The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Kingdom of God is Near?”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 4.12-17
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “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.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
A great light has been shown on Zebulon and Naphtali; light has dawned.
We don’t always like what we see when a great light is cast upon our lives.
Six years ago I walked the Camino in Spain. It was my second attempt. For months, well, years really, I studied the routes and history of the pilgrim path that weaves through Spain’s countryside leading to its northwestern corner. On my second attempt, I was ready. I had proper gear, an understanding of what I was getting into, and most importantly a sincere commitment to walk as a pilgrim, to be open to the revelations of the Holy Spirit.
On my first day I made a mistake. Well, miscalculation is more appropriate. The first five miles of the first day didn’t appear rough because I was not using a topological map. Had I done so, the thousands of feet of elevation gain would have come clear. It came clear as I walked higher and higher.
The first stretch of the first day was to walk out of an enormous river valley to a plateau. Reaching the plateau I was winded and sweaty and in need of a short break.
As I sat beneath a tree and caught my breath, a local man came walking down the path. He stopped and asked me if I was a pilgrim. Perigrino?
“Si,” I said, “verdad.” Looking me over he grew quite concerned. He expressed his concern with another question.
“Donde esta sus amigos?” Where are you friends?
“Solomente,” I answered. Then he grew very concerned.
He asked, “When you have your heart attack who will be there to save you?” The best I could do was shrug my shoulders.
As he walked away, leaving me to my fate, I started to beat myself up. Four friends on different occasions offered to come with me, walk with me. Where are you friends? You told them not to come, you idiot. This was a bad start. What seemed simple and safe now appeared dangerous and risky.
The local man saw what I could not see and he shown a great light on my path. Where are your friends? As I wallowed in my over-confidence, I went through the list of friends who offered to come. As I did my feeling of panic left me. None of them had any real medical knowledge, none were fluent in Spanish, and, most importantly, none of them could have physically carried me to safety.
I smiled thinking what I have really done is spare four friends from the trauma of seeing me die. What a great friend I am! And with this I started walking again.
As I walked for the better part of a week there were other moments of great light. Perhaps the greatest came at the very end. By the end of my time as a pilgrim I could see how little I knew how to rest. Rest.
Day after day I pushed myself farther than I needed to walk so I could finish ahead of schedule. Day after day I walked until I was exhausted. My nights were spent recovering not resting.
By the end of the pilgrimage a great light was cast upon my life. I could see this pattern as the way I worked, the way I traveled, the way I did just about everything. Dam the torpedoes; full steam ahead.
Turns out this is not how you are supposed to live; this is not healthy. In the great light of the pilgrim path I could see it. And, more importantly, I could hear the call to change.
In our reading today we find the call of Jesus. First the call is to change; the second is the call to follow him. Both of these calls are essential to a life of faith. Before we take them up, though, we need to cast aside a misunderstanding, how we misunderstand change.
The call to repent, in Greek the word is metanoia, in Latin it is paenitare. Our word for change is closer to the Latin and thus moral failure. To repent is too often associated with bad behavior, sin, even wretchedness. We can hear our common misunderstanding in the hymn Amazing Grace. “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Repentance here is the idea of changing from wretchedness to righteousness.
And there is nothing wrong with this. If you are living a wretched life, by all means stop that. Not being a wretch is a good thing. But unfortunately, this understanding does not reach the truth of Jesus’ calling.
So often the calling of Jesus for us to change is not about the wretched, miserable life of deplorable sinfulness. The call of Jesus to change and to follow is much more subtle than the shouting preacher calling all the wretches to repent.
The call is much more often like the concerned man on the path who asked, “Where are your friends?” Or, the call of Jesus is the light illuminating our lives and we see, “You know it’s better to live with a balance of work and rest. You should change that.”
I believe we have made the idea of repentance so much about guilt and shame and moral judgement, we have lost its power. We have made it too much, too harsh.
A great light shone in Galilee, in Zebulon and Naphtali and Jesus said, “Change is here, the Kingdom of God has come near.” What if the light is a gracious revelation where we are drawn to joy in humility?
A great movie is like a great light. Think of all the great movies you have seen. What are they but a light cast upon us?
Recently I was talking about a great movie with a pastor friend. The Darjeeling Limited is a Wes Anderson movie, a favorite. We were talking about the expensive, custom made, exquisite luggage featured in this movie. The beautiful luggage is carried by three brothers as they travel on trains through India. The expensive luggage was their father’s. Each son has a few pieces of the large leather set.
At the end of the movie, the three brothers are running to catch a train. They are running as fast as they can down the platform. To make the train they need to cast all the bags aside. My pastor friend said, “You think there is a metaphor about change there?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “Just a bit of a metaphor.”
Although it may not be a large set of expensive, leather bags, we all have baggage, things we carry with us, things that mean a great deal, but also encumber freedom. The bags could be old ideas, expectations, a grudge, guilt, shame. In the same way it could be things like traditions or success or prestige: good things that have become weights keeping us down. If we want to move forward, move quickly, catch the train, we need to put those aside. Change in other words.
After the sermon we are going to sing, “Kum Ba Ya.” Some of you scanned the bulletin after you arrived. Some of you I am sure rolled your eyes at this hymn. “Kum Ba Ya” has become associated with a false sense of solidarity. “And after we hug, we will all sing, ‘Kum ba ya.’” Or, “they want us to have a ‘kum bay ya’ moment.” This misunderstanding has nearly ruined a hymn of great power.
“Kum ba ya” is not a moment of solidarity; it is a call for God to repent. It is a very unique spiritual. Unlike most hymns, this one found its meaning, not in its origin, but in traveling the world. There is no one language in Kum ba ya; it is a kind of international mix of languages. Beneath the complex layers of language, though, is a simple meaning. “Come over here; come by this way; you should come over here. Kum ba ya.
It may not seem like a radical theological claim, but it is. The spiritual is calling God to change, change directions, change what God is doing, to stop whatever God is up to and come by here. And the call is to pay attention, to see life. The spiritual is speaking as if God is not paying attention, God is not seeing everything.
Somebody is crying; come over here. Somebody is singing; come over here. Somebody is praying, somebody is dying; come over here; come over here. The song is: you need to change, God. Slow down for a moment and listen to the prayer, listen to the song.
In our Reformed theology there is not a lot of room for calling God to repent. God is in control; God is all powerful, all knowing. We don’t need to remind God of anything, let alone call on God to change or pay attention. I love the light this spiritual casts upon my image of God. Hey, come over here, someone is singing. Such beautiful light.
Many, many years ago I was double booked. I was supposed to chair a committee for the town at six o’clock and I was reminded that my daughter Laura was singing at her school at six o’clock. I protested that I didn’t know; I was the chair of the committee; there was nothing I could do. Kathy listened to my foolishness and then she said, “no one will remember that you were not at the meeting; you daughter will never forget you stood her up.”
A great light has shone upon Zebulon and Naphtali. Jesus said, change, the kingdom of God is near.
We don’t always like what we see when a great light is cast upon our lives.
Great lights often reveal our foolishness. My wife’s words revealed a less than stellar parenting strategy. I didn’t like my excuses when placed next to the heart of my six-year-old daughter. I could see her look of disappointment in the light. I didn’t go to the meeting.
There are most likely things we all are carrying, baggage. Jesus calls to us, “follow me; get on the train; live in hope and joy and peace,” and we hear this and we hesitate. We balk because we want to keep the bags; we love and hate the baggage.
The scene in the movie where the brothers leave all the expensive luggage behind is just a bit of a metaphor. So many things in life: it would be nice to just cast aside, to leave behind. Old definitions and habits; certainly the guilt and shame we carry.
If the truth be told, most of us might want the train to stop. Wait. Can’t we just stop for a moment? Wait for the next train? That was my thought about listening to my daughter sing. She is going to sing again. I’ll make the next one. And this is what I told my friends that wanted to walk the Camino with me. Next time.
It’s hard to imagine calling on God to repent, to change. Just doesn’t seem to match our vision of who God is. We could argue the theology here, but we need not argue the philosophy, how we live.
We know what should change, what needs to be better; we know we need to leave the bags beside. We can see the opportunity to live life, but we say, “I’ll keep my bags and wait for the next train.”
When a great light gets cast into our lives, we don’t always like what we see. This is true. But it’s not always true.
A great light gets cast and what we see is not fault or failure, but freedom and hope. As we sing and pray and cry, as we live and die together, I like what I see; I like the light.
Jesus will tell the people: you are the light of the world. We are a great light that illumines life. Together we are a great light. Sometimes we don’t like what we see in this light; we need to change for the better. Sometimes we see what is beautiful and good and true.
A great light shone in Zebulon and Naphtali. The kingdom of God is near. Amen.
- Isaiah 9:1 - 7
- Matthew 4:12 - 23