3rd Sunday after Epiphany: The Earthly Kingdom versus the Kingdom of God
By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin
In November, a 93-year-old woman from my congregation died. She had dementia when my tenure began and was homebound and cared for by her children. At the funeral, I heard some great stories from her life and got to know the woman a little better. One of the difficult and memorable stories was that she remembered a lynching that occurred here in town when she was a kid. I live in rural North Carolina now, but I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Chicago. I’m nearing 40 years old, and lynchings seem like ugly things from ancient times. I’m also a straight white guy. My privilege means that lynchings aren’t an inherent part of my life and vocabulary. To know that lynchings were recent enough that she remembered one is to bring that reality into the present. This not-too-distant commonplace act of terrorism is something I’m learning more about and seeing our need to address (finally) after all these years.
In James Cone’s brilliant, gut-wrenching book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he describes a story Martin Luther King’s father told him. When Martin Luther King Sr. was a child, a black man was walking down the street passed a group of white men. One of the white men was poor and quite angry. He didn’t like this employed black man walking around town with a job when he, a white man, was unemployed. So, the white man convinced his friends to help him apprehend the black man, beat him and hang him from a tree, dead. Martin Luther King Sr. hid nearby and watched it happen. This is a part of our recent American history. White men were able to take hold of black bodies and do with them as they pleased. At the heart of racism is not simply a dislike of the ‘other,’ but also privilege and power dynamics. The white men in this story believed a centuries’ old lie told by the people in power that poor white folks should blame black folks for their problems. This has been a cycle throughout American history (and probably human history, but I don’t want to overstep my bounds). Fear and power differentials lead to destructive behavior.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see some power dynamics at work. Throughout the book of Matthew, one of the major themes is the Kingdom of God in contrast to the Kingdom of Israel; or the Kingdom of God in contrast to the Roman Empire. Matthew’s Gospel shows the corruption and earthly power of Rome and Jerusalem in contrast with the Power of God in Jesus. For example, the Temple was the central place of religious activity; the sacred space of God’s presence. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear that ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name…’ Power shifts from the established earthly structures to the Jesus Movement (to use Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s phrase).
But today’s reading begins with John the Baptist’s arrest. He spoke to the earthly powers and said, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” And those powers didn’t like it. This isn’t really surprising, but it’s a reminder that those in power can oppress by taking and moving the body where it doesn’t want to go. John the baptizer may be on a mission from God, but here on Earth King Herod and his friends wield the power. So John goes off to jail. This causes Jesus to leave Nazareth and make his home in Capernaum.
This movement reminds me of the book of Acts. The way Acts is structured, whenever the new Jesus Movement faces persecution, it’s followed by a scattering of the faithful who then spread the Gospel in cities further and further out. The means by which the people in power hope to end the movement (persecution and murder) is the very reason the Movement spreads! It’s a fascinating irony throughout the history of the Jesus Movement. When earthly powers seek to suppress and end the Movement, it only makes it grow stronger, deeper and wider! One could make an argument that when the Jesus Movement was freely given a seat at the table of power, that’s when it ceased to grow. I’ll let you ponder that further as I move back to the Gospel.
Another major theme of Matthew’s Gospel is the need to be rooted in the Old Testament. So John’s arrest causes Jesus to move to Capernaum, and Matthew ties that to the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. The ‘great light’ has come to those ‘in the region and shadow of death.’ The Light of Christ has come to the darkness. In the text of Isaiah, the region of Galilee is in darkness because it’s a place of Gentiles. In Matthew we can see that King Herod’s Israel is in darkness because they won’t heed the call of the prophet John and instead throw him in prison. In John’s place comes Jesus, similarly proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus takes up the prophetic call to serve the heavenly King. The earthly King has failed you.
Let’s remember that this proclamation of John the Baptist and then Jesus to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” is good news. I feel like I hear these words and often think of some film I’ve seen where things are about to go horribly wrong for the protagonist and the director/cinematographer uses a quick image of some unhygienic street ‘preacher’ holding a poorly made sign with these words. In those films, this is seen as foreshadowing something awful. For us, as good readers of this text, it is a call to turn (repent means to turn or to turn away) from putting faith in the earthly powers and structures of this world. We are to witness to and preach the kingdom of heaven. It means that the kingdom of heaven is come! The passage ends with Jesus teaching, proclaiming the good news, curing every disease and sickness among the people. As we align ourselves with the kingdom of heaven, we see this world with new eyes and we stand up for the justice of God.
The powers that be are not what they should be. It was all too recent that folks were lynched in our town. It’s all too common that folks are going hungry. It’s all too common that folks are addicted to opioids. It’s all too common for us to believe the lies of the people in power and the structures of this world. We are the Jesus Movement and we look to God for our Hope, our Peace, our Good News! How is God calling our scattered selves to spread the Jesus Movement amidst the dark history of our town? How can we witness to the Kingdom of God on a daily basis? The light of Christ has come into the region of the shadow of death. May God strengthen our resolve to live as bold witnesses to God’s kingdom.
The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.