Third Sunday after Epiphany Matthew 4: 12 – 23

After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus was ready for a full disclosure of his message. He had one major theme: to proclaim the good news of the kingdom.

Human nature hasn’t changed over the centuries, and shortly after John spoke well of Jesus and approved his message, I’m sure many were asking, “Where is he from? What does his daddy do? And, “Who is his daddy?”  Matthew traced the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham thru 42 generations of men with unpronounceable names.  You can’t do better than that even with Ancestry dot com.

After Matthew deals with Joseph, the birth in Bethlehem, the wise men, and innocent children being killed by Herod — he introduces John the Baptist. His preaching attracted attention, and then Jesus came for baptism and Jesus was prepared for his great theme of the kingdom.   Jesus then returns to Galilee and soon moved to Capernaum, close to the Sea of Galilee.  At the time of Jesus, this land was an outer province, too far from Jerusalem to be important or to attract attention.

Isaiah spoke of this land, saying the people there were sitting in darkness, but upon them a great light would shine. Here is the moment we have been waiting for, the promise that the darkness will give way to light.  In the entire history of the world, here is the moment when, because of the life of this one man, our darkness will pass.  The writer of Hebrews knows the meaning of darkness.  In describing the ordeals of Christians in a time of persecution for their faith, he wrote of them,

“They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy.

“They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.”

Some of those descriptions may have been figures of speech, but we all know what it is to suffer unjustly, and consequently, to live as in darkness. But in Jesus Christ, better days are ahead.  In him, the history of the world is divided.

All that went before him led to his appearance. All that comes after is in reflection against his appearance in our world.  Finally, the curtain is drawn back upon the great stage of God’s salvation drama.  The real-life ministry of Jesus Christ begins.  Is his first public action a spectacular display of power? Does he call angels to surround him with appropriate glory?

No.  He preaches.  He uses the language of everyday speech.  He tells a simple story.  He speaks, as though to acknowledge that the noise of the world can drown out his message. In him, the kingdom arrives.  Jesus Christ, descended from Abraham, the infant son of Mary, worshipped by astrologers but a refugee in Egypt, identified by John the Baptist, and tempted unsuccessfully by Satan –it is this person whose voice is saying the Kingdom has arrived in what he says.

Matthew has finally got his story in motion, and the first thing he describes is the banner that hangs over Jesus.  His whole life, his mission, sense of direction, purpose on earth and his source of heavenly comfort is — the kingdom. His one love, his enthusiasm, his determination, his assurance of God’s blessing, all come from his total dedication to the kingdom of which God is the supreme ruler and power, the kingdom of eternal life that will eventually triumph over every earthly darkness and misery.

If Matthew had started with any remark about eternal life, not many of his listeners would have understood what he was saying. Most people in that time thought the kingdom of heaven was something ominous, something fearful. To say the kingdom was coming was to warn that its consequences would be dreadful.  It would be the Day of Judgment and punishment. Or they thought the kingdom was political, and this messiah would raise an army to throw off Roman occupation to become the new King of the Jews.

Jesus said the kingdom was the dawning of new light upon the world. The blessings of that kingdom are too great to describe.  The appropriate preparation for that new kingdom is repentance, a turning from the old.  When we think of repentance, we may think of it as a one and done sort of thing.  We get caught with our hand in the cookie jar and quick repentance may be the only reasonable course.   We steal something from our employer — time, merchandise, or his good name — and if we are caught, repentance is the best way to avert sudden retirement.

We betray our parents, or our children, or our partner, and any number of our neighbors and friends, and some show of repentance might prevent a much greater disaster.

We steal from God — time, wealth, or personal dedication, — and repentance becomes a maneuver to avoid his wrath. Under such circumstances, repentance is nothing more than trying to undo something we have been caught doing.  We repair the damage, if possible, patch up the relationship, and then try to act like it didn’t happen.

But when Jesus preached repentance, it took on a different quality. His call to repent was not based on the idea that God will punish you for doing something you should not do. Remember, he was the preacher for whom God began to prepare in Abraham.  He came unexpectedly from that out-of-the-way province of Galilee.  He was the one who embodied God’s powerful kindness of making light shine on people sitting in darkness.

It’s one thing to turn the lights off at the end of the day and go to bed. It would be something else to get up at your usual time, but with no daylight or moonlight, no power for lights, not even a candle.  How confusing is total darkness!  But the Bible isn’t talking about a sudden power failure.  Biblical darkness is spending a whole lifetime not knowing God’s love, God’s light, God’s kindness, the joy of God’s approval.   To say in that situation that light is about to dawn, is an announcement of inexpressible joy and hope.

Repentance in that circumstance is not done out of fear for the judgment that will come if we are caught being bad, but out of joy and anticipation for the unbelievable grace that is coming. God is about to visit us, not to punish, but to bring light that countless generations have longed to see.

How could we possibly want to remain with the old ways of trying to go it alone, without God? Jesus did not come preaching punishment and eternal wrath. The repentance he preached is the turnaround that comes from being overpowered by love and mercy.

The kind of repentance he had in mind is not simply feeling guilty and mainly sorry that we were caught, but of saying, “I have found a new direction for life, and since God in his wisdom is pointing me, that is the direction I must take.”

The kind of repentance Jesus preached means a turning from depressing darkness into joyous day, of giving up the old familiar way because it is inadequate as a way of saying thanks for God’s mercy.

The repentance Jesus had in mind is that of a new attitude toward God, toward life, toward our fellow human beings.

Repentance means a whole new way of making life’s decisions. For the disciples, the kingdom Jesus preached and represented meant they should leave everything to come after him.

If we use the church year to help us live through the original events in order to have corresponding spiritual experiences, now is the time for us realize that Jesus, the son of God, is preaching the gospel of the kingdom in our midst. He is healing our every disease and every infirmity.

We are the people who sat in darkness until now. We have been in the land of darkness, and upon us the light has shined.

The yoke of our burden, the bar across our shoulders, the rod of our oppressor, has been broken.

Out of thanks to God for his unbelievable grace, are we leaving all else and following him?