3rd Sunday after Epiphany — January 24, 2021

Mark 1:14-20

This week’s lectionary text from the Gospel of Mark narrates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and his calling of the first disciples — and it is important to set it in context.

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Jesus has just emerged from the wilderness, where he was baptized by John in the Jordan River and tempted by Satan. The wilderness was a desolate, uninhabited, liminal space, off the radar of political and religious powers that be, and thus a place to ponder and prepare for God’s commonwealth on earth. It was a place of purification, testing and reorientation or conversion toward the new world God was bringing into existence — God’s future, on the verge of breaking into the present.

As Jesus comes up out of the wilderness, Mark narrates significant developments at a fast clip, though it is worth pausing to register their import. Three emphases in particular are crucial and should not be given short shrift. First, Mark reports that John was “arrested” or “handed over” (1:14), an ominous note. John had appeared in liminal wilderness space, preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and people from “the whole Judean countryside” and “all” Jerusalem were streaming out to the banks of the Jordan to be baptized by him, confessing their sins (1:5). John’s ministry challenged the principalities and powers of his day by calling people to reorient their lives to divine power and purposes, and he pays the consequences. Now Jesus emerges from that same wilderness proclaiming that the “kingdom” or “reign” of God has drawn near, and like John before him, urging repentance and reorientation of human lives toward divine power and purposes. Thus, even as Jesus’ public ministry begins, we can anticipate the outcome: his own arrest and crucifixion. Moreover, he will charge his own disciples to pick up their cross and follow (8:34), which is not an admonition to submit to political and religious oppression, but just the opposite. Like Jesus and John before him, they are to name and resist savage forces at work in the world, reorienting their lives in service to the world’s true Lord, despite consequences. In Mark’s Gospel, resisting oppressive powers that be is an essential part of discipleship.

Indeed, the second emphasis worth noting is the full import of the repentance that Jesus, like John before him, calls for. It entails personal change, to be sure — but personal change with decidedly public implications. Repentance entails the reorientation of our whole lives toward the purposes of God and thus embodied commitment to the divine vision of a loving and justice-oriented world — and resistance to all that would deface it. Repentance, in other words, entails an awakening and consciousness raising. In “Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today,” theologian Mary Solberg likens it to waking up from a nightmare and seeing that we are implicated in, and interconnected with, the suffering of our world — and that we are called to participate in God’s liberating and reparative realm as it struggles toward realization now.

In recent days, it surely feels like we have been waking up from a nightmare. And in this critical moment in our national life, we could not be more in need of the story that the Gospel of Mark sets before us — one in which God in Christ is calling us to repent, to reorient our lives and live into a new reality. A relentless, devastating virus has exposed the vast inequities that plague our common life, and a racial reckoning requires personal and societal transformation. We are waking up to the fact that we have been sleepwalking through what Princeton professor Eddie Glaude calls a “cold civil war” — stunned awake by the eruption of violent racist and xenophobic insurrection. So, thanks be to God for the good news we have to proclaim on the Third Sunday after Epiphany: God’s commonwealth, God’s reign in this world, has drawn near in the person and ministry of Jesus — who calls us to repent, to reorient our lives in light of it and to resist all that disfigures our common life and God’s good creation. Thanks be to God for a vision of life in which hierarchies and diminutions based in race, class and gender are washed away in the waters of baptism — a vision of life together in which we embrace human differences as a gift rather than a threat. For as Brian Bantum, in “The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity” has observed: “Our lives are made whole in these differences. Difference is the opportunity to choose one another and to choose God.” And thanks be to God for the church’s vocation of embodying this new reality in our life together.

That vocation, that calling, is also front and center on the Third Sunday after Epiphany. We hear not only the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the Gospel of Mark in 1:15 (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has cone near; repent, and believe in the good news”), but also the next words with which he summons his first disciples to live into the reign of God and to draw others into it: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). That same call beckons us in our present moment of crisis. Ours, too, is a critical moment of repentance, of awakening and consciousness raising, of believing in, and living into, the gospel — into the good news that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

This third emphasis in the text worth pausing to register is the import of verb tense in which this good news is delivered. The good news is not that the kingdom of God “will come near” (future tense), but that it in fact “has come near” (perfect tense), which is to say that something has already happened with the arrival of Jesus on the scene: the reign of God is already taking shape in this world, even if it has not yet arrived in fullness. In his book “Insurrection of the Crucified: The ‘Gospel of Mark’ as Theological Manifesto,” theologian Ted Jennings articulates the implications of this proclamation for disciples this way: “There is now no more time for waiting, for business as usual. All that is past. … That which the unjust suppose will never happen … is upon us. That for which the oppressed of the earth have almost lost hope, has now already drawn near.” What this means is that we can no longer make our peace with the world as it is. We can no longer numb ourselves to violence and suffering. Disciples of Jesus are called to live as if the realm of God is a reality taking shape, even now, in our midst — indeed, disciples are empowered to participate in making the way of God present in every age, including our own, until the day it comes in all its fullness.

Theologians speak of the reign of God as “already but not yet.” Theologian Paul Knitter, in his book “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,” articulates the import of the “already but not yet” dimension of the kingdom of God for the life of discipleship this way: “Whatever the future is, or will be, can be known and it can be realized by what is going on right now. That means we must engage the present moment with as much honesty, creativity, boldness, and yes, mindfulness, as we can. … Why? Because the ‘now’ is not just the now. It is … pregnant with the future. … It already contains the future.” On the Third Sunday after Epiphany we are summoned to believe in this good news, and to follow the one whose life, ministry, death and resurrection blazes our way into it, even now.

In the Baptist tradition in which I grew up, every worship service concluded with an invitation to come forward and commit our lives to Jesus. Presbyterians tend to be discomfited by such practices, but the present moment is an opportune one for repentance, reorientation and recommitment to the good news embodied in his life and ministry and for response to his summons: “Follow me.”

This week:

  1. Is there a wilderness space in the midst of your busy days to which you can retreat to reflect on God’s purposes for our lives and to realign yourself with those purposes? If not, how might you create such space in your life of faith?
  2. Do you agree with the contention that naming and resisting oppressive forces at work in the world is an essential part of discipleship? Why, or why not?
  3. What does repentance, conversion or reorientation look like for you? Would you agree with the contention that it entails public, as well as personal, implications?
  4. Imagine that you are on the scene as Jesus calls his first disciples. What do you sense and feel when they leave their boats and nets to follow Jesus?
  5. At this critical moment in our history, what does it mean for you to be called to believe in the good news that the kingdom of God has come near — and to follow Jesus?
  6. What do you think of Ted Jennings’ and Paul Knitter’s observations about the “already but not yet” dimension of the kingdom of God? What are implications of their observations for your own life of discipleship?

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