Epiphany 3 – “The Kingdom of Heaven is At Hand” – Matthew 4:17

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“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’”

There was a time when Israel’s King was God… and only God. The people of God lived under the rule and reign of the Lord God almighty, who was also their Creator. God established the Law of the Land and put it writing for all to obey.

Moses is the King’s scribe. He declares, “Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time.” (Deuteronomy 4:40).

And as long as Israel lived under the Law of God, things went very well.

But after awhile of being ruled by a good and gracious King, who defended His people from every enemy, and who supplied them with bread from heaven and water from a rock, and gave them a land of ‘milk and honey’ to call their own and settle down in, the people of God said, ‘we want a king like the other nations.’ (1 Sam. 8).

And they got it. First Saul, then David, then Solomon, and then a succession of one king after another. Some better than others, but none was perfect, like God is perfect. None ruled with true love for the people like God ruled His people. None with divine wisdom like God’s wisdom. None was able to defend the people from every enemy and satisfy the people in body and soul like God did.

In time, the kings of Israel became so inept, so selfish, so weak, that other kings, PAGAN KINGS, from Assyria and Babylon, conquered Israel and, stole the land that God had given to them, and enslaved the people and deported them.

In time, these foreign kings allowed the people of Israel to return to their land and live there. But they remained under the rule of pagan kings, and pagan kings wrote the laws that the people of God were forced to obey. And these pagan kings ruled over Israel, not for love or for peace, but for power and economic advantage and for taxes.

When we come to the time of the New Testament, the people of God are living all over the known world. There are actually far more Israelites living in Babylon and Egypt than there are in Israel.

But all true Israelites, no matter where they lived, were united in this one hope; they hoped and prayed that God would come again and be their King, as in the good old days, before they asked for a king like everyone else had.

They wanted God to come and rule over them like He used to, and defend them against their enemies as He used to, and feed them like He used to, and reestablish Israel as it used to be. They prayed that God would send them a king who would establish the Kingdom of God among them. And this time, they swore that they would be faithful and obedient people, and honor the King with all of their heart and mind and body.

And God heard their prayer. When the time had fully come, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’”

God sent a man to be King of Israel. And that man is God’s own Son. And He rules with justice and equity, and with the wisdom and love of God. He will liberate His people from their oppressors, defend them from their enemies, and God Himself will supply them with all that they need for this body and life. He will bring them into a land that is so safe and secure that every single citizen can live in perfect peace.

It’s hard for us to grasp the nature of TRUE ‘kingship’ in our day. We have such things as ‘kings and queens,’ but they tend to be mere figureheads and have very limited authority. In the ancient world, kings had absolute authority over the lives of their citizens. Total obedience was demanded. There was no room for debate or discussion. There was no ‘vote’ to be taken. This is the way that a ‘TRUE’ king ruled.

In return for their obedience, the people expected a TRUE king to defend and protect them and provide a decent life. The people of God were hoping and praying for a ‘TRUE king.’

The season of Epiphany is dedicated to the goal of convincing us that Jesus Christ really is the TRUE King that God had promised to send and that the people had been encouraged by the prophets to expect. It begins with the arrival of foreign dignitaries who come and bow down to Him and give Him the kind of gifts that are typically given to kings.

But it is the authority and obedience to His Word that is truly astounding and demands our attention. He has authority far greater than any earthly king would ever expect to have.

Jesus commands the demons to depart and they obey. He commands the stormy sea to be calm and the fish to jump into the nets, and they obey. He even commands the dead to be raised, and they obey Him with out hesitation. He is, without question, the TRUE KING.

We might expect then, that the people of Israel would welcome Jesus as their TRUE KING, with full acceptance and complete obedience. He is exactly what they were asking God for. But sadly, the season of Epiphany is immediately followed by the season of Lent. The banner that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” is raised over the TRUE KING who hangs from a cross at the demand of His own people who cry out, “we have no king but Caesar.”

Why? Why did they reject their king, the TRUE KING, the Son of God?

Through the course of His ministry, Jesus taught all who would listen, what they should expect from His Kingdom and what they should not. Their confusion and rejection is the result of not listening to Him. And I believe that it is the source of much of the confusion and even rejection of the rule of King Jesus that exists among us today as well.

In a series of several parables that all begin with the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus teaches us what we should and should not expect this Kingdom that He has come to establish among us to be like.

We can lump them together under three headings.

I. Not all at once.
The first thing we should learn to expect from the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is not accomplished all at once.

The clear expectation of the people of God in Jesus’ day was that when the King that the prophets had promised and that they were praying for finally arrived, he would establish His kingdom in short order. It would be like a new day that dawned overnight. The ‘old order of things’ would be thrown out overnight, and the ‘new order of things’ we come in the morning.

But that’s not the way that Jesus describes it. He says that the Kingdom of heaven is like a field of wheat. There are weeds among the wheat. When the workers want to uproot the weeds, the farmer says “no, not yet.” Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, side by side, for NOW, and that NOW has lasted for 2000 years so far.

For NOW, the Kingdom of Heaven exists in the midst of its enemies and a lot of resistance.

This is as important for us to understand as it was for them. Jesus the King warns His people, “in this world you will have trouble.” The temptation is to doubt that the Kingdom of Heaven has really come in person of Jesus Christ because there is still so much resistance and suffering. We expect that the Kingdom should be established all at once.

As long as this present age continues, the Kingdom of Heaven will always be faced with trials and troubles and opposition. But the citizens of this Kingdom live by faith in the promise of the TRUE King who says, “But take heart. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

II. Not with irresistible power.
The second thing that we should learn to expect from the Kingdom of God, is that it does not come with irresistible power.

By the time of Jesus, the expectation of the people of God was that God’s King would exercise His divine power and overthrow foreign kings and conquer foreign armies and bring the whole world under His rule, His own people willingly, foreigners by brute force if necessary.

But when Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven, He does so, not with stories about mighty kings who wield cosmic swords, but with stories about humble farmers, who sow their seed. And some of it falls on rocky soil and some among thorns and some on the hard packed pathway. And it doesn’t produce anything. Or if it does, it quickly dies out.

Jesus explains the meaning of the story by saying that the seed is the Gospel. And not everyone who hears the Gospel and the gracious call to ‘repent and believe’ does so. Many reject and many fade away. It is not irresistible.

And what makes this even more confusing for us, just as it must have for them, is that those who refuse or reject or grow disinterested and wander away, seem to suffer no harm for it. There is no rock that falls down out of the sky on them. In fact, many of them seem to prosper and do better than those who hear the Word and receive it do.

III. Final judgment reserved for the future.
The third thing that we should learn to expect then about the Kingdom of Heaven is that the final judgment and full revealing of the King and His Kingdom is reserved for the future.

The weeds WILL BE separated from the wheat and the weeds will be burned and the wheat will be brought in to the barn. The good fish will be separated from the bad fish along with the sheep from the goats.

THE ‘GOOD’ are established forever in the Kingdom of Heaven, not because of their goodness but because of their faith and trust in the word of the King, as evidenced in their obedience. THE ‘BAD’ are not cast out and punished because of their ‘badness.’ In fact, in their daily life in the world, they may well have been good guys, good people, better, more charitable than the believers. But they rejected Jesus and neither honored Him as King nor obeyed His word.

We dare not become disillusioned or disenchanted with the Kingdom of Heaven and its TRUE KING when we do not see the His judgment carried out in this world. We dare not loose faith or courage when we see the people of God, ourselves included, suffer persecution because we are followers of Jesus. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. His resurrection from the dead is our ultimate assurance that He has and will make all things right.

In the end, we know that “every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is King.”

But for now, He waits. The last day will come on the day that the King decides it should come. But for now, He postpones that day so that His Word may continue to be proclaimed and preached like a farmer sows his seed.

This is still the time for the invitation to go out to the highways and byways, to all who will hear it, especially to the poor and the lost and THOSE LIVING IN DARKNESS AND DWELLING IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH, to come to the banquet hall and take their seat at the banquet table and join in the celebration of the full and final revelation of the TRUE King and His Kingdom.

One day, Jesus called four fishermen to follow Him. First Simon and Andrew and then James and John. “And immediately they followed Him.”

And through their preaching and that of the all the Apostles, the call has come to us, and through us it goes out to others.

“From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

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