Sermon for Epiphany 3 January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10                                  Psalm 62:6-14                    1 Corinthians 7:29-31                         Mark 1:14-20

In the Episcopal Church we talk about Scripture, Reason, and Faith as being the foundation for the practice of our faith.  If ever there was a time to apply reason to our reading of the scriptures, it is with today’s lessons.  The common theme in the three passages we just heard seems to be “the end is near.”  Jonah goes to Nineveh proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short . . . the present form of this world is passing away.”  And, in the gospel, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Nineveh is not destroyed, but we are told as continue it is because the people of Nineveh listen to what God is saying to them through Jonah, and they repent.  Then, it says, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”  Please note it says, “God changed his mind.”  God, who is often portrayed to us as unchanging, changed his mind.

Perhaps that is what happened at the time Paul was writing to the people in Corinth.  If what he is referring to is the return of Christ, we know that what Paul was expecting to happen did not happen in his lifetime.  Perhaps, too, that is what happened after Jesus spoke.  Perhaps.

Before I discuss the gospel, however, I do want to talk about God changing his mind in response to our actions.  This is not the only time we find that God changes his mind in the scriptures in response to people who repent.  So, just as we change our minds and our plans in response to others with whom we have a relationship, God changes his mind – meaning we are in a relationship with God.  What the people we care about do, affects us and influences our actions.  God changing his mind tells us that our relationship with God is not one sided.  God cares about us.  We know this, too, because of Christ.

Consider what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel.  He does not say that the end IS near.  Instead, he says, “The time is fulfilled,” and, “the kingdom of God HAS come near.” Jesus may be calling for us to repent, but he is not speaking with the same sense of urgency that we heard in Jonah or 1st Corinthians.

What Paul says about marriage throughout First Corinthians needs be taken with a grain of salt because of his expectation that Christ’s return in imminent.  Later, in another one of his letters, after Paul has realized that he was wrong as to when Christ would return, Paul writes that Christ’s relationship to the church is as a husband to his wife.  He is not nearly as anti-marriage as one would think from only reading First Corinthians.

A sense of urgency is repeated throughout the Bible, usually by the prophets, so it is not surprising that Paul, a student of the scriptures, might expect the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, to mean the time of judgement, and Christ’s return, is imminent.  By looking at his letters as a whole and how they evolved, and by applying reason to this letter, we know it is best to dismiss portions of it and focus our attention elsewhere in the passage.  Whether or not the end is near, the final verse of this passage is, was true in Paul’s time and is true in our time as well, “The present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world does pass away when we understand that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near.”  For the time is fulfilled when we recognize that Christ is with us, here and now.  When we see Christ in others, we find ourselves entering into God Kingdom’s – “on earth as it is in heaven,” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.  What passes away in the world is our view of the world – how we see the world around us.

Jesus may call upon us to repent, just as the prophets did the people of Israel over and over again, but we should not read this to mean we are to focus on our sins and what we have done wrong in the past.  The word translated as repent does not mean regret as a current dictionary definition might suggest.  Instead, it means to change one’s way of thinking.  Thus, Jesus is saying we need to change our focus, our focus on ourselves, and go in a new direction.  Jesus is calling us to follow the path that will led us to God’s kingdom which is, indeed, near.  Living for kingdom is not about living for the next life, it is about following Jesus as Simeon Peter, Andrew, James and John did when called.

If we do repent and follow Jesus, then what Paul writes is true, “the present form of the world is passing away,” for the world takes on a new form when we see it through the eyes of Christ.  I read part of a Facebook post in which the person suggested the world has not advanced since Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.  I stopped reading it, not because I believe the world is as it should be, but because so much of what I hear said, reported in the news, and written for us to read focuses on what is outrageous.  The post focused on the past and on what is negative in the present, its author failed to see what has changed for the better.

The other night I was walking Jack when the temperature was below 10 degrees.  I was wearing three or four layers of clothes, covered from head to toe with only a small slit to see to see in front of me.  If it is just Jack and me on a walk, I often use the time to pray – but that night, it was too cold to pray.  When I chanced to look up, I saw sky was clear and filled with stars.  If my breath had not had already frozen, it’s beauty would have taken my breath away.  I was guilty of focusing only on myself that night, but God was with me.  The temperature left a lot to be desired, but I was warmed by the beauty of God’s creation. Not warmed to the point I stood around to appreciate it for more than a few seconds, but long enough to know that the kingdom is near.

Seeing the beauty of God’s creation change my perspective that night and reminded me of the importance of looking for God’s presence, especially when our world is less than ideal.  This sort of thing has happened to me before.  I have been overwhelmed by circumstances when something someone says or does, or something I see helps me to see the love of God is present.

There is good and bad all around us, and following the path to the kingdom does not require us to put on blinders, but it does require us to look for God’s hand at work in the world.  Sometimes, too, Jesus calls us to follow him and use our hands and our voices to make this a better world where people are judged by their character and not the color of their skin, their gender, or their orientation.

So, I challenge you this week to consider what it means for you to repent, what direction do you need to go to help make this church and this community a better place for all.  Look for the presence of God, and listen for Jesus who is calling you to follow him.

Let us pray.

Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for the gift of your Son.  Help us to listen for his call and give us the strength to follow him.  Guide us, that by our working together, St. Paul’s might help us and others understand that your kingdom is near.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.