Matthew 4:12-25 (Epiphany 3A)

St. John, Galveston 1/22/2023

Rev. Alan Taylor


+ In Nomine Jesu +


Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


So far in this Epiphany season, John the Baptist has been a key figure in the Gospel readings, which is understandable since he was the forerunner of Jesus. And so, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we heard about the baptism of Jesus by John. Last Sunday it was John identifying Jesus as the “Lamb of God is who taking away the sin of the world.” 


John’s prominence in the Epiphany season comes to an end today though, as we’re told by Matthew that he was arrested in Jerusalem and put into prison. The news of his arrest and impending martyrdom was terribly disheartening to those who knew him, Jesus included. Remember, Jesus is fully God and fully man. As such, what you and I would feel when confronted with any sort of injustice or tragedy, Jesus also felt. And so, when He heard the news of John’s imprisonment, He went up to the northern territory, to Galilee, which is where He would begin His public ministry.


It was there that the people dwelling in the land of darkness, namely the people in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, would see a great light. “People living in the land of darkness” is a bit of dubious title to give to any group of people. The title though doesn’t come from their sinfulness. In fact, the Scriptures say, “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Darkness, in this case, is a reference these people not having the Word of God. These are the people of whom Paul once said, “you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  


Jesus went these people who were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, who were strangers to the covenants of promise, who had no hope and were without God in the world” to begin His ministry. His message to the people there was brief and really very simple, and yet, it was much more than it seemed. “Repent (He said), for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


On the one hand, what Jesus said is really very simple. God was coming into the world. Or, as He says here in Matthew 4, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The coming of the kingdom, or the coming of God, was happening at that very moment. It wasn’t as if the people could do anything whatsoever to change or impact what Jesus said. No, God was coming into the world. And so, the proper response would be for everyone to repent, that is, to turn around and to draw closer to Him. It’s a straight forward message, don’t you think? God is coming into the world, so turn around and follow Him!  


There is more though to what Jesus said than what meets the eye. When you and I hear the word “repent” we tend to think of other words like contrition and sorrow, perhaps we envision some poor soul literally or figurately beating himself up over something he did that was wrong. Repentance, as we generally see it, is never a season of joy, rather, it’s a remorseful time, a time to make promises about how we intend to do better in the future, how we intend to amend our ways and perhaps even to make whatever we did wrong, right. 


“Repent (Jesus said), for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The message seems simple enough. But here’s the thing, the people living in the land of darkness, which, by the way, included you and me before we were brought to faith in Jesus, didn’t really care that the kingdom of God was coming, or that they were supposed to turn away from themselves and follow Him when He came into the world! 


Without God’s word to enlighten our hearts and minds, we have a natural apathy toward God. In fact, the Scriptures say we are at enmity with Him, that is, we are enemies of God. And yet, Jesus called these very people to repent. Why? What does such a call to repentance mean? Well, as it’s used in the Scriptures, repentance is not a human work or a humanly motivated work, rather, it is a divine gift. It is something that is worked in us, in you, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The reason for that is that the word “repent,” doesn’t simply mean that we are to be sorry for our sins. No, it means something else altogether. To repent means that in our sorrow, we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has taken our sins away from us. It means we believe that Jesus Himself atoned for our sin by dying on the cross for us. It means that repentance is, in fact, a season of joy in the life of the faithful, for, as Jesus Himself said, “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.”


The Scriptures say, “it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.” Do you remember the parable about the prodigal son? I’m sure you do. It’s one of the most well-known parables in the Bible. We name these parables of Jesus after the fact. Jesus, in other words, didn’t call this particular one “the parable of the prodigal son.” To me, the parable is really more about the forgiving father than it is about the prodigal son. 


You know how it goes. The son took his inheritance and went off and squandered all of his wealth. He then “came to his senses,” the Scriptures say, which, by the way, is a way of saying he repented. What drew him back home though was the kindness of his father. Indeed, when he returned home, his father met him when he was still a long way off and he ran to him and embraced him. His father had the fatted calf slaughtered for a celebration. 


I think probably one of the most helpful ways to understand what repentance is really all about, is to ask yourself if your repentance for any given sin is ever truly deep enough? In 1518 Luther wrote a sermon about the error of expecting God’s forgiveness because of the depth of our sorrow or contrition. He wrote;


“If, in the course of a confessional service, you want to ask a person 

whether he is truly repentant or wants to examine himself on this point, 

I have no objections to offer. Only let no one be so impudent before 

God as to say that his repentance is deep enough, for this would be 

presumption and a lie. No one can be sufficiently penitent for his sin.” 


Ultimately, Jesus’ call to repent is a call for us to believe the Gospel, to believe that the Father, to whom we return, is kind, merciful and forgiving. Whatever we bring to Him, regarding the depravity of our hearts, is never as great as the depth of His forgiveness and grace. That kind of trust in the kindness of God is really at the heart of our faith, isn’t it? There is nothing you could bring Him in repentance that is beyond His promise to forgive. “By this (writes the Apostle John), we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.”    


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.


+ Soli Deo Gloria +