Epiphany 3B Sermon (2003)

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:14-20;
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor. 7:29-31


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

“The kingdom of God is here! The kingdom of God is here!” Wow! That sounds exciting! Doesn’t it? “Good News,” it says. It sounded so exciting to Peter and Andrew, James and John that they were willing to immediately drop everything in order to follow Jesus and be a part of it. As we said in the children’s time, the prospect of fishing for people is kind of a strange concept. I don’t know if they dropped their nets for that. But the arrival of God’s kingdom on the scene — now that sounds like an event!

What about two thousand years later? Does it still sound like an event? Two thousand years have passed of seemingly the same ol’ same ol’. Has anything really changed? Did God’s kingdom come and fizzle out, or what? Those who still believe in God — we’ve got to believe that it didn’t come yet, don’t we? What’s changed? If God’s kingdom did arrive, then where is the evidence. What kind of event was it?

It doesn’t even sound as big as tonight’s event — the Super Bowl! Now that’s the kind of event that gets people to watch. I’ve heard this week that they can now measure its TV ratings in terms of the percentage of the world’s population watching it. There’s never been an event in history which so many people have watched at the same time. If we measured the number of people watching the Super Bowl tonight versus the number of people in church this morning, which do you think would win? The Super Bowl, hands down, right? Which is the main event?

Many believers still put faith in the coming of God’s kingdom, but they’ve reduced it somewhat from a public event to a personal event — namely, what happens to each person when they die. If you believe in Jesus, then you gain the kingdom of God … heaven. Perhaps that’s not a reduction of the Good News in some respects, since every person has to die. It’s simply not a main event in the sense of the Super Bowl where a whole bunch of people can watch at once. Each person’s death is a personal event, a personal experience. The kingdom of God comes to each person that way, and it’s an important event, because your eternity depends on it, right? I think this personalized version of the Gospel is a popular way of thinking about the Good News of God’s kingdom — perhaps the most popular way among Christians today.

But is it what Andrew and Peter, James and John signed up for that day, when they dropped their fishing nets and immediately followed Jesus to become fishers for people? What do you think they were bargaining for? What kind of main event did they expect? Was the modern view of most Christians — that the kingdom of God comes when you die believing in Jesus — was that what they had in mind? It’s not too likely. The picture that most Jews had in mind was something decidedly more public and this-worldly. They believed that the Messiah would come and lead a victory of God’s people over their oppressors. Their tiny nation had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and finally the Romans, too. When God’s Messiah would come, there would be an end to such nonsense. God’s enemies would be overthrown, and God’s faithful people would enjoy the bliss of God’s favor. That’s the kind of event that would make fishermen drop their nets and follow someone, wouldn’t it? God’s victory! That really sounds like the main event — bigger than the Super Bowl!

A big problem, of course, is that it didn’t happen — at least not according to the disciples’ expectations. There wasn’t any obvious victory over God’s enemies. In fact, the cross looks like a defeat — certainly not like a victory that has put God’s enemies under foot. So the expectation came to be in the early church that one day Christ would come again — and finish the job, so to speak. This is the Christian expectation, following the Jewish one, that there will be a resounding victory someday on this earth, a main event.

Many Christians of today have come to believe in such a dramatic event called the Rapture, for example. The Left Behind series of Christian novels has spawned a phenomenon of books sold in the tens of millions, and in a series of movies. If you don’t know what the rapture is, as described in these books, it truly is a main event. In the first chapter of the first Left Behind book, there is a sudden disappearance of millions of people all over the face of the globe. All that is left behind is their clothes — and the unbelievers. It’s almost as if Jesus swung down an invisible net that fished them all out of this world to protect them. For what comes next is the time of great trial and tribulation, the time of God’s victory being worked out in this world. This series of ten books now, focus on the tribulation and divine victory in a way that has really captured people’s imaginations.

The curious thing about these Left Behind books, though, are the heroes. They are not about any faithful ones who are raptured away. No, the heroes of these books are a handful of folks who are left behind because they didn’t believe at the time of the Rapture. They only begin to believe in Jesus because of the Rapture, and they seek to be his servants as the time of tribulation swirls around them. It’s their drama — these late disciples of Jesus who are left behind — it’s their drama that has captured people’s imaginations in these books.

I want to ask: so why is the Rapture so important, if the heroes are those left behind? Isn’t that like all of us really, only without the Rapture business? We don’t need the Rapture! Because we already have the cross and resurrection, not as a rapture, but as a rupture — the rupture in history when God’s unconditional love and forgiveness entered this world in Jesus the Christ. All disciples of Jesus still struggle to understand what this means, and we are left behind to witness during these times of tribulation. We are already like the characters in the Left Behind series, not because of a rapture, but because the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the main event which has left the rest of history in its wake.

It’s been the same ever since Jesus’ first disciples were left behind still bewildered. As we mentioned, they had followed Jesus with a totally different kind of victory in mind, a totally different kind of main event, in which God would conquer all his enemies in a decisive and dramatic way. We know this because at the very center of Mark’s Gospel the ministry around Galilee comes to an end, and they start journeying to Jerusalem. At this important moment, Jesus asks what they expect. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ he asks. Peter gets it right, when he says, ‘You are the Messiah!’ But he also still gets it wrong. Because here’s what happens next:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

See! Peter basically says, ‘Hey! I didn’t sign up for that way back in Galilee when I dropped my nets and followed you! That’s not the kind of victory of God’s kingdom that I’ve put myself on the line for.’ Jesus must re-negotiate what it means to be a disciple in the strongest terms. Mark tells us that:

. . . turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:31-35)

There! Jesus has made it very clear that this is to be a very different kind of main event. It’s one for which he will appear, for all the world, to be a loser. But he will be raised on the third day, the rupture in history for which the world will never be the same. God has finally made it crystal clear how he means to win the victory: with forgiveness and love and life, not with vengeance and hatred and death, even for God’s enemies. Why? Because we’ve all been God’s enemies. None of us have ever gotten the way to peace quite right. Only Jesus lived an unconditional love and forgiveness from God that even sacrifices itself to God’s enemies. Only Jesus has been raised from death, not only for his complete faithfulness, but also as a promise to those who follow in this way of peace.

There’s still the problem we began with: why has the world seemingly changed so little over two thousand years. With the hundreds of millions killed in wars and bloodshed last century, things have even seemed to have gotten worse. If the cross and resurrection are the main event of history, then what kind of victory is this for God’s people? When the Super Bowl ends tonight, there will be a clear winner. Why after two thousand years since Easter are things still so unclear? Because this world still so desperately clings to the old way of peace, which is victory through superior firepower. In other words, victory by force. God’s victory is by the power of love because it never uses force. You can’t make somebody love you. Not even God can do that — in fact, we might say that especially God can’t do that, because God is love, and love never forces itself. And God’s power is also by the power of life, never by death or killing of any kind. In fact, the promise of the resurrection is that God can bring life even where we sow death.

And, obviously, the world still chooses to return vengeance and death for God’s forgiveness and life. Jesus many times predicted that things would get worse before they got better, because he knew that his new way of peace would make our old attempts at peace look more and more desperate. With our old way of peace, through superior firepower, still trying desperately to assert itself, there will be times and tribulations.

But let’s get excited about Jesus’ new way of peace that will never go away. Last century, there was terrible bloodshed, but there were also saints who brought Jesus’ way of peace into the public realm like never before in history. There was Gandhi, for example, a disciple of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi led his people, more than half a billion strong, in a revolution of freedom won through nonviolence, love and forgiveness. And there was that disciple of both Jesus and Gandhi, who we celebrated this past week, Martin Luther King, Jr. King also fought a battle of freedom won through nonviolence, love and forgiveness.

In every generation there are those who get swept up in the main event of history, God’s victory in Jesus Christ, a battle for freedom that is still being fought right now by all those who believe in the nonviolence, love and forgiveness of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Are you and I game to join the main event? Let the people say, “Amen!”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 26, 2003

[Another saint of a previous generation who truly lived Christ’s way of peace was St. Francis of Assisi, whose marvelous prayer I used for the prayers this day.]

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