Harrowing Of Hell
January 22, 2023

The Mission Statement of Jesus

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning. Today’s passage is one that is close to my heart. I’ve stood on the shores of the sea of Galilee many times, looking out at boats as fishermen cast their nets into the glistening water. Fishing is such an act of faith; though maybe that’s just what somebody who has no skill fishing says.

That said, even a good fisherman would agree that it takes persistence. Fortunately, that is all we need, just a little bit of persistence, just a little bit of faith, to have revealed for us the full scope of Jesus’s mission in the world. That’s what I love most about today’s Gospel reading. I love hearing Jesus say: “Repent, the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”       

How near? How close are we to the Kingdom of heaven? This near _______. You’ve heard me say that before. We are this near ________. We are closer to the Kingdom of heaven than a proton is to an electron. That’s pretty close!

Today we’re going to talk about the mission statement of Jesus, and I’m going to lay out for you the process of living this mission with the help of Bonnie Tyler’s ”Total Eclipse of the Heart.” You may be familiar with the song. It that came out in 1981 and has been remade a few times since then, and now is a Tik Tok favorite.

Turn around

Every now and then I get a little bit lonely
And you never coming ’round

Turn around

Every now and then I get a little bit tired
Of listening to the sound of my tears

Turn around

Every now and then I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by

Turn around

Every now and then I get a little bit terrified
And then I see the look in your eyes

Turn around, bright eyes

Every now and then I fall apart

Turn around, bright eyes

Whoever Bonnie Tyler was singing to, they were having a tough time. Things weren’t going exactly like they were hoping, it seems. And then the refrain: “turn around.” Could have been Jesus singing to her. Turn around. That’s what repent means. Turn around.

God made our minds in such a way that we’re always ready to turn around. Or maybe another way to think about it is we’re pre-programmed to be drawn to the flashy thing, or the distinctive thing, or the outlier, or the novel or new.

The Bible is full of examples. Moses is one. Things were not going well for him. He was driven out of Egypt by his own people and was now wandering around the hills of Arabia following a flock of sheep. Then he catches something out of the corner of his eye. Something unusual, flashy, distinctive. He stops. We are made to be distracted by the little things that are different, that don’t pattern match like a burning bush not burning up. The bush caught Moses’ eye, locking his monkey mind to a moment in time. He stopped. He stopped what he was doing to pay attention to something that would prove more important. He stopped and turned around.

A good friend of mine was called out of his calling, like Moses. He was stopped from doing the thing he thought he was meant to do to pay attention to what God was actually doing. He turned around. He repented. He didn’t know he was repenting at the time, but he did know that when he stopped doing what he was doing a sacred moment revealed itself, like for Moses.

I’ll tell you the story. It was during my friend Ron David’s fellowship training at the University of Pittsburgh in the neonatology intensive care unit (NICU). You’ve heard me tell the story before. Dr. Ron is the godfather of my son, Desmond, and part of my prayer group from seminary. There he was in the NICU with a premature infant struggling for life. The parents were standing there heartbroken incumbered by grief, as Dr. Ron scurried around trying this and trying that to sustain the life of the child.

Then he heard from across the NICU his mentor and attending physician called to him:   “Dr. David, don’t just do something. Stand there. Dr. David, don’t just do something. Stand there.” Ron stopped, turned to the child, and paid attention to what God was doing in that moment. There in silent solidarity he stopped, stood with the stricken parents and witnessed the child move into eternity.

on’t just do something, stand there. Stop. Stand still. Plant your feet in the moment. Cast your monkey mind upon something, trap it, still it, so, your soul can be drawn into the moment. Turn around… it is very likely if you do you’ll meet a sacred revelation. As with Moses. As with Dr. Ron it is often the difficult things that caused us to stop and stand still; the loneliness, being tired, shedding tears.

But sometimes it’s even less than that. Sometimes it is taking a walk, of having to talk. Maybe it is a dream, good or bad, or just the sense that something isn’t quite right…that causes us to turn around.

I remember a moment like that. New Canaan Connecticut, in our apartment above the Descensero’s. I woke in the middle of the night with inconsolable, disorienting anxiety. It wasn’t like me. I was a few months into my first job after college doing international relief work, life was interesting, but below the surface, brewing in my unconscious mind was an unsettling. The “all good life” that was promised if I did all the right things: the right schools, the right grades, the right internships, the right connections wasn’t the life I was experiencing or witnessing in the lives of those around me.

It wasn’t one precipitating event that pulled the frayed edge of my deconstruction; it was everything I was encountering all at once in this great big world. And I fell on my knees. Even in the midst of my post-college agnosticism I fell on my knees because there was nothing else I could do to knit back together the promise that had been exposed as a myth. What had been seen could not be unseen. The only options was to stop. To turn around.

I’ll never forget it. Everything changed and nothing changed, all at the same time. Even as my feet remained in the same place the shadow lifted and I realized the light had been there all along.

Bonnie Tyler knows what I’m talking about when she sings: “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time.” Not sure what she was thinking when she wrote that line, but for me it is God’s love like a shadow on me all the time. And I had my back to it. I was turned away. Blocking the light with my own self-centeredness, my own ambition, my own ego, and someone else’s definition of the good life.

Then I experienced what Isaiah promised the people of Zebulun and Naphtali…that of a great light… That light is Jesus. When we turned to Jesus what we find illuminated is our greatest gifts and passions and how they can be employed to reveal the Kingdom of heaven. What we are made for can be found where we are standing, right now.

We don’t have to change ourselves or our location to find our good life, our Kingdom of God life. We just have to turn around. We see that play out in the calling of Andrew and Peter. They were good at fishing.  Jesus saw that and re-employed their gift toward fishing for people. The faith of a fisherman, the patience and the perseverance, the redundancy and the routine, the endurance was reemployed to reveal the Kingdom of heaven.

Not that anything’s wrong with fishing. Jesus just had something else in mind for Andrew and Peter, and he may have something else in mind for you as well. It may be doing exactly what you are doing, but reoriented a bit, slightly, lightly in service of the Good News – that God is right here, right now, this close. Or it may mean a big shift. Or it may mean taking on a new pattern of prayer or service.

Now is the time to be thinking about that – as we move towards an Intentional Lent starting February 22nd, Ash Wednesday. I’m going to ask everyone who calls Epiphany Parish their spiritual home to take on a Lenten practice this year and then to commit themselves to attending Maundy Thursday service, April 6th. Good Friday service, April 7th. And the Great Vigil of Easter, April 8th. Then, together as a family, we will celebrate why we see Jesus when we turn around.

He had a message that was simple: Pay attention, stop, turn around, and let the light of Jesus brighten your eyes. Bonnie Tyler saw it and sang it… “Turn around bright eyes.” Even when you’re falling apart, “turn around bright eyes.” Especially when you’re falling apart, turn around. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” right here, this close to you, right now… do not miss it, because you’re already there, just turn around.