We live in a world that is frequently dark, and that frequently lacks hope.
There is much that is good about living in Britain today. But our country, our lives, all at times need an injection of hope, of life, of light. Some words: Street crime. Unemployment. 1960s tower blocks. Economic downturn. Redundancy. Yobs. Drought. Petrol prices. Bereavement. Pain.
The Christian message is a message of hope. We have a real hope in the face of all the things that are gloomy about life. But God’s answer to our greatest needs is somewhat surprising.
For a number of weeks now, we’ve been looking together at the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel. We have had a lot of build-up to Jesus beginning his public ministry. We’re nearly there. Matthew has one more short story to tell before Jesus steps onto the scene to start work.
It’s not a big event. It’s simply Jesus moving himself into position. At the end of last week’s passage, Jesus was in the desert regions of Judea, in the south. Then verse 12: he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea.
For a while this week I wondered if I had bitten off too small a portion of Matthew’s gospel. What can we learn from Jesus moving himself into position ready to start the main act? But the issue is not we might learn, but what Matthew wants to teach us. And he records Jesus moving to the north very deliberately and carefully, because there are two important things he wants to tell us about Jesus.
Jesus was Hated
Firstly, Jesus was hated. Jesus was hated.
So: What prompted Jesus to move North? Verse 12: Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew.
John was arrested, so Jesus takes early retirement before he starts.
Matthew doesn’t tell us why John was arrested. He’ll leave us wondering about that until we get to chapter 14. But we know that John was in trouble with the authorities for something.
Where does that leave Jesus? Well Matthew has told us two things so far about Jesus’ relationship to John. The first is that Jesus joined the crowds who came to John; he kind of became one of John’s followers. In fact, he was probably John’s most well-known follower, given the dramatic events that took place when John baptised Jesus. Jesus is John’s most famous follower.
The second thing that Matthew has taught us about John is that they come as a pair. When he wants to sum up John’s preaching, he does so in chapter 3, verse 2: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. And when Matthew wants to sum up Jesus’ preaching, he does so in verse 17 of our reading: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Did you spot the similarity?
They came with the same message. And whatever John was preaching and doing, it has got him arrested. Someone’s trying to stamp out John, and whoever it is they may well come after Jesus next. So he moves to much safer area, the obscure north – no offence to any northerners here! Just take comfort from the fact that moving north was moving to a safer neighbourhood.
We mustn’t mistake Jesus’ move north for cowardice. We know from later on that it was Herod arrested John; Luke’s gospel later records (that’s Luke chapter 13) Jesus being warned that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem because Herod was after him, and he didn’t flinch a bit. It’s not cowardice at all – it’s just that Jesus has a job to do, and he can’t do it if he gets knocked off before he begins.
So right before Jesus had even begun his public ministry he was hated, and he was in danger. This is a theme that will run throughout Matthew. Public opinion was divided on Jesus. That theme then reaches its climax at the crucifixion, when the Jewish and Roman authorities were so united in their hatred of Jesus that they had him executed on trumped up charges. Jesus was hated.
We know what’s like when a figure is hated like that by the powers that be. We’ve felt it in recent years – first with Saddam Hussein, then with Osama Bin Laden, then with Colonel Gaddafi. That’s what it felt like to be Jesus at times in his ministry, and it’s there in seed form even this early on.
Matthew wants us to be clear. This is one reason why Jesus started out in the north. He was hated. And he still is hated, even today. Jesus divides opinion. Some people love Jesus today, but others hate him.
Jesus brought Hope
But there is a second reason why Jesus moved north. Matthew has something else to teach us as he records this so carefully. That is that Jesus brought hope. Jesus brought hope.
Let’s look more carefully at verse 13: Leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (that’s two of the ancient tribes of Israel), so that what was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.
So the other reason he moved where he did was to make sure that he could fulfil this ancient prophecy from the prophet Isaiah.
Now, there’s an important thing to remember when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament. The New Testament writers assume that their readers know the Old Testament fairly well, so by quoting a verse or two they’ll make a whole section of the Old Testament pop into their minds.
The trouble is, we don’t’ know it so well, so we’d better turn it up and see which bit of Isaiah Jesus is fulfilling. It’s Isaiah chapter 9, and you can find it on page 369. I’ll read verses 2-7.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Ah… that passage! The one we get at Christmas. The one when God promises to fix this dark world. You see if you look back to the end of Isaiah chapter 8, Isaiah is talking into a situation where there is distress, darkness, gloom, anguish and thick darkness. There’s much suffering. There’s little hope, and that’s because God is judging his people for their sin.
Then, in Isaiah 9, God promises that one day he will turn on the lights. He’ll replace darkness with light, and despair with hope. And he’ll do this by sending this wonderful king who will be divine as well as human, God as well as man.
Well, turn back to Matthew chapter 4. Matthew tells us that Jesus moved to Capernaum so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. It was a deliberate move, so that he could fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy.
Matthew wants us to be clear. This is the other reason why Jesus started out in the North. He wasn’t just on the run; he is the one who brings hope to this dark world.
A Surprising Answer
As I said at the start, we often need hope. The Christian message is a message of hope, but God’s answer is somewhat surprising. His answer his Jesus, and Jesus was hated before he even began.
But that doesn’t make him any less the one we need. Those two themes – the hated Jesus, the hope-bringing Jesus, run through Matthew, and both climax at the cross. That is where he is most hated but it is also where he brings the new life Isaiah promised.
The question we need to ask is how we come to be a part of God’s answer, how we come to have the hope that Jesus brought.
For that, we need to listen to what Jesus has to say. Verse 17: From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In that little sentence he tells us what’s happened and what we have to do.
What’s happened is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The promised king is here, so heaven has arrived on earth. In many ways, the kingdom of heaven is still in the future. We still sin. We still suffer. We still die. When Jesus comes back he’ll sort all that out. But with the king here, the kingdom is very much at hand.
And what we need to do is that little word, “repent”. It simply means to turn around. So we turn away from our selfishness and our sin. And instead we turn to live our lives around the fact that Jesus is the king, that he is in charge.
You might ask what difference that could possibly make. If we live in a world that frequently lacks light, and lacks hope, how could turning around so that we live with Jesus in charge make any difference?
It’s a reasonable question. The answer is that Jesus’ reign brings light. His way is the best way. As his rule is acknowledged, and as people live his way, so the light and hope he brought spreads around the world. The climax will come when he returns and every human being without exception will acknowledge him to be the king. But we can become a part of that now, by becoming a follower of his.
Did you not think it was odd that Jesus was hated. If he was God’s king, come to bring light and life, why would people hate him? Perhaps here is the answer. To be part of this new hope, he calls us to repent. He calls us to turn around. To stop living for ourselves and to live for God. To change. And we don’t like being told that we have to change the way we live. That’s certainly what God John arrested.
So let’s apply this. Jesus was hated. Jesus brings hope. We’re running the Christianity Explored course after Easter. At least once, I’ve wondered if it’s worth doing. Perhaps you wonder if it’s worth going. Is it worth bringing friends to? After all, we all know people who think they know it’s not for them.
But people have always dismissed Jesus. That’s nothing new. We’ve just seen that happen before he even began! But he’s also hope for this world. The fact that people dismiss him doesn’t change that. So is it worth running Christianity Explored, worth coming to, worth bringing our friends along to? You bet! He is the hope we all need!
But if we want to live in a brighter world, it has to start with us. We have to change. Which is not to say that we all have to pull up our socks and be a bit nicer to people. We have to be followers of Jesus, each and every one of us, which means letting him be in charge of our lives. And if we do that, who knows what might change?