Repent — and be Watchful!

Repent – and be watchful!     26th Feb. 2020   Madingley

Isaiah 9:1-4             1 Cor. 1:10-18              Matt. 4:12-23

We are used, Sunday by Sunday, to our readings beginning with the OT – that makes sense – moving on next to the epistle, and crowning the whole finally with the gospel. Yet there are occasions when an arrangement of the readings in the chronological order of events, would be better as an aid to our reflection. Such is the case today.

We began with Isaiah’s hopeful prophecy that the northern-most area of what we might think of as the Holy Land, where two of the tribes of Israel had settled after the Exodus, would be rescued from their lives of gloom and despondency. The geographical location meant that this area was always prone to invasion by foreign armies, and the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first of all the tribes of Israel to be sent into exile. Theirs had been an insecure existence in the Promised Land. 

But in the gospel we heard that this is the very area where Jesus chose to begin his mission. After John the Baptist had been thrown into prison, Jesus made the decision to move north, closer to the area where he grew up, and away from the immediate danger of being arrested himself because of his association with John. 

So he too called people to repent, just as John the Baptist had done, but this time it is not so that people would be ready for the one who is to come, as John had said, but it is because, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The light has dawned; for those who are prepared to listen, there is a whole new way of living being proclaimed. Instead of warfare and conflict, the Kingdom of God is about love and living in peace together; instead of the unequal distribution of the world’s goods, there is to be generosity and equality; there is to be a complete rethink about individuals, and their standing within the kingdom, and so on. Above all, it is found where God’s will is paramount in the way people live their lives. 

This may sound all very acceptable on a Sunday morning in church, but it was a call to revolution. Accepted values and standards were being turned upside down. The greatest in the kingdom would not be the one who owns the most, but the one who gives [in whatever way] the most. In the Kingdom of God there are no outcasts or rejects. As a result of this revolutionary approach, the Kingdom was bound to come into fatal collision with those who defended the divisions of class, financial status, and religious hierarchy. It is not the self-proclaiming religious leaders who have the greatest standing, but the quietly faithful who pray in secret, and who hear the voice of God speaking to them. For the Kingdom of God signifies God with us, a term which is one of the titles attributed to Jesus – Emmanuel, meaning “God with us” –  the essence of the gospel.

Presumably this message, or the beginnings of it, was heard by a couple of pairs of brothers, fishermen on the lake of Galilee, who then heard the voice of Jesus calling them to follow him. They all would be involved in later years, calling other people to the faith, and bringing peace, mending potential crises when there were disagreements about the way ahead.

It is only too easy for us to develop the idea that life in the early church was one long joyful experience of the new faith in Jesus, and that they didn’t have to battle with the sort of controversies we poor souls have to face. Yet our epistle gently throws that idea out of the window.

I mentioned last week that it may be surprising to remember that many of our epistles were written before the gospels, so they provide us with an insight into the earliest teaching in the church, and the difficulties that had to be overcome. Both Epistles to the Corinthians belong in this set of earliest writings. The apostle Paul seemed to have a great affection for the people of Corinth, but they also caused him a lot of mental and spiritual anguish, and dealing with this is the reason for  the writing of his letters. 

Corinth was a busy, thriving cosmopolitan place. A well-established trading centre, with  a huge mixture of people and beliefs. And it would seem clear that Paul was well received when he first arrived there, because he made many close friends whom he speaks of with great fondness in his letters. He also stayed there for 18 months, which was a very long time compared with the other cities he visited.

The problems arose once he had left, as we heard in our reading today. The very first words reveal this, “I appeal to you, brethren – that there be no divisions among you.” Apparently other Christian apostles and teachers had followed in his footsteps, [and Paul always did ensure when moving on to another city, that he left behind him a reliable team of teachers so that the newly founded church could be supported as they moved onwards in their faith and understanding.] 

But different cliques had sprung up, according to which teachers members of the church approved of most, [he mentions Cephas, and Apollos.] This had the effect of splitting the church into warring factions, and as a result the gospel was being misunderstood. You can hear frustration and sorrow in Paul’s words, as he points out to them that they shouldn’t be looking for the most erudite preacher to follow, but to remember the simplicity of the faith they had been baptized into. Many highly educated people found it to be nonsense, but Paul says that God recognized that it was not through our wisdom that we would find him, but through the folly of sending his own Son to die for us. 

Getting to grips with this belief, and reflecting on what our Lord actually said, prevent us falling into the trap the Corinthians had found themselves in, quarrelling over the comparative giftedness of the available preachers.

I am not decrying the work of theologians who explore the deepest consequences of the faith. In fact, I’m a firm believer that if we learn about the heresies which sprang up in the early church, and which can still be found in various sects today, we then realize even more the profound truth of what the church teaches. All of which, of course, is summed up in the creed which we say, Sunday by Sunday stating firmly, “We believe …..”  The Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed was not about impressive teaching, erudite theology, or even being able to be proved right in what we believe.  It was about recognizing our own frailties, acknowledging God’s presence with us, and above all giving thanks for the amazing gift of his Son to us. It’s not rocket science; it’s more than that, it is world and life changing.