Third Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 27: 1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
When I started at Capital University, a public street ran through the center of campus. This posed a number of problems, not the least of which was the number of cars that seemed to delight in trying to hit the students as they crossed the street. But it also meant that one could stand on the public sidewalk and be right in the heart of campus. This made it an excellent place to go if you had a particularly strong message that you wanted to be heard.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. Yes, sometimes once a week, sometimes more, we had a street preacher show up on campus, stand on that public property, and inform us in that oh-so-very-not-gentle street preacher way, that we were all going to hell.
Now, I never stuck around to figure out why I was going to hell. I always figured it was because I was in college. I think he had something against college life; and knowing how some of my classmates lived their lives, perhaps the man had a point.
What I remember most about this preacher was not his thundering voice, or his ability to stand out in the hot sun for hours. No, what I remember most is that his message never changed. Even when people stopped to ridicule him or threw water balloons at him from their dorm windows (I kid you not), he eventually and faithfully came back again to preach his message.
In a way, as much as I disagreed with this preacher’s message, attitude, and technique, I have to confess that he sounds an awful lot like Jesus. Let’s compare:
-This guy was a street preacher. Jesus was a street preacher. He didn’t have a synagogue or a congregation. Yes, he was based in Capernaum, a podunk town on the edge of Galilee, but he didn’t stay there. He travelled around, preaching and teaching on the road.
-This guy repeated his message over and over. Jesus repeated his message, too. In fact, The very first words of Jesus’s ministry aren’t even original. He quotes Isaiah nearly verbatim and uses John the Baptist’s message—so he’s a proof-texter and a plagiarist.
-Finally, this guy’s message wasn’t a fun one. One of the reasons I never stopped to listen to what he had to say was that I knew I wouldn’t like it. Jesus’s message wasn’t fun either—John got arrested for preaching it, after all. Wasn’t exactly a politically correct message, I guess. What about this message makes it hard to hear, so annoying to those who hear it?
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Kind of a strange message, isn’t it? I mean, the way Jesus makes it sound, the kingdom already came and went and I somehow missed it, right? It’s like if the president of the United States came to Three Lakes and nobody knew about it. Seems a little far fetched.
But, isn’t this what happened? God became incarnate as a human being, born into this world as a child to a scared single mother. And nobody noticed. He spent thirty years living and working in Nazareth and the surrounding area, and nobody remembered anything about it later. And when he was finally executed by the state and raised from the dead, an truly monumental event, nobody believed it, not even his closest disciples.
I guess the world just wasn’t ready for the kingdom of heaven to come near. It wasn’t ready to deal with the consequences of God coming and being with us. It’s uncomfortable because the very first word Jesus speaks in his ministry is a command: repent. As the kingdom of heaven comes near, the world needs to repent.
Look at the history of just the biblical period. Try to count the number of conquests that take place. One power conquers another, and another conquers them, and another, them. War and bloodshed were every day affairs. Injustice was all too common. Why do you think the Old Testament prophets are universally obsessed with the treatment of the poor?
Human beings are remarkably consistent across the ages. We still live in a world that requires a whole lot of repentance. Wikipedia keeps a handy list of all of the current armed conflicts being fought around the globe according to the United Nations definitions. There are 41 of them being fought today. 41 wars this very day.
Repent, indeed. It doesn’t sound like we were ready for the kingdom of heaven. How could the kingdom of heaven come when the world is this messed up?
Yet, hear Jesus’s words again: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Notice how he doesn’t say, “Repent, so that the kingdom of heaven will come near.” No, it has already come near! Ready or not, God makes it known that the world doesn’t have to be the depressing place I’ve just made it out to be. And if the world wasn’t ready, well, then someone had to make it ready. Those people were the first disciples.
Jesus called the most unlikely of people to help usher in this new reality, this new kingdom, and he does so right at the beginning. He was a teacher with something to teach, and needed students to pass it on. But it doesn’t sound like Jesus knew very much about recruitment.
Instead of searching out the most talented students of law, or the most charismatic community leaders, it almost sounds like he walked around the Sea of Galilee and picked up whomever he came across. He pulls in fishermen to help him announce the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. He could have wandered a modern-day American city and picked up a band of homeless people and been about as well off. On top of it all, the ones he picked aren’t exactly the most reliable men.
So off he goes, with a ragtag band of misfits, wandering the countryside of Galilee which, by the way, was not a well-liked place. He’s a wandering preacher with a group of inept followers preaching in a part of the country avoided by those who didn’t live there. His message was tough, requiring persistence and courage in the face of doubt and ridicule.
And yet, miraculously, everywhere Jesus went, the kingdom of heaven truly did come near.
When he preached his sermons, the kingdom of heaven came near in the words and in their hearing. When he healed the sick and the disabled and the demon-possessed, they experienced the richness of mercy found in the kingdom of heaven. When he entered Jerusalem like the kings of old, the people saw in him the kingdom of heaven, the return of God’s personal reign over the earth. After his death, when he was raised back to life, he once and for all proved that the kingdom of heaven had come near and overcome even death itself.
And it didn’t stop there. At Pentecost, that ragtag band of throw aways and losers found their courage and their conviction, standing up and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ with a strength and assurance that had earlier escaped them. They, too, healed the sick and cast out demons, even raising from the dead. Through the efforts of missionaries and apostles like Paul, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Junia and Phoebe, within a few short decades, the good news spread, and across the Roman Empire the kingdom of heaven was proclaimed and experienced.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This command and this promise ignited a firestorm. It is a command first to recognize that the world we’ve built and we live in is not the world God intends. We know this. It is a command to stop pretending that there is no other way, to stop pretending that wars and poverty and abuse and injustice are just the way it has to be, and to turn towards a new and better reality.
But it is also a promise. Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Repent because God is with you, Immanuel, and where God is present, oppression ceases, for God will not tolerate it any longer. Repent, because there is now hope fulfilled for new life.
This command and this promise were carried around the world by the most unlikely people imaginable. They weren’t superheroes, and only a tiny, tiny fraction are remembered. Most of them weren’t even street preachers, with the strength and conviction of that man who would come to my university. The vast majority were every day human beings, sinful and unworthy, and yet who could not keep silent once they experienced the kingdom of heaven. They were people like you and me, with all of our wondrous talents and our grievous faults.
That same call is given to us. We sang it this morning: we are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve another, to walk humbly with God.
We are called not because we are the best suited to carrying out the call. We are called not because we’re innocent of being complacent in a world that tries to deny God. We aren’t even called because of our strong faith in God.
Instead, we are called because of God’s strong faith in us.
So repent, for the kingdom of God has come near: a command and a promise that makes the command able to be and worth following. It’s not an easy call, but it’s worth it, because God is with you.