Sunday after Theophany, January 14, 2018
Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
With the baptism of Jesus, His public preaching ministry begins, and it is said that with this moment is fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
When Jesus begins preaching, He brings light to the darkness, because He is the light. Those of us who are sitting in the shadow of death have seen light dawn, the light of Jesus. It’s the beginning of a new era.
I’d like to focus in on the actual content of Jesus’ preaching here, because it’s key to understanding what He came to do. There are two parts to the message He preaches. First, there is a call to action: “Repent,” He says. And then He gives a warrant for that call to action: “for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Let’s begin by talking about the warrant Jesus gives for His call to action, and then we’ll discuss what His call to action means in light of His rationale.
He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. What is this Kingdom of Heaven? Why is it at hand?
There are a few ways that we can understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is. First, we should note that the Greek word here for kingdom is basileia, which refers not to a nation-state in the modern sense but rather to the ruling influence of a king. Understood especially in the light of Theophany, we see that Satan’s ruling influence has been at play here in this world, and at Theophany, with the blessing of the waters, God begins the process of reclaiming this world for Himself, the world He created. It is being returned to His rule.
But there is another sense in which we can understand the Kingdom of Heaven. When the Kingdom of Heaven comes to us, we are given the opportunity of being its citizens, of acknowledging the ruling influence of the King of kings.
This is an important shift in human life. At the beginning of baptism, for instance, we are asked if we renounce Satan. And then we are asked if we align ourselves with Christ. It is a very clear renunciation of citizenship under the prince of darkness and pledging of allegiance to the King Who is Light. Just like when someone immigrates from one country to another and has to obey the laws and live according to the ways of his new country, then so do Christians “immigrate” to the Kingdom of Heaven, accepting its laws and customs, living in new ways that are appropriate to the King Whose ruling influence they are accepting.
Even more deeply, however, in Luke 17:21, the Lord says that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” This means that this reclamation of territory by God, this extension of His ruling influence, this offer of citizenship to those who will align themselves with Him, is accomplished first of all within the human person. God has placed His law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33, Rom. 2:15, Heb. 10:16). The covenant that is this new Kingdom is a covenant of the heart.
And that does not mean that being Christian is just something you do in your heart, but it means that it penetrates all the way to the heart and even finds its origins in the heart. God has given us an inner universe where we may seek and find Him. But it is also a Kingdom that encompasses all who accept it and even the whole created order. So the Christian faith is not merely private, though it is personal. But it is also public. It is a Kingdom that is within us and also binds us all together.
And so when the Lord Jesus says that this Kingdom is “at hand,” this is what He is announcing. And why is it at hand? It’s because He has shown up. It’s because He came into this world and began this work of reclamation. It is because He is the King Whose influence is being extended, to whose sovereignty we pledge our allegiance. And it is because He comes to live even within us. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand because Jesus is here.
So then we come to His call to action. Because of all this we have said about the Kingdom of Heaven, “Repent!” Jesus is here, the King of kings, and so we repent. But what does it mean to repent?
A lot of times, when we hear this word repent, we hear it negatively. We hear it to mean “Feel guilty” or maybe “Stop doing bad stuff.” And while repentance does include the cessation of evil, it is a far more wholesome and positive action that doesn’t really have much to do with how we feel, guilty or not.
To repent is to turn toward Jesus. It is not only to turn away from evil, but toward Jesus, to accept that loving relationship with Him, to accept that intimacy with Him that He offers, to accept the healing that He brings simply by His presence and His touch especially in the sacraments.
When you repent, you are not just being sorry for your sins and promising not to do them any more, working to change your life. Yes, it includes that, but what is your motivation? Is it just to be moral? Anyone can be moral. But repentance is a move toward Christ. It is the deepening of love and trust with Him. It is getting to know Him better, to spend time with Him not so much for what He offers you (though He offers so much!) but rather for Him, to be in His presence just as you would seek out the presence of a friend.
The idea that repentance is a negative thing is a lie whispered from the evil one to us, to convince us to remain under his ruling influence, under his kingdom. But that is a lie.
Repentance is to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, to renounce Satan and to align with Christ. Repentance is even deeper, though, because it is to be welcomed into the very family of the King. He calls us not only citizens of His Kingdom but sons, heirs according to the promise.
Consider that when Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father Who art in Heaven,” He was teaching us that the Father is not only the Father of you and me, but our Father in the sense that He is our Brother. The our of Our Father is an our that includes Jesus. He calls us to pray with Him to our Father. Repentance brings us into that.
And how do we repent? It includes confession of our sins, of course, as I have mentioned, and seeking to change and sin no more. But repentance, being turning toward Christ, is also all of our prayer. It is why we pray so often “Lord, have mercy,” because all our prayer is directed toward the mercy of the Lord Jesus. You cannot say “Lord, have mercy” without turning to and addressing the Lord.
Knowing all this, it only makes sense that we can say that light has shone in the darkness, that the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, that a new light has dawned.
It truly is a new day, this day when our King Jesus has come to call a people to Himself, to dwell within their hearts. It is the inauguration of a kingdom not of power but of mercy, a kingdom not of bureaucracy but of relationship, a kingdom not of outward laws but of inward faith.
And so we say with Him to ourselves and to one another: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
To Him, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, are due all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.