Sunday 22 January 2017
Third Sunday of Epiphany
Isa 9:1-4, Matt 4:12-23
May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
When I first started writing this sermon I wanted to try and draw a helpful parallel between the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the transition of power to him from Barack Obama which we witnessed on Friday, with the transfer of ministry from John the Baptist to Jesus which we see something of in today’s gospel. However, after some struggles and false starts, I decided not to pursue that comparison because I don’t want to give the impression, no matter how mistaken, that I think Trump is the Jesus to Obama’s John the Baptist, because nothing could be further from the truth.
So let’s just take it as read that we are all aware of that event over the pond and we shall have to deal with the fallout as it arises. And let’s just hope that it’s not real fallout.
Two weeks ago we started the season of Epiphany by thinking about the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
Now, in many ways, John looked like a much more obvious choice to be the chosen one of God than Jesus. John was born into an expressly religious family and his birth had its own annunciation and mystery. John took the nazarite vows meaning that he never drank alcohol or cut his hair and, as we know, he lived in the wilderness, dressed in rough clothing, denouncing lazy religiousity and hypocrisy, seeking to cleanse people of their sins through his ministry of immersion and preaching a simple yet compelling message:
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
By comparison, to the average onlooker, Jesus must have seemed like a much less obviously holy choice. His family were certainly not as religious as John’s – Zechariah served in the Temple whilst Joseph worked with his hands. Jesus himself had not spent years preaching in the wilderness but had probably been working alongside his father, perhaps helping to build Roman villas in the towns near Nazareth. And, unlike John, Jesus was not even anti-alcohol and every Anglican can tell you what his first miracle was, much to the annoyance of some Baptists!
However, despite outward appearances, John the Baptist knew that he was not the anointed one, and when Jesus arrived at the side of the Jordan John recognised him as the ‘Lamb of God’ and we had the Epiphany moment of the baptism and the anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and the voice of God, announcing him to be the beloved son.
In last week’s Gospel from John, which I did not preach on as I spoke about Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we had another account of the Baptism and, importantly, we saw how some of John’s disciples started to follow Jesus.
Today the transfer of the mantle from John onto Jesus is completed.
At the beginning of todays reading, in verse 12 of Matthew 4, we, and Jesus, hear that John has been arrested. We know that John will never be released from this arrest and that he will be beheaded for denouncing the sins of Herod. In the same way that John acted as the forerunner to Jesus’ birth and his ministry here we also have a foreshadowing that he will also precede him in death.
Jesus’ immediate reaction to the news of John’s arrest he ‘withdrew’ from his hometown of Nazareth to the region of Galilee and went to live in the fishing town of Capernaum. This looks like a retreat, a running away from the authorities into obscurity.
But the Gospel writer tells us that this was actually a fulfilment of prophecy. In much the same way as the flight into Egypt was to fulfil the prophecy of Jeremiah so this withdrawal to Capernaum was in order to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah, that from Galilee a great light would dawn on the people living in darkness.
And Jesus does not go into hiding, on the contrary he begins to preach and what are the words of Jesus’ very first sermon according to Matthew?
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is, word for word, the same message preached by the now imprisoned John. Jesus is picking up the mantle of John’s message. And he is doing more than that. Jesus then starts to call his first disciples, the fisherman Andrew and Simon Peter:
Jesus said ‘Come, follow me and I shall make you fishers of men’ and they immediately left their nets and followed him.
On the one hand this immediate response to the call of Jesus, apparently from out of the blue, may remind us of the way in which Abraham responded to the call of God in Genesis 12. However, if you were paying attention to last week’s gospel you will notice that Andrew was named as one of John’s disciples who then went and told Simon Peter about him. Their immediate willingness to leave their fishing boats and follow Jesus on this occasion perhaps looks less odd if they had been followers of John and been present at Jesus’ baptism.
In any event Jesus has now come into his ministry: he has been baptised by John, he starts by preaching the same message of repentance and he has collected some of John’s disciples. But this is just the very beginning – he will soon be gathering other disciples, healing the sick and preaching his own message in the sermon on the mount. And that too is just the beginning. As both the Gospel of John and the Prophecy of Isaiah said Jesus is the light of the world coming to those who walk in darkness.
And the light of the world calls you to come out of the darkness and to join him on that journey – “Come”, he says, “follow me.”