What is your first memory of Jesus?
For some of us it might be a song learned as a child. Jesus Loves the Little Children…. Or Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. Others of us first encountered stories of Jesus later in life. What was your first story that you can remember, the first story of this person, Jesus? For me, it was this very story that we heard this morning, or one like it, that I remember from my childhood. Jesus is walking along and sees some people fishing. “Follow me,” he says. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And they do. Just like that.
I never really understood it. Why would they just follow . . . just drop their nets and walk away? I often struggled with this. I’m not sure I would have jumped up to follow this stranger walking along the beach. But I think they were prepped. I think they were ready. Jesus’s message was already very familiar to folks in that region, and is to us as well.
Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near.
Here it is again.
The kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the third time we’ve heard this on a Sunday in the past 2 months. Of course it should be no surprise that God occasionally taps us on the shoulder with something. But are we paying attention?
First, John the Baptist was preaching at the water’s edge. Repent! He called. The kingdom of heaven has come near. And all the people come out to the wild places wanting to hear the message in person. And they are baptized. They begin a new way of life in the glow of God’s reign breaking out in the world.
Then Jesus comes to visit John. Repent. The kingdom of God has come near. The message is still the same. And — amazing when you think about it — Jesus, too, is baptized. He is immersed in the flowing water, and comes up, the call to repent still fresh in his ears and the heavens open up and The Spirit of God comes down in sight of everyone, flutters down and God speaks. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
Every time we turn around it seems we hear the message. Or, perhaps we don’t hear it, but that doesn’t stop God whispering. It’s happening. Maybe the same voice that we heard at the baptism. Maybe thunderous. It’s here. The kingdom of heaven has come near.
But Jesus didn’t whisper when it was his turn to carry the message. He marched. He walked around the countryside. All around that lake. He preached and he healed. And people came. Just as they had with John, they came. You see, this was, in part, the message that people wanted to hear. In an occupied land, with leaders put in place and propped up by foreign powers, the people knew that God was stirring. Deliverance was on its way. God would not forget them.
And now, with the rumors and claims of Messiahs popping up around the nation, the faithful and the hopeful journeyed east and north into the wild country because someone was calling out a message of repentance. Repentance. To turn, to erase what has kept you from God because the kingdom of heaven, well, it’s about to break loose. There is a revolution afoot.
So often we hear this message, “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and we think it is pointing to Jesus. We first hear it during the season of Advent when we are waiting to see how Jesus might be born in us. But really, this is the reality that Jesus stepped into, the situation on the ground into which God inserted Godself. The kingdom of heaven was drawing close.
Jesus referred to himself from time to time when he talked…. Son of Man… Son of God, but more often, he talked about what God is doing, what it looks like when God is on the move in the world.
Heaven keeps breaking open in our lives. And then he says “Follow me.” When he is walking around healing the broken and the demon-tormented, when he is sitting with other people’s pain and holding mirrors up to their own form of gluttony, he is saying: follow me into the swirl, into the uncertain certainty of God’s creative power right here.
Can you see it when you look around? What about you? Can you see God moving even in the pain of others? Sometimes it’s not easy, but if we are open, if we listen we can hear God say it, or at least recognize the truth of it: The kingdom of Heaven has come near.
God is whispering it — whispering it to presidents and marchers. God is whispering it to soldiers and to teachers. God is whispering it to farmers and to cashiers, truck drivers, and cleaners. God is whispering it to you and to me and each person that God has lovingly made. Until those whispers in our lives become a shout in our actions.
Heaven’s rule is close at hand because Jesus says follow me. Because Jesus says I am making you into something new. Jesus says I am making you who bear God’s image into a people who look like heaven. Jesus says put down your nets. Repent. Heaven is breaking out all around you.
When heaven rules on earth, we see clearly who God fights for. God is on the side of the oppressed. God is on the side of the marginalized. God is on the side of the poor and the broken down and the forgotten. God is on the side of the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. And if you are following Jesus and you want to fight for something, you’ll find yourself on the side of each of these so be ready when he calls.
And maybe that’s the difference with Simon and Andrew and James and John. Maybe that’s the reason I had trouble with that story for so many years. I wasn’t ready to put down my own nets — my own ideas on who God should be looking out for. I knew that God has a preference for the poor but it was a long time before I realized that I should, too.
Following Jesus means living AS IF heaven is breaking out all over. Living as if God’s preference for calling out life from among the living and the dead is the kind of thing we should be about. As if our preferences in this world are shaped by God’s rather than the other way around. Following Jesus means dropping whatever we’re holding that doesn’t look like God and stepping into a world shaped by the kingdom of heaven.
There is a revolution afoot. If you were looking in the mirror, you may have missed it. Repent. Turn around. Start again. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. The rule of God is breaking out in our world. And today, there will come a moment. Jesus is going to walk by and say, “Follow me.”
The Rev. Alan Cowart
January 22, 2017