Today’s message arises from Matthew 4:12-23, where we find Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry. John the Baptist has just been arrested and quickly fades from the gospel story. Meanwhile, Jesus begins to wander and proclaim a compelling message as he builds his close-knit band of followers. Welcome to membership recruitment 101 for the kingdom of heaven.
Part of Jesus’ message hails the concept of a heavenly kingdom, a realm of both present reality and future possibility. Jesus’ use of the kingdom of heaven terminology becomes a centerpiece of his Gospel message of love and repentance. The kingdom of heaven is entered through salvation, that act of turning from sin and turning to God. The repentance aspect is similar to what John the Baptist required of those whom he had baptized. On earth, people go about their lives in ways that follow tradition, cultural rules, social norms, and so on. In God’s kingdom, the way things operate is different. Here, love rules everything. Does the kingdom of heaven make sense to you and do you feel motivated to respond to God’s call? Do you consider yourself God’s disciple?
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is both the place of new spiritual life as much as it is an awakened spirit in this world. Repentance is also pivotal here, since the idea is that you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven until and unless you experience redemption. As Jesus gathered his followers, the first four were two sets of brothers: Peter, Andrew, James, and John, all of them fishermen, independent businessmen earning a living by the Sea of Galilee. These guys would be the equivalent today of our middle class (as were most if not all of Jesus’s other apostles). This curious fact underscores something distinctive about Jesus’ movement.
What happened to elicit such a quick response from the twin sets of brothers that Jesus invited? Let’s turn to the biblical narrative to explore this: “And he said to them, ‘follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4: 19-20). Jesus’ invitation is astonishing. To fish for people is a powerful metaphor with vivid imagery. What would it take for you to drop everything and everyone in your life to follow a spiritual guru? Jesus hadn’t been in public ministry long enough to have much of a reputation, so it doesn’t seem likely that the four fishermen knew much about this wondering rabbi. Even if they did have knowledge of who and what Jesus was, something must have churned within them. Jesus’s charisma certainly had something to do with it along with other unique qualities convincing potential followers of divine power and possibility.
Did Jesus perform magic on the brothers? No, especially since Jesus didn’t force anyone to do anything. Did Jesus’ words exert some miraculous influence? We may never know for sure about the precise mechanisms. Suffice to say that whatever Jesus did or said was sufficient to wrest the men from their families, friends and livelihood. What are the implications and ramifications for today’s Christians? We often ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” which is sort of a test of how to make an ethical decision reflecting Jesus’ values. Even more critical is being ready to hear God’s call when it is made. Spiritual wakefulness is a state of perceiving through faith the process of transformation. Are you ready to hear and respond positively?
There’s a bunch of questions that can help examine ourselves. Looking inward doesn’t come easy, especially if we suspect that something isn’t right with our spirit. Many people don’t engage introspection because they’re afraid they’ll uncover darkness that needs changing into light (and they’ve decided that they are not up to the fight). It’s worth emphasizing that the kingdom of heaven is not a physical place as much as it is a state of mind, a spiritual realm meant to encompass who and what we are becoming. The kingdom of heaven can function as a set of guiding beliefs ensuring harmony with your destiny in God’s care.
Are you ready to follow God? What destructive thinking and acting are you willing to surrender? This is a tough question because it challenges us to take a position and actively pursue redemption. We can struggle with how decisive should be our response, provided we’re prepared to hear the invitation in the first place. Through it all, we can yearn for God’s abiding presence and for the conviction and enthusiasm to act boldly when God invites us. Get ready!
–Reverend Larry Hoxey