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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 21, 2024

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What would you need to hear to make you immediately drop everything and respond?

For some, it might be the news that there are whales in Penn Cove or out at West Beach. I know people who, when they hear those words, the next sound you hear is their car peeling out in the parking lot! For some, it might be a call from your kid, or from your kids’ school, or, if you have kids in college like me, even just from your kids’ area code. If I get a call from Pullman, Washington, or College Station, Texas, I will drop everything to answer it! For some it might be the news that your cows got loose, or that your pregnant wife’s water just broke, or that there’s a plane leaving for Hawaii with some free seats available.

There are some things we hear which are so compelling or urgent or important or wonderful that we are willing to drop everything to respond.

In our gospel reading this morning we have four fishermen who heard something that made them drop everything and respond.

First, we have Simon and Andrew, two fishermen from Galilee. They were at work at their jobs, casting their nets into the sea, when Jesus called to them. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people!” he said. And immediately, St. Mark tells us, they left their nets and followed him.

Next, we have James and John, two more fishermen. These two were in their boats mending their nets when Jesus called to them. And right there on the spot they left their father Zebedee and their hired men and followed Jesus.

What was it that compelled these four fishermen to drop everything and respond?

Well, Jesus had come to Galilee with a compelling message. Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

These are the very first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. They constitute Jesus’ very first sermon. Let’s take a closer look at what he had to say.

First came a wonderful announcement: “The time is fulfilled!” Jesus said. What did it mean that the time was fulfilled? There are two words in the New Testament that are translated as “time” in English. There is chronos, which is where we get words like “chronology” and “chronological.” This word refers to linear time, time which can be marked and measured. It is one o’clock and then two o’clock. It is January and then February.  That’s chronos.  But there’s another word for time in the New Testament. That word is kairos. Kairos refers not to linear time, but to the proper time, the right time. When a baker is baking bread, he or she knows the bread is ready to come out not just by the clock, but by the doneness, right? They look at the crust, they thump on the bottom of the loaf, and say, “It’s time.” What has been waited for has happened. That’s kairos.  Jesus begins his very first sermon by saying “It’s time.” The thing that everyone had been waiting and watching for had happened. The promise that God was coming to save his people was now being fulfilled.

“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus continued. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he is not talking about a place. He isn’t talking about a territory or a region or a castle. He isn’t talking about an earthly structure of some kind. He isn’t talking about an organization or a network or an institution. Instead, the kingdom of God is whenever and wherever God makes himself known. It is whenever and wherever God’s rule, God’s authority, is made manifest. Or, as one Bible scholar put it, the kingdom of God is whenever and wherever God makes a personal appearance. This is what happened with the appearance of Jesus in Galilee. God had come near!

Next Jesus called for a response. After this proclamation, this amazing announcement, Jesus said, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

To repent is to turn around. It is to change direction. It is to change your mind, your heart, your behavior, your life.

In our first reading we heard how Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh to call them to repent: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” he said. Here was an announcement that, much to Jonah’s chagrin, got them to drop everything and respond! And they responded by changing direction. Nineveh was a notoriously wicked city. As the capital of the Assyrian Empire, it was one of Israel’s most ruthless enemies, which is why Jonah didn’t want to go there in the first place. The prophet Nahum called Nineveh a “city of blood” and a place of “endless cruelty.” The Ninevites rejected God and God’s ways and God’s people.

But then Jonah called them to repentance, and everything changed. They changed direction. They proclaimed a fast as a sign of their turn towards the one true God. They changed clothes, with everyone, both great and small, putting on sackcloth as a sign of their changed hearts. They changed their behavior too. We hear that they turned from their evil ways. This is what it means to repent.

At least in part. You see, there’s another way of understanding what it means to repent. For the people of Israel this word had a history of being used to call the people to change their behavior, to be sure, but it had another meaning too. For the Israelites in exile, it was also understood as an invitation to return to God. It was understood as an invitation to come home, both literally and spiritually. That puts a different nuance on it, doesn’t it? What if every time we heard the word “repent,” we heard an invitation to come home? That’d get people to drop everything and respond, don’t you think?

Finally, Jesus said, “believe in the good news.” Jesus’ proclamation was not good advice; it was good news. In him, the time had been fulfilled. In him, the kingdom of God had come near. “Believe it!” Jesus is saying here. “Trust what I am saying to you! Respond to my words with faith. Respond by following me.”

The Ninevites and Simon and Andrew and James and John all heard a word from the Lord which compelled them to drop everything and respond. The Ninevites dropped their wicked ways. The fishermen dropped their nets, at least for now. They responded by immediately following the Lord in faith.

And now it is our turn.

Today we hear Christ Jesus say to us: “The time is fulfilled.” No matter what is going on for you in chronological time, no matter what life is like for you on January 21st, 2024, no matter what life was like for you yesterday or will be like for you tomorrow, no matter what you might be experiencing in linear time, the Lord Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” The time is right. The time is right for you to know his presence, his mercy, his grace, his love. That time has come. It is now.

Today we hear that the kingdom of God has come near to us. God’s kingdom has infiltrated our world. God’s presence and power has infiltrated our lives. In the midst of the brokenness of the kingdoms of the earth in which we live, God’s kingdom has entered in – not to claim territory or build a castle, not to wield earthly power, but to make himself known to us. In Jesus, God has made a personal appearance, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit he might come to rule our hearts with his peace.

Today through this living word we hear the Lord Jesus call us to repent. We are called to turn from all wickedness, as the people of Nineveh did. We are called to turn from all sin. We are called to change our direction, our minds, our hearts, our behavior, and our lives in response to his gracious call. All who find themselves in exile from God are graciously invited to come home to him.

Today we are called once again to believe in the good news. We are called to trust in God’s Word, in what Christ Jesus has said to us.

And he has said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus very first sermon continues to be so compelling, so urgent, so important, so wonderful, that we can’t help but respond to it immediately with faith – a faith that follows him, and invites others to do the same.

Thanks be to God. Amen


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church