Sermon: "Tragic Distortions"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 9.1-4; Psalm 27.1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23
In Matthew 3, John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness of Judea. John calls people to
repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Vs. 1-2; NRSVUE). Matthew further tells
us John the Baptist is the one of whom Isaiah spoke: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Vs. 3; NRSVUE).
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew informs us that Jesus, having heard of John the Baptist’s
arrest, leaves Nazareth and travels to Capernaum in Galilee such that an ancient prophecy would 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.” This prophecy echoes our reading from Isaiah 9. Now why was
John the Baptist arrested? In Matthew 14, we read: “For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put
him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Because John had been telling him, ‘It is
not lawful for you to have her.’” Herodias had previously been married to Philip.
Following John’s arrest and imprisonment, Jesus began to proclaim the same message as John:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Notice, Jesus and John did not merely preach
repentance; they preached repentance for a reason – for the promotion of the kingdom of heaven
which was now to be established on earth as in heaven. Remember Jesus’ words, “Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is radically different from the kingdoms of this earth; it does not resort
to violence and oppression to maintain its position. As Isaiah assured God’s people, their joy would be
increased, for God has broken “the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of
their oppressor” (Isaiah 9.4; NRSVUE). Having moved to Capernaum, and having picked up where John left off, Jesus began to call his
disciples – fishermen – two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John: “Follow me, and I will
make you fish for people.” As Chelsea Harmon observes,
Exegetes will point out that Matthew’s preferred way of talking about discipleship is with the
word akoloutheo, “to follow.” But here, Jesus also uses a phrase which has been translated as
“follow me,” but is actually an encouragement to “come on behind me,” but none of the verbs
in this passage are in the imperative—Jesus isn’t commanding anything, the choice is up to us to
be a disciple (https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2023-01-16/matthew-412-23-3/).
Jesus extended an invitation to join in the creation of something new --– the establishment of God’s
kingdom on earth. They dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Jesus extends the same invitation to us – we are invited to become disciples and to join with
Jesus in the creation of something new – the Kingdom of God. But as one person recently said to me, “If
we are to talk of kingdom building, we have very quickly to be explicit in what this means in real terms.”
So often we think of God’s kingdom as only existing in some heavenly realm, but as mentioned
previously, we pray “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” As you well know, this is part of the
Lord’s Prayer. But you may have lost sight of the fact that Jesus tells us how to pray in the Sermon on
the Mount. This is also where Jesus sets forth the principles and characteristics of God’s kingdom which
he would have us create on earth. Having called his disciples, he now begins to teach them, and the surrounding crowds, the way
God would have us live. In Matthew 5, Jesus begins by setting forth the beatitudes then he recasts the
Ten Commandments such that they focus on the heart as opposed to external actions. For example:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever
murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or
sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the
council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering
your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against
you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,
and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5.21-24; NRSVUE).
And here is another example:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to
you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of
your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on
the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you
have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and
sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect,
therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5.43-48; NRSVUE).
Here we are to understand “perfect” as following this program to completion as opposed to being
In effect, Jesus is saying, “If you are to be my disciples, here is what is required.” If you want a
real challenge, strive to fully live out the principles contained in the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus
points out time after time (“You have heard that it was said”), these principles run contrary to
conventional wisdom grounded in the ways of this world and its kingdoms. Later, in the Sermon on the
Mount, Jesus exhorts his disciples not to worry about the things of this world but to “seek first the
kingdom of God and its righteousness” (Matthew 6.33; NRSVUE).
Jesus’ teaching is an epiphany – it brings light to a world of darkness and despair. It would have
us reject the hatred and violence of this world and live in the fullness of God’s love. It gives us a new way
of living; it invites us into a new mode of existence.
The Church’s overemphasis on personal sin and salvation has led us to lose sight of the reason
for our repentance – the implementation of God’s kingdom on earth. Repentance is only the first step in
a challenging but marvelous journey! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, discipleship is costly! The
kingdoms of this world recognize the danger inherent in the Sermon on the Mount; for this reason, the
world condemns Jesus’ message as socialism. I find myself wondering, will the Church, will we
individually, accept the cost of discipleship and move beyond personal repentance, important as it is, to
kingdom building? If we were to do so, might many more be drawn to the light?