I guess most pastors can probably remember the first sermon they ever preached. We remember those things that tend to be a bit nerve racking.
I remember my first sermon. It was on the David and Bathsheba text in the Old Testament. I talked about sin and grace and forgiveness. I was a nervous wreck, and I think I threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It was a very long message.
I’m reminded of a funny story about a young, inexperienced minister who had been asked to be a supply preacher at a little rural church. He was nervous and excited as he drove out to the church that rainy, cloudy Sunday morning. This would be his first sermon.
But when he arrived, he was disappointed to discover only one person there – an old rancher. “The weather is so bad, I guess the people just stayed home!” he surmised. When the young preacher asked the old cowboy if he wanted him to go ahead and preach, the rancher replied, “Well, preacher. I’m not too smart, but if I went out to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I’d still feed him!” So the young preacher started the service.
When he got to the sermon, he began preaching and went on for an hour and half! As the old rancher was leaving the sanctuary, the young man asked how he liked the sermon. The cowboy said, “Well, preacher. Let me put it this way: if I went out to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I sure wouldn’t dump the whole load on him!”
What we have in today’s scripture text is Jesus’ first sermon. It’s very short. In fact, it’s a one-liner! Actually, in all likelihood, it’s a one sentence summary of His sermon – what preachers call these days – the big idea.
The text begins with the phrase, “From that time . . .” This phrase is a hinge statement of sorts announcing a new chapter of Jesus’ life, which is about to kick in. So Matthew says, “From that time . . .” This causes us to look back and ask, From what time?
Jesus’ preparation period is now over. He has been baptized by John the Baptist and has gone out into the wilderness to do battle with Satan. John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus has moved to Capernaum in Galilee to start his ministry. The table has been set for Him.
We’ve also learned from Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus early on, John the Baptist’s arrest, as well as the temptation of Jesus, that this was not a friendly environment in which Jesus was stepping. It was more like a battlefield.
As Jesus goes public and begins His ministry, it’s interesting to note what He did on His opening day. It says He “began to preach.” As a preacher, I love that verse! It makes me feel affirmed. The word “preach” is borrowed from the ancient world, and is used to describe a herald from the king to the village. It is an announcement, a command given with authority representing the king.
A few verses later, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ preaching attracted great attention and crowds. It got many people very excited. Why, do you suppose? Perhaps it was the content of His message. The subject matter made people’s hearts beat a little faster with anticipation. It was the announcement He made about a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. Mark puts it this way: “The kingdom of God is near” (1:15)
The people of Israel had been waiting a long time for this news. Ancient Jews prayed that God might rule on earth as in heaven one day. They prayed for the enemies of God and of God’s people to be cast down, and a new age begin in their time, as the Old Testament prophets predicted.
This thread runs throughout the Old Testament to the New – it is what unifies them. The people have been praying and hoping for the kingdom of God. In fact, during their weekly synagogue services, they would say, “May God establish His kingdom in our lifetime.” So when they heard Jesus preaching about God’s kingdom, their radar antennas when up. Finally! It’s about time! God is going to restore Israel, they thought to themselves. He is going to break the chains of oppression of the Roman empire. He will chase them out of here once and for all and establish a new empire.
When Jesus said “The kingdom of God is at hand,” He was actually pointing to Himself. He would continue to point to Himself through His words and His mighty works, which were signs of the kingdom. He was telling the people, All the hopes of Israel have now become present fact in Me. I am the completion of what you’ve been looking for. I am the Messiah. I am the Redeemer from God. His words brought great hope of better days ahead. This was heard as very good news. However, what the people were expecting and what Jesus was bringing were not exactly the same thing.
Where Jesus began His kingdom work must have looked a little peculiar to them. It was the unspectacular setting of Galilee of all places, not down south around Jerusalem. Jesus bore no halo, no king’s crown, no splendor, no servants, no army. He was simply a little-known carpenter from Nazareth with a message.
As Jesus described His kingdom and carried out His ministry, some people scratched their heads and walked away, because He spoke about a different sort of kingdom. He didn’t act like a new Moses or King David like they’d been expecting. He didn’t seem to want to organize an army. He didn’t seem concerned about the ceremonial laws and rules, which had been set up in holiness for holiness. He insisted on servantude as His calling, turning the other cheek and praying for our enemies, not overthrowing the Roman oppressors.
Eventually, by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, most people had rejected Jesus and the kingdom He was describing. At His trial, they screamed for His blood before He was crucified. Pontius Pilate asked, “What have you done that they want your blood?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world.” I’m not what they expected.
So what did Jesus mean, then, when He announced His kingdom was at hand? First of all, He meant that God’s power was beginning to be asserted. His rule on earth was there in a new way. God was up to something big! As a king, He was exercising His rightful authority. God would reign over individuals and families, religious traditions, social mores, demonic powers, and even political institutions. He would establish His righteousness and justice aligning all things under His role. The beginning of this was about to happen.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” He was talking not simply about change in an individual’s heart, but also about major change in this world. May God’s will be done in the world. God’s kingdom doesn’t come about through worldly power, armies, and politics, but through serving, love, and the sacrificial death of Jesus, which will change lives and change the world around us.
Jesus was just the beginning of the kingdom arrival. In His parables, He said The kingdom of God is like a seed this is planted in the ground. It grows silently and continues to grow – like a mustard seed. Soon it is huge and overwhelming. Kind of an already-but-not-yet kingdom. It is visible in Jesus, but will not come in its fullness until Jesus appears again in glory and majesty at His second coming.
We see signs of God’s kingdom even today as the Gospel opens people’s lives and brings light into the darkness. Great things get done in the name of Jesus.
God’s enemy was not Rome. Jesus came to defeat a bigger enemy: the kingdom of evil – the kingdom of Satan who held humanity captive in the darkness. Most of Jesus’ audience didn’t understand this. I hope you do, because Jesus’ message has not changed one iota. It is still our Good News for the world today. The kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus Christ.
Why is God’s kingdom message good news for us? Because, first of all, it means freedom – freedom from our sin and the guilt that accompanies it. Our ultimate problem is sin, which separates us from God. It separates us from God’s intentions for our lives. Christ Jesus’ payment at the cross for our sins reconciles us to God and restores our relationship with Him by taking away our sin.
God’s kingdom means freedom from the consequences of our sin, which is death. Through Jesus Christ, death has been defeated. It can no longer hold us. It is simply a gate through which we pass to spend eternity with our heavenly Father.
God’s kingdom frees us from the power of the evil one, the devil. He is now a defeated enemy, and we know that in the end he will be destroyed once and for all. We don’t need to live in absolute fear, panic, and anxiety over him. We’re free from those cares. Instead, we have Jesus to answer the door when the devil comes knocking.
This is good news because it means hope for you and me. Even though the world may look dark some days, and it seems like evil is winning over good, we know that in the end, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness. When Jesus reappears, nothing can ever separate us or snatch us from the hand of Jesus, our Shepherd. We can sing with confidence, “This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
God’s kingdom means a new beginning for you and for me. When we come to Christ, we receive citizenship. We walk with God in a restored relationship as sons and daughters. It is a new status, and He shares with us a new way of doing life that actually works so much better than anything we can dream up on our own. As we operate by kingdom values, we come to understand that God knows what makes us tick and what makes us work so much better. We live for His purposes in His kingdom, in His honor, and for His glory.
I love this little statement I came across. “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life is a wreck. Jesus calls you into His life – kingdom life. And His life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.”
You might be wondering how you can be sure this kingdom thing is true and reliable. Well, let ask you, Where does this opening day of Jesus’ ministry end? At a cross, and ultimately at an empty tomb where Jesus did battle with sin, the devil, and the power of death. And He won! This is God’s stamp of approval.
Through the resurrection, God tells us to listen to Jesus. Act on what He says, because He is offering you a new life that goes all the way into eternity. The resurrection is God’s “Yes!”
The message of the kingdom is the same for us today. So is the response Jesus is calling for when He says, “Repent.” The word means more than simply feeling sorry for my sins. To repent means to move from my self rule – running my own life – to God’s rule. It means totally reconfiguring one’s life under God’s authority and rule. It means coming under new management, restructuring, reconsidering our strategy. It’s a change of mind, of heart, and life, surrendering your whole life to His care and His leadership. It means letting go, turning from everything else that has been crying out for your allegiance (and maybe leading you astray), and following Jesus. Repentance means to turn from these things and follow Him.
I love the little story about a boy who got his hand caught inside an expensive vase. His parents applied soapsuds and cooking oil to get it off without any success. When they seemed ready to break the vase because it seemed the only way to get his hand out, the frightened boy cried, “Would it help if I let loose of the penny I’m holding?”
So it is with us all too often. We cause God and others great anguish and risk the truly valuable because we will not let go of the destructive things, the insignificant things we think we need to hang onto. Jesus says to let go of these things.
The message hasn’t changed. The kingdom of God’s arrival and the appeal are the same: turn from the life of “my kingdom come; my will be done,” to “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done” in my life and in this world. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer