Before Louis Pasteur, rabies meant certain death – not just in the human imagination, but also in diagnosis. Then, in the latter half of the 1800s, Pasteur figured out something of what was going on with just one thing: microbes. From this discovery he began developing a vaccine with his collaborators, saved countless lives, & made his career.
A few generations later, in stories told after dark with flashlights, Polio played the same role as the atomic bomb & centuries-old creatures made of darkness & fire ascending from the caverns at the root of mountains. Then after 7 years of study & research, Jonas Salk unlocked the inner workings of the virus. When the success of the resulting treatment was made public in 1955, Salk, who guarded his anonymity, was now “one of the only living scientists whose face was known the world over… in the public’s eye, [Salk] had a superstar aura. Airplane pilots would announce that he was on board & passengers would burst into applause. Hotels routinely would upgrade him into their penthouse suites. A meal at a restaurant inevitably meant an interruption from an admirer, & scientists… approached him with jaw-dropped wonder as though some of the stardust might rub off.” (That from Jon Cohen in his book, Shots in the Dark.) Schools bear Salk’s name. In 1977, President Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2014, he was awarded his highest honor: a Google Doodle.
Both were great men, but on this side of the work of these masters, it is not like all sickness is healed, or death itself is destroyed. People walk around on strong legs free of Polio, yet they do so in a world of political strife & hunger & disease & loneliness & depression. We can live out 90 years of good health & still wonder if it all means anything. Yet we receive one glimpse, a foretaste of healing, & the authority through whom it comes in turn receives our gratitude & praise. Cure one disease, & generations remember you as a miracle worker, even as we long for a fuller healing.
John the Baptist felt the full intensity of the responses that come when you give a foretaste of something great. And, so far as the words go, Jesus’ proclamation in our text was the same as John the Baptist’s one chapter before: Change your hearts & lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! Yet these exact words are situated very differently.
John spoke them on the tail of Herod’s massacre of the infants, after Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s madness, & then returned to live in Nazareth in the district of Galilee once things had settled a bit. John preached in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair & a leather belt, eating locusts & wild honey, like Elijah before him. Many of John’s contemporaries thought Elijah (who never physically died) would come to judge & inaugurate a new age. But John rejected the temptation to claim a role or accept praise that was not his. He portrayed his work as facilitating a readiness for something greater & accompanied his words with a baptism in preparation for the coming of the kingdom.
The setting is anticipation & preparation. This is all hope & longing amid infanticide & Roman oppression & in-house church fighting. So, when Change your hearts & lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! are John’s words, the church speaks them again, & hears them again, in the season of Advent.
His is just a foretaste, but you know the name Pasteur. Salk got schools & statues. John’s words & actions led some to ask explicitly if the Baptist was himself the promised Messiah & led others to put him in jail. Even a preview can elicit strong responses.
In our reading, the madness of John’s arrest leads Jesus to relocate, again. He withdrew from Nazareth & settled in Capernaum. But Jesus is no longer a helpless infant carried by his parents. He is acting, responding to, & changing things. The relocation alone was warrant enough for the writer of Matthew to proclaim the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2 fulfilled. All Jesus did was move into the area, & the people living in the shadow of death now see the light. Done. In the context of Isaiah 9, what is accomplished is not just some inner hope – Jesus’ arrival begins to pierce the darkness of the cavernous historical hurt caused by Assyria centuries earlier when the invading empire carved this region out of Israel & carried her tribes away.
Jesus’ move avoided direct confrontation with those who arrested John, at least for a time, but he also began to preach, using the exact words the Baptist used which set in motion the events leading to John’s arrest: Change your hearts & lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! He was not running away so much as creating space & time to start something.
You see, Galilee was a small region & the local economy was not centered in empire-wide suppliers & retailers. The lives of those who made up the tiny population were interlocked even at the level of supplying basic needs. So, anyone who lived in Galilee for any time was likely known by everyone. And a new arrival that attempted to situate themselves in the local economy would definitely be noticed. Kind of like moving to Lexington!
So, when Jesus called his first disciples, it is unlikely this was the first time they had encountered the carpenter from Nazareth. But something of Jesus’ preaching & simple presence in the area began to open the eyes of Simon & his brother Andrew, to enliven the curiosity of James & John. All Jesus did was move in, & talk, & light shone in the darkness. So, when Jesus called them to follow, the four left immediately. It is almost as if their anticipation & burgeoning recognition had already led them to dimly think, “If you ever decide to start something, Jesus, let me know. I’m in. Whatever it is.”
And Jesus did indeed instigate something. He moved throughout the area, entering their synagogues & proclaiming the kingdom. And in the shadow of the mountain he would ascend to address the people with the most famous sermon ever delivered, Jesus healed those with paralyzed legs & freed people from demon possession. He relieved pain – & Matthew does not stipulate what kind of pain. Was it migraines? Arthritis? Angst? Malaise? Probably all of these. Jesus also gave epileptics healed minds that would not turn on them & paralytics legs & arms that would no longer be burdens themselves but help bear them up.
Any one of which would be enough to establish him as a miracle worker & authority & secure his career. But Jesus has not just mastered one disease. He has figured out more than the secret to weak limbs or schizophrenia or generalized pain & anxiety. Jesus heals every disease & sickness.
Pasteur brought breakthroughs in anthrax & rabies because he attained a level of mastery over microbes. Jonas Salk unlocked polio. If you were to crack one strand of cancer, master just one, you would be hailed as a genius, a hero, & set for life.
So, what has Jesus mastered? Life itself. Who does that?
From even the best of us – say, John the Baptist or Elijah – the words change your hearts & lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven can be only promise & preparation. Advent words. But now, in this different setting, they are Jesus’ words. So, the Body of Christ repeats these words, yet again, & hears them afresh, yet another time. But this time we do it in Epiphany. In the season of enlightenment. In a time of recognition of a presence. Not of a preview, but acknowledgement of the One Himself, at hand. For these are the words of the master of life & the setting is the kingdom in Jesus.
There is bound to be a strong response.
Jesus has already surpassed John the Baptist, & so Elijah, & just on the other side of these words & healing works, Jesus surpasses even Moses as he ascends the mountain & delivers the sermon that contains the words, Happy are the hopeless & harassed. The humble will inherit the earth. As your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Are these unrealistic expectations? Legalistic demands? Pious delusions? Or are they prophecy? In any other setting, & from anyone else, perhaps so. But coming from Jesus, they are the gospel in a nutshell.