It is still the season of epiphany, and our theme is still the revelation of Jesus Christ as Messiah, Son of the Most High God, our Saviour and Lord. I suppose really that the whole of the church’s message throughout the year proclaims Jesus as Lord, but during Epiphany we look at Bible passages which make that declaration.
Our first reading is from the book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. We all know how Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he didn’t really believe God and he was frightened that the people of Nineveh would kill him. Jonah tried to run away from God; was swallowed by the whale and was spewed up on the shore. God spoke to Jonah a second time and this time Jonah listened, went into Nineveh and delivered the message.
The way he did it was as if he was a messenger from a foreign nation, or from a king who had decided to attack Nineveh. “You’ve got forty days to surrender, or the city will be destroyed.” And much to Jonah’s surprise and disappointment, the King of Nineveh surrendered, declared a fast and ordered the people to behave as if God was their ruler, turning from their wicked ways and doing good. And lo and behold, God accepted their surrender and did not destroy the city.
The second reading is from St Paul. He is giving the message to the city of Corinth, which was a seaport where they took ships out of the water and dragged them by a sort of railway over the isthmus of Corinth from the Ionian Sea on one side to the Aegean Sea on the other. Corinth was therefore full of bars, brothels and gambling dens. There were temples to all sorts of gods from all over the world as well as fortune tellers, oracles and crooks of every kind.
Obviously St Paul had a low opinion of the city and in this letter to the Corinthian Christians he tells them, “Time is running out! The present form of the world is passing away! Corinth will be destroyed and rebuilt as a city of God! Drop everything and be ready!”
Paul was a devout and learned Jew who knew the scriptures well. I think, and so do the lectionary compilers, that Paul was comparing himself with Jonah and Corinth with Nineveh. He was urging the Corinthian Christians to fasting and prayer. They were to give up all family and business dealings and put themselves in God’s hands. Even if Corinth was destroyed by the wickedness of its inhabitants, at least the Christians would be saved if they repented and believed the good news.
Now we come to the Gospel, where we hear that 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."
The first thing that I notice is that Jesus says the waiting time is over. Jonah said that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days; St Paul said, “The appointed time has grown short.” But Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled! No more waiting. The kingdom of God has come near.” John the Baptist used the same words, “The kingdom of God has come near.”
If you look at other translations of the Greek words, like the King James Bible, it reads, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” In other words, it’s so close that you can reach out and touch it! Now, this is the good news that Jesus is proclaiming. The kingdom of God is right here, now, in the midst of you. Wake up; open your eyes and see; open your ears and hear; smell, taste, touch. Open your minds and believe, open your hearts and love. The kingdom of heaven, which you have been waiting for, is right here, now, in the midst of you.”
What Jesus proclaimed then, so I proclaim to you now. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, closer than you can imagine. If we think of the kingdom of heaven as a country, then we are citizens. No tourist visas, no student visas or any other sort of permit or pass. If you like the idea, Jesus Christ is our passport, a passport which can never be lost or cancelled or revoked or changed in any way. Nothing can separate us from the love of God or the kingdom of heaven.
This is good news, The Good News, in fact; and Jesus urges us to believe it. So, there is plenty of work for the citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Jonah told the people of Nineveh to reform their lives. “Forget the way you’ve done things according to the old regime of wickedness; God is taking over this city and you have forty days to comply with God’s rule of righteousness and love.”
Paul told the Corinthian Christians, “Concentrate on the kingdom of God. God is taking command of your heart, it is time to bring your mind and body under God’s control.”
Jesus says, “You are now living in the kingdom of God. Go and make sure you gather everyone else into the same blessed realm. Go and fish for people.”
We would do well to listen to these wise words. Whatever race or language, we belong to God now and it is for us to live up to that. Jonah and Paul and Jesus are right, each in their own way. Belonging to God, living in the kingdom of heaven means that God is our ruler who commands our obedience; God is our lover, and where the heart goes, mind and body follow; and God’s love includes all people regardless of circumstances, we need to tell others the Good News.