Sing A New Song Part II
The Fourth Chapter of Matthew (4:12-25) introduces a new chapter in the life of Jesus, and the beginning of a new age. John, we are told, has been arrested. The Greek word for this is used again in Matthew later on when Jesus is betrayed in the garden. Matthew paints this as a dark time in the life of God’s people, quoting Isaiah, who speaks a word of hope: “…the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
That light is Jesus, the new dawn is Jesus, and he begins to sing a new song. He takes up John’s song: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand – it has come near.” From John, this news, this very good news, was like he and the people saw a cloud on the horizon coming near. Matthew now makes the case that coming from Jesus these same words say that this kingdom of light has dawned upon the land of the shadow of death, the land of the Empire. This kingdom is not coming, it is now. It is so near that we can step into it by taking a single step with Jesus. Before John was the time of the Law and the Prophets. After John is the time of gospel of Jesus Christ, a time for renewal, transformation and the singing of a new song, a new way of doing things.
What is the first thing Jesus does as the kingdom of heaven dawns? He inaugurates his mission by drawing together a coalition of people who have felt the iron rod of the Empire, people who have been left on the margins of society – he calls some disciples: Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. I am reminded of a popular prayer from a thirteenth century bishop, Richard of Chichester, was turned into a popular song in the musical Godspell:
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day
-Vaughan Williams.Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition . Hymn 399. Tune: Stonethwaite by Arthur Somervell, after The Prayer of Richard of Chichester
A colleague of mine, Bill Caradine, was fond of pointing out that this is a very western, logical way of looking at things. We tend to take time to see things or people clearly, examine them, explore them, consider the pluses and minuses, before deciding that perhaps we like something or someone enough to like them or even love them, and then commit ourselves to them.
But, says Bill, that’s just not how it happens with Jesus. Note carefully in this story that Jesus does not walk down to the banks of the Sea of Galilee, approach these fishermen who are tending to the tools of their trade, their means of production – mending nets, cleaning the boats, doing the things their father Zebedee tells them to do – and say to them, “Here, lads, in my hand are the teachings of our people, The Law and The Prophets. I need you to read, mark and inwardly digest all of this. Then tomorrow I shall return and give you a test on all of it. If you do well enough on the test you can come follow me and be one of my disciples.”
But it does not happen that way. He turns Richard’s prayer on its head, just as he came to turn a world of darkness, a world turned upside down by the empire, right-side-up again. He comes to bring all people into the light of the new dawn. He simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people!” And they drop everything. They leave their boats, nets and even their families to follow Jesus. As one reads all four gospels we find that it is sometime later, after the resurrection really, before Jesus ever asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I do.” “Then feed my sheep…tend my lambs...care for my flock,” replies Jesus. And arguably, given the number of TV shows, special issues of Time and other magazines, and an entire industry of books about “Who Jesus Is”, we are still trying to see him more clearly!
The point Bill was making, and the point of the story, is that if you wait until you see Jesus more clearly, the kingdom that is near, the kingdom of light that shines in the darkness, the dawn of a kingdom that includes all people will have passed you by. Indeed, the very next few sentences in the story tell us what the new song Jesus sings is all about: he goes everywhere teaching, preaching the good news for all people and healing everyone who comes to him. Jews and Gentiles alike we are told. Fellow religionists and citizens as well as foreigners and resident aliens, women and men are all given access to his teaching, his love and forgiveness and his universal health care.
Once again, this is a story for our time. Once again, the relevance of the story of Jesus intersects with our world today. Once again, we are meant to say, “I’ll have me some of that too! I will not only follow Jesus, I will join him in doing the things he says and does for others – all others – from now until the end of the age!” I will, with God’s help!