Before Louis Pasteur, rabies meant 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 he began developing a vaccine with his collaborators, saved countless lives, and made his career.
A few generations later, in stories told after dark with flashlights, Polio played the same role as the atomic bomb and centuries-old creatures made of darkness and fire ascending from the caverns at the root of mountains. Then after 7 years of study and 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 and 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, and scientists … approached him with drop-jawed wonder as though some of the stardust might rub off.” Schools bear Salk’s name. In 1977 Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2014 he was honored in a Google Doodle.
This is great, but even 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 in a world of political strife and hunger and disease and loneliness and depression. We can live out 90 years of health and still wonder if it all means anything. Yet we receive one glimpse, a foretaste of healing, and the authority through whom it comes in turn receives our gratitude and praise. Cure one disease, and generations remember a person 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: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Yet these exact words are situated very differently.
John spoke them on the tail end of Herod’s massacre of 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 and a leather belt, eating locus and wild honey, like Elijah before him. Many of John’s contemporaries thought Elijah (who never died) would come to judge and inaugurate a new age. But John rejected the temptation to claim a role or accept praise that was not his. He portrayed his works as facilitating readiness for something greater, and accompanied his words with a baptism in preparation for the coming of the kingdom.
The setting is anticipation and preparation. This is all hope and longing in the midst of infanticide and Roman oppression and in-house fighting. So, when “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” are John’s words, the church speaks them again, and hears them again, in the season of Advent.
Just a foretaste, but you know the name Pasteur. Salk got schools and statues. John’s words and actions led some to ask explicitly if the Baptist was himself the promised Messiah, and others to put him in jail. A preview can elicit strong responses.
In our text, the madness of John’s arrest leads Jesus to relocate, again. He withdrew from Nazareth and dwelt in Capernaum. But Jesus is no longer a helpless infant carried by his parents. He is acting, responding to, and 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, and 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 Assyria caused centuries earlier when the invading empire carved this region out of Israel and carried her tribes away.
Jesus’ move avoided direct confrontation with those who arrested John, for a time, but he also began to preach, using the exact words the Baptist used which set in motion events leading to John’s arrest: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He was not running away so much as creating space and time to start something. Galilee was a small region and the local economy was not centered in empire-wide suppliers and retailers. The lives of those who made up the tiny populous 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 of things would definitely be noted. It was nothing like the anonymity possible for an independently wealthy person moving to New York.
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 and simple presence in the area began to open the eyes of Simon and his brother Andrew, to enliven the perceptions of James and John. All Jesus did was move in, and talk, and light shone in the darkness. So when Jesus called them to follow, the four left immediately. It is almost as if their anticipation and 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.”
Jesus did indeed instigate something. He moved through the area, entering their synagogues and 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 and freed people from demon possession. He relieved pain – and Matthew does not stipulate what kind of pain. Migraines? Arthritis? Angst? Malaise? Sure. Jesus also gave epileptics minds that would not turn on them and paralytics legs and arms that would no longer be burdens themselves but help people bear them.
Any one of which would be sufficient to establish him as a miracle worker and authority and 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 and anxiety. Jesus heals “All diseases.” Pasteur brought breakthroughs in anthrax and 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, and you would be hailed as a genius, a hero, and set for life.
What has Jesus mastered?
Who does that?
From even the best of us – John the Baptist, Elijah – the words “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” can be only promise and preparation. Advent words. But now, in this different setting, they are Jesus’ words. So the Body of Christ repeats these words, yet again, and 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 Thing Itself, at hand. For these are the words of the master of life and the setting is the kingdom in Jesus.
There is bound to be a strong response.
Jesus has already surpassed John the Baptist, and so Elijah, and just on the other side of these words and healing works, Jesus surpasses even Moses as he ascends the Mountain and delivers the sermon that contains the words “Blessed/Happy are the poor and brokenhearted.
The meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Unrealistic, legalistic expectations? Pious delusion? Artistic outline? Prophecy? In any other setting, and from anyone else …
 Jon Cohen, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001) p. 88.  Matthew 3:2; 4:17  Matthew 2  Compare Matthew 3:4 and 2 Kings 1:8  Matthew 3:6  John 1:19-28  Matthew 4:23