followers…He who is in truth is to be the pattern and is concerned only with followers must be in one sense be located behind humanity, to drive them on, whereas in another sense He stands before them beckoning them on. Soren Kierkegaard Training in Christianity p. 232
These words of Soren Kierkegaard come from a discussion in one of his books Training in Christianity. It is part of a larger discussion of the difference between an admirer and a follower, which for him is synonymous with disciple. He observes that admirers are ones who saw Jesus as exalted and worthy of worship. They wanted to by denying his humanity to escape the responsibility of answering his bidding to deny self and follow him. An admirer would point to Jesus as the example of what God is like, not as what God wants us to be like. Humans have often hoped for a God who they could admire, without following. Yet the invitation has always been to follow the ways of God in the covenant of the law. It was spoken of in the prophets and embodied in this one called “Emmanuel, God with us”.
Isaiah the prophet spoke in this part of his prophecy which is thought to be a coronation hymn of a new king of an end to anguish and gloom. This passage is filled with contrasting language of light and darkness to picture a great contrast between what has become a disappointing rule or perhaps at the end of an occupation by an enemy. What lies ahead is a time of hope that the enemies of Israel will be vanquished to the point that the justice the prophets spoke of will become commonplace. One can only wonder if the realization after the disappointment of the failure of the new ruler made this hope for light just a hope. Perhaps when and if the hymn were used again it with more of a ritual than belief.
Yet the prophet’s words spoke of one coming that would be of one like a god. A rule marked by justice and righteousness, by care for people and mercy towards the weak. This future king would do what the prophets had hoped. There would be a newness embodied this one as the work of Yahweh, wrought by the passion and faithfulness of God.
Matthew knew these words of Isaiah and he used them to announce the details of the change that Jesus embodied as the kingdom of heaven come to earth.
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.
Matthew uses the kingdom of heaven rather that the kingdom of God many think because of his Jewish sensitivities about the divine name. When you look at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, it is apparent that what we have heard this morning is the beginning of a new section of his gospel. A section where the kingdom of heaven unfolds in the Sermon on the Mount. So what we hear this morning is a preface to that sermon that like the preface of a good book gets us ready to hear the story unfolding before us. The placing of this preface that has to do with moving on from John the Baptist, the calling of the first disciples and the place of beginning that of a different own than his own Nazareth, but in the synagogue.
The difference in this preface of Matthew’s is that it tells that there is something expected of the hearer or reader of this gospel. This something expected is best seen in Matthew’s account of the calling of Simon and Andrew. This is a calling that might easily tempt us to speculate on what might make two men leave what they were doing abandon their livelihood and follow this itinerant preacher. If we read or hear our gospel passage this morning in isolation, we might get stuck there. Matthew didn’t put it there as a quagmire, it is instead an indication that this time it is different. This is not the new ruler whose promises will fade, but the bearer of a new realm that prophets spoke of and hoped for.
The turning upside of the world order, blessing that which is weak and exalting it over what is powerful must be heard by the ears of one who understand that the call of God is repentance. Repentance that means change, change of order and change of values. To go there and to see it requires the leap of faith that can cause one to question not only their vocation, but to sever familiar ties with those closest to them.
Matthew’s gospel more than the others you see is didactic, it is a manual for how to see the kingdom unfold. Yet to do so one must walk in this new light trusting in what seems foolhardy and risky. The kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdoms of this earth. The kingdom of heaven is seen through the eyes of the heart, in the power of the spirit. The kingdom of heaven is the place we live when we finally understand that we are called to stand and make a difference, to claim what seems the most desolate and godless places for the realms of heaven.
One of my friends now deceased, a Franciscan that lived in a Catholic Worker community in New Haven wrote that he came to understand that he was called to move, move in order that his restless heart’s desire for peace calls for not just prayer, but movement. Movement that does not worry who will lead, but trusts that in moving out, in his case for peace, he will find others whose hearts yearn like his and out of that will come focus and leadership and hopefully the move of the broader society towards peace.
That is really the message this morning, that is the fuel that drives this place, it is the light we can see ahead of us in the darkest times we have seen and known as both individuals and community. We are called, called to move, move in the one in who we live and have our being. We are being pushed by the God behind us and beckoned forward by the God in front of us.
None of this call depends on the circumstances around us. It is rather finding those footsteps left behind by the one who is the way no matter how faint. It is making them our path and helping others to find the way to following as well. Ours is not some distant exalted God who demands fealty, but a God who pushes us with grace from experiencing faith to courage to move into a deeper faith as God beckons us toward living in the kingdom of heaven and not the kingdoms of this world.