Epiphany +3B - Better than an impulse buy

photo from Foodology.ca
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, 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.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

What is the last impulse purchase you made?

For me, it was last week, and I was out shopping, and the checkout line was long, and it was that horrid part of the late afternoon where lunch has worn off and you are just now shopping for dinner ingredients, so dinner is a lot of time and effort away. I am usually pretty good at ignoring the candy bars, or even feigning disgust over some of the ridiculous concoctions or spinoff candy bars and treats - because, really, as much as I love Reese’s Pieces and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, is there really any reason that we need to now have oversized peanut butter cups that are stuffed with mini Reese’s Pieces? Maybe I’m just no fun.

Anyway. Back to last week. It was late. I was hungry. I noticed a dark chocolate mint cookie crunch candy bar - the very sort of ridiculous concoction that I usually spurn - and I grabbed it. I saw it, and immediately I placed it in my cart. I walked to the car, and immediately I opened it (and shared half of it with Sam). In case you’re wondering, it was delicious.

Are you prone to impulse purchases? I’m usually not. I’m the sort of person who will grab an extra something on a whim, and put it in my cart, and then, while I’m standing in line to check out, think better of it and put it back. I’m the sort of person who reads product reviews online before I buy big things like dishwashers. And small things like snow boots for the kids.

We aren’t even halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, and already we’ve heard the word “immediately” three times. Jesus is baptized, and immediately he is sent into the wilderness. Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew and immediately they leave their nets to follow. Jesus walks on, sees James and John, and immediately he calls out to them.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have too many “and immediately” moments in my life. Especially when it comes to leaving behind all the things that ground me in this life - family, vocation, home, self-reliance.

And yet today, we have Jesus, who makes a bold series of statements - the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent; believe in the good news; follow me - and the good news and urgency of Jesus’s message leads four men to leap out of boats and stumble through the water, clambering to get to Jesus and follow his footsteps down the beach.

What is it that made these first disciples leap out of the boat without so much as a glance back?

It’s possible, of course, that they knew something of Jesus before he showed up at the edge of the water. Mark’s storytelling is quick, but it doesn’t mean that stuff didn’t happen in the gaps. And so maybe they’d been listening to John the Baptist talk incessantly about this powerful one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Maybe rumors have been spreading. Maybe they’ve even seen or met Jesus before in passing, and everything they know about him has been capturing their heads and hearts for days, and so even though they answer the call “immediately,” maybe they’ve been stewing over the possibility for days.

It’s also possible, of course, that their hearts were so longing for the good news that Jesus brings that there was no question that they would drop everything in its pursuit. I think that we feel this way sometimes. That we are so longing for an end to our grief, or we are so longing to hear that we are valued, or we are so longing for a bright light to shake us out of whatever our present darkness, that we jump at the first good news that comes our way. The danger, of course, is that there are lots of would-be saviors out there who would promise us everything our hearts desire and more, whether fame or fortune or the illusion of love, whether or not they are able to deliver on any of those promises. And so maybe these first disciples just got lucky that it was Jesus walking down the beach that day, and not some other guy named Derek who was willing to sell them a whole bunch of snake oil at rock bottom prices.

Or is it possible that the the mercy and grace of Jesus became apparent because there was an invitation offered to these four men at all? Maybe Simon and Andrew and James and John were the uncoordinated, unathletic kids of the playground who were always picked last for everything, if they were picked at all. Maybe they were the kids standing by the wall at school dances, simultaneously hoping that somebody would notice them...and that nobody would. And maybe they went into the family fishing business, not by choice, but because the rest of the world had told them that this was their best shot, that they wouldn’t amount to anything else anyway. Maybe they knew that Jesus was special because Jesus didn’t know the prevailing narrative of rejection. He wasn’t saying the things that everybody else was saying. He wasn’t ignoring them like everybody else did. Maybe for the first time, they were extended an invitation to be part of something, and something important, and maybe in Jesus, for the first time, somebody was looking at them like they were really worth something?

Mark’s gospel makes it clear from the outset: Jesus is the one who brings good news. Jesus says it himself, “repent and believe in the good news.” It will become clear as the disciples and the crowds and the religious leaders and even the demons see Jesus’s identity unfold that this “good news” is all about the immediate reality of hope, healing, mercy, and forgiveness for us and or all people. The good news is that God’s kingdom reigns over all of our human kingdoms; that God’s love reigns over all human selfishness; that God’s grace reigns over all this world’s injustices.

What I know about myself is that my heart craves this good news, desperately. For everything that is broken in this world, for every evil that is beyond my control to remedy, for every horror of death and destruction that overwhelms my heart, for every failing of human nature that defies my overwrought sense of right and wrong, for all of the bad news around me, the thing that keeps me from falling into despair or complacency is this ever-present hope of God’s kingdom, the promise of good news for creation, the steadfast hope of a God who brings resurrection. I rely on the good news of the kingdom to stay sane.

And yet I still find myself reluctant to get out of the boat. I don’t walk around speaking good news in my daily conversations like my life - our collective lives! - depend on it. I don’t wander the streets saying “the kingdom of God is at hand,” and not just because people might think I’m a kook, but because to proclaim an alternative vision of the world these days is an act that is immediately interpreted as political, and I don’t love being political or being viewed as political, and I have this incessant need for everybody to get along and people to like me and if I march around in Jesus’s footsteps down that beach, I know that Jesus is going to make me say things that are going to be comforting to those who most need comfort and unsettling to those who are most able to make my life difficult.

And I don’t always have the confidence of Simon and Andrew and James and John that Jesus could actually be calling me to do his work, because there are some days when I am pretty sure that Jesus has the wrong lady for the job, because how could he actually be using somebody like me who is stubborn and impatient and who hates talking on the phone and who would rather hide in the corner than draw undue attention to herself, no matter how good the good news I cling to.

And I am far too much like Jonah sometimes. I hesitate to embrace God’s calling to proclaim the goodness of the kingdom, because I know that once I start doing that, then all those people who I can’t stand are going to know that God loves them and shows them mercy and grace, just like God shows love and mercy and grace to me. All those people who I work too hard to distance myself from are going to be swept up in God’s goodness along with me, and I’m stuck with them, and I’m stuck with a God who loves my friends and my enemies alike. There’s a reason Jonah ran the other way when called to Ninevah, and a reason that he pouted out there in the hot sun. God showed mercy to those least deserving of it, and this sounds like such good news from afar, but it is infuriating when it comes to pass.

But still the good news of is so very good, and the kingdom of God is such a corrective to all the ways that we keep messing things up, and I wonder if there is any way for me to tap into the heart of those disciples, who saw a life of discipleship as more than just an impulse buy, but as a welcome mid-course correction that was about to set their lives on course to do the hardest and the most beautiful thing the world had ever seen.

Of course, the way that my story ends, and the way that your story ends, too, is that Jesus still invites us into the work of the kingdom, no matter our hesitations or brokenness.

Jesus calls each of us to repent, to turn, to become dissatisfied with life-as-it-is and to become dissatisfied with the inward curve of our sinful selves, and to make an about-face where we come face-to-face with the overwhelming goodness of everything God has to offer us.

Jesus asks us to trust him, to believe in God’s goodness, which frees us from thinking that we do any of this discipleship stuff by ourselves. We trust Jesus and Jesus leads us and Jesus shows us the way of service and love. We don’t make it up. We just imitate. We follow, just like Jesus invites us to do. We let God’s light shine through us. God makes us who we are.

Jesus tells us that the time is ripe, that the moment is now, that the world at this very moment needs to hear about the hope that we have for a future, for abundant life, for healing.

If we can learn anything from last week’s call story in John and this week’s call story in Mark, it is that Jesus knows us before we know him, and Jesus calls us before we know what we are capable of as his followers. And, friends, there is a whole lot of grace on this journey.

The disciples will follow Jesus and they will mess up, a lot. At the end of the story, faced with the empty tomb, the disciples in Mark’s gospel will walk away in fear, because they still don’t quite understand everything that Jesus has taught them. But it is through these same disciples that the world has yet come to know resurrection and love and the promises of God.

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the first one out of the boat. You don’t have to like the feeling of sand in your shoes and you don’t have to have all the perfect words to tell the world about God’s love.

Jesus invites you, nevertheless, to follow. To begin, bit by bit, to align your life with his. To know that Jesus can and will use you, bumps, bruises, misunderstandings, and all, to keep hammering away at the message that God’s good news is HERE. And for YOU. And for ALL.

And let me tell you. This good news is sweeter and more satisfying than any candy bar you can buy at the check-out, no matter how creamy the dark chocolate or how many mint cookie crunchies there are.

Thanks be to God for the sweetness of his mercy. Thanks be to God for his soul-satisfying grace. Thanks be to God for the invitation to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, and the strength and joy to follow and to share this goodness, to all the ends of the earth.