Welcome to worship for this 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, landing on Sunday, January 22, 2023!
The bulletin for this service can be found here. As we are still in Setting 12 out of the All Creation Sings hymnal, the liturgical music will be included on it, along with the order of worship, the words of the liturgy, the hymn numbers out of the ELW and the sermon in full. The sermon is also found on this page after the worship video.
You are welcome to participate as much or as little as you like with the service. Some suggestions for a deeper and fuller connection is to have a lit candle in your space that can be extinguished with the altar candles after the sending hymn, and joining in on communion with something small to eat and drink at the appropriate time. Further instruction will be given during the service.
May God’s loving welcome lift you up and call you into joy and hope, now and always!
O Lord, illumine our minds with the power of your Spirit, that we may be able to see your kingdom and hear your call, repenting from the past and moving forward into the future, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Years ago when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in religious studies, I used to take the bus to my part time job at a local drug store. I was no stranger to the bus nor any of the many colorful characters one would encounter in downtown Vancouver, but there was this one fellow who I always took notice of. Actually, it was pretty hard not to notice him as I’m pretty sure everyone who would frequent that part of the city would be pretty familiar to him, what with his eccentric clothing, wild and unkept hairstyle, and his soap box and megaphone, into which he would yell into (making his voice even louder), warning people of the impending end times and doom unless we would repent and give our lives to Jesus.
Maybe you’ve encountered this kind of person as well. Maybe not with that same exact description, but perhaps somewhat similar. And as a young bible college student, I wasn’t sure what to make of this guy. I remember telling some of my classmates about him, and they suggested that I talk to him, find out what he’s about, why he does what he does, and just pick his brain a bit because as they saw it, he could be the next John the Baptizer.
I wasn’t so sure about that. I can understand why they’d say that though, as both of them were a bit different from the day’s standards, they were outsiders, and I guess pretty passionate about whatever they were preaching about. Still, I found my guy to be too weird for me, so I never did talk to him nor did I even try to approach him. I would just largely ignore him or make up some excuse in my head like I was in a rush to get to work (which I usually was) or I couldn’t hear him over my headphones (which I usually couldn’t).
To be honest, I think I was a bit intimidated, maybe even scared by him. His style wasn’t really my cup of tea and his method of preaching wasn’t really what I’d call the most effective in this day and age, but it was the message that he was proclaiming that pushed me away the most. To me, his message was more of a threat than anything else.
And in general, we humans don’t really do well with threats. I can’t think of a time when I felt threatened and it drew me in to hear more. I don’t think I’ve ever received a threat from someone that ended up strengthening our relationship. I’m pretty sure I would never run towards a threat, but I would run away or put up walls to defend myself or maybe I might even retaliate… if the odds of winning were enough in my favour, that is.
So to me, this message of doom and gloom isn’t really good news. This proclamation of a wrathful bloodthirsty God doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. This threat of “repent or else” in my opinion isn’t really helpful in drawing together a community or a church.
This is where it gets weird for me, as that is another similarity with this guy and John the baptizer, their messages seem almost identical. And as we know, John’s ministry was pretty fruitful up until he was sent to prison, and then Jesus picked it up right where John left off and preached the same exact thing word for word, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Seriously, mind blown. Jesus actually preached these same words? He gave the same message that John did even though John said that he isn’t worthy of tying Jesus’ sandals? He said the same type of thing that the strange downtown Vancouver evangelist guy would proclaim at the top of his lungs that drove everyone around him away?
Well, to be fair, I’m not sure if it was the Vancouver evangelist’s message that drove people away or his apparent lack of hygiene, but still.
And so at first glance, I don’t like this Jesus that we get in today’s gospel reading. I don’t like this doom and gloom preaching. I don’t like feeling threatened and to be given ultimatums. I don’t like being told just how much I don’t live up and how much miss the mark and how much of a failure I am. To me, that just isn’t good news. It isn’t good news when “repent” becomes more of a command, a prerequisite for salvation, a condition for God’s grace.
But… what if that isn’t what Jesus meant? What is that wasn’t John’s message? It probably was what strange Vancouver guy meant, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right.
See, what I think happened here over the years since this incident in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life happened and was recorded, was that we have been bombarded by interpretations of these words and that has coloured our own interpretations. We’ve heard about how others have taken this message and we start to take it the same way. We’ve encountered people like the downtown Vancouver guy I keep bringing up, and we start to hear “repent” as a threat.
These days, we hear “repent” and we think it’s something we must do in order to be saved, and then we hear something like “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and it sounds like our deadline is coming up, like we better get repenting while the repenting’s good, because that kingdom’s not waiting on no one. It just sounds so pushy to us, so urgent, so threatening.
We hear that and we brush it off. We’re told that and we think nothing of it. We see some guy on a soapbox with a megaphone proclaiming this and we just keep walking. That’s what we might do here in the 21st Century with our experiences and ideals, but back in Jesus’ day? Well, them fishers of fish dropped their nets when they heard this and just upped and followed Jesus to become fishers of people. Mind blown again. These plot twists are just too much.
But because of their reaction, completely not what I’d expect and so far from what I’d actually do, I have reason to believe that they heard these words a bit differently. Because “immediately” was used twice to describe the actions of these disciples, I’m thinking that these words landed on a different kind of ears. Because these probably life long and generational fishermen were so ready and willing to throw away their lives to answer this call, I’m starting to see Jesus’ words here not so much as a threat, but perhaps more of a promise.
See I don’t think Jesus is warning people that the kingdom of heaven is near so they better get their act together, but I think he’s promising them that the kingdom of heaven is near so they can get their act together. Jesus isn’t threatening people to repent or else, but Jesus is encouraging people to let go of their pasts so they might be able to embrace this kingdom into the future. Jesus isn’t forcing anyone to even listen to him but he comes declaring truth and love to anyone who has ears to hear.
So while I still see that crazy downtown evangelist as a bit crazy, I can see the faith in his actions. While I still don’t agree with what I think he’s trying to say and do, I can appreciate his devotion to what he thinks is right. While I would never want to be in his position and do what he does, I’m glad that he’s somehow inadvertently taught me a lesson in humility, acceptance, and discipleship in answering God’s call. I tell ya, that Holy Spirit works in mysterious and often shockingly strange ways.
And so are we called to follow Jesus in this kingdom of heaven. So are we called to put away the past that might haunt us or hold us back and put on Christ as we move into the future. So are we called to shed the guilt of our sins away, and by the power of the Spirit turn to God and be strengthened to accept God’s loving grace and mercy, redeeming us all to be sons and daughters of the Most High, joint heirs with Jesus Christ our Lord.
And it’s ok if we feel imperfect, because we aren’t called to be perfect. It’s ok if we might still have some baggage that we’re carrying, because we are no longer carrying them on our own. It’s ok if we don’t feel adequate or are intimidated or maybe even feel a little afraid, because in Christ we are made to be good enough, worthy of God’s love, and blessed with truth and the peace that surpasses all understanding.
So let us repent from the past guilts and shames that weigh us down, and turn to the future where we can reside in the kingdom of heaven, the community of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.