(An alternative today is to celebrate the Conversion of St Paul, but I am choosing to go with the readings for the 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany.)
Theme(s): God's king / the kingdom of God / repentance / Repent and Believe / A new world
Sentence: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (Mark 1:15)
Jesus, our Redeemer,
give us your power to reveal and proclaim the good news,
so that wherever we may go
the sick may be healed, lepers embraced,
and the dead and dying given new life.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jesus and Jonah both preach messages of repentance (and both are "buried" for three days)!
Jonah is one of the rare biblical prophets for whom people take notice and act on the prophetic message being proclaimed.
The last verse of the reading tells us of God's response to their repentance: he 'changed his mind' (10). In the context of the story of Jonah this is simply a statement about God adapting his will to the choice made by those to whom he speaks through his prophet: save debates about whether God has the kind of 'mind' which changes or whether God is somehow fickle and changeable to another day!
This is not an easy reading to connect to the themes in today's gospel reading! The key link appears to be the reliance the psalmist puts on "God alone" (5, 6). Such a reliable, trustworthy God - by implication - is One who through his Son Jesus Christ calls us to "Follow him."
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
[NB In last week's comment I made a mistake, stating that the 1 Corinthians reading on Sunday 18 January was not part of a series on 1 Corinthians through these weeks. It was and it is, as the provision of this next reading in the series makes clear].
1 Corinthians 5-7 is a sustained theology of marriage and sex. It only really works as a scriptural passage on marriage and sex if we read all of it (and then do so with our Bibles open in places such as Genesis as well). Nevertheless, constrained by the lectionary, today we read three verses, and important verses they are!
Why does Paul at various points in his exposition on marriage and sex urge radical action, including commending celibacy? These verses give the answer: "the appointed time has grown short" (29). The Greek word used can refer to curtains being gathered together or sails being furled: now that Christ has come, time is being wrapped up, the end is nigh!
Mostly we conclude from such phrases that Paul genuinely believed that chronological time was being wrapped up, that the Lord would return in a few years or even a few days time, and thus whether one married or did not marry (see verses 25-28) was immaterial. Yet Paul is not only thinking chronologically. When he writes "For the present form of this world is passing away" (31) he is talking about the in-breaking of the kingdom into the present age. Whether this age ends in a few years or days, or a thousand years from now, it is not the 'time' or 'period' it was before Christ came, died and rose again. Life is different now, and we should live differently if we belong to the kingdom of Christ as it breaks into the present form of this world.
All this, nevertheless, connects to the beginning of our gospel reading in which Jesus proclaims that "The time if fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:14).
The opening of Mark's gospel is over: John has prepared the way for Jesus and baptised him. Jesus has been tested in the wilderness. Now the work of mission to the world begins. Poignantly it begins at a point in time, according to Mark, when John has been arrested. Literally, John is moved aside for Jesus to take centre stage.
What does Jesus do? He preaches the gospel. Mark, in other words, introduces us to the mission of Jesus as primarily a mission of 'Word' or 'Message' ahead of 'Action' or 'Power'. The action/power (soon to come in v. 21) will illustrate and endorse the message, but the message is primary.
Thus the response to the preaching involves where the message is received, in the mind: "Repent, and believe in the good news" (15) where "Repent" is about changing the direction the mind is heading in and "believe" is about making a choice to entrust one's life to that which is being believed.
What is the message? It looks like it is this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (15).
If so, we rejoice in a short, brief and to the point sermon ... and despair over understanding what it means! However it is worth asking whether the words "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news" (15) is Mark's summary of the preaching of Jesus (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is equivalent to "that is") or Mark's reporting the repeated conclusion to Jesus' preaching the good news (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is literally 'and' meaning Jesus preached the good news and this message as well, "The time is fulfilled ..."). On the latter understanding, we might turn to chapter 4 for some of the content of Jesus' preaching the good news.
Either way, the words in verse 15 are clearly very important in respect of the message of Jesus: they are the only particular words Mark reproduces for us.
Back to the question of what these words in the first part of verse 15 mean. Given the heavy influence of prophetic material in the preceding verses (e.g. citation of prophecy, John's role and demeanour as a prophet) we must assume that 'the time is fulfilled' relates to what the prophets previously had foretold would happen, that is, what the prophets foresaw as God's great restorative and re-creating intervention through his Messiah/Christ.
In turn, this means that 'the kingdom of God has come near' is about the lordship or sovereignty of God over the and within the world is no longer distant but close at hand. Indeed, the remainder of the gospel, as Jesus teaches with authority and acts in deliverance, healing and control over nature with power, demonstrates the personal character of the 'kingdom of God': the kingdom has come near because God's king is now present in the world.
Mark's is a gospel of immediacy - he is always telling us that Jesus immediately went from one thing to another. So in Mark's terms, unsurprisingly he tells the story of the calling of the first disciples simply (they fish, Jesus calls, nets are dropped, they follow) and bluntly (there are no introductions, no tentative first moves in getting to know one another).
Matthew copies Mark, Luke offers a different version (in which fishing remains central) and John mentions nothing about fishing and tells a quite different story about how Jesus met his first disciples. In all likelihood (not least because it is not human nature to act so abruptly) the disciples did not meet Jesus for the first time when he called them to follow him.
If so, then Mark is not so much telling us about the first time Jesus meets the disciples and they meet him, rather he is telling us about the decisiveness of the call of Jesus to discipleship. Whatever the "backstory" was to this encounter, on this day Jesus calls for total commitment and the fishermen give it. They leave their nets. They will no longer fish for fish. They will fish for people.
Of course later we read of other encounters in the gospel in which people encounter Jesus but he sends them back to their homes and does not ask them to follow him on the road. Many disciples today follow Jesus without a dramatic career change. Yet Mark does not tell us today's story with a "on the one hand there are those who ... and on the other hand there are those who ..." ending. So we can ask ourselves, What is Mark communicating to all disciple-readers of his gospel in 1:14-20?
What he is communicating is the importance of disciples responding to Jesus completely and fully, with a decisive break from former ways of living (i.e. "repentance") and total commitment to the new way of Jesus. Whether one serves in one's home village or on the road with Jesus himself is up to Jesus, but what he asks of every disciple is that they commit wholly to Jesus.
When the king of the kingdom of God is present we should take notice and when that king calls us to do something, we should obey!
A great question to pose and answer in a sermon on this passage, in the light of the above is 'How is all this good news?'