Repent (Matthew 4:12-25)
Rev. David French

Have you ever noticed how Matthew introduces the preaching ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus? In the third chapter of his gospel, we read, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” In today’s reading he tells us that Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Both John and Jesus begin their ministry calling on the people of God to repent.

Now, when I repent, I begin with the understanding that not only do I daily sin much, but that I am by nature a sinner and deserve nothing but God’s wrath. Certainly not something I want to dwell on. And yet, both Jesus and John call on you and me to do just that.

Why? Why would these two preachers call on us to confront the terror of our sin and its punishment? First, remember from your confirmation days that there is more to repentance than acknowledging the truth of our sin. The willingness to acknowledging or confess our sin is the first act of God’s mercy in His work of repentance. As we read in Acts, “… So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

Anyway, when I repent, I acknowledge my sin and the punishment I deserve. Then, trusting God’s mercy, I seek His word of forgiveness. Even as I ask, I know I can’t stop being what I am. I can hide what I am. To some degree, we all do, but I can’t stop being what I am. And so, I confess my sin and trust in the blood Jesus shed on the cross for me. I do this absolutely convinced that God will not deal with me as my sin deserves, but according to His mercy. 

So, both Jesus and John call on us to repent … that we might bring our sins to God in faith and receive the forgiveness He earned for all. The forgiveness that calms our conscience as it removes sin’s threats and silences its accusations. But, even that isn’t the reason. The reason both Jesus and John reinforce our need to repent is that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Now, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” has a nuance in the Greek language that’s very difficult to carry over into the English. For them, a kingdom is not just a place. In fact, the Greek word for kingdom also implies an action. That is, a kingdom is the ruling or reigning activity of the king. When Jesus and John tell us that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” they would be understood as saying, “The One who rules in heaven is near.”

As Americans, the very idea of being under the reign of a king would not be considered a good thing. We have too much experience with the kingdoms of this world. Sooner or later, every earthly ruler will make a decision that is in his or her own best interest instead of the interest of the country and its citizens. Sooner or later, every form of government that relies on absolute authority will develop an upper class that lives in luxury and an oppressed class that lives in poverty, and that truth is anything but good news.

The difference, of course, is that the kingdom of heaven is not subject to sin. God, as we see in Christ, is love. He is holy, merciful, and just. He has our best interests at heart. He can’t be tempted, and He will never change. It’s true that absolute rulers have failed and will always fail in this sinful world. But, our Creator, the One who rules over all things, rules in truth and love. His is a kingdom where sin is no more. His is a kingdom without end.

You see, the kingdom of heaven is made up of, if you will, all the acts of God, done in and through His Christ. The kingdom of heaven is, in its essence, the perfect life that Jesus lived in our place. It includes His ministry of preaching and healing. It includes His passive obedience to the suffering and death of the cross. It includes the promise of eternal life assured by His resurrection. It includes His presence with us now in Word and sacrament. It includes His return on the Last Day to bring us, body and soul, into His eternal presence. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” reminds us that Jesus is with us here and now.

The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to quote the prophet Isaiah and tell us that this message is for all who are “dwelling in the region and shadow of death” (Matthew 4:16). That is, if death can affect you in any way, the message “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is for you. And because this message is for everyone, Jesus needed to provide a way for everyone to hear it.

In the second part of today’s gospel lesson, we hear about four fishermen: Simon, Andrew, James, and John. These fishermen had all been disciples of John the Baptist. Last week, we heard how John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” With these words, John encouraged his disciples to become disciples of Jesus. Eventually, these men followed Jesus in the same way that they used to follow John.

In today’s reading we heard Jesus change their calling. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Now these four would not just be His disciples, but they would also become four of His apostles. Over the next three years or so, these men would be with Jesus to learn from Him, to witness His works, to experience the power of God as they also healed the sick and drove out demons, and to pray with Him. They would also have private time with Jesus for Q and A, if you will. Jesus would prepare them so that they too could and would prepare others to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

By the way, the difference between a disciple and an apostle is that a disciple constantly studies, believes, and supports the teachings of a rabbi or teacher. An apostle is one who is, in addition, specifically sent to teach the teachings of his master to others, and so, make more disciples. 

In today’s gospel Jesus specifically called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to witness His ministry and receive His teaching for several years. They were then to pass along those very same teachings to the people around them – especially to the next generation – so that the teachings of Jesus Christ would continue to go out to the ends of the world.

As a fisherman throws a net into the water, so the apostle proclaims the teachings of Christ to the world. As fish are brought in by the net, so the Holy Spirit uses the teachings of Christ to bring people into the church. In this way, these newly appointed apostles would truly become fishers of men. And they’re still fishers of men, for we also have come to believe through their writings. And now we read, mark, and learn the words of Christ which they recorded in the New Testament for His disciples today to share the love of God in Christ with family and friends and all who come to know us.

Not we, of course, but the Holy Spirit still uses the eye-witness testimony of the apostles to draw people to His church. He continues to use them to create saving faith and the hope of eternal life with Christ. The apostles continue to urge us to repent, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 

In Jesus’ name, Amen.