Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21 2018
Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 122; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
Right Rev Dr Derek Browning, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
One of the things that I love about the Gospel of Mark is its great sense of movement. It’s a gospel that can’t sit still for long. It’s a gospel that has an in-built dynamic that, if you will let it, sweeps you along. It’s dramatic; it’s dangerous; it’s demanding. With his use of the word “immediately” some forty times, Mark wants us to pay attention NOW to Who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. It is one of the most vivid books in the Bible. When Mark uses the word “immediately”, he’s just being vivid.
How vivid is your faith?
Jesus is one of the most vivid people in human history, and His ministry to the world starts with a bang. He has come to tell anyone who will listen that good news is at hand; that hope has come into the world; that joy is ready to be shared. But He starts His ministry with a word that you might not readily think would point to those things.
In the Greek, He starts with the word, “Repent!” It’s not a whisper, it’s a shout.
In the Church’s past the cry of “Repent!” evoked scary images of wild-eyed preachers thumping their Bibles in pulpits and haranguing any sinner in sight. Our understanding, really our misunderstanding, makes it sound harsh and severe, a threat to “change your ways!” before the storm of heaven brewing brimstone showers its judgements over you.
In fact the word Jesus used, the first word He is recorded saying in the gospel, “Repent”, is not a threat, but an invitation. Certainly there’s an idea about it that there is some changing to be done, some new direction to take. But it’s really an invitation to trust in a future made possible by the love and healing and grace of God.
Yes, we have to repent, to turn around, to listen, to change. To turn, to turn again, until we face in God’s direction. He wants us to stop. He wants us to turn around. He wants us to face God. He wants us to change.
It is Jesus being vivid again. He tells us that things do not have to stay the way they are now! In fact, to follow Jesus means that things cannot stay the way they are.
As one writer puts it: “Just ask Peter, James, Andrew, Levi, and John, the first five disciples – none of whom applied for the job. Just ask Peter’s mother-in-law, whose fever cooled with Jesus’ soothing touch, or the leper whose life was no longer defined by his disease after he met with Jesus. Just ask those friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof, or the man whose withered hand caught more of Jesus’ attention than obeying 4,352 Sabbath regulations!”
Before we can respond to Jesus invitation to “Follow me!” we have to respond to His invitation to repent, turn around, face in a new direction, change. Not everyone hears that invitation as good news. Some people spend their lives insisting that things stay exactly the way they are. Spending every ounce of energy making sure that things remain the same. Sometimes those people are in pulpits; sometimes those people are in pews or in other parts of the Church. One of the challenges in Mark’s gospel is Jesus confronting religious leaders, but in fact everyone, who are so dead set on maintaining the religious status quo that they lose sight of the One for Whom life is meant to be lived. Jesus.
It is tempting to take this beyond the personal and apply the principle to the city-wide, the national and the international. In the city of Jerusalem, where is there need for repentance, for a turning around? In our relationships with our Christian neighbours, our Jewish neighbours, and our Muslim neighbours, our Israeli and Palestinian neighbours, where is there need for repentance, for a turning around?
It’s the penultimate Sunday in January. I don’t know how you’re doing with your New Year resolutions. Have you kept them? Did you even make any? Or are they already forgotten, and to be reminded of what you decided to do comes as an unwelcome intrusion? Perhaps it is timely that Jesus says to you, this morning, “Repent!” Turn around; turn your whole life around. Loosen your hold on everything in your character and personality and on everything in the social, political and cultural world in which you live that ties you to the old order. Turn your life round and believe. Take that decisive step. You do not have to be the old self. It’s time for a radical redirection in your life. Focus on the new way Jesus brings to your personal life, to your work life, to your family life, to the way you treat your friends, to the face you put on to engage with the world. Any bitterness; any brokenness; any unhelpful sadness; any resentment; any envy; any unhealthy materialism; any irrational prejudice. Turn; turn around now, and face Jesus, and think about how glorious the world would be if you began to be the person you want to be at your very best. Then live like that, with all your imagination and power and happiness and willingness and openness and thankfulness.
It’s a great call. It’s a greater invitation. To turn around. Metanoite! in the Greek. An ancient word that speaks with contemporary urgency to a world and to a church that too often settle for far less than Jesus’ vision of the imminent reign of God.
Oh, and one more thing. When you’ve turned round, don’t stand still. Don’t wait for what’s to happen next. The next part is already given. Follow Him. Immediately!
Jesus says, “Follow me.” He says it not just to first-century fishermen. He says it to twenty-first century teachers and lawyers; politicians and students; working people and retired people; young people and old people; children and teenagers; musicians and doctors; married people and single people.
For the fishermen, they heard Jesus say, “Follow me.” And they did. Immediately Jesus called; immediately the fishermen followed. My God! What were they doing? What were they thinking? But the urgency overwhelmed their doubts, their duties, their day-to-day lives. Jesus said, “Follow me.” And they followed.
This is how Christianity began. And this is how Christianity must continue. If it does not, it will die. I believe the Church nationally and certainly locally, at home in Scotland and here in the Holy Land, needs to face up to this call from Jesus. Are we here to amuse ourselves and do the things that we like doing, comfortable with the familiarity, or are we at one of those points in the life of the Church where an honest, long hard look is required?
Whatever it is that we’re doing, I wonder if what will really turn things around is a firm, clear, personal response to the call of Jesus. Follow me. It is hard not to answer a ringing telephone. The compelling urgency of the call of Jesus has been muffled in our age, and we need to regain that sense of urgency.
Do you want to have a vivid Church? Then you will need to be vivid Christians. All of you.
Jesus didn’t want bystanders; He wanted disciples. Jesus didn’t want well-wishers; He wanted fellow-workers. For when He looked into the hearts and souls of the people of His day – He saw all the potential and the problems that each person always carries. But He saw that each person was needed, had a value, and a use, and a gift, that if they did not follow, without them the Kingdom of God would be the poorer.
It’s time to turn round. It’s time to follow. It’s time to be the vivid, glorious, dedicated disciples that Jesus needs.
He’s calling. Not just the person beside you; but you. Not just the person behind you; but you. Not just the person in front of you; but you. No answers for life struggles, only more questions. No security for tomorrow, but sometimes danger and rejection. Don’t find yourself left behind on the shore with the broken nets and the half-lived lives. “Follow me”, calls Jesus. It’s time to go with Him. Immediately!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
 Gary W Charles, in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Cynthia A Jarvis and E Elizabeth Johnson eds (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 23