Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, August 08, 2020
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Repentance in Action

Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

This past Sunday we were in the Gospel of John, which starts out differently than the other Gospels. All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River in the province of Judea. But only John goes on to tell us that Jesus’ early ministry continued in Judea, at least for a short time. He didn’t leave immediately after his baptism and testing.

Here, Matthew’s Gospel tells us the reason why Jesus didn’t stay very long in Judea: John the Baptist’s arrest and imprisonment. John the Baptist and Jesus had an association with each other before Jesus’ baptism. We know that they were relatives of some kind. And some Bible scholars think Jesus was among John’s disciples for a time before he was baptized. So, you could see why he wouldn’t want to stick around for long after John was arrested and imprisoned. So Jesus goes back to his home region of Galilee.

In the first century, Judea and Galilee were the two largest centers of Jewish population. But even though they were only 30 miles apart, they were different places. Judea was isolated. There were no major roads through Judea. You didn’t go through there, you went to there. It was like the Bolivar of the first century world. And almost the entire population of Judea was Jewish. So it tended to be very conservative, very averse to new ideas and new practices.

Galilee was different. “Galilee of the Gentiles,” as it was sometimes called in Scripture, was located on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. It was bound by Phoenicia on the north and west, Samaria to the south, and Syria to the east. It was only about 25 miles east to west and 50 miles north to south. But it had fertile farmland, so it had a larger population than rugged and mountainous Judea. And the main trade route of the ancient Near East world ran through Galilee. The so-called “Way of the Sea” went through Galilee on its way from Egypt to Damascus and the great lands of the East: Parthia, India, and so on. This trade route brought new people and new ideas through the Jewish villages of Galilee. The population of Galilee was also more diverse. There were Greeks, Phoenicians, Syrians, and others. So the Jewish people of Galilee were more open to new ideas. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose to focus so much of his ministry there. Or maybe it was because Galilee was his “home” region, and he knew more people there.

When Jesus returned, instead of going back to Nazareth, a very small town where it seems he was met with resistance, he went instead to Capernaum, a much larger town on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

As with everything in his Gospel, Matthew connects this to the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 9. Isaiah gave that message at the time of the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century BC. Assyria was a powerful and cruel empire. They swept across the entire ancient Near East world. Their policy was that if you were as brutal and inhumane as possible to people you defeated, then the next nation would get the idea and surrender before the battle even started. They seemed unstoppable.

They defeated the northern kingdom, the region that included first century Galilee and Samaria, and took them into exile. This included the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, whose tribal territory became Galilee in New Testament times.

Things looked bad for Judah, but God’s promise was that the darkness wouldn’t last forever. The light would come, and joy and glory would be restored. God would break the chains of tyranny and cruelty. Matthew tells us this was fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus began to preach. The Greek word we translate as preach was KERUSSO. It was the word used to describe the proclamation of a king’s herald. A king’s herald spoke boldly and with authority, because he was not speaking on his own. He was speaking on behalf of one much more powerful. That should be the character of preaching. We should be bold because we speak with the authority of God. It also means preachers must be humble, because our words represent God!

His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” To repent is to turn around; to stop living one way and start living a new way. It means to turn from a way of living that is self-centered to a way of living that is God-centered. After all, the essence of sin is casting God off the throne and putting ourselves in his place, deciding for ourselves what is good and right and true. Turning to God means to live a life of obedience. It means to seek a deeper and more intimate relationship with God. It means to seek out his will and do his will. Jesus is calling for a reorientation of life in light of the Kingdom of God. For God to be King, you can’t be king, and I can’t be king.

What follows is an example of this calling played out in the lives of his first disciples.

Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee was really just a medium-small lake, about 13 miles by 8 miles. There he finds fishermen, and it wasn’t hard to find fishermen along the shore of Galilee. In the first century, historians say there were over 200 fishing boats from about 30 fishing villages plying the waters of the Sea.

Fish were the most important source of protein in the first century Hebrew diet. They were dried and salted or pickled to be shipped throughout the region. Many of them ended up in Jerusalem, so many that the gate on the north wall of Jerusalem, the side facing Galilee, was called the Fish Gate. This meant that fishing was a good job. Fishermen were part of the rather small middle class. In the first century world, there was a small upper class, a small middle class, and an awful lot of poor people. If you were middle class, you were doing well. So these guys weren’t desperately looking for something to do with themselves.

When Jesus calls them, they leave their business behind. It was unusual for rabbis to call disciples. Usually that choice belonged to the student. It was unusual for people to leave a good job. And it was really strange for people to “leave their father behind.” This was a highly patriarchal culture. The father’s word was law. But when Jesus said, “Come,” they went.

Now, this wasn’t the first time they ever met Jesus. At least three of them, Peter, Andrew, and John, had met Jesus in Judea when he was there. And they all knew what he was about. But still, not an easy decision to go after him.

This is the calling of the Kingdom: Turn away from yourself. Turn away from your sins. Leave your own ambitions behind. Instead, orient your life around God and doing what he wants you to do. Go where he wants you to go. Do what he wants you to do. Say what he wants you to do.

It may sound easy to say that, but it’s not easy to do it, is it? If anyone thinks it’s easy, I’d guess they’re not doing it right! But that is what Jesus is calling each of us to do? Are you willing to heed his call?

Verse of the Day...