| Mark 1:14-20
||Sun, January 26, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God”. Mark’s telling is rapid and thick. John has been arrested. Locked up. Jailed. Put in the slammer. This is not a spiritual metaphor. This is not a parable. John’s voice has, literally, been silenced. What for? John is arrested for preaching a baptism of repentance and preparing all who would listen for one who is way more powerful than he. The story begins with an arrest. Jesus begins to speak in the void created by the silencing of John. We have read it so often that it slips off us like water off a duck’s back. But anyone hearing this story for the first time must be put on alert. The authorities, the powers, the principalities have no interest in giving John or Jesus free speech. These preachers are not free to speak dangerous sermons in the pulpit or in the street. We won’t be surprised if these same powers work to silence others who follow after John and Jesus. And this must explain Jesus’ relocation.
You did notice, didn’t you? All of a sudden the scene shifts. The story opens at the Jordan River, not far from Jerusalem, site of Israel’s beginnings in the promised land. But now, after John’s arrest, Jesus shows up where? In Galilee. Way up north in rural Galilee. Far from the centre of power. Yes, Jesus comes to the sticks, to Galilee. Is it a strategic manoeuver? Is he coming home? Is he relocating on the margins of the culture? Yes. Yes. And yes. Like us, maybe? Like us on the margins of the campus, on the margins of the city, on the margins of the nation. Our physical location on the margins of the American empire, way out here on the western edge of Canada matches the shift of the once mainline church to the sidelines of society. The dangerous new news is first heard far from the centre of power, out of sight of the media’s eye, flying way below the radar of the culture. This shift to the edge is the place to find a voice, out of sight of the powers that be.
Because Jesus does find his voice out in Galilee. Jesus is first of all a preacher. He comes “proclaiming the good news of God”. Of course, this is a rather polite way of noting that all of his sermons are “gospel” sermons. What’s more these “gospel” sermons rev eal that Jesus is an evangelist. Yes, that’s right. Jesus is an evangelical. It is right here, in red letter print. Jesus comes proclaiming “evangelion”. That’s Greek for “gospel” ... and “gospel” is old english for “good news”. We had thought that perhaps Jesus was a liberal like some of us or a conservative like others of us, on our side - whatever side we’re on. But Jesus refuses to be harnessed in support of your particular bias or mine. Instead, he emerges on the margins of culture, on the edges of the church and comes into view in our peripheral vision with utterly surprising, confounding and compelling evangelical good news.
Jesus preaches a two point sermon. It is haiku like. On an average Sunday it takes me two thousand words to spit it out. Jesus’s sermon is nineteen words long: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” There is a lot packed into this single sentence. This is Jesus’ message. This is what sets the whole story in motion: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In the preaching class at VST this we have been paying attention to the form of a sermon. A good sermon has a well crafted substructure that holds it together and keeps it moving. Jesus’ evangelical sermon is like a poem verse with two rhyming couplets. Listen to the way in which Jesus rhymes the ideas in his sermon. First he announces: the time is fulfilled - the kingdom is near. That is his first rhyming couplet. Then he calls for response with words that he intends as synonyms: repent, that is, believe the good news. This seems so straight forward, so short, so simple. But it is hard for us to hear the danger and the excitement in it. This is the stuff of arrest warrants and of dropping everything to follow? The church too often, too quickly races past this critical moment, these first words of Jesus the evangelist. Today we stop to listen carefully and to pay attention. Together we will engrave Jesus’ sermon on our communal heart and mind and soul. This evocative poem, Jesus nineteen word homily, will yet provoke us into surprising decisions and unexpected choices.
Jesus’ sermon speaks first of time and space. It is about history and about earth, about the material and the spiritual all wrapped up together. “The time is fulfilled”, he says. Time fulfilled We can’t see it. Time is so obviously unfulfilled. Trouble only seems to grow not be resolved. Huge wounds of despair gape and weep. The news is full of unfulfilled peoples and people. The world seems a long history of unfulfilled hopes and unfulfilled dreams. And that is not only the world’s story. It is our story as well. Jesus’ claim is wild and strange and impossible. “The time is fulfilled”, he says. And then he rhymes time with place, announcing: “and the kingdom of God has come near”. Or maybe he is saying that the kingdom of God is “at hand”. Even the experts aren’t sure if he is saying that the kingdom has come near or is now here or is almost here. But everyone agrees that Jesus declares that the place where God’s ways are kept is within reach. God’s kingdom is close? Oh, really? You don’t need me to list all the illustrations in the world, in this land, in this city, why even in this congregation here and now where the kingdom of God is anything but close do you? If we were asked we’d say the opposite: “The kingdom of God is far, far way”.
Let’s be honest. This is a very odd sermon that Jesus preaches. Yet, when Jesus announces that the time is now and that God’s rule is close he is telling the truth. When he shows up time is fulfilled. Healing breaks out to the surprise of all. Forgiveness spreads in broken relationships like a virus. When Jesus arrives all manner of strangers become citizens in God’s kingdom come and live by God’s ordinances and customs and ways. This is at the heart of the matter. Lately the old debate about whether it is more faithful to be working for justice and seeking change in systemic evil or to be about daily acts of charity has broken out in parts of the United Church again. It is a tired argument that seems never to die. Notice what happens when Jesus shows up. He does not mention justice or charity. He points to the arrival of the kingdom that is very close ... as close as hosting a stranger at table or as discovering the passion to change an unjust practice at work. Both are kingdom behaviours of charity and of justice. In the kingdom every act of charity is an act of justice, and every act of justice is merciful charity.
Jesus does not preach justice or charity. Jesus calls out a people who repent and believe the good news that God’s kingdom is close. We don’t often imagine that “good news” and “repentance” belong in the same sentence. Repentance sounds to us like shame, like guilt, like being ‘bad little boys and girls’. Yet Jesus speaks of repentance as gift and joy and time fulfilled and kingdom come and wonderful news. Imagine being in a church that has learned to speak Jesus’ language, that understands the joy and gift of repentance. Imagine a church where the congregation responds with shouts of joy whenever the preacher preaches repentance. Jesus preaches it in every sermon. Repentant turning to live in the kingdom of God is the heart of the gospel. There is a church in Poland that sees this every Sunday. Its pulpit is in the shape of a huge fish. Its preacher always stands between the open jaws of the great fish, a living Jonah arriving in Nineveh to announce that the time is now. The time is now, say Jonah and Jesus. God has turned and drawn near and is at hand, waiting and close. Repentance is a two-way street. It is about returning home, about returning to God and to God’s ways because God has turned and is close and is waiting and is welcoming and is making room. The good news of repentance is what the earth and its people long to hear and to trust. Imagine returning to the ways of obeying the Maker of heaven and earth, of loving God and neighbour - even stranger and enemy - with heart and soul and mind and strength. Imagine that turning around and obeying the ways of the one true God necessarily entails dis-obeying other so-called gods that have fraudulently ruled our life. Then see that these so-called gods, these dangerous powers that claim to rule our life, always work to silence Jesus. Repentance is dangerous in any society and in any church and in any neighbourhood and in any political party and in any family. Repentance entails changing old habits, changing hurtful patterns, changing entire ways of life. Repentance involves practicing the ways of God, ways that include keeping sabbath, which is the subversive discipline of being regularly unproductive in a culture that worships productivity; ways that require us to bear the suffering of others instead of avoiding and abandoning neighbours in distress; ways that ground our life in songs that praise the Lord and, therefore, require us to cease worship of the almighty dollar and of all others who claim might and right.
Repentance is a massive act of trust. Jesus rhymes “repent” with “believe”, by which he intends “trust”. “Trust in the good news”. Trust that the time is fulfilled. Trust that the kingdom of God is at hand. Trust your life - and our life together - to this incredible truth. Turn and enter the time of fulfilment and the kingdom come. It seems wildly impossible. Yet in one fell swoop two pairs of brothers do just that. They drop their nets and leave home and employer and neighbourhood and the known, familiar world. They don’t have a clue where Jesus will take them. But they find themselves caught up in Jesus’ kingdom net. He is fishing by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is fishing for those who long to live in the time of fulfilment and to be citizens in the kingdom of God. We imagine that Simon and Andrew, James and John are extraordinary disciples. We think that we would not dare drop everything to follow. Notice, however, that they go two by two and, together, make four. Turning and trusting and following is a communal decision that happens unexpectedly. It is not so much that we, as individuals, carefully weigh a decision to follow as it is that Jesus’ voice and presence and promise suddenly catches us up together in his net. We find that we simply cannot imagine living in unfulfilled times anymore. Now every relationship, every broken person, every church in despair, every global crisis is only a moment away from fulfilment. And we notice that we glimpse the kingdom of God at hand and near and here with increasing frequency. And now, in spite of our disbelief and doubt and despair, we are being caught up in Jesus’ strong hope and abounding confidence. Our lives are being turned round and our life together is marked by a deep longing to return to the ways of God. The story is in its infancy in our midst. We have barely glimpsed the journey that lies ahead for us in this congregation. But we have all that is necessary to travel that road and to face that cross for we walk with the Risen One who is the fulfilment of time and the kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven. Hallelujah. Amen.