Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the first of the so-called beatitudes. I have read, and even repeated as true, that Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” as other gospels do, because he was, or was writing to, devote Jews who would have found it a breach of the commandment not to use the name of the Lord your God in vain to do so in the phrase “kingdom of God.” But later in the beatitudes he tells the pure in heart that they shall see God and that the peacemakers will be called children of God. Why can he use God in these phrases and not in “kingdom of God.” And what about Matthew 6:33 where the King James version quotes Jesus as saying “seek ye first the kingdom of God?” I did come across a writer that shared my concern. Amy-Jill Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity school when she wrote this, states in Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, “Since Matthew also uses ‘Kingdom of God’ as well as the word God about fifty times, heaven cannot be a stand-in for God. Rather, Matthew is setting up a contrast between heaven and earth: heaven is where God’s will is done” (xiii). It’s a nuance for sure but it reminded me not to assume everything I’ve read is without question. Kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Matthew 4:22 These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father. (The Message Bible)
The two mentioned first above are James and John. The same offer was the offer given to Peter and Andrew, “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s the way we sang about it when I was a child. Now that I am older the person who stands out to me in this story is the father, Zebedee. What did his boy’s departure mean for him? Was he going to have to perform more labor with his sons gone, get up earlier, come home more tired? Would he have to push back plans to retire? Would he be responsible for daughters-in-law and grandchildren? Would his wife be miserable, disappointed, angry with their decision? No one lives in a vacuum- or put more poetically by John Donne, “No man is an island.” When God changes the life of one person, God often disrupts the lives of others at the same time. Faith is dealing with the new situations of life even when they come in a roundabout way. We never hear what happened to Zebedee. I hope he was a blessing to his boys and found his boys to be a blessing to him as well as others. Has God shuffled the relational deck in your life? How are you handling it?
John 1:40-41 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). (The Message Bible)
Jesus never had a podcast. In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the lyricist has Judas muse “Every time I look at you, I don’t understand/ Why you let the things you did get so out of hand/ You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned/ Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? / If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation/ Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” As far as we know, Jesus never even wrote any of his thoughts down himself. His ongoing influence was totally dependent on others talking about him and eventually writing about him. The above verse is a glimpse into one way that happened. Still today, most people who say they have faith in him began that faith through the influence of another human. Christianity has always been a person-to-person movement. Where did you hear about Jesus? How have you talked about him?
Matthew 3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
This voice will be heard again in Matthew 17:5 on the Mount of Transfiguration which will be the text for the Sunday before Lent. Here it is at the beginning of Jesus ministry, just before he goes into the wilderness and is tempted. The voice from heaven is actually speaking to the folks around Jesus using the third person, not directly to Jesus as Mark and Luke tell it using the second person (“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11). In either case there is a connection with Isaiah. In 42:1 of that book we find “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” Was Jesus and the gospel writers hearing achos of this verse? The gospel writers believed that Jesus was the special person indicated in the Old Testament to complete God’s plan for humanity. They point it out in many different ways. Why did they think this? What do you think about it?
Matthew 2:2 “We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
This is the Magi, or Wisemen, speaking when they arrived in Jerusalem. This story has several references to Worship. The one above is the first. In verse eight, Herod tells the Magi that after they find this baby, “I’ll join you at once in your worship.” Finally in verse eleven, “They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him.” What is worship anyway? According to https://www.wesleyan.org/worship-equals-worthship, “The root comes from the Old English weorth meaning ‘worthy’ or ‘honorable.’ The suffix -ship is the state of being of whatever comes before it. Thus, worship means ‘the state of being worthy.’” For the Magi, the trip of many miles and the gifts they gave were worth it. When we take an hour to be before God with other people, we are saying it is worth it to do so. You might say that whatever you find to be worth your time, attention and money is what you worship. Would you say that?
In Great Britain today they are celebrating Boxing Day. It is a day to give presents to all those who serve all year round. It was to serve us that Jesus came into this world. Maybe we could take to heart this poem penned by Howard Thurman in the aftermath of Christmas 2022:
When the song of the angels is stilled when the star in the sky is gone when the kings and princes are home when the shepherds are back with their flocks the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost to heal the broken to feed the hungry to release the prisoner to rebuild the nations to bring peace among the people to make music in the heart.
Isaiah 7:10 God spoke again to Ahaz. This time he said, “Ask for a sign from your God. Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!” (The Message Bible)
So, this is unusual. God does not regularly go around telling people to ask for a sign. He has probably never approached you that way. But maybe, if God is beyond time, God knew that this would become an important sign, not just for the original people, but throughout history. The sign is a baby, a special baby that those who wrote the New Testament would associate with Jesus being born of a virgin. But it does beg the question, “What do you want?” What would you ask for if God approached you with such an offer? What we want often determines the course our life takes. Your deep desires may determine your occupation, your relationships, and/or your destiny. God wanted Ahaz to want to trust him? What do you want?
Isaiah 35:10 They’ll sing as they make their way home to Zion, unfading halos of joy encircling their heads, Welcomed home with gifts of joy and gladness as all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night. The Message Bible
In our house one of the holiday staples is the Carpenters Christmas album (well, CD now). One of my favorite cuts is Karen Carpenter singing Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays. I remember the first year I lived away from home and what a marvelous feeling it was to return for Christmas. Zion was the place of the temple in Jerusalem, a place Jews may well have thought of as home. Whether this was written about the northern kingdom that had been carted away by the Assyrians in Isaiah’s lifetime or a look forward to the southern kingdom after they were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC, it is really about all of us and the possibility of returning to our home in God and God’s family. Whether you have a house to visit as home this Christmas or not, you have a home with God and that is what Jesus came to provide for us. So come home for Christmas. Come home to God. Come home to the church, God’s family.
Isaiah 11:4 He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay. He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice (The Message Bible)
The prophet was looking forward to an ideal king who would do the above. In Isaiah’s time, the 8th century BC, the land was dominated by the Assyrian Empire with its capital in Nineveh, modern day Iraq. They moved west and south across Palestine, defeated and removed the northern part of Israel, and surrounded Jerusalem. The point of having an Empire was to conquer smaller nations and have them send their wealth back to the victors. Even in our history classes we tend to study the great Empires of antiquity highlighting the extent of their conquests and their architectural achievements built on the backs of the masses. Isaiah was looking for a different system led by a different type of ruler. This ruler wouldn’t just go along with the status quo of Empire but bring security and a sufficient standard of living to all citizens. In the end, none of the kings of Israel lived up to this picture. But the followers of Jesus looked back at the words of the Old Testament prophets and believed he had begun to fulfill this hope and that he would bring it to completion at some point in the future. In Advent we give thanks for what began in the manger at Bethlehem and look expectantly for its consummation as we put into practice what we can of it today.
Isaiah 2:4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.
The Bible can be a funny book. For example, this verse from Isaiah sounds an awful lot like Micah 4:3 which reads “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Micah and Isaiah lived near the same time as far as we know. Did one borrow from the other? Were they both quoting a third source? Did they have similar visions that were then expressed the same way? And then there is this from the prophet Joel who didn’t live near the time of the other two, from 3:9, 10: “Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!’” Was he referencing Isaiah? We have seen the world express a longing for peace and conduct war anyway. Perhaps God gave us the scriptures this way to engage our minds and our hearts and our actions. What was God saying in each of these situations just quoted? What is he saying to you in your situation this Advent?