|January 24, 1999|
|First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct 06776|
|Rev. Michael Moran|
|Write to Rev. Moran|
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 4:12-23: Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles --
16 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." 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea -- for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (NRSV)
Sermon - Till by Turning,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Was this a new message? Something new and startling to the ears of all who heard? No, it was not. It was a message repeated and affirmed from the great preacher of that day, John the Baptist
Our scripture lesson which Noreen read earlier was from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Let me read the opening verses from the previous chapter, Matthew 3:1-2
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Now one commentator has noted that when Jesus came down from heaven, He could have preached on great mysteries, wonderful visions of ecstatic beauty, secrets of health, wealth, fame, and fortune. Or he could have warned of terrible things, explored the depths of human sin and eternal shame. There were many avenues he could taken to attract his following, many new and novel teachings he could have offer to serve as the foundation of his message, but he began with this basic, plain, familiar and simple word: repent.
Why did people need to hear this? Why, in terms of the Gods great plan for creation, in terms of Gods demands for justice and mercy, why, in terms of Gods love for them and Gods desire to lead them to green pastures and still waters, why this simple word: repent?
This must be a very important word and one that bears our closest examination and contemplation.
Let me tell you something that used to amuse us when our children were little: Its all summed up in one phrase: Ill never do that again.
If they were found out for some mischief, some misbehavior, some mark left on a table, some puddle left on the floor, some sticky ice pop found melting in mommys purse or daddys briefcase, whatever little bit of trouble they were capable of in those days whenever they were found out theyd look at you with eyes full of remorse and in a genuine expression of profound regret theyd say: Ill never do that again.
It became such a familiar phrase that Eileen and I used to say it for them before they could get it out, but always with the emphasis on the word "that" - Ill never do that again - I may do something almost like it, or very close to it, barely distinguishable from it ---- but never that again.
This is what I think most of us picture when we hear the word repent: an admission of wrong, a sense of remorse, a commitment to never do that again.
That is a good meaning, but for our purposes today Id like to take a step back from that and look at the root meaning where to repent means to change direction, to turn, and, in the Christian life, to borrow some thoughts from St. Francis:
to turn from hatred to love
to turn from judgment to forgiveness
to turn from antagonism to harmony
to turn from error to truth
to turn from doubt to faith
to turn from despair to hope
to turn from shadows to light
to turn from sadness to joy.
One of the cultural influences that can discourage us in this work of repentance is that we live in a lotto world - a world that holds up as an icon before us an image of instant transformation - instant wealth, instant results, miracle cures, easy answers, quick fixes.
I say lotto world because this whole lottery fever is simply the most blatant and pervasive example of this state of mind, and it is sponsored and promoted by the state itself. But the impulse and the magical thought process behind this illusion is quite ancient and can be seen in every area of human endeavor including religion and the church.
Just turn on your TV to some of these religious cable channels and youll see the wolf of lotto fever dressed in the sheeps clothing of gospel preaching. "Send in your love gift my friends, and pray for a blessing for this ministry and you will unleash the very power of heaven to come into your lives and .. and" - you fill in the blanks.
Lives are changed, my friend, in an instant! - the miracle healing, the overwhelming conversion.
I would not say this never happens, but frankly I tend to be skeptical of those who build multi-million dollar empires on the regularity of it happening through their television show. The point I want to make, however, is that we should not confuse that sort of stuff with the hard work of repentance.
And we certainly should not let the absence of religious quick fix deter us or discourage us from the daily work of turning from doubt to faith
from despair to hope
from shadows to light
from sadness to joy.
The daily work that slowly builds and quietly reshapes our lives and our world.
Its just as much of a miracle to see a life transformed over time as it is to see a quick fix. In fact, it may be more of a miracle because its a lot more work. It takes a lot more perseverance and strength.
Where do we find the strength to persevere in this daily work of repentance? Just so you dont think Im completely down on all TV evangelists, let me turn to one now for an answer. For our second hymn this morning we sang: Just As I am, without one Plea. Now many of you may know that this is the hymn that is played at Billy Graham Crusades right after Mr. Graham issues his invitation for people to come forward and make a public dedication of their lives for Christ.
Im curious, how many sitting here have ever been to a Billy Graham Crusade and appreciated first hand the power of that moment?
There was a recent editorial in the New York Times about the remembrance of one writer of a Graham Crusade that he was taken to by his godmother many years ago. He recently returned to one in his home town of Tampa Florida and had this to write:
A lot of people feeling mortal exhausted by the harsh judgmental combat in Washington yearn for love and reassurance, some source of faith, wisdom, and sweet reason. And there, at center stage, is Billy Graham. In the time he has been preaching, mega-preaching in the form of televangelism has come of age, and some would say, over reached its place. The public record of its preachers has been stained by grapples with sex, power, and corruption. But not Mr. Graham Mr. Graham has stayed the same, and it is the need for his love and integrity that has grown other preachers and politicians should take note of the qualities in him that people seem to reach for - the tolerance, the moral support rather than condemnation, the plainness, the non-judgmental love. They are in very short supply right now, and are sorely missed.
Billy Graham has never based his ministry on himself or asked us to base our repentance on ourselves. The hymn says it all: Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God I come, I come.
These words give us the map to find the well spring of strength which allows us to persevere in the daily work of repentance - we strength when turn from self justification, self righteousness, self- reliance, and focus our eyes clearly on the love of God in Jesus Christ.
While we were still sinners Christ died for us - repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
One of the odd ironies of todays world is how well anything with the world "Shaker" attached to it sells - an for what a price!. Things that were created out of an ethic of simple utility now fetch outrageous prices in a culture of excess.
But there is something you can have of the Shakers and it is free of charge - their music. This morning I want to close worship with a one verse hymn: Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Youre no doubt familiar with the refrain: To turn, to turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.
I hope you will think of that in terms of our message this morning - that repentance is the act of turning
turning from doubt to faith
from despair to hope
from shadows to light
from sadness to joy
from our own resources to the abundant resources of God in Jesus Christ.
Take this tune, this message home with you as an antidote to a quick fix culture - take it with you as a source of encouragement. Repentance is not a one shot deal. When we fall, we must get up, when we stumble, we must regain our balance. And there is someone there to help you up and steady your hand. Its a daily walk - its a life long challenge. Yet when we engage in it we will find that: To turn, to turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Let us open ourselves to the nearness of that Kingdom as we unite our hearts in a spirit of prayer.
By your grace, O Lord, you have brought us to this new day, the beginning of a new week, and you gather us here to bless us with your presence and power. What this week will bring, none of us can tell. Only we know that in all things you will be God with us, and by the wonder of your love you will sustain us and bring us through every trial and difficulty. In your love you will multiply our joys and soothe our sorrows, and, if we allow, you will abide with us and grant us peace.
May this sabbath day be the spiritual model for each day of the week ahead - may our first thoughts always be of you, O God, may our first impulse be to worship you, our first action to present ourselves before you in prayer.
May this hour of Sunday worship send us forth in joy and power, sure of your presence in our lives and secure in the knowledge of your love, for this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray not only for ourselves, but also for the needs of others.
In Christs name we pray for all who face illness, disability, distress, and uncertainty. We ask you to be a healing presence in the lives of those who are hurt, who are bitter, who struggle with broken relationships and shattered trust.
In Christs name we beseech your blessing upon our neighbors in New Milford, in the greater Danbury area, and in our world. We pray for the soul of our nation.
Help us to understand the hopes and aspirations of all people and to never let the abundance of our material well being make us deaf to their cries for justice and opportunity.
By the grace of your holy spirit we ask you to look with favor upon:
Mary Ellen Lanigan
the victims of tornadoes
the family and friends of Bee Lindstedt, of Elizabeth Gilbert, of Judith Kiefer,
and those we name in the quiet of our hearts.
Remind us in the week ahead, O Lord, to daily pray for ourselves, for one another, for our church, and for all people. Help us to remember that you listen more to our hearts than to our words, and simply bring to you an offering of repentance, love, and openness.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
May your days be brightened with heavenly light.
May God's grace be abundant and forgiving.
May repentance and renewal weave a holy pattern in your life, and
May the love of God warm your winter days.
Go in Peace. Amen
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