St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany 3 (22.01.2017)

Tony Dickinson

“Light has dawned.” That is the affirmation with which Matthew begins his account of how Jesus began to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. “Light has dawned” in a ministry of teaching and preaching and healing. “Light has dawned”, but to see that light and to walk in that light required the change of mindset that we call “repentance” and load with all kinds of guilt and angst and misery. But repentance isn’t about guilt and angst and misery. Repentance is about changing the way we understand the world, and ourselves, and God. It is about opening our eyes to see that great light, and having the courage to get up out of our seat “in the region and shadow of death” and step forward into the light of God’s love.

It is perhaps a rather surprising affirmation, given the words that it follows, words that tell us how John the Baptist had been arrested, and how Jesus had thought it prudent first to withdraw from Judaea to Galilee, and then to move from the hill-town where he had grown up to a town more than thirty miles away by the lakeside, a town from which he could easily slip across the border, out of reach of King Herod Antipas, the ruler who had ordered John’s arrest. After all that, we might imagine that Jesus would lie low. But he didn’t. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

That was provocative. The “kingdom” belonged to Herod Antipas, one of the four surviving sons of a powerful and paranoid father who had won his kingdom in turbulent times, hung on to it through even more turbulent times (and enlarged it) by a mixture of sharp diplomacy and extreme violence – much of that inflicted on his own close family. So to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven had come near was to threaten the stability of Herod’s kingdom, to challenge its legitimacy – like the millions of protestors yesterday, in the USA, in this country and around the world, challenging the legitimacy of President Trump. What is more, Jesus didn’t just stay in one place. He “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The modern American writer, Wendell Berry, writes in one of his essays “[W]hatever we do counts. If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.” Jesus’s teaching, his preaching, his healing are all actions that “serve what coheres and endures”. They are all pointers to the faithfulness and compassion of God, overcoming the human tendency to disintegrate and destroy, to force apart what should be held together, so that we remain in that “region and shadow of death”, the “land of deep darkness” of which the prophet spoke.

That is why it is so important for us to continue to proclaim the compassion of God, the mercy of God, the healing power of God, building bridges in situations where others are erecting barriers, whether physically or mentally, distancing themselves from their fellow human beings, bad-mouthing migrants, or Muslims, or Mexicans – or slagging off Brexiteers or Remoaners. The light of God, like the sun, shines for all equally. It brings healing and liberation, joy and transformation, not just on the personal level but in societies (including churches) and in nations. That is why every instance of healing and bridge-building is to be applauded, however insignificant it may seem: whether it’s Christians of different traditions running food-banks; people of different faiths welcoming refugees: Church leaders meeting – not just in this week of prayer for Christian unity – meeting to pray publicly together, to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and to proclaim the mercy of God with the same force and clarity that has been reserved in the past for proclaiming the judgement of God.

So this morning, as we prepare for the laying on of hands and anointing, we do so in the awareness that we are following the way Jesus our Lord, who “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” In prayer for unity and in prayer for healing we proclaim the love and compassion of God whose will is for all people to be made whole, weaving another strand into that net of mercy with which Jesus invites his friends to fish for people. To him…