A Sermon by Eleanor Childs – Reader – 22 January 2017
Matthew 4 : 12 – 23
It’s been quite a week in politics, hasn’t it? I expect many of you, like me, watched the inauguration of President Trump on the news on Friday. Held in the capital city with all the pomp and ceremony and world media attention that attends a handover of power. I listened to the message, the mission statement of the new president, ‘America first!’ And I thought of another inauguration, a very different one, because I’d been reading our gospel passage. The inauguration of Jesus’ ministry.
No opening ceremony. Not in the centre of power in Jerusalem, among the Jewish elite. It was in the North of the country, in Galilee, a region rather despised by southerners for it had a very mixed population with many Gentiles. It was in the local towns. And what was his message? Not one to set the crowds cheering; not ‘Us first!’ but verse 17 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ That was his message. And it turned the world upside down.
I think his message needs some unpacking for over time religious words get clusters of associations around them that obscure their true meaning.
I know two words that I have a problem with are ‘repent’ and ‘sin’. When I was young I saw people with sandwich boards on their backs and fronts with cheery slogans, like ‘Repent or perish’ and ‘The wages of sin is death’ and they would be striding up and down, shouting aggressively. The effect of those associations was to obscure the meaning of the words and to turn me off from even considering them. I thought repentance involved emotional blackmail and grovelling to avoid punishment. And was probably most relevant to murderers and criminals.
It was some time later when I learned that the actual meaning of the word ‘repent’ is to change one’s ways or to turn around – to turn around from walking our own way to walking in God’s way. It’s about inner change and the complete re-orientation of life. And it was radical then and it is radical now. The Jewish leaders emphasised outward conformity and religious observances. Jesus emphasised inner change of heart which issued in a whole different set of values and priorities. President Trump promised to eradicate Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth. It’s easy to locate evil out there in other people, but Jesus knew that it arose within every human heart. John the Baptist had preached repentance, and turning to God though he emphasised God’s Judgment. Jesus’ message was much fuller and more positive, because he understood more fully God’s plan and his own role in it.
Jesus knew what his mission was, from his early days. It was to turn people to God. And that required repentance. When he appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection, he explained to them the purpose and significance of his death, which was in fulfilment of scriptures written hundreds of years before. Luke 24:45 ‘He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.’ He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.’
As I said, I had great difficulty with religious words when I was young. Some of the preachers I heard majored on trying to convince their congregation that they were terrible sinners who needed to repent. I even tried hard to convince myself that I was a terrible sinner, but I never succeeded. Deep down, I reckoned I’d been a good girl most of my life, so what was I to repent of? It was quite a bit later with more experience of life that I twigged what the word ‘sin’ really referred to.
An atheist friend of ours, talking about human nature, observed cynically that basically everyone is ‘out for number one.’ And that is exactly what the essence of sin is. I am the centre of my world and I see and respond to everything through the filter of my needs and desires or hurts and fears. God and his will and loving purposes for humanity are not on my radar, or if they are, they exert little influence on my choices and lifestyle. That is why Jesus commands us to repent.
I was listening to a podcast recently of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He often has his prayer time while out jogging and he said that sometimes he was on the home straight before he’d finished the confession part. Repentance is an ongoing process which continues throughout our lives.
It’s ironic that as Christian belief was declining in the West, Sigmund Freud’s ideas were hailed as new and revolutionary. He rejected religion but his ideas were actually in agreement with the Christian doctrine of original sin, though he would have rejected that terminology. He believed that human nature was essentially divided, selfish, sexually perverse, aggressive and self-destructive. He saw the job of civilisation to keep these powerful instincts under some sort of control. He could not offer forgiveness or salvation.
Nearer to our time another influential figure has defined human nature in terms strongly reminiscent of Christian belief. Richard Dawkins, an aggressive atheist, in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ states the ‘the predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness,’ and that ‘gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.’ He is certain his claims are built on empirical science alone and, amazingly, he thinks the Christian doctrine of original sin is – and I quote – ‘one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.’ I think he’d be horrified if he realised how close his views are to those of St Augustine.
One of the consequences of sin, whether we call it sin or not and whether we believe in God or not, is guilt. A sense of having messed up, of not having lived up to our own standards or those of other people. Many, many people in today’s world suffer from guilt, without recognising it – feeling burdened, knotted up, lost, suffering from anxiety and depression. Now I’m not saying that those are always signs of unacknowledged guilt, but guilt takes many forms, and sometimes it takes those forms. It can even take the form of physical illnesses. We are psychosomatic beings; that is, our minds and bodies influence each other.
Jesus came to earth with the good news that there was a way out of the prisons created by our sinfulness. We can repent and receive God’s forgiveness and be welcomed into his family and kingdom. Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God is where God reigns and where his will is carried out. It’s a kingdom where forgiveness and love and justice and peace operate. Adrian shared in our service last week how unexpectedly and amazingly the love of God invaded his life and changed his direction.
When the Pharisees interrogated Jesus about when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied (Luke 17:21) ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is.” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is within you.’ This was not what they were expecting or wanted. They weren’t exactly expecting a Donald Trump but they imagined the Messiah they were awaiting would come in conquering power and throw out the hated Roman rulers and probably proclaim ‘Jews first!’. This inner, invisible kingdom Jesus spoke of didn’t make any sense to them. Even though Jesus demonstrated the reality of the kingdom of God by his miraculous power over nature, and illness and evil and death- all the things that oppress humanity and cause us to fear, even then, they refused to repent and believe in him.
Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is open to all who repent, that is, turn away from their self centred focus in life and follow him. Forgiveness, liberation, peace, and power are freely available to all. And they are available to us through the power of the Cross. Paul, writing to the quarrelsome Corinthians in our epistle reading says, ‘the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.’ He knew and experienced and proclaimed that power throughout his life. And it’s interesting he is writing to Christians. As I said, repentance must continue throughout life, so God can shape us into people who reflect his image.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, that people would turn down an offer like that. Why would they? Well, when you think about it, it means accepting the authority of Christ in one’s life. That shouldn’t be hard if we recognise that that he has created us and loves us deeply. It shouldn’t be hard when we realise that he knows our deepest needs and longings . It shouldn’t be hard when we learn that his greatest desire is to bless us with abundant life in relationship with him. But accepting his authority means that me and my desires are not centre stage. I have to learn new ways of relating to others and the world that mirror the forgiveness and acceptance and love which I have experienced. Jesus said ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. ‘ He calls us to walk the road he walked, the road of love and service, and we cannot do that unless we repent and put our faith in him.