Delivered July 21, 2013, by Brian Hohmeier
The Kingdom of the Powerless
The gospel of Matthew is very special to me. It’s how I first got introduced to who Jesus was. I was raised culturally Catholic, so I had heard about Jesus, his miracles and his crucifixion, but growing up he was really just that blue-eyed white guy in the painting at my grandma’s house, the guy with a lamb around his shoulders in coloring books, the statue with the agonized expression in mass, and once a year he was a baby. When I started reading Matthew, though, I saw that he wasn’t a comforting accouterment for holidays or a tragic figure to feel bad about in the background of our lives, but he demanded people’s lives—and gave people lives. He would walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey. Live like I do,’ and they’d say, ‘OK.’ I mean, that’s pretty cool. And I said to myself, ‘Oh. That’s who Jesus has been all this time?’ Yet it’s funny that the very thing that drew me to him in the first place is now what often causes me to keep him at a distance.
And taking a 40 hour class on Matthew for the last two weeks has been a great experience at the end of my seminary career to be reintroduced to who this Jesus is, the same way Matthew first did nine years ago. And I think that’s what the Gospels are especially built for, reintroducing us to Jesus, because we probably didn’t get him the first time—or the fortieth time.
Matthew begins, “The book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This isn’t just his genealogy; this is his coming into being—the book of the Jesus-ing of Jesus. This is how Jesus becomes Israel’s messiah. But it’s interesting that the gospels as a whole give us very little information about Jesus’ childhood. Some in Luke, but in Matthew you just have Jesus’ birth. Jesus is born into a time when Israel is occupied by the force of the Roman empire, and a corrupt client king is ruling from Jerusalem. In the mix of this, Jesus’ birth is apparently upsetting enough politically that the people in power want to kill him before he can even walk properly, so his parents carry him off to Egypt as refugees, and when they eventually come back to Israel, he grows up quietly on the margins. Meanwhile, a guy named John starts baptizing people in the Jordan, saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Now, if you’re reading Matthew for the first John might sound like the megaphone guy on the corner with a big poster board sign. But hopefully if you’ve been hanging out with us, you get by now that to talk about the coming Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t mean that there’s an 80% chance of brimstone tomorrow. Because what just happened in chapter 2? A king was born! That the Kingdom of Heaven is near means there’s going to be a regime change! And John is helping people to prepare for this regime change by ceremonially washing people in the same river Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land.
So let’s pick up in 3:13.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “Hold up. I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you. What on earth are you doing?” Jesus replied, “Bear with me. It’s right that we do this to fulfill all justice.” Then John consented.
Have you ever read that and thought, “Yeah, that’s kind of weird”? John has a point, doesn’t he? Why does Jesus need to be baptized—this is a baptism of repentance, right? What does it mean to ‘fulfill all righteousness/justice’? Does this mean that Jesus has some personal sin that he has to be cleansed of? Certainly that’s not what’s going on here. As orthodox Christians we say that Jesus was without sin. Yet I also don’t think this is merely Jesus making a show for the crowd, making it clear that he accepts John’s baptism for other people. Jesus too is preparing for his own kingdom. I think Matthew is showing us Jesus’ repentance here—and as a vital aspect to this genesis of Jesus, as a decisive moment at the outset of his ministry. This is where Jesus decides, here at the beginning of Matthew, to be the kind of Messiah that he is. This is his first step to the Cross, to being the one who rules from heaven as a slaughtered lamb (Rev 5, 7).
To repent means to change one’s mind or heart, to redirect or reorient oneself. It’s different from contrition or remorse. It’s not that Jesus needs to repent from a wrong, but that he must choose to rise above the natural course of the world in which he has lived if he is going to enter the contention for rule. Remember I said there isn’t much we know about Jesus’ childhood? Well there are certain things that we can infer—like, it was fairly ordinary. If it wasn’t, we’d probably have something to read about it here, I would imagine. But being born God doesn’t change the fact that he lived a human life in the world. He was raised in the world. In a lot of ways, he lived in the same world we live in. You may have noticed that there are certain rules that govern this world: (1) some have power and some don’t, (2) power has to be maintained against those who want power, (3) those in power prosper, (4) those without power are SOL. (We see this at home; we see this in the UN.) In a lot of ways, he lived in a much harder, harsher world. Remember, Israel here is an occupied territory run by corrupt leaders. He saw widows’ estates being eaten up by community leaders. He saw a nation overburdened with taxes to the point of starvation. He saw occupying armies garrisoned in his cities. He saw factions vying for power (the way we humans always vie for power) at the expense of the powerless. That world, governed by those rules, was his world for 30 years.
Have you ever thought about what you would do if you ruled the world? Jesus thought about it. Jesus observed for 30 years how the world works, the rules according to which things operate. And when you’ve seen how the world works, you can imagine how you would make it work for you. If you see how a king breaks the backs of your community, you can imagine how if you were king you would break the backs of your oppressors. Or how, as king, you would give your people all the bread they never had. Jesus wouldn’t have to be selfish to want to play the world’s game, the game of power and force and will; he would just have to care deeply for his people, which he did. But instead, Jesus will preach forgiveness of enemies and being the servant of the least. Instead of conquering, he will let himself be conquered—rejected so that he could win the hearts of millions. This kingdom Jesus had to choose in history, in his human body, to break all of the rules about how power ‘works,’ to write new rules. Here, Jesus turns, reorients himself away from every form of power that makes his world go round, every power except God’s love. Henceforth he will have nothing to do with the powers of the world except to oppose them and will rely only on the Father’s power as love and mercy, the kind of power that confounds kingdoms but often leaves one open to persecution and death. But that’s the kingdom he brings near.
For Jesus to need to be baptized is a part of his Incarnation, a part of his becoming human, a part of his being Immanuel: God with us. In Matthew, he stands with us on the edge of a kingdom where everything is upside down, where weakness is power, where losing your life is finding it, and he goes under the water—not because it’s a given, not because it’s easy for him because he’s God, but because he has to choose to make the kind of kingdom that belongs to Heaven, so that it can be our kingdom—us who only know power by force. So that we can be free from the destructive power of being our own queens and kings. In receiving John’s baptism of repentance as an outright rejection of the way the world uses power, of the way we play for power and grasp for control, Jesus says, ‘Here: I will be the first person to cross over into my own kingdom!’ God does not sit far off on his throne and beckon us thither: ‘Be better. Why aren’t you better yet?’ He leaves his kingdom, comes down to where everything is broken, and says, ‘I have something better for you; it’s not easy, but here: I’ll go first.’
But it is not one decision. Baptism into the Kingdom of Heaven is a path to the Cross. V. 16: as Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him, anointing him, and a voice from heaven proclaims, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; I am well-pleased with him.’ And immediately after, the same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness so that he can be tested. He meets something there we call the Devil, the Accuser, and is tempted three times. These aren’t just tests of his Bible knowledge, whether he knows scripture better than Satan; each of these cast a question on the way Jesus is going to live out his anointing. “Why don’t you turn these stones into bread and feed your people, Son of God?” (v. 3) “Why play it safe? Why the long-game, Son of God? It’s not like God can let anything happen to his anointed” (v. 6). In the crowning temptation, the Devil draws Jesus’ attention to the world’s kingdoms, he holds them before Jesus and offers him their power.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (4:8-9)
Jesus says no. On the principle that the Devil says he’d have to become a Satanist? No. When Jesus is arrested, he will say “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than 12 legions of angels?” (26:53). Jesus has access to that kind of power, but he doesn’t access it. Because to be the kind of king that wields power like Rome or Babylon or the U.S. would be to betray the God of love that sent him to make a kingdom of love upon the earth. Jesus does not merely reject these kingdoms but the kind of power on which these Kingdoms are based. If there will be salvation for Israel, if there will be salvation for the earth, it will not be by the means of empires, and it will not be in the manner of Rome. In Matthew 20 he teaches his disciples, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It’s not that way with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (vv. 26-27). In Matthew 5, he teaches, “Do not resist an evil person”; if someone wants to sue the shirt off your back, give them your coat as well (v. 39-40). In Matthew 16, he explains to his disciples how to come to power he must give himself over to suffer and be killed, and when Peter endearingly replies, “No, never!” Jesus answers, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking of human things, rather than things of God” (v. 23). Here too, Jesus answers, “Get away from me, Satan!” (4:10). Only when Jesus completely forsakes every other way of being powerful and leaves it behind can he rein on earth with the power of Heaven, can he offer to us—and more importantly—to those who have no power at all, a kingdom of weakness, a kingdom for slain lambs. Make no mistake: Jesus has no other kingdom.
The Devil leaves. Jesus exits the wilderness and now, v. 17, begins to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Indeed, nearer than it had ever been. It’s now in his very body.
I told you that Jesus first captured my heart because he demanded every aspect of my life. But when I read this text like this, I’m confronted. I’m confronted because I have not repented of this world’s power. I’m confronted because, unlike Jesus receiving a baptism into his own kingdom, I have left many things behind, but I have not left everything behind. I repent from systems of power—until I can benefit from them. I repent from influence—until I can use it to accomplish something. I rely on God’s power to accomplish his work in me through love and mercy—but I’ll supplement it with some additional power I can muster up, if we can leave that on the table
When I withhold love from someone because I’m afraid of what they’ll do with it, I live in the kingdoms of this world, not the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I tell a half-truth to someone to manage their perceptions of me, I live in the kingdoms of this world, not the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I hope to gain influence or respect or financial security so that people will listen to the ‘good’ things I have to say or so I can ‘make a difference’ in the world, I live in the kingdoms of this world, not the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I participate in unjust systems and economies and indulge the ‘necessary evils’ of this world in order to feed people or build churches, I am building a kingdom of this world and not the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. I make myself a stranger to my baptism, which is Jesus’ baptism, and I make myself a foreigner to the Kingdom of the Cross with my power.
But God would free us from our power: our power over others that keeps us isolated from them rather than loved for the naked, vulnerable creatures we are, our power over the world that makes us anxious over supposed threats to it, about not having enough of it, that keeps us from waiting patiently on God to see good accomplished through his love and mercy and justice in us alone.
And Jesus says here, “See! I’ll go first!” From the Jordan, into the wilderness, into Jerusalem, to the Cross. On a cross, with forgiveness on his lips: There is your king. Come! Let us follow him!