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Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Jonah 3:1–10, 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 & Mark 1:14–20

I think most of you probably know by now that I like to play the guitar, although I’m the first to admit that I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it none the less. One of the many different approaches I’ve taken in trying to learn to play was to follow several instructional videos on YouTube. The problem I had though, was that they moved way too fast for me to keep up. I was constantly having to pause the videos and go back so that I could follow them at my own pace. 

If any of you have ever taken the time to read the Gospel of Mark from start to finish, you would probably understand how I feel, because the events described in it unfold at a frenetic pace, a bit like my guitar videos. For example, take the opening verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then verse 4, “John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Verse 9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan.” And verse 12, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Mark packs so much information, but not necessarily a lot of detail, into the first thirteen verses of chapter one. And it happens in rapid fire succession . . .like automatic gunfire, bang, bang, bang. There is a real sense of urgency and immediacy in Mark’s writing and storytelling, that continues right throughout his gospel. We see it in the opening verse of today’s passage, “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” With those fourteen words, Mark informs us of the arrest of John the Baptist, and the end of his ministry, and of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus in Galilee. 

The message of Jesus is also urgent and immediate, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark then tells us that as Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee he called two sets of brothers – Simon and Andrew, and James and John – to follow him, and they immediately leave everything behind to become followers of Jesus. 

With everything moving at such a frantic pace, it is very easy for us to overlook something of significance in Mark’s writing. Take the message of Jesus that Mark gives us: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In that one short sentence, Mark gives us four things to think about: (1) the time is fulfilled, (2) the kingdom of God has come near, (3) repent, and (4) believe in the good news. We are all probably very familiar with the notion of repentance, and also to believe in the good news, so we probably pick up on those two points more readily than we do on the first two. What does Jesus mean we he says that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near?

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets of Israel, foretold of the time when the present age would end and the new age, in which Creation would be as God originally intended it to be, would be ushered in. That is what Jesus is talking about in Mark’s Gospel. God has revealed Himself in Jesus, and in doing so both the new age is ushered in, and the kingdom of God has come near. 

This is basically what the Apostle Paul was saying in today’s passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” Paul was responding to questions from members of the church at Corinth concerning marriage and celibacy, and his answer was to tell them that none of that really mattered because everything was about to change with the second coming of Jesus, which Paul thought was imminent.

In one sense Paul was wrong, because we are still waiting for the ‘Second Coming’, but in another way he was right, because the form of his world, which was shaped by the dominance of the Roman Empire, was to change with the demise and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire. 

There were no doubt many people who believed that the events which surrounded that collapse were a sign of the end of the world itself as Jesus had foreshadowed when he said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10–11 NRSV)

How many other times in history have people thought the same thing? In my own lifetime I’ve thought of it as we experienced events such as the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 terror attacks, and the relatively recent nuclear tensions between the USA and North Korea, the USA and Iran, and also the growing tension between the USA and China. And how many of us have observed the ever increasing greed, selfishness and secularism that seem to be typical of much of Western society today, and thought that these are all indicators that the end of the world is close?

But as Jesus also said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32 NRSV) All that we can do is to remain faithful, putting our trust in God, for as Paul said in the Letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NRSV)


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