Epiphany 2 Morning Prayer
I will begin with a confession. The Gospel of St. Mark, the beginning of which we heard earlier, has often struck me as a bit odd. For St. Mark seems to be in such a hurry.
He begins with Isaiah’s prophecy of the messenger who will call people to hurry up and “prepare the way of the Lord.” Then suddenly John the Baptist appears. Mark skips the Annunciation and the birth of Christ. When I was younger, I thought, “What? No Christmas story?” And I sometimes still think that!
But St. Mark instead skips to John the Baptist proclaiming the coming Messiah. Then Jesus appears and as soon as Mark mentions Jesus, he is baptized by John. St. Mark seems even to have Jesus in hurry. Then “immediately” – remember that word – “immediately” the heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove and the Father proclaims, “You are my beloved Son, with You I am well pleased.”
And then the Spirit “immediately” drives Jesus into the wilderness. Even God seems to be in a hurry in the Gospel of Mark!
By the way, note that there is no contradiction between the Father’s expressed love for his Son Jesus and then His immediately driving Jesus off into the wilderness. Sometimes God puts his children through difficult wilderness times precisely because He does love them. That was the case with Jesus, and it is so with us.
But was God really in a hurry? Well, probably not, at least not in the way we think of being in a hurry. But why did St. Mark seem to be in a hurry and even seem to have God in a bit of a hurry?
I think here it might be helpful to step back and look at how the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, focused on time in their gospels – how the four evangelists would have the reader look at time and at God in time.
St. Matthew was interested in connecting the time and proclamations of the prophets with the life and times of Christ. Again and again, he pointed out that an event in the life of Christ was a fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew is not at all alone in the New Testament in doing that, but he particularly emphasized the connection between Old Testament prophecy and the life of Christ.
St. Luke was a detail man. He focused on the life and times of Christ as he said he was doing in his introduction to his Gospel. Unlike Mark, he even began a bit early with the promise of the birth of John the Baptist and then with the Annunciation to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. And Luke took his time with a longer narrative of the birth of Jesus than in the other gospels. And he is the only one to show us Jesus between infancy and adulthood. As we saw last Sunday, Luke gives us the story of Jesus in the Temple at age 12. Later, he tells us much of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples between the Resurrection and Ascension. Through Christ, God acted in time, in history, and Luke looked at that in detail.
Now St. John wants us to look beyond time. For Jesus comes from beyond time. John’s Gospel begins in eternity past: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And John continues to remind us that Jesus is very God of very God from eternity past, particularly when Jesus confessed, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
St. John is more selective than Luke in presenting us events in Christ’s life as John is intent on presenting this big eternal picture of who Jesus is. One way he does this is by presenting particular miracles as signs revealing the divine nature of Christ. The first such sign is one associated with this Epiphany season, the Wedding at Cana in which Jesus turned the water into wine. John concludes his narrative of this miracle this way: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
John presents these signs that we may believe as well, as he wrote at the end of chapter 20:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.
St. John would have us believe that Jesus is God from eternity past who entered our time to save us so that we may live with him for eternity future.
So how did St. Mark deal with time? And why did he seem to be in such a hurry? The end of our second reading tells us why in no uncertain terms:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;repent and believe the gospel.”
“The kingdom of God is at hand” – these words of Jesus are a theme, perhaps thetheme, of St. Mark’s Gospel. And because Christ and St. Mark see that the kingdom of God is at hand, there is an urgency to this Gospel. Remember that word “immediately”? By my count, it occurs 36 times in Mark. Immediately, this happens, and immediately Jesus does that. St. Mark’s Gospel moves quickly! For there is no time to waste. And there is no time to be complacent. For the kingdom of God is at hand!
The end of time and the consummation of the kingdom of God are very naturally of interest to Christians. And we have been looking at that Wednesday nights as we go through the Book of Revelation. St. Mark provides a good balance that should be our attitude toward the end.
Remembering that “the kingdom of God is at hand” helps us to avoid two extremes. One extreme is thinking that Jesus will come back tomorrow or very soon or on x date. It is interesting how often such thinking has occurred in church history, including recent history. Remember those billboards in 2011? Those old enough, remember all those books in the 70s and 80s? Further back there was a rash of those setting dates for the Second Coming of Christ in the 19thCentury. The Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have quite a history in that regard.
And I could go on all the way back to the early church. Yes, some in the early church had a problem with this to the point that St. Paul felt the need to address it in his 2ndLetter to the Thessalonians. No, the Thessalonians were not putting up silly billboards – at least I don’t think they were. But Paul noted they had another problem. Some were convinced that Jesus was returning very soon, and they used that as an excuse not to work, to be idle and lazy. That prompted St. Paul to write, “if any would not work, neither should he eat.”
Instead, St. Paul, as exhorted the Ephesians, we should seek to make the most of the time. That’s how the Second Coming of Christ should motivate us, not to laziness or other foolishness.
The other extreme is a complacent or skeptical attitude towards the Second Coming of Christ, an attitude that he surely won’t come in our time or may not come at all. Yes, there are those in the organized church (I use the word “church” loosely.) who think that that Second Coming of Christ in glory is a doctrine for the overly pious or excitable but won’t really happen, not in a way people will see anyway. Such skepticism was described well by St. Peter in his second letter:
. . .scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”
Such a complacent attitude about the end of time can also lead to laziness. If one thinks one has plenty of days to waste, it is tempting to waste them. And please note that this also applies to thinking that the end of our personal time, the end of our lives, is way, way in the future. The days of our earthly lives are not unlimited, even if it may feel like it when we are young. Our time on this earth is limited, so we should make the most of the time and not fall into laziness.
As for the Second Coming of Christ, St. Peter answers the skeptics by presenting a balanced attitude:
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. . . .
Thus even if the Lord waits another two thousand years or more before returning, that is still a short time to him. And if he delays, he does so for the good and loving reason that he wants more and more to join him in his kingdom.
But Jesus will come again. And he will come “like a thief” – when people are not expecting it. So if someone puts up a billboard saying Jesus is coming back on May 11th, 2020 or whenever, you can bet it won’t be that day. And if someone says it will be a long time before Jesus comes again, they might be wrong, too.
Instead, St. Mark and St. Peter would have us have the balanced view that the kingdom of God is at hand and that Jesus could return to fully establish his kingdom on Earth at any time, but that we do not presume to know when that time will be.
If we have such a balanced view, then what should our response be? For knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand surely demands a response.
We should certainly seek to make the most of each day, since we see that neither Earth nor our Earthly bodies have an unlimited supply of days. But what should be our first response?
Our first response should be what Jesus called people to do, what he calls us to do – “Repent and believe the gospel.” For sooner or later, he will come again and judge the living and the dead.
Now many series of sermons have been and could be preached on repentance and belief. But since you probably do not desire for me to be up here preaching until the Lord returns, I will very briefly summarize what it means to “repent and believe the gospel.”
To repent means to turn, to completely change direction, away from your sin towards God. It is more than only agreeing with God that he is right and that your sin is wrong. It is acting upon that agreement and changing direction to follow Jesus, to seek to walk in his ways. That’s repentance.
To “believe the gospel,” we need to know just what is the gospel. As we mentioned, the Gospel of St. John summarizes the gospel very well. That Jesus is God from eternity past who entered human time, who entered history to live, die, and rise again for us, to save us so that we may live with him in His kingdom for eternity future. And to believe the gospel is, again, more than just agreeing with that, but trusting in Jesus and in his life, death, and resurrection for us.
As we’ve seen, that is the very reason St. John and all four evangelists wrote -- that, in John’s words, “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”
May God help us to repent. May He help us to believe. And may He help us to live like it. For the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, help us to hear you as you proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Help us to repent. Help us to believe. For the time grows shorter and shorter before you come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead; and the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ. We earnestly desire to be loyal and obedient subjects of that kingdom. We desire to be loyal and obedient subjects of Thee, King Jesus. So help us. Help us through Thy Holy Spirit and through Thy powerful yet tender mercies. Amen.