The main emphasis of Jesus’ mission was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If Jesus preached about anything, he preached about the kingdom and its coming. Even his parables are devoted to the kingdom, its coming, its character, and its demands. Jesus was not primarily a teacher of wisdom or morals. He was first and foremost a prophet of the kingdom—the reign of God among men, which wants to become effective now, and will be effective in the world to come. In this Gospel Jesus calls his first four disciples at the Sea of Galilee. What he saw in Peter, Andrew, James, and John is not said. They appear to be ordinary men involved in ordinary tasks. But they are recruited by Jesus to join him in his mission of preaching the kingdom. The term follow is used three times in the passage. In Judaism pupils did quite literally, in a physical sense, follow their masters; they walked behind them and assisted them. Overpowered by the call of Jesus to enter into his work, these four Galilean fishermen followed him and finally, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were among the apostles of the infant church. This passage from Matthew is appropriately an Epiphany text. Jesus appeared in Galilee with his message of the kingdom, appearing among Jews and Gentiles, the religious and nonreligious, scribes and fisherman, and among the learned and the simple. We have here a manifestation of the divine mission among all sorts of persons.
Jesus’ baptism was seen to be the event which inaugurated his ministry. In accepting baptism from John, Jesus accepted also the will of God for all men unto himself, and he was declared to be God’s “Beloved Son,” upon whom God’s favor rested. Through the evangelist John we get another look at Jesus in connection with his baptism. John does not give an account of the baptism itself, but gives instead a testimony of the Baptism concerning Jesus. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit has descended and “remained.” He is the one who bestows the Spirit. He is “the Son of God.” This attaches to Jesus the role of the suffering servant described in Isiah 53:7. There the servant of the Lord is portrayed as “a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and it is said (53:12) that “he bore the sin of many.” What was said about this servfant by Isiah was, to the early Christians, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb of God who, in the words of John, “takes away the sin of the world.” The “Lamb of God” is the divinely appointed servant of God commissioned to bring salvation “to the end of the earth.” Having described Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the Baptist goes on to assert the primacy of Jesus’ role over his own. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and remained upon him. Jesus was thereby equipped to set forth upon his ministry, and the Spirit remained with him throughout its course. As the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” Jesus was the one who gave the Spirit to his followers. The Holy Spirit cannot, therefore, be thought of apart from Jesus himself.
We celebrate Epiphany on January 6 (or the nearest Sunday). Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the great holy days for the early church. It was not until five hundred later that Christians began to celebrate Christmas. The word epiphany means an appearance or manifestation, particularly of a divine being––or an illuminating discovery, especially one that comes unexpectedly. Epiphany marks the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It signals that God loves Gentiles as well as Jews––that God's plan of salvation includes Gentiles too. Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the boundaries of God's love. Instead of shepherds, Matthew gives us Magi from the East. Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod's palace. Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king (gold), a priest (incense), and the death of a Savior (myrrh). Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams. The wise men's visit probably took place long after the shepherds had departed. Presumably the wise men visited during the latter part of Mary and Joseph's visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story: Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19). (Exodus 1:16,22); Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18). (Exodus 2:1-10); Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15). (Exodus 2:15); Joseph and family return to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem (2:19-23). (Exodus 4:19); For Matthew, these are important parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus.
"Wise men (magoi) from the East came to Jerusalem" (v. 1c). These magoi come to Jerusalem, because the capital city is the logical place to look for a king. Magoi, "originally the title of a Persian priestly caste who played an important role in advising the king, was applied more widely to learned men and priests who specialized in astrology and the interpretation of dreams, and in some cases magical arts." They were probably members of a priestly caste in ancient Persia, possibly followers of Zoroaster. We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi, which we transliterate "Magi." We think of these magoi as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2). However, from the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God (Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11). From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi work magic using demonic powers. They are far from the Jewish community, which makes these magoi especially useful for Matthew's purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation even to Gentiles (non-Jews)–even to Gentiles who might be magicians or sorcerers. Matthew's Gospel is very Jewish, but he introduces these Gentile worshipers at the beginning, preparing us for Jesus' last words to his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19 –– the Greek word translated "nations" is ethne, which also means "Gentiles"). We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God's people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out. Without this newborn king, the astrologers and King Herod (and we too) remain in sinful separation from God, living in the miseries of our own devising, believing that worldly wisdom can somehow offer us a relationship to God. For the most part, we misunderstand faith and trust in God as something of our own making, instead of a gift from God. The power of God's Spirit transcends the Church. The Spirit of God is at work in the world, especially in the lives of our family and friends, even those outside of the Church. This frees us to invite our unchurched loved ones to deepen their relationship with God where they are at, instead of thinking that we have to bring them to God -- who only resides in the church.
In this Gospel Jesus’ family flees to Egypt and lives there till the death of Herod. They live the hard life of refugees because of the threat of death, and can return only when it has gone (Matt 2:13-22). Why is Matthew so interested in telling hi Jewish readers about Jesus’ stay in Egypt? The mention of Joseph going to Egypt would remind his readers immediately of another Joseph, son of Israel, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but saved his whole family from famine. They would also think of the most important event in the whole history of their people, the exodus, how through Moses God liberated them from a life of slavery in Egypt, made a covenant with them in the desert and brought them to the land of promise (Gen 37-50; Ex 1-14). Matthew sums up these events by quoting Hosea 11:1 Where, the prophet tells how God loved his people and called them out of Egypt, took care of them and made a covenant with them which they continued to break throughout their history. For the Jews this liberation from Egypt and the covenant enacted at mount Sinai constituted the birth of their nation and they celebrated it every year as if they were living it again. In their celebrations they rekindled their hopes that one day the Messiah would bring them full liberation. Matthew shows to the Jewish Christians that their hopes are now fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the new Moses coming out of Egypt to liberate his people. In the way Matthew writes the story of Jesus, Jesus seems to be reliving the history of the people of Israel. If we, the new people of God, follow Jesus our teacher, the new Moses, we will have the strength to overcome all our trials and temptations.
All through Advent, we heard words of hope and newness proclaimed in the context of desolation, the wilderness, and finally humiliation. Now, at Christmas, God's gift of light is given in the darkness. That's where God comes to us--not on the heights but in the depths, where there is desolation, a wilderness of doubt and despair where there is darkness. Christ was born for the shepherds, just as he was born for tax collectors and prostitutes. he was born, lived, and died for the downtrodden, the outcast, and the outdone of every shape, size color, and description. He said so himself (Mark 2:16-17; Luke 4:16-30). And he did so himself, shedding his light in the darkness to break its grip wherever it reigned. But that's just the beginning of the good news. For this child, born in the darkness and laid in a trough, was destined to reign and reigns now as Lord of the worlds. He is the one of whom Isaiah sings, of whose government and peace "there will be no end," who establishes and upholds his kingdom "from this time forth and for evermore." He is the one of whom the angel says, "to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:11-12). For all of our celebrations of Christmas, we seldom catch the startling contrasts involved: that the holy angels should sing to some notorious shepherds, that the Lord of the universe should be tucked away in a cattle trough. But it is in these contrasts that the miracle of Christmas and all of its good news lies. The God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17), who "chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are" (1 Cor. 1:28), has come into your darkness because he has chosen you. As they sang to the shepherds, the angels sing to you: "For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord"--the Lord of all the worlds.
As we draw nearer to the celebration of Christmas, we now turn our attention to events that happened before Jesus was born. These events are told in the first two chapters of Matthew and today’s Gospel comes from there. Joseph is the main character. He has to decide what to do with Mary following her mysterious pregnancy. God intervenes through his messenger exhorting him to keep her as his wife because she is to give birth to the Savior. Joseph obeys the messenger angel and by so doing allows Jesus to become a descendant of David. Joseph is important because he is of David’s stock. By accepting Jesus as his legal child, Jesus becomes a son of David. Matthew placed his genealogy of Jesus at the very beginning of his Gospel (Matt 1:1-17) in order to make this point clear right from the start. Joseph is also presented to us as an example of a person of faith. He obeys each time the messenger of God says something to him concerning his relationship with Mary and the child Jesus (Matt 1:24; 2:14, 21, 22). His faith allows God to intervene in the lives of his people. The Savior is called Jesus, a Greek form of the name Joshua, which means “God saves” (Matt1:21; Luke 1:31; Acts 4:12). In Jesus, God saves his people from their sins. He is the new sign by which the people of Israel and of all ages know that God is with us.
In this Gospel Jesus in engages in his public ministry. It describes a crisis in his ministry. He has been teaching, preaching, and healing and the question that everybody is wondering who he is? Is he the Messiah we are expecting? John’s question from prison helps Jesus explain the kind of Messiah he is. He is the one who is to come; the Messiah, and the miracles he performs prove it. However, he is not the political Messiah that many are expecting. He brings liberation of a different kind. As Jesus was baptized, it became clear that his way of being a Messiah was completely contrary to the expectation of John the Baptist and of everyone else as well. Jesus does not impose the Kingdom through power or prestige (Matt 4:1-11) but rather through submission to the will of God as expressed in the Scriptures. He breaks with the past in many ways. Evil will not be repaid by evil. Goodness will be the standard (Matt 5:38-48). Jesus cares for the poor and the sick and calls disciples to join him in this work or mercy. No fierce judge, no destruction or the wicked! To have faith means to trust that God knows the implications of all the events of our lives and to understand them as part of God’s plan of salvation for us.
The main character in today’s Gospel is John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus and who eventually baptized him (Matt 3:13-17). He challenges the people of Israel to make a complete change in their lives because the Kingdom of Heaven is near (Matt 3:2). “Kingdom of God” expresses a condition of total submission to God, allowing God to be the sole master in our lives and to control everything. Just as any good kind or leader might do, God seeks to promote our life and well-being but He will only succeed if we collaborate with him and allow our lives to be God centered. We have to move away from self-centeredness which expresses itself in pride, hunger for possessions, power, and prestige, to an attitude of submission to God in total humility and concern for the others, needs like Jesus (Ph 2:5-11). In what areas of our lives do we need to turn back to God? John the Baptist invites us to live a new life by bearing fruit (Matt 3:10; 7:19) that is visible. Advent is a good time to discover together what fruit we are called to bear.
This first Sunday of Advent begins a new year in the Church. This year we follow the readings of Matthew, and this first Sunday the attention is not on the first coming of Jesus, as is the central theme of Advent, but rather on his Second Coming at the end of time. As people await Jesus’ return, the community of disciples must always be prepared because no one knows the time (Matt 24:36,42). It is in ordinary events that our Savior comes to us. In a generation that did not care about God, Noah is singled out as one who found favor in his eyes. Jesus uses this story in the final discourse about the end-time to compare his time with that of Noah. In Noah’s time nobody expected a flood to destroy the world and so people refused to change how they lived. We are invited to accept the Messiah as he comes to us, not in any extraordinary way but rather in the very ordinary things. Jesus does not say when the time will be because nobody knows, except God the Father (Matt 24:36). Since nobody knows when and how the end is going to be we must always be prepared. This is the advice Jesus gives his disciples. Jesus comes to us not only at the end of the world but every day, in every circumstance of our lives. We expect God to manifest himself in spectacular ways like miracles and other extra ordinary events. But this is not the way Jesus comes to us. He invites us to see him in the people and the events of each day: in our family and in our friends, in the poor and the sick.
The last Gospel of the year shows who Jesus really is. He is King, but a King who is not understood and therefore, condemned and crucified. Jesus shows the thief his kingly greatness as he forgives his sins and invites him into his Kingdom. What is going on in the hearts of the people watching silently their dying king? They are struck dumb by the cruelty of the execution and their own powerlessness to do anything. But there is already a transformation of their minds and heart. Our King on the cross is one who struggled against all forms of oppression to bring about Gods reign in a non-violent way and was ready to risk his life. He invites us from the cross to continue his struggle: not to run away from suffering, to be compassionate to our suffering brothers and sisters and to spend our lives to build a different human community built on justice and reconciliation. What Jesus did throughout his life and at the moment of dying is what we, his disciples, his community, are called to continue doing till the end of time. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world with himself….and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor 5:18).