Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.
Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
2 The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
4 One thing have I asked of the Lord
and that alone I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
5 To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek his will in his temple.
6 For in the day of trouble
he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me
and set me high upon a rock.
7 And now shall he lift up my head
above my enemies round about me;
8 Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation
with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
9 Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Sermon on Sunday, Epiphany 3
Years ago, there was a common cartoon showing a dishevelled man with scraggly beard and long hair holding a sign which read, “The end is nigh”. Occasionally we would even see such a person on our own walks through town, wouldn’t we? What did we think when we heard the call to repentance from this street-corner prophet? This is not too far-fetched an image because I was listening to the news the other day, and there was a report from the economic gathering in Davos. One of the participants said that now was a time of hope, not one for listening to prophets of doom, that we should not listen to those nay-sayers in this time for country and planet. I wondered what had he heard? Who was that prophet that called to him? I, for one, don’t think he was listening to our reading for today, do you?
Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Was this fellow listening to these words with which Jesus began his ministry? It might be nice to think so. Just how did he and how do we hear what Jesus proclaims in these words to us today? Is Jesus just a prophet of doom? Is he negating all that there is in the world, everything we know and love? I imagine he can be heard as if he were a Jeremiah or a Job, only speaking about the worst of all possibilities. Why is this? Why is Jesus the villain for the worldly who enjoy luxury, those who indulge themselves while forgetting the network of care they should develop and maintain? Jesus prophesied in his own generation and offended the rich and powerful then. His words echo around the corridors of power and the hills where we walk. If anyone is listening, we should hear his Word of warning today.
Jesus proclaims loudly, “Repent!” That is the very first word out of his mouth in the gospel. So what do we think when we hear that word? Is it a word of hope, or is it a word of condemnation? Are we afraid of this word and its meaning? So let’s start with the dictionary meaning for the Greek word – metanoia – it is “repentance, a change of mind or heart, regret”. In the Greek rhetorical tradition it is a technical term – it means “after-thought [or] correction”.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking. I think most people have encountered rhetoric when they listen to their leaders and friends. They listen to new meanings of words as they are proposed in order that they might be convinced, or more often as they are failing to be convinced, by preachers and politicians – you know, those people who use words in very crafted ways in order to garner your good opinion, to convert you to their camp.
So when the rhetorician says, “Repent!” he or she is trying to correct your opinion – to have an after-thought which concurs with his or her own. The preacher and the politician are eager for you to change your mind – to give up old habits for the sake of a new way of life, which is the way of life the preacher or politician advocates. In the case of the politician, the change of mind is a mark on a ballot paper, but the preacher makes a much more serious demand on your conscience – the preacher wants you to change the whole of your life, to regret the evil of the past, the mistakes of the present and to act well in the future. The preacher promotes a life of righteousness – a life worthy of God and one’s fellows – a life of charitable love.
That is a more demanding meaning of repentance, isn’t it? – Repentance transforms the whole of life, rather than being just a change of mind or a mere regret. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? – Because I am here, draped in these peculiar robes, speaking from this lofty position. I hope I might be one of those preachers who create a rhetorically smooth narrative to convince you that righteousness is the only course to steer through the Scylla and Charybdis of worldly temptation.
This preacher has no personal agenda – I cannot benefit from your doing what is right and I gain nothing if you regret with loathing all the evil you may have done in the past. This preacher’s exhortation to repentance does not immediately help the economy or the government in any way – and I certainly don’t get anything out of it.
The only benefit of repentance in this full-blown definition is to the hearer of the prophetic word, when he or she has converted life to the narrow path of righteousness, the way of life in which the hearer will always have a clear conscience. Obviously, the marketeers and politicians don’t have any investment in that bank. Rather, they are happy with the “crowd” mentality, where no one regrets, when everyone “goes along” with everyone else as the easiest course of action, when “they” have made up my mind for me. As Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The preacher calls all into question. What if everyone had that momentary “after-thought” of repentance? What if everyone examined their conscience daily and repented of the mistakes they had made during that day? What would life be like then? Would the blatant misbehaviour we deplore continue day by day?
If everyone acted in line with their conscience, awaiting the Day of the Lord as Paul did so long ago, awaiting the Last Judgement, or whatever you want to call it – if everyone repented in that whole- hearted way the preacher advocates, wouldn’t the world be different? Would anyone act with selfishness? Wouldn’t we all act out of altruism – where the other mattered more than my personal wishes? In fact, would my own personal wishes ever matter at all again?
The implications of the preacher’s call to repentance are far-reaching. They don’t just end when the revival meeting tent is taken down and folded up, or when we leave this building. The preacher’s call promises so much more, doesn’t it? Whether it be Jeremiah or Jesus or me, the preacher declares “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” That, I would say, is the consequence, and the reason for, all repentance. This promise of the kingdom provokes fear and loathing in some, but ardent expectation in others. Which are we here and now?
Perhaps those former feelings of terror were provoked in that speaker I heard on the news. I think his conscience was pricked by the words the prophets utter then and now, and yet, sadly, he yields to his own negative reaction in the manner of the crowd of every age, ignoring what is happening. – Perhaps the last of days is here right now – fires raging, earthquakes, plagues of locusts, plagues of diseases, fear for the planet’s ecological integrity, human society in tatters, and individuals all around us breaking down. Everything the prophets have feared at one time or another seem to be happening today. Why was that commentator so vitriolic against the prophets of our own time – just as so many took against Jesus? We must examine our own consciences; we need to change our minds as those persuasive speakers propose; we need to repent of our sinfulness and yet still hope. I think we need to act for the kingdom of heaven to come now and right quickly because the end is so very near.