The Extraordinary Ordinary
A sermon based on Matthew 4:12-23
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 22, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The paraments today are green symbolizing life and growth. Church calendars across the world are in what’s called “ordinary time.” Green is the official color for Ordinary Time. Epiphnay is a part of ordinary time. The “ordinary” in the phrase actually relates to “ordinal,” counting, but the word ordinary’s usual meaning is helpful too, because it’s not Advent or Lent where we look to the birth, death or resurrection of Jesus, it is considered a time when we are not focused on preparing for Christmas or Easter. 1
Ordinary time on the church calendar happens now until Lent and then again after Pentecost. It takes up most of the days of the year. It’s a time when we look to Jesus’ life, that incredibly important part that is book-ended by the extraordinary stories of his conception and arrival, departure and return.
So the Lectionary texts from the Gospels in Ordinary Time tend to be snippets of Jesus’ life, events in the middle of story, and the color green reminds us, as Jesus does in today’s story, to grow. Grow by fishing for followers, and grow as followers by accepting the call of God, of Christ.
Clearly you must know that I enjoy the punning Jesus does in the lesson today, asking the fishermen to give up being fishermen to fish for men. IF Jesus’ culture was anything like ours, I suspect half or more of the people hearing the story rolled their eyes and groaned when Jesus said that. The other half smiled, nodding at terrific word play.
Obviously the Bible did not record all of the conversations Jesus had, and it is pure speculation, in other words do not take this as Gospel, but, I like to imagine that Jesus might have thrown out some other fish puns when he greeted and called Peter, Andrew, James and John. Maybe like this: “ Cod I have your attention gentlemen? I’ve got an op-perch-tuna-ty that will no trout end your flounder-ing. Don’t mullet over, don’t feel gill-ty, just cast away your reel jobs, don’t be fishermen. Come with me, be fishers of men . . .” I know those puns smelt bad, but they are in keeping with the fishy pun Jesus did use.
Puns are ordinary words that we use multiple meanings, or sound alike, meanings to twist and play with. What we take for granted, their ordinary meaning, is altered. And so some of us roll our eyes, groan or smile. See if we get the pun, it gives an unusual – we could even say an extra-ordinary– meaning. Humor is often situated in surprise and so punny extra-ordinary word meanings can be delightful and attention getting . . . at least to some.
So Jesus uses the fishermen pun. And it tends to not make us smile or groan unless pointed out because we know the story and so the surprise is gone, or the translation we read it in misses the pun. But to hearers of the story when it was first told there was this neat little word play to draw attention. It says something about Jesus’ character too, he has a sense of humor, but it also tells us he gently asks his followers to take extraordinary steps.
In the ordinary Lectionary snippet of Jesus’ life story that we heard this morning, Jesus turns an ordinary seaside visit and sighting of fishermen into a truly extraordinary moment. Beyond the pun, I mean . . . because these four men with families and a good respectable trade, amazingly drop what they are doing and follow Jesus leaving family and job behind. Jesus’ pun is a good, but not that good. Something else must have motivated them. What was it?
We are told that immediately after Jesus learned that John the Baptist’s ministry ended with an arrest, Jesus started a new ministry proclaiming “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That short little sentence is packed with meaning . . . and what most of us have been taught or think it means, is not likely what it meant when Jesus was reported to say it.
“Repent” is a word that we hear as something hell fire and brimstone preachers bellow at people to get them to feel guilty and remorseful for their sinful nature and come to Jesus to be saved at an altar call. Right? It’s a word that when used in a phrase like “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” we tend to hear as asking us to be sorry and confess our sins so we can get forgiveness before heaven arrives and it is too late, and we go to hell instead. Something like that . . . It’s got this urgency for our afterlife’s sake.
That is not likely what Jesus means in our lesson when he says“ “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” First of all “repent” in the story is not layered with the later “come to Jesus or go to hell” theology. “Repent” in the lesson has Greek and Jewish meanings not necessarily laden with guilt or remorse. The Greek meaning is akin to “change your mind.” The underlying Jewish meaning means turn around and change direction. Marcus Borg puts it like this
In biblical Hebrew [i]t is associated primarily with the Jewish experience of exile. To repent means “to return”– to journey on the way of return to God from a place of exile . . . [In] the language of . . . the New Testament [it means] go beyond the mind you have. 2
So we can understand “repent” meant stop doing it the limited human way, turn, and do it a better way. And the reason Jesus is asking folks to repent is because the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is not about life after death heaven, its about the reign of heaven being a way within reach of those of us alive on earth. 3. The phrase “has come near” can in Greek even be heard or read to mean “accessible.” Here is Marcus Borg’s reflection on the original phrase found in Mark (and borrowed by Matthew):
[H]as come near. What does this mean? The Greek verb is notoriously difficult to translate because of its ambiguity.
It could mean “near in time”: the kingdom will soon be here, but it isn’t yet. The Greek verb could also mean “has come”– it is already here. But “near” can also refer not primarily to proximity in time, but to accessability; the kingdom is near, at hand, here, in the sense that it is beginning and available.- and one can enter it now. It can mean becoming involved in a process and not simply waiting for God to do it soon. 4.
That makes sense. Jesus, the love and peace monger was proclaiming up and down the country side that we can turn and access the kingdom of God right now! That’s what all his love everyone teaching is all about. Matthew calls it “the kingdom of heaven”–it’s the same thing.
What it is, is –and I am quoting Dr. Borg again:
A world in which God is king and the rulers– the domination systems of this world are not; a world in which oppressive and exploitive systems enforced by power and violence are no more; a world in which poverty and misery, malnourishment and desperation, premature death and wars created by them are no more. To use language from Micah 4 . . . it would be a world in which people lived in peace and in which every family had it s own world of justice and peace . . . “And no one shall make them afraid.” 5
Now as much as I love Jesus’ fishermen pun, that– providing access to the kingdom of heaven here on earth now– that’s something to drop what you are doing and spread the news about. And the fishermen are not the only ones who drop everything and answer that call in the story. If we back up to beginning of lesson we hear Jesus has a similar extraordinary packing up and going experience.
When Jesus hears John the Baptist’s ministry has ended He immediately leaves his home and family and follows the call of God. Jesus’ answer to that call is without hesitation to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He’s driven and dedicated to that message and its implementation and he asks his followers – all of us ordinary folks– to be extraordinarily driven and dedicated as well.
Jesus’ followers are to have that drive and that dedication to turn and access the kingdom of heaven right now! We are to step onto a way that leads to the world, that I’d venture to guess all of us– conservative, moderate, liberal or whatever else– want a world where God is the ruler and dominating for us all. A way of life where “poverty and misery, malnourishment and desperation, premature death and wars created by them are no more.”
The followers of Jesus believe in and want and work for that place, “the kingdom of heaven.” In the story ordinary people want it so bad they will leave their livelihood, leave their families and follow Jesus. His way to God’s way on earth becomes paramount, nothing supercedes it.
When I went back to church in my late 30s I had a dream where a four word phrase was repeated over and over, no matter what happened, the dream always led to the same four words. I tossed and turned and woke up in sweats all night to the words “The ordinary is extraordinary.” That phrase, “The ordinary is extraordinary” saturated by soul. I have no recollection of hearing it anywhere else before, though I may have. That did not really matter, because the phrase was so lifted and up and burned into my mind that it could never before have meant what is means to me now. Everything – when we stop and exam it– is extraordinary. It is extraordinary because it’s all actually God soaked, life is drenched with God.
We are like sponges in an ocean of God. God is what fills us and all existence through and through. God makes up our being. From that perspective THIS– all of this– becomes extraordinary. And when we have that perspective, God has come near so near that God is accessible . . ..now! And we too can proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Being fishers of men, fishers of people is not about catching others to save their souls, it’s to help them to repent . . . that is to turn their focus onto God, in whom we have our being in. And by doing so to access God’s reign–which is where we not just see and say God is everywhere and in everyone, but we also act like it. And when we do, voila! God is the ruler who dominates our lives. We, whom we think to be ordinary people, become extraordinary because that is what we are, and so we start to act like it. When we do, others and earth are seen as a part of God too all of the ordinary becomes extraordinary. We know it is God-soaked.
Following Jesus we try to make acting like God is everywhere our highest priority, not to worry about afterlife but to treat God in everything well. The Kingdom of heaven has come near! May we turn around– repent– and see it . . . live into it.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1
2. Borg, Marcus, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, p 31
3. See, Ibid at 30
5. Ibid at 29
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED