January 21, 2018

3rd Sunday after The Epiphany Year B

As a junior in high school I went to a church service with one of my best friends at the time. It wasn’t my church and I didn’t know many of the people there, but I remember having the very strong sense during that service that I was being called to something bigger than myself. It wasn’t until several years later in college that I began to work out what that calling might mean.

The opening chapter of Mark’s gospel is full of promise, where we encounter Jesus at the inauguration of his public ministry. The curtain opens as if in the middle of the story, with Jesus on the scene, first being baptized by John in the Jordan River, then tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and finally taking the first steps into his public ministry. For the remainder of that first chapter, we find Jesus engaged in a whirlwind of activity: preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, from dawn until the setting of the sun. And it all begins with those first words he utters, words of invitation and challenge: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

It is a bold proclamation! One that assumes a new reality is being inaugurated with Jesus. So what is this “kingdom” that has come near that Jesus is announcing? And where is it now, two-thousand years after Jesus proclamation? Is it simply something which we hope for when we die?

Not so, says Jesus. The kingdom of God is not a place separate from this place. It is God's reign--God's presence and power and peace--and is quite near indeed, closer to us than our very breath. Eternity walks side by side with time. This is what Jesus tells us at the start of his ministry. You don't have to wait until you die to experience a whole different kind of life. Now is the time. Not someday, not just at our death, but now.

John's Gospel puts it a slightly different way: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." The abundant life is available right now for any who would dare to open their hearts to the reality of God-with-us in the midst of our everyday lives. Indeed, God is with us in our rising and in our lying down and all the time in-between.

When Jesus encounters those four fishermen, he finds them, like us, working hard, earning a living, fulfilling their family obligations. And like some of us, perhaps he also finds them struggling to hold it all together, looking forward with worry, looking back with regret. For the sons of Zebedee, there is a father who relies on them. For Simon Peter, there is a mother-in-law with health concerns. Whatever the case, Jesus call to follow him is a call to recognize the time of God-with-us, to welcome God's reign in our lives, to "repent, and believe in the good news." God is for us and not against us. In the midst of our joys and concerns, there is a divine presence that suffers in our suffering and rejoices in our rejoicing. A holy presence that never leaves us nor forsakes us and whether we feel this presence or not, God is always gently supporting us in love.

We talk about our trust in God, but sometimes live as if God is far off and everything is solely on our shoulders. Jesus calls us to repent, which means much more than simply feeling sorry or contrite about something. It actually means "to change our mind," to change our way of seeing and doing things. To repent means to dare to believe the good news that God is with us, still the Creator who can make all things new, still the Redeemer who can bring light and life where it seems like there is only darkness and despair, still the Advocate who stands with us and gives us strength. The good news is that my reign, my time of having to be totally in charge, struggling, worrying, regretting, is over! God's reign is at hand. The time is fulfilled. So repent, Jesus says, change the way you see everything, and trust in this very good news that God truly is with us.

But how do we begin to change our mind, change the way we see our situation and let God be God? Dorothy Day, the Christian social activist, said that "by little and by little" we come to God. Focusing on the "small amounts" of time means living fully in the present... embracing the Now. When our focus is on the past, with all that we have done or not done...when our focus is on the future, with all that we must do or will never be able to do...then we have little room in the ever-shrinking space of our heart to allow God to be God in the present. But...when we find moments, when we make moments, to bring the past with its regrets AND the future with its worries, and lay it all before God-with-us and say, I cannot do this myself, then we can begin to unclog our spiritual arteries, let our heart beat once more with life and vitality. When we make time to breathe out the stuff that takes life and breathe in the spirit that gives life, then we will begin to know the abundant life.

Returning to that opening chapter of Mark's Gospel, after reading of Jesus' hectic day of preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons, we find the following words: "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed." Several chapters later, after Jesus sends the four fishermen and their colleagues out for their initial apostolic mission and they return to tell him all that they had done, he says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

In the deserted place, in that intentional moment of prayer, the late Henri Nouwen once wrote, we can discover anew "not only that God exists but also that God is actively present in our lives." It doesn't mean having to go away on a long mountain retreat, it means doing what Jesus did, making time, intentionally carving out time from our hectic pace and rediscovering God and ourselves as God's beloved. Thus we can live into a different time, and give thanks for the things right here before us, the gifts, the joys, yes even the challenges, for in the eternal present we know that we are not alone and we know that we are loved.

How easy to let our regrets and our worries create a wall around us, forcing us into a self-imposed solitary confinement. To follow Jesus is to commit ourselves to the One who even now calls us by name. To repent, to change our mind, is to shake off the regret and worry that holds us hostage, and recognize that the God of the everlasting present, the God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, is now and forever...truly...with us.