the reign of heaven is at hand
3rd Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #’s 496, 419, 832
Text – Matthew 4:17
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand.”
THE REIGN OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND
Queen Elizabeth reigned over the United Kingdom for a little over 70 years. She was the longest reigning monarch in its history. Her death last year made news around the world. The reign of every other king or queen previous to her in world history has ended in the same way – death. There is only one monarch who reigns forever – the King of the Jews.
As Christians, we know & long for the day when Jesus returns to end the weakness, the misery & the suffering caused by sin. We anticipate the day when God’s will shall truly be done on earth as it is in heaven. Perfection, glory & beauty for ever & ever without end – that is what God’s children are waiting for.
We’re tired of hearing about the Covid pandemic. We’re powerless to fix all the things that are wrong with our government. We feel pity & sorrow for the people in the nation of Ukraine as their tragic battle for freedom keeps claiming more & more lives. Inflation continues to make our lives more difficult & expensive than they were just two years ago.
Crime is running rampant in many of our cities & no one seems able to put forth any kind of solution. Atlanta is burning right now. Lives are destroyed by racism. Lives are destroyed by greed. Human beings are nothing more than pawns to be manipulated & controlled in the name of power & politics. We stumble along from one election to the next & nothing changes.
The rich get richer & the well-connected get off the hook. Meanwhile, drug abuse & homelessness continue to grow in the wealthiest nation on earth. The educational system in our country spends more money per child than any other nation, yet the majority of Americans can not read above an 8th grade level. And, in the skilled trades, where reading is not as necessary as in white collar jobs, 83% of the companies surveyed last year said they were having a difficult time finding workers. In 1937, Gallup began polling Americans about church membership. That year, 73% of our citizens said they were members of a church. That number remained near 70% for the following 6 decades.
By the year 2000 a steady decline began & by 2020, only 47% of Americans claimed to belong to a church. Among the millennial generation, only 36% claimed church membership. Given all the depressing news in our world, it’s easy to see why Christians are looking for Jesus to return & take charge of His new creation.
However, there’s a very large problem with that attitude. Jesus is already in charge of His new creation – right here, right now. That’s the point of the sermon text: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand.’” It arrived & began with Jesus’ ministry on earth. The miracles He would perform proved it.
And the miracles Jesus performed were not only the obvious things – changing water into wine, calming the storm on the sea, or raising people from death back to physical life. He also drew people back into relationship with their heavenly Father, from spiritual death to spiritual life. That’s what St. Paul was writing of in 2 Corinthians 5:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (5:17 ESV) No matter how depraved the culture appears to our physical eyes, the truth is Jesus has already taken charge of His new creation.
Given what we hear & see around our nation, & the fear we are tempted to feel because of the circumstances in our own lives, it’s difficult to accept that Jesus is in charge right here, right now. It’s difficult to feel hopeful & rejoice that the reign of heaven is at hand. What our nation & our world looks like today, is not what we’d expect with Jesus in charge. That’s where the OT reading sheds some light: “In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun & the land of Naphtali…” (Isaiah 9:1b ESV) In our day, those are not exactly household words. They were cities in the Northern Kingdom of Israel & their people had rejected God to worship idols instead.
After years of patient guidance & mercy, Yahweh finally punished them so that now the Northern Kingdom of Israel is known as the Ten Lost Tribes. There is no record of what became of them. That is Zebulun & Naphtali, which Yahweh brought into contempt because of their utter lack of faith in Him. Yet, even of those cities, Isaiah prophesies:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (9:2 ESV) It’s that verse which Matthew refers to in regard to the travels of Jesus:
“And leaving Nazareth He went & lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun & Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: …the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, & for those dwelling in the region & shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (4:13-14, 16 ESV)
Yahweh is remembering His people, even 800 years later, & now in Jesus, the reign of heaven has arrived. Not that God wasn’t in control prior to this, but now He is sending His Son to actively go about the work of saving His people. And because Jesus has brought that great light into the world, that great Good News, a life of repentance is in order.
Today, Yahweh has sent the Ark of His Church to save His people. Getting in the boat is living a life of repentance. Getting in the boat means your faith is in Jesus. Getting in the boat is seen by others as you teach your children the Christian faith. All of those things, & many more, are a life of repentance. Getting in the boat does not mean you will have no struggles in this broken world. It does mean you continue to see the great light & believe that it is real – that Jesus still loves you & cares for you in all the easy things of life, but certainly through all the difficult things as well.
Because of our sinful nature, repentance has kind of a bad reputation. We see it as confessing the wrong & evil things we have done. There are also pleasant aspects to it, pleasant to the saintly nature. Repentance means to assume a different mind & feeling, to change from one state of mind to another, to adopt a different spirit.
Jesus empowers repentance & through it leads us to discipleship & obedience. St. Paul describes repentance this way, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good & acceptable & perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
Repentance is empowered not by fear but by the gift of forgiveness in Jesus’ crucifixion. Repentance includes a longing for & a love of righteousness. That is what we miss so dearly here on earth, the righteousness that we will experience fully in heaven. However, the lack of that in this life does not mean that God’s reign here is ineffective or cruel.
What it does mean is that our sinfulness has corrupted our ability to see the reign of heaven at work in our day to day living. We see a glimpse of God’s reign as people pray for us in our struggles. We saw a glimpse of God’s reign on national TV when the Buffalo Bills’ player, Damar Hamlin, had a heart attack on the field & his teammates kneeled to pray.
That was the reign of heaven right in front of our eyes, but it took the darkness of near death to make us see. When Jesus returns on the Last Day the reign of heaven will be far more obvious than that & it will always be so, without the heart attacks, or any of the other negative effects sin has brought into this world. Yet, for now, the negative effects of sin do provide us with opportunities to recognize our rebellious mind & heart. We need the power of God’s Spirit then to change us from one state of mind to another, to assume a God pleasing mind & feeling. Those changes are what the reign of heaven often looks like right here, right now.
Jesus begins His public ministry by calling people to repent & to follow Him. However, you & I prefer to be personally in charge of the major aspects of our lives, & minor ones too.
In Jesus’ day, the spiritual condition of the nation was essentially one of “lostness.” It is the condition of our nation today. Yet, the reign of heaven is not some fallible, broken rule like that of all earthly kingdoms ruled by sinful human beings.
This very morning the reign of heaven is breaking in to your history through the preaching of His Word & the administration of Holy Communion. Maybe this question can help you discern how well you recognize God’s reign. Do you see your life predominantly in terms of endings, or do you see your life in terms of beginnings?
There are those who linger regretfully over the ashes of the past. There are those who look hopefully for God’s reign each day, no matter how dark the night nor how bitter the circumstances of the present. Matthew well understood the struggles of people who are saints & sinners. For us he wrote,
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, & for those dwelling in the region & shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (4:16 ESV) Acknowledging our sin & despair, Matthew then quotes Jesus, “Repent, for the reign of heaven is at hand.” Yahweh has a solution for our sin & despair. He calls us & empowers us to assume a change of mind.
Repent, because Jesus is offering us new life, a new creation, a new heart & mind. The reign of God is at hand. The dawn of a new day has begun. It was only a few weeks ago, so you may remember these words from the end of our Christmas Eve service: Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. (LSB 363:3) Though it may feel to us like the darkness is winning, God’s Word reveals the darkness is waning. The Light of the world has come. The Great Dawn is now closer than it has ever been.
We wait for it as watchmen wait for the morning, confident that even now, even on us who dwell in the shadow of death, a Light has dawned. The reign of heaven is at hand; a reign that will never end. Lord, enable us by the power of Your Spirit, to receive the new & repentant heart that You create for us each & every day. Amen.
Savior, when in dust to Thee low we bow the adoring knee; when, repentant, to the skies scarce we lift our weeping eyes; O, by all Thy pains & woe suffered once for us below, bending from Thy throne on high, hear our penitential cry! By Thy deep expiring groan, by the sad sepulchral stone, by the vault whose dark abode held in vain the rising God, O, from earth to heaven restored, mighty reascended Lord, bending from Thy throne on high, hear our penitential cry! Amen. LSB 419:1, 4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet