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February 2017

"There is a train coming"

Read first Matthew 4: 12-24

There is a story about a young boy who was a bit of a prankster. He would phone up some random home and when someone answered, he was ask, “Are you on the line?” The unsuspecting victim would probably give the expected answer, “Yes”, to which the boy would quickly shout. “Well you had better get off quick. There is a train coming!”

 “There is a train coming.”

 The warning of an approaching object or event is always important. We need to know what’s coming, what danger it poses, what action should we take.

 I suppose some may be anxious about “Brexit”. Will we have a hard or a soft border? We may have different views on this. Will it set off the troubles again? We pray not. But we don’t know. Whether we voted to Remain or Leave we still don’t know. What dangers will it pose? What action should we now take? Or we may be happily saying, “Bring it on”.

 In the case of Jesus, he was saying “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Should we be anxious or joyful? Do we even know what Jesus meant by it? Even after Mrs May’s speech the other day, we still are unsure about what Brexit actually means.

 Now where Matthew writes about the “kingdom of heaven”, the other gospels writers use the “kingdom of God”. They are the same thing. Perhaps Matthew in deference to his Jewish readers refrained about calling God “God”. Saying “heaven” instead of “God” was a regular Jewish way of avoiding the word “God” out of  reverence and respect. Now we must not think that “kingdom of heaven” means a place, namely “heaven”, seen as the place God’s people go to after their death. That would make no sense here. How could this sort of kingdom be said to be coming near, or approaching or arriving?

 Now any first century Jew, hearing someone talking about God’s kingdom would “know” that he was talking about revolution. That was their expectation. Now Jesus lived in a time when the Israelites had been subject to foreign powers for years and years. The current rulers were the Romans and the puppet kings Herod the Great and his sons. Their current dream was that the messiah would come, raise up an army and lead a violent revolution against these oppressors.

 But more than just looking for freedom as most subject people would, they believed that they were God’s special people, then it could not be God’s will to have pagan foreigners ruling over them. Furthermore, in the prophets, God had promised to deliver them and put everything right. And these desires focussed on one thing – that God would become king, not only of Israel but of the whole world, a king who would bring justice and peace at last, who would turn their upside-down world the right way up again. They were prepared to fight and die for this promise.

 The trouble with this was that they were fighting darkness with darkness and yet they were called by God to bring God’s light to the world. That’s why Matthew quoted Isaiah’s prophecy with Jesus message, “The people living in darkness have seen a great light”, and their mission was to share this light with all the nations. His mission was to call people into God’s kingdom and he saw that using revolution, fighting and killing to put an end to ----- fighting and killing was a nonsense. Doing it in God’s name was a blasphemous nonsense.

 But the kingdom was coming and those who stood in the way should get off the line or get on the train. He called people to “repentance”. And “repent” means to change direction, not simply to feel sorry about your sins. Yes that was included but they also had to change direction. They had to stop their headlong rush to the cliff’s edge of violent revolution and go the other way, towards God’s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness for themselves and for the world.

 You see, if the light-bearers insist on darkness, then darkness they will have. If the peace people insist on war, war they shall have. If people called to bring God’s love and forgiveness to the world insist on hating everyone else, hatred and all that it brings will come crashing about their ears. They must repent, for the Kingdom of God is coming and they are standing on the line, getting in the way.

 Jesus called the twelve disciples to help him spread the Good News, and he calls us to do the same. At a personal level we need to repent – not just to fell sorry for our sins, but to resolve to try not to sin any more. We need to learn to love our enemies and to be prepared to forgive them when they hurt us. This is fiendishly difficult to do, but with God’s help we must try. Yes we need to try to “convert” our enemies and there will be times when nations will need to take up arms to defend themselves and others from oppression and injustice. But we really need to see this as a last resort and to try peaceful and loving persuasion first.

 Jesus disciples took big risks to do this. They didn’t know exactly what the consequences would be, but they accepted this because that trusted Jesus, this charismatic young man who persuaded them that this was the way to go. They saw the power he had over nature and sickness, and realised that he was very special, and they saw just how special he was, and still is for us, on Easter Day.

 Get off the line – a train is coming.

Ken (24th January 2017)

Note that this Message is inspired to a considerable extent by Tom Wright's commentary Matthew for Everyone Vol. 1.

  NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at