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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/23/2011

Liturgically, we’re now in what is called “ordinary” time.  Today is the third Sunday after Epiphany but on some of the calendars I look at it’s also called the third Sunday of ordinary time.  This doesn’t get confusing until the season after Pentecost which is also ordinary time but then the numbers don’t match anymore; but you’re probably not too worried about that anyway.  What ordinary time basically means is that we are not celebrating Christmas, which we do for twelve days, or Easter, which we do for seven weeks, and we are not preparing to celebrate Christmas or Easter which we do during the four weeks of Advent and 40 days of Lent.  In ordinary time we’re not celebrating or preparing to celebrate.  Instead…we follow Jesus, we engage the journey; we listen; we learn; we pay attention and hopefully we grow in our relationship with him.

In the opening chapters of Matthew, it might be a little hard to follow Jesus because it’s a little hard to keep track of him.  He’s born in Bethlehem but then, with his parents, he flees to Egypt escaping the wrath of King Herod.  When Herod dies they return, not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth and that’s where we assume that Jesus lived most of his life.  Remember too that these relocations are not just incidental details but have to do with Matthew portraying Jesus as the new Moses, sent away for a time only to return to rescue his people, and for Matthew some of the details also have to do with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy which is often a factor in his interpretation and understanding of Jesus.    

In today’s lesson though, Jesus moves again; he leaves Nazareth and goes to Capernaum and that’s where he begins his ministry.  This too is more than an incidental detail; it isn’t like Jesus getting a phone call from the bishop and being assigned to his first call.  “Capernaum you say??  Okay.” Capernaum was on the margins, a small farming and fishing village, unimportant compared to some of the larger cities.  Its residents would have been the ruled, not the rulers, the powerless not the powerful, people for whom the system wasn’t really working.   It’s also Gentile country, which might be a surprise, but then again, in Matthew, who were the first ones to come and worship Jesus?  It was the Wise Men, Gentiles so this move to Capernaum is consistent with Matthew’s message of Jesus being the Messiah for all people, not just for Jewish people. 

Jesus begins his ministry in the footsteps of John the Baptist, with the same proclamation as John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Coming from Jesus though, and coming as he preaches in Capernaum, it’s a statement that might not mean what we might first think it means and it might not mean the same thing it meant coming from John. 

If you look up repent in the dictionary it means “to feel sorry, self-reproachful or contrite about past conduct.”  So repentance is feeling bad about something you’ve done and I think that’s how we usually think of it.  But the Greek word that gets translated “repent” is more than a feeling; it’s about action, turning away from certain behaviors and taking up other behaviors.  Repentance is about taking up the discipline of being a disciple.  That too is consistent with Matthew’s overall message which places great emphasis on doing God’s will.  So repent isn’t just a feeling word, it’s an action word.

Another interesting thing (if in fact Greek grammar can be thought of as interesting) is the tense of the verb translated as repent.  In Greek there are different tenses for verbs as is the case with any language.   One frequently used Greek tense indicates that an action is done once and that’s it; it’s complete and sufficient for its purpose.  This is the aorist tense and for example Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of aorist verbs that indicate among other things that Jesus’ death is a one time thing but that it is sufficient in terms of our forgiveness and salvation.  Pretty much everything in Romans that has to do with forgiveness and salvation is in the aorist tense.  It’s done and that’s that, it doesn’t have to be repeated. 

Repent, in this passage today is not in the aorist tense; it’s in the imperative present tense and that indicates an ongoing action.  That means, that repentance isn’t a one time thing, it’s something that has to be done over and over again.  You could translate this “Keep on repenting,” or “Continually be repentant.”  The assumption is that it is something that we need to do over and over again because even the most sincere acts of repentance are subject to our frailty and weakness as human beings.  Try as we might to turn away from that which draws us away from God and into sin, try as we might to really change and try as we might to do this in the aorist tense so that it’s done and we don’t have to worry about it anymore, there are bound to be missteps; but that shouldn’t cause us to despair or give up because repentance is in the imperative present; we are invited to repent again.

The second part of Jesus’ call to repent tells us why: the reason to repent is because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Like the call to repent itself, this is another phrase that can throw us off track.  Anytime we hear “heaven” our thoughts most likely jump to the place you go when you die; but Jesus isn’t talking about where you go when you die.  Remember, especially in Matthew, the focus is on doing God’s will; that’s about here and now.  So Jesus isn’t offering a path to the heavenly hereafter, this is not about our escape from this world into another one but it’s about God’s rule or God’s kingdom coming here and becoming part of this world.

Jesus is saying that in him, because of him, the world has changed.  The way that God would have the world be is revealed in the actions and in the teachings of Jesus.  So the call to repent is a call to turn from the way things are, to turn away from a world where some do very well but the least of these are neglected and left behind, to turn away from a world where some are valued more than others, a world where the people of Jerusalem are OK, but Capernaum?  Don’t go there.

It’s a call to turn toward the way of Jesus, the kingdom of Jesus in which the established order of the world is called into question and often turned upside down.  It’s a call to turn toward the way of justice and righteousness where all are included and welcome.  It’s a call to turn toward a place where boundaries that divide and separate are crossed and finally eliminated.   The call to repent is a call to turn and…and to follow.  Unless the invitation to follow is answered, the repentance doesn’t mean a whole lot.  In any case, this isn’t about so where you go when you die, this is about the order of heaven coming here.

Follow me, Jesus says, but then, as we follow, how far are we willing to go?  The stories about Jesus are full of people who follow and maybe we could loosely divide them into two groups.  You’ve got the crowds who follow Jesus from place to place wherever he goes and you’ve got the disciples.  I guess you could also say there’s a third group, those who were suspicious of Jesus or were are out to get him.  They always seemed to be following too.

The crowds though, are actually more admirers than followers; they’re in awe of Jesus, they’re amazed by some of the things he does, amazed by some of his teachings but they’ll also be among those shouting “Crucify him!” when the going gets tough.  The crowds are more of a “what have you done for me lately” group.  The disciples on the other hand, hang in there, imperfectly mind you, but even though they too scatter in fear at the end, their commitment to follow is greater than that of the crowds.  They’re not perfect by any means, far from it; but their imperfection is a reminder of that imperative present command to keep on repenting.  The following doesn’t have to end just because we stumble.  The disciples learned that, and apart from Judas, they kept following. 

So are we disciples or are we just part of the crowd?  We’re ready to follow, but how far are we willing to go.  The truth of it is that for many of us, we’ll follow up to the point where Jesus and his teachings start to upset us and then we back off; that’s as far as we’ll go.  We’ll comfortably ignore the teachings of Jesus that upset us.  The church as an institution has done this as it’s become comfortable being part of the power establishment when Jesus was pretty clear about challenging that establishment especially regarding those issues of justice and boundaries already mentioned.  Pastors do it all the time, being afraid, for example, to challenge their congregations when governmental and societal policies clearly contradict the teachings of Jesus for fear of upsetting someone who then might not provide as much financial support.  We settle for happy church, afraid to ask ourselves and others to confront the challenge that faith in Jesus represents.

When we do that, we’re part of the crowd.  Jesus called disciples, disciples that he knew would have to keep on repenting because none of them would follow perfectly. He’s still doing it.  He’s still calling disciples.  How far are you willing to go?

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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