Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B] - January 25, 2015 (Mark 1:14-20)

So, I saw in the news this week that the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences has set the Doomsday Clock up two minutes so that it now reads three minutes to midnight. Supposedly, that’s a bad thing. The Doomsday Clock is a big, symbolic timepiece that certain nuclear scientists and environmentalists came up with during the Cold War to alert us all to how near we are to a second nuclear age or even world annihilation.

I know: real cheery concept, right?

To calculate where we are on the Doomsday Clock, the scientists take into consideration things like the proliferation of nuclear warheads, the military tensions between major world powers—and now they even include data on climate change—to estimate the world’s proximity to some kind of meltdown or age of destruction. On the clock, midnight symbolizes that terrible moment. We’re not really three literal minutes from destruction or whatever, but the idea is that things have gotten to the point that the world is supposedly nearer now than we have been in a long time.

Although the Cold War officially ended almost two and a half decades ago, some people apparently think the Doomsday Clock still has a purpose in getting our attention. Does it get yours? I’m not sure it gets mine, but it is an interesting concept. Even if I did buy into what it said, I’m pretty sure there is nothing I could do about it. If that day comes, I guess I’ll just be swept along with everyone else.

This concept of a certain time finally arriving—the nearness of big change and the start of a new era—is exactly the message Jesus brings once John the Baptist gets arrested and Jesus arrives back in Galilee from his baptism. It’s like God has pushed the minute hand to midnight, except this isn’t a Doomsday Clock that Jesus is holding up. In fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s a Good News Clock. With Jesus’ arrival, we’re talking about total world reconciliation, not total world obliteration. When Jesus shows up in Galilee, calling disciples to follow him, we’re looking at the arrival of a bright new future, not the end of it.

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Jesus calls his first disciples (mosaic, Ravenna, Italy)
With these uncomplicated words, Jesus begins his ministry. And they’re meant to get our attention…and, unlike the Doomsday Clock, we can do something in this time change. This news affects us on our level, down to the in-and-out of our daily lives. You and I, ordinary people that we may be, can join up. As New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “the news what God has done in and through Jesus creates a whole new world, and we are invited into that world.”[1] The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.”

For first-century Jewish folks, and for the Christians that Mark and the other gospel writers were first addressing, this first announcement about the kingdom of God’s arrival would have been loaded with meaning. They would have heard Jesus’ words and immediately thought of the ancient prophet’s words and God’s coming reign of glory and power. That’s what a gospel was, to be sure. In our text it is exchangeable here for “good news.” Somewhat like a newspaper headline on the day after an election, a gospel was a general announcement about the reign of a new leader or emperor, a change in regimes. Announcing a gospel provided the one who heard the gospel the opportunity to change their loyalty, to surrender to the new ruler. So, when Jesus comes announcing the gospel about the nearness of God’s kingdom, then they would have understood it was time to align their lives with that new regime.

That might be one reason it’s so easy for Jesus to attract those first followers. Mark, who is the one telling this version of the story, likes to drive home that Andrew, Peter, James and John all respond immediately. There they are, just fishing with their dad, mending the nets, and…bam!...they leave everything to follow Jesus. Some Christian scholars suggest that in that day and age any young man would have jumped at the chance to be called into service with a rabbi. Since they were working as fishermen (the theory goes) we can assume that they weren’t accomplished enough in their study of the law to make the cut. Therefore, when Jesus the rabbi comes along and offers them a spot, they immediately seize the chance to follow, like it was a no-brainer. Other scholars claim that leaving their station by the fishing boats would have entailed a real sacrifice for them. Some recent archaeological findings suggest that fishermen were comfortable middle class folks. This might have been a profitable family business and a semi-respectable position in the community they were leaving behind.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the full of it. The fact remains that their call is immediate; they hear the word “gospel” and they perceive that they are being invited into a whole new world. That is, they sense the minute hand has hit the moment of God’s grace, and they go with it. Even if it does come across as very abrupt, the initial disciples give us a powerful, real life illustration of what it means to repent—change direction—and believe in the good news. It gives us an idea that the new age has finally come and that anyone may respond.

This is crux of the church’s life: to proclaim in word and sacrament that the new age has begun. It’s to point people to the fact that God, in Christ, is in charge, and that we all are invited to go with it. The church’s ministry, whether we’re talking about things we do as a group or as individuals in the world, is to bring to everyone’s attention the news of this gospel. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” Sometimes it will look like it’s not. The world will seem dark and doomsday-like, which reminds us that while the time has come for the kingdom to begin, the kingdom itself is not quite fully here. When times are difficult, God’s kingdom is more hidden, operating by stealth in many instances, but it is still near at hand. It doesn’t mean we turn a deaf ear to those who call for nuclear disarmament and care of the environment and the like, but we certainly operate out of a sense of hope and love, not fear.

Photo source unknown
When we start to wonder and doubt, it is important to remember that those first brave disciples were not always clued in, either. What begins so clearly and optimistically on the beach in Galilee quickly dissolves into the anguish of a hopeless Good Friday. But this is precisely how God’s kingdom likes to occur. Its grace forces and sneaks its way in to the brokenness of the world. God will not be frightened by the mess we make of things, or the mess we make of ourselves. Remember what precipitates Jesus’ announcement of the gospel? The arrest of his cousin John. Yes, each and every moment, as mundane or as frightening as they may seem, is a chance to proclaim that God is victorious, that Jesus is risen, and that the time has come to believe, to respond, to turn around and follow.

One of my good friends visits a Waffle House every Sunday morning before he goes into church. It’s basically intended as his alone time, a chance to have a quiet breakfast and morning devotion by himself before the fun craziness of church. Several months ago, the cook at the stovetop noticed my friend’s collar, and he walked over to my friend’s table to share that his sister had been diagnosed with cancer and was beginning treatments. Things didn’t look good, and the cook asked my friend to pray for her. So he did, and my friend asked some folks at church to include her in prayer, as well.

Last week my friend walked in for his quiet breakfast and saw the cook standing outside, and asked how Stella was doing. The cook shared that she had died right before Christmas. My friend expressed his sympathy and spoke with him for a minute. Later, as he went to settle up at the cash register, the waitress said that it had already been paid for, and the cook, behind the counter, gave him a wink.

To think that God’s kingdom would have occurred only if that sister had survived the cancer misses the point. Quite the contrary: that Waffle House cook recognized that God had come near in the presence of a stranger who willing to listen and express interest in her well-being, in the existence of a community who cares enough to remember her life. In fact, the 2nd grade Sunday school class here last Sunday was asked to put the Lord’s Prayer into their own words and one girl wrote “thy kingdom come” as “make my community more like heaven.” In some way, it was that day for that cook and my friend, standing on the sidewalk, and a meal of grace marked the occasion.

That is the call of a disciple, of one who heeds the gospel and repents and who believes our communities can be more like heaven precisely because Jesus has come. We may not know much about the credibility of this Doomsday Clock, but the Spirit gives us faith in a risen Lord Jesus. His time has started, and all may follow. Don’t let the drastic job change of those first followers trick you into thinking that the call to follow only comes in the form of major career or educational changes, although it often may. Jesus approaches each one of us, sometimes by the door of Waffle House, and bids us to pay attention to the new age that is at hand.

As a matter of fact, you may even have an opportunity to hear the good news and respond with your own life even before…tick, tick, tick…this sermon is over.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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