Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 28 January 2024.
• First Reading: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 (Jonah called again – ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim the message I give you’)
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 (Time is short – This world in its present form is passing away)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 14-20 (Jesus in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. The time has come – repent and believe)
I think that the turning point of the week must have been the statement by the Defence Secretary that we had moved out of the post-war period and into a pre-war period.
Somehow the frivolity of gay, transexual and feminist themes was punctured, and the talk became one of possible conscription into a citizen army, and the proper size of the defence budget.
New choices on spending our taxes were going to be forced onto us, and politics began to lose its entertainment value. The steam went out of all those manufactured states of grievance and outrage.
Now compare this with the mission of Jonah. An unwilling prophet at the best of times and one who definitely did not want to proclaim the possible mercy of God to the enemies of Israel. Nineveh was a Babylonian metropolis: rich and powerful, full of its own confidence and even its own conceits.
But the mission was to go there and to make the announcement of the impending judgment and the possible mercy of God.
Jonah would have been quite happy to see the city consumed by fire and brimstone – provided that is, that he was not in it at the time.
The thought that God might have mercy on the enemies of Israel who might come to repentance before even the Israelites was not just uncomfortable: it was profoundly shocking.
And yet here they were, taking his message seriously and making a public show of repentance, and supporting it with personal and private repentance as well.
There was a real sense of scandal in the image of people who never had the law or the prophets or the psalms but still turning to God with such sincerity and commitment. And even more in the idea that God might see and hear them, and turn away from His wrath.
But the same sense of urgency is also there in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Time is moving on and the end may almost be in sight. The Lord could come back at any moment and the Day of the Lord may be at hand.
So no need to be distracted by things that cannot last – certainly not the fashions and the fancies of the day. This was a time to get serious about the things of God – the message of the gospel and their attitudes and actions towards one another and their neighbours.
The central point for Paul just then was that time was not on their side. So yes, this was a time to get real, and to set aside the irrelevancies and trivialities of the day.
But then look at the gospel, in which Jesus was setting about recruiting His disciples at the very time that John the Baptist had been imprisoned.
There was an urgency here too as nobody could be sure what Herod might do in Galilee – or indeed what the Romans might do anywhere else.
Just when Herod was flexing his political muscles – Jesus was flexing His, in the spiritual realm. This was not a time for lying low or mincing His words.
This was a time for speaking out – loud and clear – the things of the Kingdom of God.
‘Repent and believe’. This is good news and not a prophecy of doom. This is about forgiveness and not fault-seeking or grievance-peddling. This is about the One who is Lord of the Sabbath, whose works of mercy do not close down for the sabbath or religious or civic holidays.
It is about One who forgives sins and raises the dead. Who heals lepers and feeds those who are with Him and cannot possibly feed themselves.
This is one who rejoices in the right thing that is done and who does not revel in the failures and faults of others. ‘Terrible. Tell me all about it.’
No, this gospel message is as urgent in our land as in any other, and at a time when the future tells of hazards and dangers.
And this was a time when Simon and Andrew, James and John left behind their former lives and occupations, their dreams and expectations in order to follow Jesus on a long and uncertain road, with no security or acclaim.
Somehow this is all very up to date.
In peacetime we are easily drawn by the dramatic and the attractive, the paradoxical and even the shocking.
But now the issues are becoming a little clearer and the choices a little starker. But none of it sets the gospel message aside. It is when people are more uncertain that perhaps the gospel message can offer a different set of assurances.
The peace of God can still live in us when others want to threaten. The assurance of forgiveness has not dissipated. The new life in the Holy Spirit is not set aside.
Rather, this is the One who sees and hears us, in our deepest states of fear and insecurity. He hears our prayers as we gather before Him.
His final words to us were ‘I am with you, to the end of the age’: He meant it then, and He means it now.