Jan. 21, 2018: Epiphany 3B (English)

Epiphany 3B, January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Pastor Eric Deibler

I grew up with two older sisters and, shortly before I turned 7, a younger sister. I was youngest of three for quite some time. Honestly, that status extended beyond the birth of my younger sister, because until she grew out of the needy infant/toddler stage, I was still the youngest sibling to interact with my older sisters on any kind of meaningful basis. That is, it was still the three of us who played together. And being the youngest, I almost never got to make the rules. Of course. If we were playing house, I had to be the baby. If we were playing hospital, I had to be the nurse. If we were playing horses (because my two older sisters adored horses), I was the stable boy who was too rough and made their hooves bleed. If we were playing cowboys and Indians, I was the one who died, be it cowboy or Indian. Which meant, of course, that I had to lie in the grass and be dead, while the other two went off and continued playing. If I tried to rejoin the activity I would get, “You can’t do that. You’re still dead!” “Well, how much longer do I have to be dead?” “Until we say so.”

I recognize that there’s nothing really unique about what I’m telling you. If you had siblings while growing, you might well have had similar experiences. And so, you might also understand when I say that there were days when I dreamed of being an only child. Of course, in my 5, 6, or 7-year old mind, being an only child would have been perfect! I could be in charge when it came to playing! I wouldn’t have to share my toys with anyone! I wouldn’t have to share my birthday with anyone! I wouldn’t have to share Christmas with anyone! I wouldn’t have to share my parents with anyone!

Of course, there would have been downsides, as well. I wouldn’t have had anyone with whom to share my parents. I wouldn’t have had anyone with whom to share Christmas or my birthdays. I would have been in charge of playing and my toys, because there wouldn’t have been anyone else around with whom to play. It would have been pretty lonely, I suspect, because there weren’t a whole lot of kids my age in our immediate neighborhood. As I said a couple of weeks ago, every element of our lives demonstrates God’s wisdom in Genesis that it’s not good for us to be alone. We are social animals. We need other people.

In Mark’s Gospel, from the very beginning, Jesus builds relationships and community. Just look at the call stories of the disciples in the reading for today. “…[Jesus] saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Not only does he call them together, but the promise of a growing community is built right into their calling. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

“…[Jesus] saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Again, he calls them together. There’s not the same promise of community, but it’s not as necessary now, because Jesus already has two other followers.

This is not a tale of rugged individualism. This is not an “lifting yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of story. Discipleship is not a solitary, autonomous venture. Jesus knows, we cannot do discipleship on our own. We cannot do life on our own. We cannot live into our calling on our own. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. We need each other. We need advocates and mentors. We need peers and colleagues. We need friends and neighbors. We need community.

As a follower of Jesus called not only to personal faith, but to public ministry, it’s easy to feel alone these days. It’s not easy to proclaim the expansiveness of the Kingdom of God when time’s up for Salvadorans. It’s not easy to proclaim the love of God when leaders denigrate entire countries using expletives. But let’s not kid ourselves. We tend to think of the lives of the disciples as being a simpler time.

Life in first century Palestine was anything but simple. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to 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." Don’t you have to wonder how the disciples might have responded to that? I’d be willing to guess that for those first people whom Jesus called, it didn’t look much like the kingdom of God had come near. Rome was still in power. They were still living in an occupied nation. Herod was the brutal puppet leader of their region, as the note about John’s arrest makes abundantly clear. And Pontius Pilate still governed Judea with an iron fist from Jerusalem.

This past Monday, we observed the anniversary of the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And if there’s anything that the past year has taught us it is that the fulfillment of his dream is not as far along as many of us thought it was. Of course, people of color could have told us that if we’d only be willing to ask and to listen. The talk of a “post-racial America” that started popping up after the election of President Obama now seems childishly naïve. Confidence in our government is approaching all-time lows. The stock market continues to soar, but wages remain stagnant. The opioid epidemic only seems to get worse. We discover more and more accounts of sexual assault and abuse. Again, if we were only willing to ask and then listen to the women in our lives, this would not come as a surprise to us. False alarms of a nuclear attack remind us of the reality of that possibility. And church attendance continues to shrink.

So, you tell me. Has the kingdom of God drawn near? It doesn’t seem like it. My guess is that the fault in that lies not with the Kingdom of God or its nature, but with our understanding, or misunderstanding as the case may be, of that same kingdom.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply say that God’s kingdom has come near. He frames that statement by first declaring, “The time is fulfilled.” Two notes on this short but crucial confession.

First, “time” here is “Kairos,” not “Chronos.” That is, it’s not the mundane, ordinary time of minutes and seconds, but the opportune, even royal time of God’s action and activity. In other words, God is getting involved.

Second, and more important, is the word translated here as “fullness.” Its Greek equivalent means not simply fullness but totality, completeness, something rendered perfect and filled to overflowing.

What’s striking about this word choice isn’t simply what it means, but where Mark records Jesus saying it. Here, when he calls his disciples, and then just once more, at Gethsemane, just after his disciples fall asleep while he prays and Judas the betrayer meets him with a kiss. Jesus says to the crowds who have come to take him away: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled” (14:48-49) And then Mark closes the scene with the stark pronouncement that “All of them deserted him and fled” (v. 50). “Let the Scriptures be fulfilled” – completed, brought to perfection, come to their intended end, be filled with to overflowing, abound beyond expectation – in a setting of disappointment, betrayal, violence, and apparent failure. Not what anyone expected.

Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus promising no-account laborers that they would soon be catching people and ends with Jesus’ cry of despair and the surprising confession of the one who crucified him. God always shows up where we least expect God to be: In the words of a young African American minister who felt totally over his head… In the actions of a woman fed up with having to give up her seat to those deemed superior because of the color of her skin… In the perseverance of a teacher who keeps faith with students deemed by the culture to be “hopeless”, or “under achievers.” In the courageous testimony of those who speak out the about abuse they endured and hid. In the fidelity of a single parent caring for her autistic child. In the work done by so many not because they find it fulfilling but because it puts bread on the table. In the quiet but faithful gestures we make each day for our families, communities, and the world. Gestures which, for the most part, go unannounced and often unnoticed. And all because God is there.

And, of course, we like Martin Luther King, Jr, like Rosa Parks, like Martin Luther, for that matter, we are not alone in our struggle to make the Kingdom of God a reality. Like them, we have one another and the peace of knowing that God is here.

That’s the good news for us this week. God has not given up on this world or on us. God continues to show up where we least expect God to be. God will put to use the gestures of fidelity we offer toward ends we cannot imagine. God is here, and the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near even – and especially! – when it doesn’t look that way.

The promise of the Gospel is not that hardship will be taken away. The promise of the Gospel is that God is with us in the midst of hardship.

It is not that evil will be defeated before our eyes. It is that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Gospel is not a word of obvious victory. It is a word of sustaining and courageous hope.

The Gospel is experiencing fullness when everything looks empty, because God is there. God is there, in your words and deeds, proclaiming the Gospel and calling new disciples, even when you don’t realize it. Be courageous. Be persistent. Be faithful. AMEN

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