Sermon preached at St. Aethelheard's Orthodox Church, Louth Cemetery Chapel, Divine Liturgy, Sunday January 14, 2001. 30th Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday after the Theophany and Leavetaking of the Theophany.
READINGS: Ephesians 4.7-13; Matthew 4.12-17.
I think today's Gospel must be one of the shortest of the Sunday Gospel readings. There is no story. We are simply told that Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, and that this was to fulfil a prophecy by the prophet Isaiah. The prophecy is then quoted, culminating in the stirring words: "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light". (Matt. 4.16a, quoting Isaiah 9.2). This is a key phrase, for Jesus is indeed the Light of the World, and it points to the last sentence of today's reading: "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" (Matt.4.17).
This is the real point of the reading. As the feast of our Lord's Theophany (his appearance as God in human form) began with his baptism in the Jordan, so it ends with the beginning of his public ministry. We are not told much about what Jesus preached (though, of course, much more information is given later in St. Matthew's Gospel, and in the other Gospels also). Here we are told simply that Jesus' message was: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
But that is the whole content of the Christian message! For Jesus is the kingdom of heaven; where Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.
That is what Jesus preached, and that is what the body of his followers, the Church, preaches too. Beside that everything else is insignificant. The Son of God became man to save us from our sins. Jesus Christ became what we are to enable us to become what he is. Jesus Christ became flesh, born of a virgin. He was baptised by John the Forerunner in the Jordan, sanctifying our baptism. Because of his birth and baptism, his public preaching, his crucifixion and death and his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, we who follow him are enabled to enjoy the great future that God always intended for us. And so are all who believe the Church's preaching and turn to the Christian way of living. All who follow Jesus Christ will become children of God by status.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became what we are to enable us to become what he is. The kingdom of heaven, in the person of Jesus himself, is at hand. Repent and believe the good news. That is what Jesus preached and taught, and that is what the Church is called to preach and teach.
Of course Jesus said a great deal also about how we should live lives pleasing to God. Did he not preach his great Sermon on the Mount? So the Church, quite properly, says a great deal in its sermons about how to lead the Christian life. But that is not the essential Christian message. Either we preach Christ born of the Virgin Mary, become man, crucified, risen from the dead and ascended, or we are wasting our time.
Of course we take great care how we serve the Liturgy, because we are doing it for God. We try to do it without mistakes (though we do not always succeed). We want to do our best for God. So some of the Church's sermons are concerned with worship. But in worship we are seeking to please God and not ourselves. The things we do in the Liturgy are not important for their own sake. Our message is Jesus Christ, God become man.
Christian living and worship are proper, and indeed necessary subjects for sermons. But they are relatively insignificant subjects compared with the key Christian message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" That message is needed in every age, and perhaps in this age more than ever.
For to "repent" means to "change one's mind". To change one's whole way of life. Surely never was repentance more needed than today. It is not just a matter of the contemporary world's gross sins; the wars and conflicts, the growth of crime in civilised countries to levels not seen for a century and a half, the decline of personal morality and the breakdown of basic human relationships like marriage and the family.
Consider the sheer absurdity of life in a world in which men and women are trying to go their own way. Only this week there was a report in the newspapers about a teacher at an important public school, a man with a wife and several children, who has just had himself turned into a woman. He intends to go on teaching at the school, which was originally a Christian religious foundation.
There was also a report this week that some American scientists have produced a genetically engineered monkey containing a gene from a jelly fish. I hope it stings them! When we go our own way, instead of doing what God wants us to do, at worst we commit gross sin, and at best we make fools of ourselves.
Of course the scientists were acting in the interests of medical research. If they can genetically engineer monkeys they will be able to make them with human genetically transmitted diseases, and then use them for experiments aimed at finding cures. I am convinced that this modern obsession with medicine and cures is connected with fear of death. Many people nowadays purport not to believe in life after death, but the way they carry on belies this. They want to put off death for as long as possible, because they are afraid of what might happen afterwards.
We Christians are not afraid of death, because we know that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has finally defeated sin and death. Death has no more dominion over us. Nor need anyone fear death who listens to our preaching and believes the message. They have only to do what it says; to repent and follow Jesus Christ.
So it is of vital importance that Jesus' message is preached; and all Christians have a part in preaching it, although not all are called to public preaching and teaching. As St. Paul told the Ephesians, in the passage from his letter read as today's Apostle, God bestows different gifts on each of us. "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4.11-12).
But we all preach the Christian message by the example we set to the people around us, by the whole way we live. We need to show to those around us that we really believe that the kingdom of God is at hand; that they too may repent and follow him whom we serve.