Each year on Sundays we read through one of the gospels, either Matthew, Mark or Luke. The gospel of John is read on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter. Today we are beginning a year-long journey through the gospel of Mark.
Each gospel provides a slightly different picture of the good news of Jesus. Mark is the shortest gospel. You can’t beat sitting down and reading it straight through like you would a novel to give you the big picture. And to see what kind of impression the whole story makes on you.
Mark tells us in his very first verse the purpose of his book. He says, ‘This is the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ It is good news, and it is about one special person. Mark is not just writing a history. He wants us to know something wonderful has happened. He writes good news with a purpose. It is THE good news, so amazing that it changes everything that has gone before it.
There are no stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood in Mark. Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism by John. As Jesus comes up out of the water, he hears a voice confirming he is God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a bird. The Spirit then drives him into the desert, where he spends 40 days, which in the bible means a long time. His time in the desert was a testing time - what kind of Son was he going to be?
Then comes today’s reading about the beginning of Jesus’ work. He began preaching in Galilee. This was the rural part of Israel, which was very poor. Mark gives us a summary of what Jesus was preaching. “The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news!”
The time has come. I mentioned two weeks ago how in the original Greek there are two words for time. One means chronological time, the time on your watch. The time has come for us to have a church service. The other word for time means a significant time. Jesus says it is the right time for something to happen. A dream long held by the Jewish people is becoming real.
Not only has the right time come, but it is still on the way. This awesome time of God’s eternal energy breaking into world history is still going on. God’s eternal word made flesh is still announcing God’s presence even today. The kingdom of God is becoming real as we come together this Sunday morning. Jesus says the kingdom of God is near - it is close to us, both in time and in space.
How should we respond to this astonishing good news? Jesus tells us. He says, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news!”
We turn away from our sins when we join in the prayer of confession in our eucharist. Sometimes we call this ‘repentance.’ ‘Turning away’ is more clearly what it means. Previously we were going in a direction not pleasing to God; and now we decide to go in a new direction, the way of Jesus.
To repent doesn’t mean to feel bad or guilty. It does mean to change how we live. So we take on board new goals, new understandings about life. We may feel sorrow for past mistakes; and we may experience joy as we make new plans for walking in the light. But because confession is the first thing to do as the kingdom of God comes near, in all likelihood we have not previously been walking entirely in God’s ways. And now it is the right time to change.
And finally, Jesus says, ‘Believe the good news.’ Sometimes Christians have reduced this to mean that we should believe certain things, or we should hold certain opinions about things. But that is not what Jesus is saying. If it were true that we just had to hold the right beliefs and the right opinions in order to be saved, we would be relying on out own strength and not on God’s grace. We would not have experienced the freedom of the kingdom, but instead we would have had burdens laid on our backs.
So it is better to translate the word Jesus uses not as belief but as trust. Because what he really wants is that we trust our lives totally to him, leaning into him in all our ways, trusting him in all circumstances.
The rest of the gospel of Mark describes how this message is made known to the world. The first thing Jesus does is to recruit his followers. The kingdom of God is not a one man show. It is about building communities and creating relationships.
And Jesus chooses a very ordinary group of blokes, in fact people near the bottom of society in the villages of Galilee. Fishermen smelled of fish. Jesus goes out early in the morning and calls four of them. He calls them away from their family trade and business. They had to drop everything and come with him.
Two things are wrong with this scene. Jesus is out on his own walking the beach before dawn. This was unusual behaviour. And he expects the fishermen to give up their livelihoods and families. Palestinian village people would have thought both of these things were scandalous. They expected their men folk to be at home with their families. Jesus was deviating from expected behaviour by walking on the beach before dawn. And worse, he was calling others to do the same. Their friends and neighbours would have been alarmed at the breakdown in the social fabric.
Most of us will never get so far out of line with what is expected of us. We will live conventional lives. Yet Jesus believes people in his kingdom do extraordinary things. In his kingdom people sometimes stand out by their actions. We will discover later in Mark that his followers help those who are hungry, visit those who are in prison, stop to help strangers beside the road, and mix with people who are considered outcasts.
It raises a question for us: if we never do anything that threatens the status quo, if we never do anything that is abnormal or unusual for God, then how exactly are we following Jesus?
Can you see where this leading us? We are not just here to swell the numbers in the pews with those who like our style and our fellowship; we are not here for having lots of followers, a very difficult thing to do in this mixed cultural parish. If we model Jesus, and Jesus is always the model of the Christian life, then we will be standing out from the crowd. We will be making community and caring for all sorts of people in need. We will show our acceptance of every single person. We will help them to know their infinite worth in God’s sight.