January 22nd, 2012. 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

This week was one of those weeks when I felt spoilt for choice as I was deciding on a sermon topic. First of all, we had the story of Jonah, which, in and of itself, contains amazing material. Not only that, but there is enough material in today’s reading for several sermons. Psalm 65 also provided much food for thought, and, since I don’t often preach on the Psalm, I gave this long consideration as well. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which is the reading we did NOT do this week, is always a good source of inspiration, and I thought about using that as the basis for this week’s sermon. And of course, we received a new member this morning, and this is something which deserves mention. But in the end, Mark’s Gospel won out, for several reasons, which I hope will become clear to you as I continue.
You need to understand that Bible scholars believe that this was the first Gospel to be written, and that the writers of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels drew heavily from this one, when they were writing. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest one, and the others added things to what was originally written. Each one of the Gospels spoke to a particular audience, and we refer to the Marcan community, the Lucan community, and the Matthean community when we discuss the theology behind each of the synoptic Gospels. There is also the community to which the writer of John’s Gospel spoke, but that is a whole different story, as you know.
Again this week, we have a reading about God’s call to us. In fact, both of our readings are about God’s call. In the first one, he called Jonah to go to Nineveh, to save the Ninevites from themselves. It wouldn’t hurt to think about that for a minute, as Jonah’s reaction was very similar to our own, much of the time. He didn’t want to go. But the people who were called today – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – they followed with no hesitation. Would that we could be more like them! However, I am not going to speak about being called – or at least, not yet.
For now, let’s look at a bit of my past, which I want to share with you, before I get into one key thing in Mark’s Gospel. Years ago, Keith and I used to go to a town in Quebec called Fermont, which was about 27 km from our house. The main reason for going there was that they had the best pizza in the world. In fact, I still haven’t found one that is better. Last fall, we were led to a small restaurant in Baie Comeau, where the pizza came close, but other than that – nothing. Anyhow, at that time, Keith spoke no French at all, but since the waitresses could manage a few words in English, and the menus were bilingual, he was usually able to get his order understood. He always began his meal with a coffee, which wouldn’t surprise any of you who know him, and, invariably, the waitress would ask him if wanted it “tout de suite”, hence the title of today’s sermon. You see, to Anglophones, the expression “tout de suite”, used in that context, seems just a little rude. It’s almost as though we were saying: I want it right now, with no delays. Of course, we have since learned the difference, as we are becoming familiar with the nuances of Canadian French, but we still are hesitant about ordering something “tout de suite” in a restaurant.
I think that the writer of Mark’s Gospel, however, would have really appreciated this expression, as his whole Gospel is filled with immediacy. Different translations render it differently. For instance, in the pew Bible, after Jesus called Simon an Andrew, you would have read: At once they left their nets and followed him. A little later, when Jesus saw James and John fishing, you would have read: Without delay, he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. But, in actual fact, the Greek word εὐθὺς, is more accurately rendered in English as “immediately”, and it is this word which appears in Marks’ Gospel no less than 17 times. So today, we are going to look at this one word, and figure out its impact on our lives as followers of Jesus.
The very word – IMMEDIATELY – conveys a sense of urgency, and that is what we saw in this opening chapter of Mark. Our reading began with words of Jesus – The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Note, he did not say that it was time to get ready. He said that the time has come, and it had. It came when he was born in Bethlehem, and now he was starting his ministry. John the Baptist was in prison, and it was now time for Jesus to start gathering his disciples about him, which he set about doing with a sense of urgency. You can almost hear him saying it: We have no time to waste. Let’s go and do it right now – let’s become fishers of men tout de suite.
But there is very little detail in this, and that heightens the idea that things are happening very quickly. Remember, Jesus had just three years to accomplish everything. He knew, even if his followers didn’t, that his time was limited. Even so, I often feel short-changed when I read the Gospels. I wish that the authors has written more. I want to know more about Jesus as a person, as a preacher, as a prophet, as God. And I don’t get it from the Gospel. Sometimes I think how different it could have been if there had been different authors. If John Grisham had written Mark, we’d overhear a little dialogue between Simon and Andrew concerning Jesus. Stieg Larsson would have accompanied James and John through their morning routine. Patricia Cornwell would have clued us into the rumors surrounding Jesus’ arrival. Even the author of Luke’s Gospel provides a little story that explains why the disciples find Jesus compelling. After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Simon, James, and John allow Jesus to use their boat as a podium. Jesus tells the men to put out and fish again. Simon grumbles, but an overwhelming catch of fish convinces him that Jesus is the real deal (Luke 5:1-11). No wonder Simon and his colleagues leave everything to follow Jesus! But Mark remains offers no explanation. He only says: IMMEDIATELY things happened. And we are left to wonder why.
Let’s just think for a bit about things which don’t happen IMMEDIATELY in our world. Certainly, the very first thing that happens to each of us is our birth, and there is nothing immediate about that. From the nine months of pregnancy to the time actually delivering the baby, the time can seem to drag interminably. Deciding to follow a particular career path isn’t an immediate thing either. There is time spent weighing the pros and cons, and investigating which schools offer the best training. Then there is the training itself, and, after that, looking for a job. Looking at the church, we can see that things happen very slowly here. Have you ever known a church to make a decision in haste? I certainly haven’t. Even to become a member of a church, there are steps which are to be followed. First of all, the person has to decide that he or she wants to become a member. Let’s say, for instance, that someone named Erik wants to become a member of St. Andrew’s. First of all, he would check out the church in various ways. Some people do this by talking to members. Some prefer to do their own investigation via the Internet. There is a lot of information available on the Web, which can help a seeker narrow down options. After making the decision, then Erik would have called or written the minister, to find out what steps need to be taken in order to become a member. This would be followed by a meeting of the minister and the candidate, at which time the minister would ascertain that the candidate understood what was involved. At this time, the minister would explain some of the workings of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the candidate, and, in this church, there would be some study of Living Faith. Next, the session would meet to approve the candidate, and finally, we get to where we are today – welcoming a new member to our congregation.
And yet, Mark spoke about immediacy, about the εὐθὺς surrounding Jesus’ ministry. So let’s see what IS immediate, and also what should be. We are a very time conscious world. We want things, and we want them right now. We don’t want to wait. And yet, and yet, there is something very satisfying about waiting. As you know, I make the bread for communion in this church, and that involves waiting. But the other day, as I was getting ready to grate cheese for a meal, I remembered that I had a bag of the pre-grated cheese in the fridge, so I used that instead. Even though I do like the idea of slowly making bread, in much the same way as it has been made for generations, I must admit that I appreciate NOT having to take the time to grate cheese – and possibly part of my finger as well. We, as a society, value our time. We don’t want to take a lot of time doing relatively unimportant things. We like things to be efficient, with the Internet being a prime example. How many of you can still remember dial-up internet? Would you believe that there are still places in Canada operating on dial-up? How on earth can they manage, we ask ourselves? It seems that the idea of faster being better is the governing idea of our lives these days. But, unfortunately, this seems to have moved into the realm of decision-making as well, and this is likely not a good thing. There is an old expression: Marry in haste; repent at leisure. And this applies to more than marriage. Festina lente – hasten slowly – is one of the Latin tags I learned years ago, and I think that it bears repeating in 2012.
And yet, and yet, our text this morning vibrates with immediacy, with urgency. Let’s set the scene for this urgency. John the Baptist had been arrested, for several reasons. He spoke against the religious leaders, which was bad enough in those days. But he dared to criticise Herod and his immoral lifestyle, and that didn’t help matters any. Now, then, was the time for Jesus to begin his ministry. Remember, John was the forerunner, and now that he was out of the picture, so to speak, Jesus was ready to move centre stage. As soon as he arrived in Galilee, he set out to call followers. And, we are told IMMEDIATELY they left their nets and followed him.
But what is all the rush? Why must everything happen IMMEDIATELY? As with many questions, there are two parts to the answer. First of all, Jesus is bringing an immediate message – one which requires an immediate response. In the very first verse we read today, Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God in Galilee. And the good news is this: Jesus was born, and died for our sins so that we might have eternal life. I have often referenced the most-quoted verse in Scripture – John 3: 16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Eternal life. Just imagine that. But Jesus isn’t talking about eternal life – yet. Rather, he is talking about the kingdom of God, and what does he say?
The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand. It is not something we have to wait for. It is here. It is now. It is immediate. And this is his immediate message.
And the immediate response? We say it in today’s Scripture as well, when Simon and Andrew IMMEDIATELY left their nets to follow Jesus. Jesus said to them and to us: Repent and believe the good news. In this case, REPENT means to change the direction of your life. Simon, Andrew, James, and John changed the direction of their lives. No longer setting out to catch fish, they were to be fishers of men. And when Jesus calls them, he doesn’t say: I’ll be back in a few days so you can think it over. He doesn’t say: Come follow me when you’re ready. No. He says: Follow me, and IMMEDIATELY they follow him. And he says the same to us: Follow me. He doesn’t make any of the promises we have come to expect from people on this earth asking us to follow them. Like Tim Horton’s on Facebook, and get a free gift card. Join a group and get a free T-shirt. All Jesus promises us is eternal life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the Cost of Discipleship, and, let me tell you, it doesn’t come cheaply. Bonhoeffer himself paid with his very life. When we agree to follow Jesus, we are not taking the easy way. Rather, it is a way which is often mocked by the world, a way that can lead to a cross.
But it comes with rewards beyond our wildest imaginings. It comes with God’s love, the love of the creator of the universe. It comes with life eternal. And why would we want to wait even one more second to grab this? Where else will we find this kind of love? Where else will we find salvation but at his feet? This is one time when we need to respond immediately and completely, and one time when tout de suite is the only response we need. Thanks be to God.

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