This morning’s Gospel is more than just a nice story about Jesus gently starting His ministry. Calls a few followers, heals a few people, does some good. That is the Jesus everybody likes. He is there when I need Him, but does not get in my way. However, this text is more serious than that. Matthew quotes Isaiah 9, and if we better understand Isaiah, we can better understand Matthew’s tone of voice and message.
Those of you here on Christmas day heard the sermon on Isaiah 9 describe Christ’s arrival as being like the day of Midian. God used Gideon and only 300 Israelites, armed with only torches and trumpets, to defeat 120,000 Midianites. As the Israelites hid the torches under clay jars until after they entered the enemy camp, so also the Son of God makes a sneak attack. He hides His divine glory under the clay jar of His human flesh.
The Christmas sermon did not tell you what was going on when Isaiah gave God’s promise. 700 years before Christ’s arrival and rescue, things are going bad for Israel. Assyrian King Tiglath-Pilesar III in 732 BC has just exiled some of the Israelites, as our text says, “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naptali” (9:1). But afterward, in the latter time, Isaiah promises that God will restore His captured people. Their joy will be great, like when farmers have a bumper crop, or when the army splits the loot after a victory. Israel will then be as happy as they were 400 years earlier in Gideon’s day, when God defeated the Midianites.
Now, getting back to our Gospel text, when Jesus begins His preaching and healing ministry in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, Matthew says it fulfills this Isaiah text where an enemy claims God’s territory, and God promises to claim it back for His people. Adding to this warlike context, right before today’s text Jesus has just won a stunning victory over the Devil during the 40 days of Temptation in the wilderness. But as our text begins, the forces of evil fire back, attacking God as King Herod arrests John the Baptist.
And then “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). God announces His invasion after successfully sneaking behind enemy lines to claim His territory. But His Kingdom is not marked off on maps of land – for how can a kingdom of land come near? No, His kingdom of Heaven is where He rules and reigns in the hearts of people. Ask yourself: Do I live in my own kingdom much of the week, and the Kingdom of God only part of the week? Do I imagine that I can slip between the two worlds easily, because they peacefully co-exist? Or is your kingdom in danger from this new and invading Kingdom of Heaven?
Yes, it is, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand to wage a war, to challenge you, to get in your way of doing what your sin wants to do. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand to overthrow the Kingdom of Satan, to transfer you out of the domain of darkness and make you a citizen of light under Christ’s authority.
Make no mistake – this is a very real war. A fight for your life. Light invades the world of sin and death to destroy the darkness. As Jesus calls people to follow Him, He recruits Disciples into His battle. He trains them in His ways of combating and overthrowing the dark kingdom. And then Jesus reverses the effects of sin, as He heals and casts demons out, pulling deadly claws out of men’s hearts. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Do you see it in your own life? If you do not see this battle, then ask yourself if you have surrendered to sin. For the wicked tyrant ruling this world works to keep you in his darkness and make you resemble him in selfishness, bitterness, hatred, lust and greed. Some might say he’s successful at it too.
But the Righteous King Jesus has invaded this world, to overthrow your old sinful nature, and re-create you in His image – the image God originally created you in, before it was lost in sin. The God of God and Light of Light comes to create in you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5). This is not easy-going Jesus. This is the Jesus who is deadly serious about bringing you into His Kingdom that you may have life.
That is the true difference between these two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Satan leads only to death. The Kingdom of God promises though you die, yet shall you live. Satan has done a good job convincing us that our lives consist of the things of this world, in power and position, in grabbing glory, in friends and fame in this world. Christ’s light shows that Satan’s lies lead you to destruction.
The Son of God wages His attack so subversively. Instead of sending legions of angel warriors in an all out frontal, visible war on Satan and sin, Christ works in a more hidden way – gaining victory through what looks like defeat at the Cross. Jesus undermines our assumptions, our pleasure seeking, our self-centeredness, our excuse-making, our kingdoms of sin. And He turns us to Himself, one person at a time. Jesus snatches those dead in sin through the waters of Baptism. He preaches His kingdom into enemy hearts. He forces demonic claws out of us through the words of forgiveness. The Lord strengthens His army through the faith of Holy Communion. In all these ways, He breaks into the kingdom of this world – and into each of our kingdoms – to weaken them, undermine them, and triumph over them by the power of His Cross. He kills the old, enemy sinner in each of us and raises a new creature, a child of the light. He carries us on His shoulders out of this kingdom of death through His death. And Christ brings us into His Kingdom of Heaven through His resurrection from His tomb. In this way the Lord of life establishes His Kingdom and builds His Church.
Faith in the forgiveness of sins re-orders our priorities. Thus, instead of trying to lead the way, we follow our King in His Kingdom – though that looks a bit different for each of us. Some, as we heard today, are called to be “fishers of men” – and some God calls to other tasks and vocations. But no matter who you are, all Christians follow in the life God gives us – because He has raised us from the death of our sins to a new life in Christ. We follow because He has given us victory over our graves by His Cross. We follow because His Spirit strengthens us to turn from our old life and ways in repentance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
He has recruited us into His subversive army. Our weapons are not bombs, guns or knives, but the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We bring His Word’s light and life into dark places. Battlefields of sin and death. It might be very dark where you are. And your little light may not seem like much. But remember, it is not left up to you. For you are following where Christ leads. Which means He goes there ahead of you. He brings you along. That He would work in you, with you, and through you, subversively slipping past the defense of others, to bring His Kingdom and life to all.
That is, after all, what we ask our Father to do in the Lord’s Prayer when we beg, “Thy Kingdom come.” And as it comes, we also pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” In other words, Father, give us eyes of faith to see the battle the way You see it. To see sin’s traps, and to see our Savior. Keep us from being deceived or misled into false belief, despair, or other great shame and vice (SC, 6th Petition). Bring us to repentance as You, Father, deliver us from evil. Establish us firmly and securely in the Kingdom of Your Son, whom You love, Your kingdom of life which has no end. For only You can do it.
As surely as Jesus went into the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, so also Jesus comes to you here. His same powerful word is here for you. His same forgiveness here for you. His same body and blood that once walked those roads until He hung on the Cross now comes here for you. That you may be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness (SC, 2nd Article). Amen.