‘Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near.’
The Promise of the Kingdom
Isaiah 9: 1-4. Matthew 4: 12-23.
‘Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near.’
I want to suggest that we have a dangerous idea about sin.
I want to suggest that often when we think of sin, and we probably don’t think of sin much, but when we think of sin…we see sin as an action.
It is something that we do wrong.
We speed down the road.
We cheat on our tax return.
We lie to someone.
And so to not sin is to not do wrong.
And control of sin is to controlling not doing the wrong.
I don’t agree with that idea.
I don’t agree with that idea because I think sin is tougher than just ‘not doing wrong’.
I think Jesus intended that the end result of following his path was to make us more loving, more caring, more patient, more tolerant, more joyous.
And just ‘not doing wrong’ doesn’t necessarily make us more joyous or loving or caring or patient or tolerant.
Jesus would point to the Pharisees as a group of people who spent their life ‘not doing wrong’ but they were intolerant, unloving, unforgiving, uncaring of others.
‘Not doing wrong’ doesn’t make us better people.
Ask anyone who has ever been addicted to anything.
They will tell you that their life can be hell.
And they often long to not be addicted.
And they will go on and on about how long they haven’t acted on their urge to fall to the addiction. But while they are not falling to the urge, that doesn’t stop them thinking about falling.
And that urge seems to get harder and harder not to cave into. ‘Not falling to the addiction doesn’t make them better people, it can make them more frustrated and angry and on edge.
Though you don’t need to use an example as severe as an addiction. There is a multi-billion pound industry based round dieting. And you will get millions of people round the world trying ‘not to eat the wrong thing’.
But ‘not eating the wrong thing’ doesn’t make you a healthy person.
It may make you look healthier, but healthier isn’t a state of body, it is a state of mind.
And if you think like a chubby person who loves sweets, then you will eventually become a chubby person who loves sweets.
You may resist the temptations for a while…but then when you feel healthy, you want to reward yourself for doing all that hard work. And if you don’t reward yourself then what is the point of going through all that effort?
So you reward yourself, and what do you reward yourself with?…some sweets. And so the slippery path starts all over again.
My daughter, Cairy, once decided to give up chocolate for Lent. And I explained to her that the purpose of Lent was to give up something so that you appreciated what those who have nothing have. That it meant a change of lifestyle. Of seeing things differently.
It didn’t work.
I know it didn’t work because three weeks later we are waling through Marks and Spenser’s when she sees a three foot chocolate Easter Bunny, and she turns round to me and says, with eyes of hatred, ‘You will buy me that for Easter, I deserve it for all I have gone through.’
Lent, and not eating chocolate, had made her less tolerant, less loving, less caring.
When we just look at sins as doing something wrong, and that our role is to avoid doing something wrong, then we get the wrong end of the stick.
I believe that sin is an attitude of the heart, it is a way of life, it is the choice of not following God’s path for us.
Today’s readings are really meaningful when it comes to understanding this.
Jesus goes to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.
These lands were to the north and east of Judah.
Part of what was the Northern Kingdom.
Way back in the past, Israel had been a united kingdom under king David and king Solomon. But after Solomon died Israel split into two, the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom.
The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrian Empire 700 years before Jesus was born. The people had been taken into exile and never returned. They became part of the ten lost tribes of Israel.
There was a dream that one day these tribes would return.
But the Assyrians didn’t just exile the Israelites to other parts of their empire, people from those other lands were exiled to the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. And they came with their different gods and different cultures. The Jews that were left looked at their ways as wrong, as heathen, as corrupt.
Over the years, some Jews from the south went north and made small pockets of Judaism, but on the whole these lands were called ‘Lands of the Gentiles.’
The lands of unbelievers, of sinners.
What was the point of Jesus going there?
I think that Jesus had a theory.
I think Jesus believed that people did what people did because they felt they had to.
I think Jesus believed that people did what people did because they felt they had no choice.
That it was survival of the fittest.
And that if you live in a land of evil, then the only way to survive is to be evil.
That our instinct is to survive, and if we live in a land of evil then we live with a heart of fear.
And if we live with a heart of fear then it is hard for us to do good.
Let me give you an extreme example.
Let’s imagine that you live in the middle of Nazi Germany.
You see what is happening to the Jews,
You know they are being sent to the concentration camps and that they are being killed.
You also know that anyone who sympathises with the Jews, or helps the Jews could end up with the same fate.
Every day members of the SS are going round the doors asking if you know where Jews are.
Best case scenario?
You help the Jews but you lie all the time.
You lie to the SS officers, you lie to the neighbours because you don’t know if you can trust them any more.
You don’t have a relationship with any of your neighbours because you can’t afford for them to get close, they can’t come into your house in case they see evidence that you have been helping the Jews.
But you can’t cut yourself off from your neighbours either, because if you do they may suspect you of being different.
It gets to the stage that to make sure that no one suspects you, you have to say things and maybe even do things that the Nazi’s would do.
So if there is a Jew that gets caught in the streets you know his fate is sealed anyway, you can’t stop your neighbours spitting at him and kicking him, and if you don’t do the same thing then they will suspect you, so you spit and kick as hard as any of them.
And that is the best case scenario.
Now let’s pretend that you don’t live in Nazi Germany, but Alva.
It is a very different place.
You don’t have to treat people badly, you are free to treat people well.
You can even treat strangers well.
And people did.
In fact two weeks ago I was talking to someone I was visiting and they were telling me of Poles who had come over during the war, and they liked the place so much they married locals and stayed.
Mind you 50 years later they were still incomers, but that’s not the point.
The point is, if you don’t live in fear then you act differently.
That’s not about avoiding doing wrong.
That’s about a heart that naturally does good.
So there goes Jesus.
Into the land of the Gentiles.
Where people feel that they have to do what they need to do to survive.
It is a tough place and you have be tough to survive.
And Jesus says, ‘You don’t need to act like that any more. You don’t need to act out of fear. For the Kingdom of heaven is near and the Kingdom of heaven is a place of security, of compassion and forgiveness and love.’
We can have a heart that is inspired by love, by thankfulness.
We don’t need to have a heart that is inspired by fear.
This is the message of hope that Jesus gives the people.
This is the light that shines in the darkness.
It is not the surroundings that make us feel what we feel, it is our heart.
Change our heart, and we change our feelings,
change our feelings and we change our actions,
change our actions and we change the world.
When I was in hospital I met this guy for a very short period of time.
I thought he was a nice guy.
He had had a heart attack and the previous week had had a stent put in, but had overdone it in a walk and felt pains and breathlessness so he was brought back in just for the day.
And he ended up the bed opposite.
And we just talked.
He couldn’t understand why I would want to talk to him because he ran a betting shop. He hated the job. He was encouraged to get as many people on the one armed bandits as possible. Some people would bet £20 a shot in the hope of winning a million. Once he saw someone spend £3000 in the one sitting.
And his role was to get as many people spending that type of money as possible.
He felt that he was sucking the life out of them. Offering a tiny bit of hope of a better life to them, so that they would sell their soul.
And it was his soul that he felt was being sucked dry.
But he had a mortgage to pay and if he gave up his job then he might loose his house. He had a relationship with this girl and if he had no prospects then he might loose her.
And we just talked.
We talked about quality of life.
About whether we did what we did our of fear of loosing what we had, or thanks for what we had.
Of our hearts attacks being a new beginning, of showing us that if life is short, then why not do something that we enjoy.
That the things we regret most, are not the failures, but the things we wished we had done and were too scared to try.
That if we let our lives be run by fear, then we would do nothing.
A week later our website got this letter saying he didn’t know if I was the minister he had talked to, but if I was then thank you.
The kingdom of God is near. His love and compassion and forgiveness is near.
So our actions don’t need to be directed by fear, our heart can be inspired by the promise of love, and we can let that love guide our ways