Third Sunday After Epiphany: January 26, 2020
Year A : Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
At the time of posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested…”
I’m not sure that when we hear the first verses of our Gospel that we fully get the danger that Jesus is facing before his public ministry has even fully begun.
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” That’s what we call euphemistic language. Do we all know what euphemism means? When we speak euphemistically, we substitute mild, indirect or vague expression when it is thought another expression will be too harsh or too blunt. To say that John was “arrested” overlooks what the original expression meant in the Greek: John was “delivered up.” Now, in today’s world, we generally understand that “delivered up” in the biblical sense means John was going to die. That sentence takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
Then there’s the second clause, “he withdrew to Galilee”. I know I’ve said that I never formally studied Greek, but there’s lots of great information available so I consulted an English/Greek concordance. There are two underlying meaning to withdraw in this sense that we can choose: 1) to go into retirement, or; 2) to take refuge from danger. It’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t going into retirement, so we can assume that he wasn’t taking a leisurely stroll for his afternoon constitution. He was likely beating a somewhat hasty retreat to safety.
Why would he retreat? Because Jesus knew what his purpose was. He knew it wasn’t time for him to go to the cross. His retreat to safety was to set the stage for his future ministry because from that time forth, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
If I were a public relations or marketing professional, I’d say that John the Baptist and Christ are on message together. John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In a mirror message, Christ proclaims, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
But the thing about marketing is it’s not just the message you need to be clear on, you also need to know if it’s the right time for a product.
All in all, it didn’t seem like an ideal time to start a ministry. There is great strife in the world. Back then, as it is in many places now, preaching peace, preaching reconciliation, preaching the love of God for all, was something very different from the norm of the day and it could be and was a very dangerous business.
And Galilee is not where the A-listers are. Jerusalem is where the action is, where the priests hold sway, where theology is the constant topic of the day. In Galilee, they fished. And they fished some more. It’s probably wasn’t considered a place of great intellectual thought.
But Jesus knows what he’s doing. He is preaching in a place foreshadowed by the prophecies of Isaiah: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
In last week’s gospel, Jesus asked the disciples, “Come and see,” and “What are you looking for?” This is the challenge before us today: what are we looking for, who are we listening to, what are we valuing most in our common life together?
These are demanding questions. They compel us to consider our spiritual priorities. We must discern and decide what is important to us – what we will be looking for, what we are going to listen to, and what we will most value in our common life together. In short, who and what will we follow?
In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us clear directives about our past, our present, and our future. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms what we are to look for, what we are to listen to, and what we must value above all else.
Clearly and simply, unambiguously and directly, no euphemisms, Jesus says: “Repent.”
Repent – for we are all sinners, we have made mistakes, we have fallen down. And Jesus says, “get up and try again.” Repent because we are forgiven and loved. And, so, turn around to try again and hear God’s voice.
This is not to say that we’re terribly wicked people. This is to say that we’re human. We all make choices, and frequently we make bad ones. But we need to let go of petty gripes and senseless quarrels and grab on to what is really important: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice.
And that brings us to both the past and the present. Jesus lived among us. For those tempted to say well that’s two thousand years ago – I think about finding ancestors I never thought possible. I can now date my family into Germany and Slovakia into the early 1700s. For Marty, she can date parts of her family tree into the 1500s. Some day it may well be possible to know who among our ancestors walked with Jesus. Ancestors who may (or may not have) have said “yes” to the call issued by Jesus.
And that brings me back to the present. Jesus remains with us to proclaim God’s mercy, justice, and love – all manifest in this church, in this community, right now. This does not mean there are not painful realities in our world – we are not immune to the great poverty that exists amidst great wealth, that there are far many more have nots than haves. The very same paradigm was present in the first century.
What did Jesus choose? A different path, a road less traveled you might say. He says with an eye on the future: “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” “Follow me,” Jesus asked (or did he demand). Four fishermen became twelve apostles, the twelve became 500, the 500 became thousands and thousands become billions.
Jesus called the disciples of the first century and calls us today.
To what are we called? Some would say we are called to belief; others would say, to church membership; others would say, to service. Others would say it is all these things and more.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the call to “follow me” was a call “to absolute discipleship,” and that only in surrendering ourselves to Jesus’ command could we know our greatest joy.
We are called to bring light into darkness, to proclaim to all people the Good News of salvation and to make know the glory of God’s marvelous works. We can follow Jesus’s call by inviting others to join us, by offering them what we have and letting them prosper if they choose to remain with us. We can follow Jesus’ call by meeting people where they are and fostering ministries and activities that are suitable for their needs and bringing them to the kingdom of heaven on earth. Because the kingdom is at hand. Not the end of the world kingdom, but the kingdom on earth that Jesus proclaimed.
You won’t find it on Waze, MapQuest or GPS. The kingdom of heaven exists where God is praised, where neighbor is loved. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever God’s will of a peaceful and just society reigns. It is our sacred duty to take the light of the world into the world.
There is no reason to walk in darkness when we can walk, even dance in light.
“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
 Matthew 4:12, NRSV
 Matthew 4:17, NRSV
 Matthew 3:2, NRSV
 Matthew 4:17
 Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 10432-10436). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, p. 215
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