Sunday, January 22, 2017

Epiphany 3A

Isaiah 9:1–4, Matthew 4:12–23

 

THE KINGDOM OF GOD FIRST

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Isaiah 9:1–4 is addressed to people longing to return to the glory days of Israel, when the great king David ruled over a mighty and prosperous nation. The land of Naphtali and the land of Zebulon were tribal regions conquered by the Assyrians in 733–732 BCE. Gloom had settled over the land. The people of Israel were thrust into deep darkness. Their identity as the people of God had been called into question. Were they still God’s chosen people? Were they still number one in God’s eyes?

 

The prophet Isaiah assures them that God will raise up a new king, a descendent of David, who will restore the nation to its former glory. The people who have walked in darkness will see a great light. Those who have lived in a land of deep darkness will have light shine upon them. God will free them from the oppressive Assyrians. Israel will be known once again for its power and prosperity. It will be clear that the nation of Israel is still number one in God’s eyes.

 

Israel never did return to its former glory. In 722 BCE the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom were destroyed by the Assyrians, and in 586 BCE the final two tribes of the Southern Kingdom were overrun by the Babylonians and survivors were sent into exile. The people of God wondered: Had God abandoned them? Where had they gone wrong? They struggled to clarify who they were and what they were to be about.

 

In the first part of President Trump’s Inaugural Address, he sounded a bit like the prophet Isaiah, painting a gloomy picture of where we are as a nation. He offered a litany of the carnage “too many of our citizens” are suffering. He insisted that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We are one nation— and their pain is our pain.”

 

Then he put before us his strategy for addressing this carnage: “From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First . . . America will start winning again, winning like never before . . . We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world— but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first . . . At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America . . .”

 

Surely we can agree with President Trump that too many of our citizens are suffering. We can also affirm that their pain is our pain. But are we prepared, as followers of Jesus, to adopt an “America First” strategy and to pledge a “total allegiance to the United States of America”?

 

As a boy I loved to go Grandma’s house, and I loved my grandma very much. My sister and I had great fun playing games with her. Every so often she would take out her false teeth and make us laugh and laugh. I am sure Grandma was glad we loved her. But she would have never asked us to pledge total allegiance to her.

 

I consider it a privilege to be a citizen of the United States. Over the years I have been on trips to Africa, South America, and Europe as well as to Canada and Mexico. It was great to be exposed to these lands and their people, but I have always been glad to return home. I love my homeland; however I hope I am never asked to pledge total allegiance to it.

 

President Trump assured us: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body— and I will never, ever let you down.” It is good to hear that he will work hard for the American people. But every President, being mortal, has inevitably let down the American people at times.

 

President Trump also expressed confidence that “we will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.” The nation of Israel in Isaiah’s time seemed confident that they were number one in God’s eyes. But that “Israel First” strategy did not work out for them as they envisioned. Is President Trump implying that our nation is number one in God’s eyes, that God has adopted an “America First” strategy? Is God committed to the United States of America returning to its former glory? Is God shining a great light on our nation?

 

Our gospel reading, Matthew 4:12-23, implies that God was shining a great light on Israel and is shining a great light on the United States, but not in the way envisioned by the people of Israel or President Trump. Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who have lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” Matthew quotes this verse to make clear that Jesus was the great light God had promised to send to shine into our darkness.

 

Jesus did not fit the image of a great and powerful king who would restore the nation of Israel to its former glory. Jesus had been baptized and mentored by John. He had weathered his forty day struggle with the devil in the wilderness. His baptism and his time in the wilderness had clarified for him who he was in relationship to God and what God wanted him to do. When he heard that John had been arrested, he began his ministry, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

Rather than an Israel First strategy, he pursued what we might call a “Kingdom of God First” strategy. Matthew’s account of the calling of the first disciples heightens this sense of the priority of the kingdom of God. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew and then James and John, Matthew stresses that they immediately left their nets and followed him. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus exhorted his followers: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). Martin Luther once said, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself . . . is really your God.” As followers of Jesus our hearts are to cling to God. The bedrock for followers of Jesus is a total allegiance to God and God’s reign. That total allegiance includes a sure confidence that Jesus is the great light promised to lead us out of darkness toward the fulfillment of God’s reign. In turbulent or dark times it is easy for us to lose our way in life. We can look for light in the wrong people and places. For example, political leaders, military power, material wealth, and technology all have a role in our lives; but we go astray when we put excessive trust in them. Providing employment at just wages for Americans who have lost their jobs or who are underemployed is certainly a good thing to do. But followers of Jesus will never limit themselves to an America First strategy. We need to repent—that is, turn and take up a Kingdom of God First strategy. God’s reign embraces Earth and all its habitants. The whole Earth community is in this together. The whole Earth community is precious, number one in God’s eyes.

 

We are living in a divided nation. We are facing significant challenges as a nation and as a global community. We need to be as focused as we can be on what following Jesus entails. We need to be clear on who we are and what we are to be about.

 

It cannot be stressed strongly enough, how important it is, as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his last letters from a Nazi prison cell, to “immerse ourselves again and again, for a long time and quite calmly, in Jesus’s life, his sayings, actions, suffering and dying in order to recognize what God promises and fulfills.”[1]

 

Jesus is the great light who reveals what a Kingdom of God First strategy is all about. Consider some of the striking teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew:

 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). “You cannot serve God and wealth” (6:24).

 

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (7:5).

 

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (7:12).

 

In Matthew 25:40 Jesus teaches us that inasmuch as we have done it to one of these least of these we have done it unto him. For example, when we welcome a stranger, it is as if we are welcoming Jesus himself. This teaching echoes the Lord’s instruction to the people of Israel in Leviticus 19:33–34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Jesus’ teachings in Matthew and this passage from Leviticus sound far more inclusive than an America First strategy.

 

A Kingdom of God First strategy will not return the United States to its former glory. But it will truly seek the well-being of the whole Earth community, including our nation. God sent Jesus as the shining light to teach the people of Israel it was not all about them. The light of Jesus continues to shine in our midst, teaching the people of our nation that it is not all about us. Here at St. Andrew our core values— God care, Earth care, community care, neighbor care, and self care— are an attempt to articulate a Kingdom of God First strategy. Inasmuch as we embody these core care values in our daily lives, the light of Jesus shines in and through us. Walking in that great light— seeking the well-being of the whole Earth community— is a glorious way to live. It is the way to the fulfillment of God’s reign.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Letters and Papers from Prison, volume 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 515.