Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 24 January 2021.
• First Reading: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 (The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time … Jonah obeyed it and went to Nineveh)
• Psalm 62: 6-14
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 (Practice detachment)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 14-20 (The Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe)
The mariner approaching port has to navigate its approaches and is guided by the navigation marks and buoys that indicate the safe channel for vessels.
In themselves the buoys are not important but what they indicate is very important: to pass the wrong side of the buoy is to risk running aground.
The same applies to the ringing of a telephone: the tone indicates that there is someone wishing to speak to us. The ring tone only alerts us to the coming conversation but in itself tells us nothing.
Yet we are quite prepared to invest these visual or sound symbols with an importance far beyond their intrinsic value. Experience tells us that these symbols are indeed important.
And yet a navigation mark can become unmoored and can drift, and we have all had telephone calls which when we answer them, we find that there is nobody there.
So there is that connection between being alerted and making a response to the alert.
In this sense, the gospel points us to Jesus’ ministry: first, to announce the Kingdom of God; second, to call for repentance and third, to call for faith.
Jesus’ first act was to announce the Kingdom of God. This was to be a new beginning and would be the foundation for all that followed. A new kind of rule and a new kind of authority. A new kind of relationship with God and a new direction for both personal prayer and public worship.
What was going to happen would have the potential to colour every relationship, every transaction and every attitude and loyalty on the planet. It would affect every institution and whole nations and cultures would come into its life.
Jesus would establish what whole armies and bureaucracies, and all the power centres of the world could not achieve. Even death would lose its power to terrorize, and fear and guilt, sorrow and distress would be redefined. They would be present until the fullness of the Kingdom of God had been established in the earth but even these could be submitted to God in personal devotion for His service and worship.
Life would never be the same again.
But then there is the call to repent. It means turning around and redirecting one’s life. It is founded on the reality of the Kingdom of God.
Without confidence in the message of the Kingdom, then repentance is frail and empty. It becomes a vain existential gesture with no direction or authority.
To repent begins with accepting the reality of the Kingdom of God. Oh yes, there will be plenty of personal detail and habit which will come into focus, but this kind of repentance starts with accepting and trusting the reality of the Kingdom.
When the powers of the earthly institutions of state are only too visible – the imposing buildings of state, the ever-present police forces and overwhelming armies, the symbols of the state with its flags and national anthems, its statues and declarations of loyalty – are all too visible and present.
The symbols and values of the Kingdom of God are different, for they are seen in the quality of personal relationships and transactions, the quality of public worship and the moral and spiritual integrity of its leaders.
Some states find that they are wholly opposed to this kind of devotion and loyalty, they are threatened by its confidence in life after death, and in the reality of personal forgiveness.
But to repent in the face of the message of the Kingdom of God is to be turned around in some of the most basic aspects of human life, especially when the society and culture are essentially hostile to it.
But then there is the call to believe. It is to enter a new kind of confidence in God as shown to us by Jesus Christ.
To believe is to enter a new kind of relationship with God. It is to find life in His message and in His worship. It is to find a new depth of life in the knowledge of sins forgiven, and therefore in the power to forgive others.
Life need no longer be defined by personal resentments and the memories of hurts inflicted long ago. The love of God is seen and known in the person of Jesus Christ, and is as strong as the love He showed in His crucifixion and as durable as the resurrection with which God vindicated His life, ministry and commission to His followers.
To believe is to give a new kind of authority to the message of the disciples of Jesus, even when they are also personally flawed and are working out their own amendment of life.
It is to find a new kind of strength in the message of the scriptures and a new flow of life in the sacraments of the church.
To believe is to set aside the scepticism towards rival political or cultural movements, and the cynicism, the biased reporting that they engender and the defensiveness when they are found to be failing.
Jesus’ message is like a three-stranded rope in which the different strands reinforce each other. It still starts with the announcement of the Kingdom of God but it works itself out in terms of repentance and faith, at the deepest levels of our lives.
Challenging: yes – but He still found ready disciples to follow Him.