January 20, 2011

Repent: The Kingdom Is Near

by Janice Love
Epiphany 3:  Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.    ~Matthew 4:17b

And so it begins.  The history of the world shifts, never to be the same again. 

For over ten years now I have had the joy of being part of the Christian Seasons calendar team based out of University Hill congregation in Vancouver, BC.  In a Wednesday meeting with me in 2000, Rev. Ed Searcy, in reflecting on his D.Min. studies on the engagement of Christian faith and North American culture, wondered why we as Christians did not yet have our “own” calendar, similar to how there was a Jewish calendar, etc.  I was immediately struck by the thought that this was an idea whose time had come.

By Saturday, when we were to celebrate our first Christian New Year’s (on the eve of the first Sunday in Advent) as a congregation, I had the first form of the calendar done.  The gift of the Christian Year is by no means new but the physical format of this calendar was.  The calendar is organized by the Christian Year so that it begins with Advent and each calendar page turns with the beginning of a new season.  The January to December months can of course be found within it but they are not the primary organizing principle –  that is the life, death, resurrection of Christ Jesus and the gift of the church.

This year we received the rewarding news that in taking a copy of the Christian Seasons Calendar with her to Bangladesh, Dr. Emily R. Brink of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, found an interested audience for it.  One fellow rejoiced in his discovery, as a fairly new convert to Christianity, that he had inherited a rich tradition of Christian festivals that would help him to live out his new identity in Christ through out the year.  In these tumultuous times for the church in North America I firmly believe that the Christian seasons are a gift and an invaluable tool for reminding us who and whose we are.

It is important, however, to do some reflection together on what seasons we emphasize, the obvious example being the excessive celebration of Christmas and the too moderate celebration of the Resurrection. In hosting the texts this last week for the upcoming third Sunday in Epiphany, I have been struck with the conviction that the church would do well to accentuate this day with a high holy feast.  We could call it ‘The Feast of the Unforeseen Way.’  This is the day the Revised Common Lectionary marks the beginning of Jesus’ human/divine ministry here on earth and there are surprising turns taken and rather astonishing decisions made throughout the text. 

Matthew 4, verse 12 begins with the continued threat of extinguishment that has haunted Jesus since his birth according to Matthew’s gospel.  His cousin, John is arrested and Jesus responds to this news by withdrawing to Galilee, moving away from the political limelight.  He has earlier already rejected the path of seeking political office as the means to God’s end, an unexpected move for the expected Messiah.  No, instead Jesus heads into darkness, into the Galilee of the Gentiles where the people walk and sit in darkness.
The land of Zebulun and Naphtali (sons of Jacob and tribes of Israel), located between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, is an “impure” area populated by many considered unclean.  In the settling of the land as outlined in Judges, these two tribes were among a number who lived among the Canaanites of that area.  It was in this territory, the shadow of death, that Saul and his three sons, including David’s beloved friend Jonathan, were killed.  Zebulun and Naphtali were annexed by the Assyrians in 733 BC (2 Kings 15:29), the bringing into contempt mentioned in Isaiah 9:1. 

It is from here that the light of the world begins to shine forth.  When we are in darkness, especially if the only thing we can claim to know is that we are in darkness, it is easier to see the light.  We are drawn to it.  We instinctively, humbly know our need for it.  Jesus moves in those places where it isn’t all figured out.  It is where we do not know that we are more likely to encounter this Christ.  This is hopeful news for the church in North America as it undergoes a time of plucking up and pulling down.

But Jesus knows that teaching, healing and proclaiming God’s good news are inherently political acts that will eventually get him into trouble with those who want the status quo of the darkness to be maintained.  In Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann defines the Day of the Lord as “a technical term in Israel’s vocabulary of hope that anticipates a moment when an act of power and self-assertion will fully and decisively establish YHWH’s rule.” (p.45).  We glimpse in Sunday’s readings the Way Jesus has chosen – unexpected, unforeseen – that begin the act of power and self-assertion that is not an act of power or self-assertion by the world’s definition.  The Way whose trajectory ends in self-emptying and the “foolishness of the cross” which is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18).  

Jesus continues with the unexpected as he calls a third of his core group of disciples from their fishing on the Sea of Galilee.  Not chosen to continue studying with the Rabbi at the end of their formal schooling, they have returned to the family business of fishing.  Then Jesus, by passing the traditional processes, calls them to fish for people.  Having been invited to participate in something they thought they could not in any formal way, they immediately follow.  Their expectations, however, will be turned upside down – they, and we, are in the hands of the living God now.

Sunday marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with all its unexpectedness.  It is in Jesus that we discover the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Its alternative rhythm is one we must mark, celebrate and live together.


dale ziemer said...

Thank )ou for sharing the wonderful unexpectedness that is the Good News

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the disciples' rejection by a former Rabbi and their subsequent choosing by Jesus. I'm assuming being fishermen, or any other trade, was the result of this rejection. Any source info would be appreciated.

Janice Love said...

Thank you, Dale.

Scott - these insights came from Ray vander Laan's series on "In the dust of the rabbi"