January 22, 2023


Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 4:12-23

The gospel writers give us a kind of “Reader’s Digest” account of Jesus’ life as a pick-up to his public ministry. Just a few weeks ago we gathered out on the lawn of our church and sang “Silent Night” welcoming the birth of Jesus once again. During these early weeks in January, we move quickly from that humble beginning in Bethlehem, to the holy family’s escape to Egypt, to his childhood upbringing in Nazareth, and then to his journey south where he was baptized by John.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) each record that following his baptism and the declaration that he, indeed, was God’s son, Jesus went on a personal spiritual retreat. He moved into the wilderness. After spending a long time alone in prayer, he was tempted with some natural human desires – which IF he could overcome – would certainly prove to everyone that he was the Son of God. He was tempted – the scriptures record -metaphorically by Satan – with food (which he must have craved after having fasted 40 days), with fate (as he was challenged to jump from a high place and let the angels catch him), and with fortune and power (when he was promised all the kingdoms of the world. All he had to do was give UP his allegiance to his Heavenly Father).

After renouncing all of that – Satan left him … “until an opportune time” the scriptures record. These temptations would never fully leave him. Nevertheless, he set his sights on the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali (not far from Nazareth) and he picked up John’s message to “Repent, for the kingdom of God had come near.” [Pause]

As you listened to the scripture passage today I wonder how you responded when you heard that word “Repent!” I wonder what you thought you might hear if you read ahead in the bulletin and saw that ‘repent’ was the title of my mana’o for the day – the Third Sunday after Epiphany – Kalaupapa Sunday. Repent! How does that word strike you? [Pause]

There was a lady in my former congregation who used to say to me periodically, “Why do you preachers always insist on yammering on about sin and repentance? Life is hard enough. I feel bad enough. I don’t need to be told about sin. What I need is to hear more about God’s love.

Well, if you listen carefully to Jesus words (that is, the ones that were recorded in this lection) you’ll notice he doesn’t seem to be picking up the tactic of a televangelist in his big public debut. When Jesus calls people to ‘repent,’ he’s not talking about sin in this passage. Rather, he invited folks to join him in living a new kind of life – one that was God-centered and not distracted by the temptations of the world. “Repent,” for Jesus, was an invitation to draw near to God and to eschew the fame and fortune that Satan offered Jesus and continues to dangle in front of us. His challenge was to announce that God’s kingdom was at hand and that WE are invited to participate. [Pause]

You see the basic meaning of repentance is not to seek forgiveness of our sins so that we will be rewarded with eternal life or some other blessing. No, we NEED to seek forgiveness – and daily. It’s the only way to live a faithful life. But repentance means something more – it means to turn in a new direction. To change course from what our ego tells us is absolutely necessary for survival – the food, fame, and fortune stuff we referenced earlier – AND to turn our lives Godward. We are invited to begin or deepen our life with the one who provides real life, eternal life, abundant life.

To repent is to surrender the control of my life in always wanting things to be done MY way and to instead follow and yield to what God wants FOR me and FROM me. My way might be just fine – but God’s way is SOOO much better. [Pause]

In the gospel we read today of a distinct shift occurred in Jesus’ life which often goes unnoticed or unrecognized. Jesus learned about John’s arrest. The Roman authorities saw the act of baptizing and announcing Jesus as the Son of God as an affront to imperial authority. He immediately became a threat to the ruling powers. To shut him up, John was arrested and later martyred which infuriated Jesus thereby catalyzing the movement to call others to God – “Repent. God’s kingdom IS near. Come and follow.”

So, the call of his disciples by Jesus, and their decision to follow was a radical, political act on their part. Jesus raised the stakes another notch by inviting these Jewish fishermen to stand with him. To change course. To say “NO” to the imperial power centered in Rome and “YES” to the heavenly authority centered in God.

Now, this didn’t just happen. The disciples did not simply leave their nets, families, and responsibilities because Jesus was singing their tune. NO! Frustration was already fomenting. They were sick and tired of being ruled by outside secular leaders and saw in Jesus a higher calling. One they couldn’t resist. While they may not have had any real idea what they were getting into, the costs involved, and the sacrifice they would need to make – they were compelled to follow.

Have you heard that kind of voice in your life? Have you sensed that kind of calling? If so, did you heed and follow or cast it aside as foolish, impractical, or dangerous? [Pause]

Today we celebrate Kalaupapa Sunday. Kalaupapa is a beautiful peninsula on the island of Molokai’i where governmental officials quarantined those suffering with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease in the mid to late 1800’s) because people were afraid of contagion and there was no known means of cure. Native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible since they had such a low level of immunity to diseases that were brought to the islands from outsiders.

Fr. Damien was a priest serving in Honolulu when a call went out from the bishop for volunteers to go Molokai’i to minister to those suffering there. Taken from their homes and forced to live in conditions that were unconscionable by our standards, Fr. Damien heard the call, volunteered, and became a pastor, an advocate, and a source of healing for the residents living there. He built houses, a church, roads, dug graves, buried literally hundreds, and shared God’s love to each one reminding them, “Even though you have been sent away as a victim of this horrible disease – God loves you.”

Jozef De Veuster, was born in Belgium on January 3, 1840, was educated, and admitted into religious vocation on October 7, 1860. He ministered to those suffering from Hansen’s Disease on Kalaupapa – after heeding the call of God – from 1873 until his death on April 15, 1889. He was canonized as saint on October 11, 2009, by Pope Benedict 16th.

Saint Damien “repented” after hearing the call from God, and must have thought, “not my will, but thine be done.” Having no clear idea what he was getting into, the costs involved, nor the sacrifice he would eventually make – he was compelled to follow.

Today we honor Fr. Damien – Saint of the Church, but also an amazing example of how God can use a disciple to have an incredible impact on our world. Just as God changed the world through the witness of the early disciples, and Saint Damien, I believe God can do the same through us today. We just need to “repent.” To be open to God’s call. To turn our lives Godward and see what God wants FOR and FROM us.

I’d like to close with a poem written by a member of Keawala’i. Taka Harada had a brother who resided in Kalaupapa for many years. His wife, Winnie is still living there today. In his book, Kalaupapa in Poetry, Taka writes this poem entitled Damien. [Read Poem]

Mahalo, Saint Damien for teaching us the necessity to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven IS indeed near.


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