January 26, 2020 – Epiphany 3A/Conversion of Paul
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
When Jesus began his ministry, he picked up right where John the Baptist left off: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That was pretty risky for a number of reasons. For starters, John had already been arrested. His message that God’s reign was right around the corner had gotten under the skin of the powerful people of his day, and they had thrown him in jail. When Jesus heard about John’s arrest, he was smart enough to leave Judea and head back north to Galilee, but he didn’t try to hide his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” How long would it be before Jesus ran afoul of the authorities and found himself in the same sort of trouble?
Jesus’ decision to emulate John was also risky because of John’s success. Thousands of people had left their homes in the cities and villages of Judea in order to go out and hear the Baptizer preach his message of repentance. John had his own disciples—his own loyal following. If all Jesus was doing was copying the most famous preacher of his day, how would he show the crowds that he had something else—something better—to offer them?
But the most significant reason that I think that Jesus’ strategy of copying John was risky is because, in John’s case, it hadn’t seemed to work. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” the Baptist had proclaimed. The kingdom of heaven is the reign of God. It’s the way God wants the world to be. It’s the way things are when God is in charge. John told his followers that God’s being in charge was right around the corner—that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And what did it get John? A quick trip to jail and, as we learn later in Matthew, the separation of his head from his shoulders by the edge of an executioner’s sword. If God’s reign really was coming at any minute, then why had John’s message been stifled by the corrupt and self-seeking powers of this world? And how would Jesus do any better?
When Jesus preaches, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he is asking his audience to believe that God’s ultimate work of setting all things right has come upon us. He asks us to trust that, even though the powers of evil seem to be gaining strength, what’s really happening is the power of God preparing to come into the world once and for all. The message that John proclaimed and that Jesus makes the foundation of his earthly ministry is one that asks us to believe that things won’t always be this way—that they are changing and will be completely transformed at any minute. That’s a risky proclamation. It risky to preach that reign of God is right around the corner because, when you do, the powers of this world bring their full force upon you in order that their grip on power might be maintained at any cost. And, when that happens, when God’s prophets are thrown in jail and executed, it’s hard to believe that, still, God’s kingdom has drawn near. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus and John before him would have us to believe with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
The kingdom of heaven is love and peace and mercy and justice. It is the sick being cured of their disease. It is the poor having good news brought to them. It is the prisoners being set free. It is the mournful receiving consolation. It is the people who sat in darkness having seen a great light. It is the tax collector being called into God’s service. It is the sinner being invited to eat with the rabbi. It is forgiveness and restoration and hope and everlasting life. The kingdom of heaven is everything we see unfolding in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist told us to get ready for it, and, through his death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that God’s reign has come upon us in God’s great repudiation of the powers of this world. And now the question for us is what we’re going to do about it.
What will our response to Jesus’ message be? Those who have no need for change, whose lives are sufficiently comfortable and privileged, shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares? Why would we need any of that?” Others who have sat in the prison of darkness so long that they cannot even begin to believe that things would ever change say. “Preachers and prophets like you always say things like that. But why should I get my hopes up this time? Why should I allow myself to think that things really could get better?” But those who are desperate for God to come and make all things new and who find the strength to believe that that change is possible say, “Yes, Lord, I believe! I believe that God’s reign is coming, and I want to be a part of it!”
That is what repentance looks like. When Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he is inviting us to do just that—to see that God’s way for the world is right around the corner and, because God’s way is better than the one we already have, to turn around and embrace it. The ones who repent are the ones who follow Jesus into that way for their lives and for the world around them.
Before we start walking, however, we should take a lesson from our parish’s name sake and remember what happens if we try to make the reign of God come on our own. Paul, who before his conversion was known as Saul, knew in his heart that he was right and that he was doing what God would want him to do. In the name of religion, in the name of the God of Israel, he hunted down followers of Jesus, threw them in prison, tried to force them to blaspheme, and cast his vote against them when they were being condemned to death. Saul was convinced that it was up to him to make God’s ways happen on the earth, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Because like him we are human—because we can never be completely free of self-interest—if it is up to us to make the world the way we think it should be, we will always mess it up. And, given enough time and space and power, we will mess it up as fully and violently as Saul.
Our work as the people of God is not to make the world the place God intends it to be but to be faithful to the coming reign of God and let that way of being shape our lives until we see God’s reign all around us. We cannot make God’s reign come by making a list of all the good things that the world needs and then pursuing them one by one. We can’t make the reign of God come at all. And that is good news that we need to hear. Jesus doesn’t tell us to bring God’s reign to earth. Instead, he tells us to see that it has already come near, to turn around and follow it, and to believe that God will help us pursue it.
When Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting their net into the sea, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” When he saw James and John working alongside their father in the boat, he called out to them, too. All of them dropped their nets and the lives that those nets represented in order to follow Jesus. Why? Because Jesus had given them a glimpse of God’s reign that had come near, and he had invited them to follow him into it. That’s our identity, too. We are not simply a church full of people who like to do good things in our community. That’s nice, but it isn’t big enough. Instead, we are a church full of people who have seen the reign of God come near and who believe that, by following Jesus, we will become channels through which that reign will come to its completion. The only way that we can fulfill that potential is with God’s help. And, as we have seen, when God works through the people of St. Paul’s, the world begins to look a lot more like the world God wants it to be.