The Time is Now

+ A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 24, 2021 +

Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20


Way back in April of last year, I remember seeing an article floating around on social media.
It was just after the beginning of the pandemic lockdown around the time we all started to realize that we were going to be stuck at home a little longer than the couple weeks many of us had assumed.
The article suggested doing what you can to keep your normal routine, even while buckling in to work from home for the long term.
It suggested waking up at the same time as usual, getting dressed in your regular work attire, even putting on your regular jewelry and perfume to trick your mind that you’re at work and not at home.
And the article implied that keeping your routine would maintain order in your days and weeks and allow you to keep track of time as you usually would.

Well, let’s just say I didn’t really listen to the article’s advice.
My usual routines quickly shifted into disarray.
My definition of ‘work attire’ soon expanded to include sweatpants and I started calling my jeans “hard pants” that should be worn sparingly.
I even stopped shaving and, well…

Now, I can’t vouch for that article’s accuracy, but if it’s to be believed, this could help explain why the past 10 months have morphed into a sort of blur.
The time since last March somehow both feels like an entire lifetime and just a few weeks.
Some months seem to speed by, while others feel like they’re crawling at a snail’s pace.
And I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
I’ve heard many people agree that time in the time of pandemic seems to have lost all meaning.
Maybe no one listened to that article, I don’t know.
Or maybe that blurring of time has less to do with a loss of routine than it does about focusing on getting through this time, of surviving however we can.

Whatever the reason may be, perhaps that’s why the time markers in today’s readings stuck out to me this week.

Time is an important marker in our reading from Jonah.
Right after spending three days in the belly of a whale, the prophet finally goes to Nineveh—an incredibly large city exaggeratedly described as a three-day journey across.
Jonah spends one day going through the city announcing that they must repent and change their ways or Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days.

And the timing is key in our gospel text too.
Right after John the Baptizer’s arrest, Jesus went to Galilee and proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
And after calling his first four disciples, they immediately dropped everything and followed him.

Now, these two texts are very different in a lot of ways, but they have something important in common—an urgency that cannot be denied.
They both tell us that the time is fulfilled, the time is ripe, the time is now and we should repent.
We should change our ways.
We should go in a new direction because things are changing and the Kingdom of God is at hand.

When Jonah finally went to Nineveh, he was going to the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire—sworn enemies of his own country of Israel.
God had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and urge them to repent of their wickedness, but Jonah had refused and run away as far as he could.
Undeterred, God again sent him to Nineveh and finally Jonah complied.
He goes through the city calling for repentance, proclaiming that God wants them to turn from their ways and go a new direction, because their wickedness is about to destroy them.
Urging the Ninevites to lift up their heads and recognize the realities of their current situation, to take stock of the system they’re trapped in—how they’re willingly or unwillingly taking part in ways of destruction and death, and see the possibility of something different.
And surprisingly, they listen.
The whole city, from the king to the livestock, turned from their “evil ways” and the violence that upheld their empire.
They repented of their complicity in ways of imperialism and militarism, of oppression and domination, and God looked upon them with grace and mercy.
Nineveh was liberated and freed to go a new way and live a better life.

In Mark’s gospel, we hear the very start of Jesus’ ministry as he travels to Galilee to begin his mission.
But even this start is framed in the right time.
John, his forerunner, has been arrested by the state for his own message of repentance and resistance against tyranny.
And now that John was behind bars, it was time for Jesus to get moving.
To take action.
To call for repentance and a reorientation of lives.
To announce a new kingdom where all people—even foreigners; even bitter enemies—are invited to repent and change their ways to embrace a new life rooted in God’s grace.
A new way of living that Jesus is about to demonstrate where people find healing, the hungry are fed, evil is overthrown, and the powers of this world are thwarted.
The time was right to invite others to trust in this promised new world and believe that they can be a part of it.

And it’s worth noting who Jesus finds to start this mission.
He doesn’t go to the political elites.
He doesn’t go to the religious professionals.
He doesn’t go to gather an army.
He goes to these four fisherfolk living in backwater Galilee.
These people who were living under foreign military occupation and who were, perhaps, unwilling participants in an oppressive fishing industry.

Scholars tell us that the industry at the time was completely controlled by Rome.
The Emperor claimed ownership over every body of water and all fishing was strictly regulated to benefit the urban elites.
Obtaining fishing rights was extremely difficult and most of the catch would be exported, starving the local fishing villages and simultaneously crippling them with outrageous taxes and levies.

So when Jesus finds Andrew, Simon, James, and John, he doesn’t just find anybody, he seeks out these four fisherfolk who are being forced into backbreaking work with little reward and invites them into something new.
He proclaims his gospel, his good news, of repentance—a new possibility of changing their lives, of recognizing the oppressive system they’re caught in and choosing instead to live into the Kingdom of God that is at hand here and now.
To trust that this new world is possible at all.
And Jesus invites these four fisherfolk to use their gifts, use their talents, to make that Kingdom a reality.
“I will make you fishers of people,” he promises them. I will use what you have, everything you bring to the table, so we can work together and usher in God’s promised Kingdom.
And immediately, they followed.

As we will see throughout the Gospel of Mark, these four men were far from perfect.
They would doubt and stumble, they would struggle and fail.
But they would also be the witnesses of what is possible.
Apostles of a new world order rooted in resurrection life, proclaiming the wonders of God’s Kingdom that is at hand, brimming with mercy and peace, love and justice, freedom and equity.
And these four fisherfolk, these fishers of people, would spread the good news of Jesus throughout the world and become our ancestors in faith.

You know, that phrase, ‘fishers of people,’ got stuck in my mind this week.
I’ve heard it my entire life in church that Jesus will make us fishers of people—and it’s often been referred to as a kind of evangelism, of going out and bringing people into the church.
But really, fishing means casting nets into the water, catching fish, and bringing them out—exposing them to something new.
It means bringing fish out of everything they’ve ever known and into a new world where their old ways of living simply won’t work anymore.
And yes, it usually means death for the fish.
But I’ve started to wonder if we’re really the fisherfolk at all or if we’re the fish swimming in the lake, ignorant of what is possible when our world is changed.

For quite some time now, we have heard that now is the time to make changes to our ways of being—changes to our lives, changes to our country, changes to our whole Church.
These calls have become all the more urgent during the past year as the pandemic revealed rampant disparities in access to healthcare and opportunities for safe employment.
As the realities of income inequality became all the more apparent as the wealthiest among us gained trillions more dollars while countless millions struggled to pay rent or put food on the table.
As the cries of our Black, Indigenous, and Siblings of Color have demanded the dismantling of white supremacy and systems of racial injustice.

But it’s been said over and over again that it’s not going to be easy, perhaps not even possible, to excise these elements from our way of life because they are so baked into our system that they’ve become the system itself.
That inequality, greed, racism, and injustice are the system.
And not just these, other ways of death like violence and militarism, imperialism and oppression, sexism and homophobia and so much more.
That all this toxic gunk is the water that we, the fish, have been swimming in this whole time and we can’t even recognize it on our own.
And it’s going to take a radical repentance, a fundamental shift, perhaps even a new divinely ordained way of living to correct these evil and wicked ways so we can live together as God intends for us.
That only when we are pulled out of those waters and embrace the new life God is calling us to can we see how deadly those old systems really were.
And yes, this repentance means dying to the ways that were before, but unlike the fish, we find new life rising up from that death.
The new life of resurrection that triumphs over tyranny and destruction.
The new life of baptism that showers us with God’s love and calls us to use that love to change the world.

We have heard this morning, my friends, a message from our Lord.
A word of good news as urgent as the prophet’s call to Nineveh, as timely as it was in Galilee.
It’s telling us that the time is now.
That we can’t just keep swimming along in the systems of oppression and death that surround us, simply doing what we can to survive.
Because now is the time to lift up our heads and see what is possible.
To see that Jesus is coming to us in pure and gracious love bringing hope and transformation and new life.
Now is the time to live and to thrive, trusting that God’s Kingdom not only is possible, but it is at hand—urgently breaking into this time and this place.

And this message is a reminder that we have work to do.
Because this gospel is a potent word that will transform lives and rebuild systems.
That no matter who is in the White House, no matter what laws are passed, no matter what reforms are made, we have been called by our Lord Jesus to take everything we have, all our resources, all our gifts and talents, all our lives and unite them in common cause with Jesus and each other to transform the world.
And we cannot stop until all people are drawn out of the waters of death and destruction and brought into new life, until all the waters of this earth are clean and the whole creation is restored, until the Kingdom of God that took root on those Galilean shores spreads and flourishes to the ends of the earth.

The time is now, my friends.
And there’s no time to waste.

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