A sermon preached at Kowloon
Union Church on Sunday 25 January 2015, Third Sunday after the Epiphany, by
the Rev. Dr. John LeMond. The
scripture readings that day were Jonah
3:1-5, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20.
Repent, and believe in the good news.
These words of Jesus shape the Christian identity
In fact, we usually think of it this way:
Repent, believe in the good news, and…be saved!
Or even simply: repent and be saved
The words themselves do not contain a warning,
But a warning seems to be implied.
In fact, an implied threat accompanies these words of Jesus.
Repent, for…the end of the world is coming.
Repent, for…God is coming to judge you
Repent, or…die an eternal death.
I once participated in a dialogue with a Muslim scholar
And the subject that we both addressed was “salvation”.
We each spoke on the understanding of salvation
Within our own religious tradition.
I talked about the various ways that Christians understand
About the different theological understandings of the life,
death and resurrection of Jesus.
As part of my talk, I briefly mentioned the idea of life
“What’s going to happen to us when we die?”
And even though this was a very small part of my
And I could tell from the faces of those in the audience,
Both Christian and Muslim,
That when discussing the topic of salvation,
This was really
what people were interested in.
This was really
what they wanted an answer to:
Am I going to heaven or hell when I die?
Later, during the question and answer time
Someone raised this question specifically
The person wanted to know
From a Muslim perspective…and from a Christian perspective:
What is going to happen to me when I die.
When we hear the word Repent!
Our minds and hearts go immediately to this ultimate
It is a command that elicits fear
Repent or perish!
We could gain the same perspective
From the readings from Jonah
And from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth
Jonah walks through the streets of the great city of Nineveh
Calling the people to repentance
He shouts out to them, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall
Of course, in this story, Jonah wants Nineveh to be overthrown
Even to be completely destroyed.
But he’s afraid that God might not be vengeful enough to
carry out this destruction.
And Paul, speaking to his brothers and sisters in the faith
Encourages them to be strong
In the time of testing that is going to come upon them
Marriage, possessions, the regular activities of life
Are all going to change.
Everything that we know and are familiar with
Everything that makes our lives normal
All of this is passing away…to destruction.
How easily we assume that there is an implied threat is what
How easily we reduce a message of blessing…
Into a black and white choice…
An either/or…of heaven or hell.
How easily we turn good
news into bad news.
Let’s read again verses 14 and 15 of Mark 1:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,
Proclaiming the good
news of God,
And saying, "The time is fulfilled,
And the kingdom of God has come near;
Repent, and believe in the good news."
Surprisingly, there is no mention here of heaven or hell
There is no mention here of the end of time
There is no threat…implied or otherwise.
Unless we take the word “repent” to have threatening
We've surrounded "repentance" with all kinds of
ideas about the next life.
But it turns out that the word repent means something very
simple and ordinary.
It means to change one’s mind.
To change one’s way of thinking about something.
To repent means to turn around and go in a different
Jesus came, proclaiming the good news of God
What good news?
The good news that the world is coming to an end?
The good news that…
The time is fulfilled,
the time is here, the time is now
That the kingdom of God has come near to us.
The kingdom of God is here.
Look and see!
In fact, look and see the world in a new way.
Everything has changed.
This is good news.
How will we choose to interpret the words of
Jesus in Scripture?
Jonah provides us with one example
For Jonah, repent meant: prepare to die
Because God is going to judge you harshly
God will find you guilty
And will destroy you.
Repent…for you are immoral and shameless and bad.
At least, that is the way Jonah would have interpreted
If Jonah had been God.
Jonah was not God
But he wanted desperately to be God
Or at least to force his own will upon God.
Remember, God said to Jonah
Go to Nineveh and tell them to change
But Jonah fled from this mission
Because he was afraid that the people would change
He was afraid that God really did love them
And would have mercy on them.
He was afraid that God would be God
That God’s love would prevail,
And that Jonah’s condemnation
Repent…for in 40 days you’re all going to die.
Repent… and welcome the love and mercy of God.
Repent…and see the world in a new way.
The Apostle Paul understood this new way of seeing the world
He realized just how life changing it can be to change one’s
To turn around and to see the world in a completely new way.
Paul knew that this good news that Jesus had preached
Had brought about a profound change in the world
So profound that everything he had thought was normal had
So profound that Paul could say with confidence:
“The present form of this world is passing away.” Look! See!
Paul says: Imagine the most stable, unchanging, ageless
elements in life
Birth, death, marriage, work
And they all disappear
Imagine the things,
the possessions, that you most treasure in your life
And imagine all of these disappearing.
And…that something much more satisfying has come in their
That is the good news of the kingdom of God.
Not that birth, death, marriage and work will cease to be
Not that the material things around us will disappear
But that the way we think about those things will change
Will change to such a degree
That what we knew before…no longer seems to exist
Something much more fulfilling has taken its place.
Jonah was afraid of what God had planned for him…
And what God had planned for others
He was satisfied with seeing our world the way he had always
So, in the end, it was Jonah who would not repent, change
his way of thinking.
It was Jonah who would not see the world in a new way
He became angry, and said finally to God—
The God who loved
the people of Nineveh
As much as he loved Jonah:
Just kill me.
I wish with all my soul to die,
Rather than to repent and think of things differently.
We live in this new reality as well…just as Jonah did.
Jesus comes proclaiming to us,
To you and to me,
The same good news of God.
Saying, "Brother, the time is now,
Sister, the kingdom of God is here
It is not far away
It is in you and with you.
It is not something you have to earn
It is something that already belongs to you
It is not a threat or a warning or intimidation
It is a gift.
Repent, and see…that the kingdom of God surrounds you
Open yourself to it.
Think differently, and see, that the love of God fills you
Repentance leads not
to avoiding an eternal death.
Repentance leads seeing and living life in a new way.
In the unconditional love and grace of God
Repent! For the kingdom of God has come near.
A sermon preached at Kowloon
Union Church on Sunday 11 January 2015, First
Sunday after the Epiphany, by
the Rev. Dr. John LeMond. The
scripture readings that day were Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians
3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story
Is something that is unstated but is assumed
The scripture says there were three magi
They were the people of their civilization
Who looked into the mysteries of the universe.
They may have been considered philosophers
But philosophy during this period was not alienated/separated from
In fact, it was very much a part of religion
There was no distinction between religion and philosophy
Seeking after the mysteries of the universe assumed the role of the gods
We don’t know where these people came from
But it is very likely from Persia (what is now Iran)
And that they were priests of the Zoroastrian religion
But it is not especially important that we know exactly who they were
important for us to know
that they were religious people
To know that they were neither Jews nor Romans
And that they had traveled a very long way to follow this important star
It was believed by many ancient peoples that a bright new star in the
Was a sign of the birth of a great leader.
And so it was with the birth of Jesus
The one who the wise men indicated was to be king of the Jews
The shepherd of his people.
The thing that is assumed
this passage is that
The religious leaders from the East had some important information
Some very important information
Information that had not yet been fully recognized
By the people to whom the new king had come.
The people of Palestine had either ignored this information
Or it had been interpreted as a threat to them.
But now, people from a different culture, from a different religion
Were saying to them: God has done something very special among you.
And we have traveled a great distance, risking life and fortune
To acknowledge this divine work.
Here, in the three magi, we have the first evangelists
They were the first, after the shepherds, to recognize this marvelous
And they were neither Jews,
And they certainly were not Christians
They were, most likely, Zoroastrians.
And perhaps surprisingly, the writer of Matthew does not question this
In fact, the writer uses this as an interesting way of proclaiming a new
This is not only something amazing that has happened for our
It is something that has happened for the world
For the people of all places and all times
The greatness of God has been revealed to us and among us
Not just a revelation to a small group of people in the eastern
But a revelation to all of humanity
In fact, not a revelation restricted to one religion
But to the people of all religions
Who is it who has proclaimed this amazing thing to us?
Who is it who has brought this good news of an amazing birth?
Who is it who has announced this epiphany
this revelation to us?
Priests of a foreign god.
And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew
It is taken for granted that this could be so.
And we take it for granted as well.
How beautiful, how perfect, how natural
How many manger scenes, or crèches, are put up every Christmas?
In home and churches and even in public places
And in nearly every one of them…there in the front row
And that is how we think of them
The three wise men of our
Not three foreign priests
Not the priests of Zoroaster
Not the priests of the religion of fire
But as our
three wise men
They are so naturally a part
Of the traditional scene with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus
The shepherds and the animals
Naturally…just the way it should to be
But, in fact, they don’t really belong there naturally
They are not part of culture of Palestine
They are outsiders, strangers
They are the most foreign element that could possibly have been added to
On the children’s television program Sesame Street
There is a segment in which several pictures are shown to the children
For instance a car, a bicycle, a skateboard and a cat
And the children are asked, “Which one of these is not like the others?”
“Which one of these doesn’t belong?”
That is what should immediately come to mind
When we see the Christmas scene of the people around the manger with the
Which one of these doesn’t belong?
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew knew
The priests from the East
Their presence signals to us that something new has happened
We did not expect foreigners,
To be the one’s to announce the arrival of the king.
That isn’t the way it was supposed to happen
The insiders, Jesus’ own people, were supposed to recognize the king’s
But, in fact, the presence of the foreign priests
Is an indication to us that nearly everything
that we expected
Has turned out to be different.
These strangers announce not only the birth of a king
But a new reality for the world.
We didn’t expect to be informed of the Savior's birth by the followers
of a foreign religion
But we also did not expect the Messiah to be born to a simple, ordinary
We did not expect the Christ to be born into such humble beginnings.
And we certainly did not expect this baby to grow up
And to be arrested, beaten and executed.
We expect to meet God in the usual places
We expect our religion to comfort us with the expected answers
But right from the beginning the three wise men tell us
This is not going to happen
The king is humble and poor
The liberator is peaceful and meek
The savior does not save himself…he dies
That is what the three wise men represent
The unexpected, wrong side up, upside down presence of God among us.
They shouldn't be there, but they are.
God shouldn't be a baby in a manger, but God is!
And the wise men stand next to the others in the manger
And in manger scenes in churches and homes around the world
Shouting out: Something new has happened
Something so new and unexpected that it may frighten us
Frighten us as it did Herod.
Or…it may set us on a path of discovery, as it did the wise men.
Today, is the first Sunday after the Epiphany
The star of the Christ child
lights up the sky.
Where will God's star lead us