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Dear Friends in Christ,
During the Epiphany season we see Jesus revealing his glory. We see him doing miracles that show that he is not just a human being, but true God at the same time. The miracles are great. But the miracles were not done in a vacuum. Miracles grab our attention. They are flashy. But what is much more important than the miracles themselves are the words Jesus spoke. Jesus himself says that the words he has spoken to us are Spirit and Life. So, when Jesus went to Galilee to preach, what words did he speak?
He said, The kingdom of God has come near.
Some might respond, “so what?” What does it even mean that the kingdom of God has come near? It means it’s time for action. It means that God is taking action. He is exerting his ruling power over all things. His kingdom has come near in the sense that he has taken on flesh and blood and is physically near those to whom he is speaking. It means that the time has come. The time for God to fulfill his promise to send a savior for the world and to usher in the last days of the earth. As Paul told the Corinthians, the way of life that belongs to this world is passing away. It means that the message Jesus brings is urgent and eternally important.
What is the message that Jesus brings as he comes near to us in flesh and blood, and reminds us that the time has come? His message is, Repent and believe the good news!
The message God gave to Jonah to give to Nineveh was similar to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. Forty more days and Nineveh is going to be overthrown. God gave the people of Nineveh a specific deadline. Forty days. But that’s unusual. God doesn’t usually reveal what his deadlines are. He always has them. He knows each person’s day of death and he knows when the last day of the world will be. He doesn’t tell us exactly when these deadlines are, but he reminds us they are coming and says, Repent before it’s too late. This world and everything in it is passing away. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus will appear a second time, this time in the clouds of heaven, and everyone will stand before him. Whatever state you are in at that moment will be what it remains forever. If it is impenitence and unbelief, you will remain in that state forever, suffering the consequences of your impenitence forever. If it’s trust in Jesus you will remain in that state enjoying the glory of his presence forever. Through Jonah, through John the Baptist, through Jesus, through your parents and pastors and teachers, through all those who speak God’s word to you, Jesus is constantly calling out to you, Repent, before it’s too late, before your life ends, before the last day comes.
Some might wonder, what does it mean to repent? The Ninevites give us an example. The men of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. They believed that God was speaking through Jonah. They believed that, if they did nothing, if they continued in their faithless violence against others, if they continued to believe and live as they had been, in forty days they and everything they had would be destroyed. They were cut to the heart. They were terrified as they realized that there was a God who was angry with them and who could really do what he was threatening to do. We don’t hear them making any excuses or trying to blame others. They humbled themselves before God, even the greatest among them. They fasted, going without food; and they put on scratchy sackcloth. They acknowledged that they had sinned and deserved the destruction God was threatening to send on them.
Repentance isn’t easy. We don’t see a lot of it in our world today. When someone is arrested for some crime they committed, they rarely plead guilty or admit what they did, even if they are caught red-handed. Society is quick to look for excuses, for reasons for what they did- Their parents were mean, they slipped through the cracks and society failed them. When God confronted Adam and Eve with their sin they didn’t repent at first. They tried to pass the blame; Adam blamed Eve, and ultimately even God for making her; and Eve tried to blame the serpent. As people who inherit their sinful nature we tend to do the same thing. Instead of humbling ourselves, admitting our sin, we make excuses and try to find someone else to blame.
But Jesus says to us today, Repent! Not just once- it’s a present tense command. Keep on repenting. Each and every day review, not just your actions, but your words and even your thoughts. And when you see where you have sinned, plead guilty, confess to God. Admit to him that you are not worthy of his love. Admit to him that you deserve his eternal wrath and punishment, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Then remember Nineveh. Remember that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. When the people of Nineveh repented, God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. God wants all to come to repentance, and he wants all to believe. The message Jesus proclaimed was repent, and believe the good news!
What’s the good news, the gospel? It’s the news that Jesus came as promised. He was born of a Virgin in Bethlehem. The good news is that although the world, and even his own people, rejected him, he persevered. He accomplished his mission. He lived without sin. He suffered the punishment for the sins of the world on the cross. He rose from the dead on the third day. Whoever believes in him has eternal life. Those sins you confessed? Jesus paid for every one of them. That’s the good news. Believe it, not just once, but it’s a present tense command. Keep on believing that your sins are all forgiven in Jesus.
As Jesus proclaimed his message, The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe in the gospel, some people responded. The Holy Spirit performed the greatest miracle there is. It’s a miracle greater than turning water into wine, or even raising the dead. It’s the miracle of giving people a spiritual heart transplant so that they are willing to admit their sinfulness and to trust that Jesus has forgiven them.
That miracle of conversion was performed by the Holy Spirit through the word in the hearts of Peter and Andrew, James and John. They repented. They believed that Jesus is the Messiah and that he came to pay for their sins. Then, when Jesus came to where they were working and invited them to work for him, they left everything and followed Jesus. What better place could they be on earth than with the one who had come to save the world! What better thing could they do than whatever work he asked them to do?
The Holy Spirit has worked his miracle in your hearts too. Through the word and sacrament he has given us a spiritual heart transplant. He has enabled us to confess, as we did today, that we are by nature dead in sin. Contrary to what the world around us says, we believe that by nature there is nothing good in us, and that we deserve Hell just because we are descendants of Adam and Eve. He enabled us to confess our faithless worrying and selfish pride, our sins of habit and sins of choice, not just the evil we do each day, but the good we fail to do. He has enabled us to believe and confess that Christ died for those sins, and that he rose again. That God made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in sins. He enabled us to believe the word of God through his servant, as the people of Nineveh did, and as Peter, Andrew, James and John did. What a relief it is to know that your sins are forgiven! What peace is our in Jesus!
In Jesus, we know that we don’t have to be concerned that this world is passing away and that the time of judgement for all flesh is closer and closer every day. By God’s grace, in Jesus, we know we have eternal life. But, what is our attitude toward others? We know Jonah set a bad example in this regard. He ran the opposite direction rather than proclaim the message “Repent and Believe the good news” to the people of Nineveh. They were his enemies and he didn’t want them to repent. Even after they did repent he still wanted God to destroy them. Sometimes we share his attitude. We don’t want to share the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin in Jesus, especially with our enemies, or with “outsiders,” people who aren’t like us, who are outside of our normal comfort zone, who we might have to work to get to know. When you hear Jesus calling out “Repent”, remember that sin of failing to share the good news with some people, and confess it. Then remember how Jesus shared the word with everyone, not just Peter, Andrew, James and John, but with a woman caught in adultery, with a sinful woman at a well who was on her 5th husband, with the Jewish leaders who hated him and even with Pilate who condemned him. On the cross Jesus paid not only for your sins, but for the sins of the world.
When, like Peter, Andrew, James and John, you have an opportunity to be a fisher of people, having confessed your own sinfulness and believing the good news that Jesus has paid for your sins and for the sins of the world, gladly proclaim the good news. Let everyone know that the kingdom of God has come near. When that makes them realize their sins they will be terrified. But then you get to point them to Jesus as the one who takes their sins away.