Follow Me
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

January 26, 2014

Matthew 4:12-23

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

A little church out in the country needed some upkeep and maintenance done. They got by with members doing the electrical work and the carpentry, but nobody wanted the job of painting the old wood siding.

Finally the pastor decided if it was going to get done, he had better do it. He figured out how much area he had to cover, but decided that maybe if he thinned the paint down a little bit, not only could he get the job done, but save the church some money. All day long one Friday and Saturday he rolled paint onto the little church. And in the failing light Saturday night he had to admit, it did not look half bad.

Early Sunday morning, before anybody was up, it started to rain. And as the preacher and the deacons and the ushers were driving up to church, the last of the paint was washing off the building. Well, after so much work, the pastor looked up at the heavens and asked, “Why O Lord, Why?”

And a voice from the heavens said, “Repaint! And thin no more.”

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew. Nine words. (Seven in Greek.) Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I used to think that this phrase was the stuff of late night televangelists and billboards. But there is something here incredibly important to us. Growing up in the South, the word repent had some baggage with it. The image of the preacher calling for repentance often felt like he was good and right and okay, and I was not, so I better be like him. It came with a long list of do’s and don’ts. And I did not particularly want to be like the preacher on the TV.

I wonder if, when we hear the word “repent,” it triggers that “called to the principal’s office” feeling. We feel judged. We feel unworthy.

When reading the Bible, if something catches us up short, we should try to read the rest of the sentence or the paragraph and see if it doesn’t make more sense. So if you get hung up on the word “repent,” keep going.

For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

This is Matthew’s way of cramming a whole lot of things into one image. The “kingdom of heaven” is a way of saying “God” when you do not want to say “God.” It is a very Jewish practice to use substitute names for God, including simply saying “the Name.” And all the hearers would know.

The kingdom of heaven would also mean Shalom. Peace. Wholeness. Healing. Right relationship with one another and with God.

The kingdom of heaven means that God is God, not Caesar, or money, or fame, or status, or possessions, or addiction, or old family scripts or anything else.

The kingdom of heaven is gonna break in. Like leaven in the loaf. Like a mustard seed. Like a tiny bit of faith moving mountains.

And this is “at hand.” I like keeping my coffee cup at hand. It is right there, I can find it, and I can drink from it. I do not have to go searching for it. But now, following the arrest of John (because this stuff is dangerous!), Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is as close to me as I like to keep my coffee mug!

So why repent?

Because healing is possible, but it is going to require some changes.

Because relationships can be mended, but it is going to require some movement.

Because there is a life beyond addiction, but it is going to take some steps.

Because forgiveness and love and grace and all of those churchy things we talk about with highfaluting language are real and are available and can change our lives. (I told you this stuff was dangerous!)

Maybe we would hear it better if we read “Go ahead and let yourself change, because God is the one doing the changing.” Or “It is okay to let that stuff go, because it is no longer giving you life. God is right here, at hand, and God will give you life.”

Last week I pointed out in John that the disciples were already following when Jesus said, “Come and see.” Here we have the more familiar, “Follow me.” To follow Jesus is to not only trust that the kingdom of heaven is at hand for us, but to live that out in the lives of our neighbors.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Thanks be to God.