Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20
“Now after John was arrested . . .” So begins our gospel lesson today, with a nod to the turbulence in the air, and so begins Jesus’ ministry in 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 Gospel according to Mark isn’t one for elaboration or pleasantries. Let’s get down to business. (Even Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is conveyed in two verses!) Simon and Andrew are called out and immediately follow. Jesus goes apace farther and immediate calls James and John, sons of Zebedee. Leaving their father in the boat, they follow Jesus.
Do you sense the immediacy of the moment? Is there an urgency?
God has all the time, infinity beyond our comprehension, but our time on earth is limited. Don’t you know that Jesus knew this? That after wandering in the wilderness forty days, he emerged to walk among the peoples with clarity of purpose, unity of vision, not with the powers and principalities of the day but with God. He has work to do, and he needs others to share in this spreading of the Good News, that the kingdom of God is here. Folks need to repent and believe in this.
But times are hard. Working conditions aren’t so great. Meager earnings are taxed for the benefit of some. Armed forces increase suspicion. High priests care more about perception and position than well-being and compassion of and for all. The future, if one dares to cast an eye too far forward, doesn’t promise relief or change or give much cause for hope. Resignation, complacency, apathy, and isolation bring comfort, as we learn more quickly than we realize how to survive in darkness and despair, where at least we don’t suffer grief, pain, and loss of hope for brighter days, the warmth of joy, the nearness of the kin-dom of heaven. Ah! Now we have a name for what we seek, what we didn’t know we were missing. Jesus proclaims it at the beginning of his ministry and immediately begins to share it with others–simply in his presence and then by action. The kin-dom of heaven is near. “Follow me,” Jesus says.
Such an in-breaking we experienced this past week. Her life thus far prepared Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman to take the podium at the Inauguration Ceremony and proclaim words we Americans needed to hear. She took more than two verses to describe the wilderness we have been navigating not just these last four years but since this country began, the grief and hurt and weariness that has accumulated from the many times we failed to live into what we envision: a democracy where the united states share unity of purpose to provide liberty and justice for all.
Having experienced something of the divisions between denominations, let alone the sordid history of violence between faith traditions, our founding fathers of this country wrote into our constitution a separation of Church and State so that the liberty and justice for all might be realized. Unfortunately, a blindness to their current position in a society that condoned and enforced slavery, genocide, and gender inequality equally blinded them to the full meaning of “for all.” “All” to them–consciously or unconsciously–meant free, affluent, white men, and this foundation of white male privilege, even white supremacy, undergirds all that we are as a country, as Americans, a defect from our birth. To ignore this fact is a conscious choice to maintain blindness, to stay in the boat rather than follow the invitation to repentance (reparation and reconciliation?), to be “brave enough” to move toward a better version of ourselves, toward the light beyond what seemed before a “never-ending shade.”
That next step of moving toward liberty and justice for all, of moving more fully into the democracy we envision where the people–all people–count wholly, is that “terrifying hour” Gorman spoke of. Terrifying because we don’t know what it means to us in the status quo. What will we lose? What will we sacrifice? Will we leave our father in the boat, surrounded by others afraid to lose even the little they have in the moment? But what might we gain? Dare we believe the good news being proclaimed? That there is hope for a true democracy? That a Beloved Community is possible? That the kin-dom of heaven has come near?
Jesus said the time was fulfilled, and he proceed to work, to proclaim the Good News. And he called us to repent, echoing the words of the one who had been arrested, the one who had been a voice in the wilderness, the one whom we know will be beheaded because his truth-telling doesn’t please everyone, and people tend to be self-serving. Self-interested as we are, a call to repentance isn’t what we want to do because repentance demands we look at where we are in the moment, fully, without blinders to the unpleasant. Actually, repentance turns our gaze on the especially horrific truths. Like a father telling his son to “Look at me” when we are facing our wrong-doing, the call of repentance is to focus one’s gaze squarely on the sin. Where have we failed God? Where have we failed our neighbor? Lady Liberty, shed your light, for we Americans have much to repent.
But we confess every day or at least every Sunday, we might say. Yes, my brothers and sisters. We do. I thank God for that. We hear the proclamation of the Good News, that Christ our Savior has forged the way for our union with God, and we breathe the air of one forgiven, redeemed, and sustained. How good it is. And how easy it is to abide is such blessedness.
Jesus proclaimed the good news and called folks to repent and believe in the good news.
What does it mean to believe in the good news?
For the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote, it meant that they had all that they needed: they had professed Christ as Savior and confessed their sins. They were ready for the second coming of Christ, and they could turn their gaze from this worldly, fleshly mess of a life to focus on the glory to come. All is right with them, so stay the course until kingdom come–all shall be well. Paul was also writing this part of the letter to the Corinthians to try to save them from the stress of married life, not wanting to increase their anxiety so they could focus more on the Lord.
Blessed Paul would have been in good company with our American forefathers, with all his good intentions. Truly, his admonitions for husbands and wives to love one another are foundational in our marital vows for mutual respect and joy, but other words, even penned pseudonymously, have led to much harm and distress for married and unmarried alike. Paul’s maintaining the societal status quo, especially regarding slavery, failed to convey the fullness of the kin-dom of heaven that the Glory of God promises and fueled the practice to the detriment of God’s children. Perhaps even for Paul it was hard to imagine “for all.” His world, too, was Jew or Gentile, master or servant, even if he believed there was neither Jew nor Greek, master nor slave, male nor female, the practices continued.
Likewise for us.
We believe equal education is right for all, but we want the best for our kids, so we make sure we live in the right neighborhood. I know. I’ve done it, consciously and subconsciously. We are all God’s children we believe, even as we’ve watched the disparity and poverty grow, incarceration rates skyrocket, affordable housing dwindle, debt soar, addiction kill, hatred fester, and hope fade.
But we’re saved. We confess over and over again. And we’ll stay in the boat, thank you. Jesus, you go do your thing. Everyone will come to the light . . . eventually.
How’d that go for Jonah?
Yes, Jonah was long before Jesus, but he, too, was called by God. He was given a task, one he tried to avoid, but after washing back up to shore, surviving the belly of a beast, he decided to do what he’d been told. His repentance maybe wasn’t as voluntary, but he believed. He believed in God. He told the people of Nineveh that the town would be overthrown, and he knew God would do it. It had happened before. To his surprise, however, the people believed him. They repented and fasted and put sackcloth on themselves and their livestock–they went above and beyond, even ridiculously so. And God changed God’s mind. The people were saved, and we know from the story that Jonah gets mad, temper-tantrum throwing mad.
The people had heeded his prophecy. Isn’t that a good thing? For the people who believed in a merciful God, yes. For Jonah who knew a mighty God, one prone to wrath and vengeance, not so much. Why hadn’t his people been spared? Why was he made to look a fool?
When we believe in the kin-dom of heaven, it’s important to remember who is the head of that kin-dom, who sits in the throne of Glory everlasting, whose will it is we seek to serve in unity. It’s not our will, but Thine be done, yes? When we acknowledge our sins and turn our lives to live in accord with God’s, we surrender our independence to a dependence upon a will for the Greatest Good, one we cannot fully comprehend, one that would allow us to choose to deny this Good in favor of evil because it means we have free will to choose to believe the good news, to follow the kin-dom of heaven, to choose Love with fullness of being.
For the people of Nineveh, the stakes were high, and they had mere days to correct the error of their ways. For Jesus, according to Mark, there was no time to waste. What about for us, for US? Now that we have a new administration, are things truly different? Can we sit back now in our homes and wait and watch for all to be well?
Does the lion lay with the lamb? Are the orphan, the widow, and the stranger provided for? Has sorrow ceased and joy prevailed? Time may have been fulfilled in the moment of God dwelling on Earth, but our work is unfinished. If we believe that the kin-dom of God has come near, then we need to act like it, repent of the many ways it is not in action, and believe that we have a part in realizing the Good News for others–not for our own glory or comfort but for God’s will to be done. There’s much unfinished work yet to do for all who follow Jesus.