It is the season of epiphany. Most preachers seem to offer from this text a call to discipleship, just like the one offered Simon and Andrew, James and John. Yes, of course, we are all called to be disciples of Jesus and to go into the world with him to welcome, inaugurate and demonstrate the kingdom of God. And there is an epiphany here.
This is the dawn of epiphany. Jesus turns on the light. Matthew hints at the power of the light by telling the story of the the magi, the far-off ones who see the light dawning, while the people of Israel never even noticed what was right under their noses. And now, with this part of the story, others begin to have the light dawn upon them.
First, it was Jesus. The heavens opened and the light from God took the form of a dove and landed on Jesus, announcing to Jesus that he was God’s beloved. Then Matthew dallies in some Sciptural proof-texting about who Jesus was with the story of the temptations in the wilderness. Clearly knowing the message of Scripture better than the devil, Jesus emerges from the wilderness ignited. He finds that John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod Antipas, leaving a great void in the hearts of the people who have been flocking to to be baptized by him, preparing themselves for the Kingdom to come.
But it isn’t safe in John’s territory, near Jerusalem. So Jesus takes the message to the northern outskirts of Jewish land, his own home country. There are dozens of Jewish villages in that region, but it is Roman territory. Matthew pauses the story to remind readers that this move north is exactly as Isaiah said it would be. These were the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, sons of Jacob, inheritors of the promise. Isaiah said they would be blessed.
And Jesus begins to proclaim John’s interrupted message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The first word, metanoete, is usually translated as “repent.” The Greek is composed of two words: “meta”, which means “amid” or “with,” and “noeo,” which means “to exercise the mind.” Thus, the word literally means, “accompanied by an exercise of the mind,” or “with understanding.” It means to understand what one has done, the brokenness it has caused, and to release that behavior. Like the prayer we said earlier, “Lord, help me release what is no longer needed in my life.” To repent is to change the basic way you look at the world and carry yourself in it.
At the end of the day, to unwind, I sometimes watch Netflix shows from the BBC. Father Brown is one of my favorites. The series is based on G.K. Chesterton’s shorts stories about a priest-sleuth. Theology often comes into play, as it did in the episode I watched this weekend. In it, Father Brown first encounters his nemesis, M. Hercule Flambeau, a master thief, who has a particular passion to possess the invaluable holy relics of the church. He shows himself to Father Brown and escapes over and over again. In this first encounter, he shows up in the confessional booth and asks Father Brown to grant absolution for his theft and give him penance to do. But Father Brown protests that he cannot grant absolution unless Flambeau is truly repentant of his sins. Flambeau doesn’t want to change, just to be absolved. Later, Flambeau is more insistent. He threatens to kill a defenseless man if Father Brown does not pronounce the words of absolution. Flambeau even says the first few words for him, to get him started. But Father Brown stands firm. If Flambeau intends to continue life as a thief and a scoundrel, without telling the truth, returning his treasures and making a new life, it is not repentance and absolution cannot be granted.
A better understanding of repentance is not to be had. Father Brown gets it. Repentance means to change the basic way you look at the world and carry yourself in it. Create a whole new way of life based on your epiphany your “ah-ha” moment.
John, and now Jesus, are both announcing that a basic change is beginning, and that change in the world requires a basic change in the mindset of faithful Jews.
Then Matthew illustrates the point. What does repentance look like? Jesus walked by the fishing boats on the lake shore and called some fishers to repent, to leave the life where one’s duty is to family and survival by throwing nets into the sea and catching fish. Leave it all – your father, your possessions, your trade. It was like calling Flambeau to give up his hoard of stolen items and find an honest way of living. Jesus said he would teach them to shift their perspective. They would be fishing for people.
What in the world did that mean?, I am sure they wondered. Jesus wanted to build a movement of people who have seen the light and who can turn on the light for others. The disciples were part of that movement.
It meant turning from survival living to thriving. Truth be told, we humans are animals dominated by the urges of our animal natures – survival, reproduction of our kind, and a “back-up plan.” Survival through drought or flood or cold or heat requires a store of supplies when the earth does not produce in a timely fashion. This is where greed is born. In order to ensure the survival of ourselves and our offspring. But there is so much more than survival. Living as the family of God’s beloved changes everything from competition for scarce provision, to sharing the abundance in our hands.
Again, Matthew illustrates what this looks like. The last three verses of the chapter describe how Jesus’ healing of physical diseases was part of the Kingdom. He becomes insanely popular. Without telephones or the internet, the word of healing spread like wildfire. There were many healers in the days of Jesus, just as there are today. But no one had the power of Jesus, so people came from everywhere, Jews or not. He healed every kind of disease. He was not a specialist, but a one-stop doctor. He healed their bodies, and turned on the light in their souls.
God still heals. I have seen miraculous healings. And I don’t understand why sometimes and not other times. I do know that God has not chosen to end the natural cycle of life and death. Even Jesus was subject to that, even Lazarus died again. And I do know that the greatest healing comes in knowing that we are beloved.
Recently, I went to a doctor for a test. It was the worst doctor experience I can remember. This doctor, with her attitude, could not heal me. I do not plan ever to go back. She was so abrasive that I could not let any healing from her into me. But with Love as our God and healer, we can let the healing enter, and even death, in the end, I think. For we are never abandoned. We are never an object, never one more notch on the appointment belt.
In this church, we do the healing work of Jesus. We may soon join several other churches to include the ministry of a Parish Nurse. There is a gathering next Sunday to which we are all invited. But already we have body work, where healers help us use our bodies correctly so that they don’t hurt so much. We have acupuncture and Reiki which depend on the energy of body and spirit to flow through us to heal. We have addiction recovery in countless groups who heal each other. We have relationship healing in the counselors and the divorce recovery group who work here. We have music and gardens which heal folks whose brain regions don’t talk to each other very well any more. Yet through the arts, they experience new life and wholeness. We have become a center for the work of the kingdom of God to heal and make whole. Perhaps this is why thousands come to this place from all over the region. It is a sign of the kingdom of God among us!
Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, near, at the door, even present, here now. And it is, as I have just illustrated. Yet, we still live in a land of deep darkness, injustice and oppression. No one would mistake the current state of affairs for a world turned right-side-up. Still immigrants are voted “unwelcome.” Still the poor cannot afford medical care, food, housing. Still we act in our animal natures to hoard, compete and steal. Still we take from our earth more than we were ever meant to take to fill our greed.
Does that mean the Kingdom of God was a colossal failure? No. The darkness Jesus was turning back was not first the oppression of suffering and injustice. It was the darkness of the human soul. Remember, his injunction was to repent. Change your whole world view. Oppression and injustice will loosen as the light dawns with our new life perspective.
In the kingdom of God we are no longer bound to our animal nature, but are assured of being God’s beloved, just like Jesus at his baptism. We are God’s offspring, the ones God protects with every fiber of God’s own being, even to death. Nothing is held back to assure the survival of God’s beloved. It has been promised for ages. Matthew reminds us that it is as ancient as the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is still true. Be assured. Let the light enter your mind and set you on a new path. Come and draw others into the path. And we will take care of each other as God takes care of us.
Yes, the cycle of life and death continues. Not because God has abandoned the promise, or that the kingdom has not come, but because God is patient. The second letter of Peter puts it this way: “The Lord is not slow in keeping the promise, as some understand slowness. Instead God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”(2 Peter 3:9). God is still holding out for everyone to come to their “ah-ha” moment. God is still waiting for the light to come on in the souls of all people.
We are still in the season of epiphany. The light is still dawning. And so, we continue to be called to be courageous, visionary, loving; to repent, to live in a whole new world view and bring light into the world. To be fishers of people. Just like Jesus.