A new vision

My sermon from yesterday, on Mark 1:14-20.

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How do we get our heads around a passage like the one we read this morning from the gospel of Mark? How do we enter into the narrative in a fresh way?

We’ve heard it so many times. When we read those words, the same old picture is in our heads that has always been there. Jesus appears on the scene, and says the usual things: (Read in a monotone) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” And then he walks along the sea, and there are Simon and Andrew fishing – he tells them, come follow me, I’ll make you fish for people. And they turn and follow. Jesus continues a little further along and he sees James and John fixing their nets – and he calls them too. They leave their father in the boat and they follow Jesus.

And that’s it. Here endeth the lesson. Amen. The preacher can sit down. We’ve heard it before – what more is there to say?

But of course we all know that’s not good enough. We know the story has more life than that. We know the words and actions of Jesus have a deeper meaning. We’re just not sure how to connect the life the story with our own life. We have a real sense that what happens in these opening moments of Jesus’ ministry should make a difference for us – we’re just not always sure how what difference it should make – how it should make it.

Maybe the preacher could just read the passage a little more loudly, with more inflection in his or her voice – maybe that will somehow bring it home to us. (Read animatedly) “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 hear; 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 Jesus?”

Does that do it – has this story gotten any closer to your life, your thoughts, your imagination. Has it struck a cord with you? Has it captured you in any way? Have Jesus words, his actions, made a difference for how you see your life and the world?

We’re going to keep trying this morning – trying to get a little closer to the narrative, a little closer to what Jesus is doing, a little closer to Jesus. We have a deep sense that this story should connect with us, and we want to put in the time and energy to see what might happen as we take the story seriously.

Maybe we should start with the opening words of Jesus – with the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark’s gospel. Let’s start with the word repentance. Oh dear. Not repentance. Repentance is one of those old-fashioned words that seem more out of place in modern day Montreal than a 1954 Studebaker. Repentance! It’s one of those words that is as alien to anyone under the age of twenty-five as an eight-track tape. Actually, the word repentance is even worse. At least you could restore a 1954 Studebaker to its former glory. And at least an eight-track tape has a kind of retro appeal to it. But repentance is the kind of word that’s beyond hope – it’s a word has no retro, chic appeal – it’s the kind of word that gets people rolling their eyes (here we go with the churchy, religious language again).

When we think of repentance in our day and culture, we tend to think of a kind of moralizing. Maybe the word repentance makes us think of someone wagging their finger at a teenage boy caught with dirty magazines under his mattress. Or maybe we think of someone who has cheated on their taxes or plagiarized in a university paper. When we think of repentance, we might think of someone who has lied to their parents or nicked (as the British like to say) something from the depanneur. The word ‘repentance’ for many of us has an old-fashioned moralizing kind of feel – it’s about those sins that some other people might have committed. For many of us repentance is about the sort of sins that we think don’t really matter so much in the end. And in any case we don’t have anything to repent of since, well, we haven’t done much that requires repentance.

It’s actually kind of convenient to think of repentance in this way – it’s convenient because it lets us off the hook. Thinking of repentance in this way means it doesn’t really have anything to do with us.

But if repentance doesn’t have much to do with you, or with me, then our reading from Mark’s gospel can’t mean to much for us in the end, can it? If repentance doesn’t mean anything for our lives, then it’s difficult to see how Jesus or his story is going to connect with our lives.

Yet in the back of our minds we still have this sense that the story should connect with our lives – that we want it to connect – but how?

Well, maybe a way to answer that question is to ask whether we’re wrong about repentance. Let me offer a story that might help us sort out what repentance is: The well-known missionary and church leader Lesslie Newbigen spent years serving the church of India, and he writers about a time when he visited a village in the Diocese of Madras. He writes:

“There was no road into the village; you reached it by crossing a river, and you could cross the river into the village either toward the south side of the village or toward the north side of the village. The congregation had decided that I would come by the southern route, and they had prepared a welcome such as only an Indian village can prepare. There was music and there were fireworks; there was fruit and there were garlands; and there was a silumbum performance – a South Indian martial art done on ceremonial occasions. They had everything you could imagine.”

Newbigin continues: “Unfortunately I entered the village at the north end and found only a few goats and chickens. Crisis! I had to disappear,” says Newbigin “while word was sent to the assembled congregation, and the entire village did a sort of U-turn so as to face the other way. Then I duly reappeared.”

This story points the way to a right understanding of repentance – of what the Greek word metanoia means. Newbigin says that we are mistaken and mislead if we think of repentance, of metanoia, in merely moralistic terms, or in terms of personal sins. That is not the point. There is nothing about sin or sins in our passage from Mark’s gospel.
The point, rather, is this: God has done an amazing new thing in Jesus – in him a new world has begun; in him a new way of life has been established; in him a new kingdom has begun on earth. This is it. This is the moment. Turn around, turn your whole self around and see this new thing –

watch it unfold before you;
observe what this Jesus is doing;
become enamoured with him;
let his way capture your imagination;
then join in the celebration and the dance – this new way is good and beautiful.

This repentance isn’t just about disciplining a kid caught with some dirty magazines. It isn’t just about making amends for cheating the tax man. It isn’t simply about apologizing for cheating on an exam.

It’s about turning your whole mind and attention and life toward Jesus and his way. Notice, it’s not just about following the way of Jesus – it’s not about just asking ‘what would Jesus do’, as if Jesus were simply a moral example for us. It’s about letting Jesus himself take his proper place at the centre of our life. Repentance means letting our view of the world be shaped by him and his life – repentance is about a change of vision. You’d be amazed what a change of vision can do to your life.

Let me offer a few examples of how this change of vision might come to expression:

When you look at the world, and when you see the profound social and cultural changes that have been happening over the past years, much of which seems to be leading our culture down a path to nowhere – when you see all of this do you see only a world going to hell in hand basket. Or do you see a world where God remains alive and at work by his Spirit. When you see these cultural changes, do you become cynical and disdainful, or do you open your eyes looking for signs of God’s presence here, there, everywhere…

You’d be amazed what a change of vision can do to your life.

Another example: When you hear that the rate of return on your investments has tripled this year compared to last year – do you think of that financial return as more disposable income for yourself and your family, or do you see in those extra dollars new possibilities for service to Christ? In that increased financial return to do you see a more secure retirement for yourself, or do you see a means to bring hope to those who have almost nothing?

You’d be amazed of what a change of vision can do to your life.

A third example: When you hear from a friend in a distant city that she is in some situation of real grief, that she is experiencing very real emotional pain, do you sink into a chair feeling helpless and far away, or do you stop and remember that our gracious Lord holds her in his care. When you hear from her, do you despondently and powerlessly stare out the window or do you reach out in prayer to the God whose grace is beyond what we can fathom.

You’d be amazed what a change of vision can do to your life.

A final example: When you wake up on Sunday morning and its cold and blustery outside, and perhaps you had a really late night, do you begin to think that it’s probably not worth all the effort to get to church? Or do you remember that, even if it’s not always the most thrilling affair, nevertheless the God who made the world and who has re-launched that world through Jesus – the God who has re-launched it with goodness and peace and joy – as you lie their in bed do you remember that this God wants to meet you here in the company of God’s people.

Repentance, metanoia, is all about turning yourself a whole self around. It’s about a fundamental change of vision that must in some sense be repeated at every moment of our lives – because in so many respects, we are simply turned in the wrong direction. In so many ways we are shaped by a mistaken, closed, limited, suffocating vision of our life, of our world, and of our God. Repentance isn’t some merely moralistic response to particular actions – it’s about receiving the gift of a new vision – it’s about God in his grace turning you around to see what has happened and is happening through Jesus. Seeing the world in a whole new, wonderful light…

In our passage this morning, we see the disciples – whether they knew it at that moment or not – we see them being drawn into this new vision of life. As they leave behind their livelihood and families, in a dramatic and countercultural following after Jesus, they are turning toward Jesus, the one in whom God is doing this amazing new thing.

And what’s kind of nice for us, is that through the rest of the story we see the disciples needing to be turned again and again. Again and again we see that they just don’t get it – in so many ways those twelve disciples just can’t catch the vision of what God is doing in this Jesus. Yet Jesus, very patiently, though sometimes with more than a little frustration, works to open their minds and their hearts to himself and his way.

We find the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest – and we see Jesus trying to correct their vision – look guys, in my kingdom what matters is whether you will serve others.

We find the disciples sending the children away – and we see Jesus trying to correct their vision – no, my friends, in my kingdom everyone has to have the faith of a child.

We find the disciples in a boat in the middle of a storm, scared out of their minds – and we see Jesus trying to correct their vision – my friends, look, I’m here with you. Even the wind and waves obey him.

We find Martha agitated, mournful and angry, because Jesus didn’t arrive on time and her brother has died – and we see Jesus trying to correct her vision – Martha, I am the resurrection and the life.

I say that it is nice for us to see the disciples needing to be turned again and again toward Jesus and his way because their failure means we are in good company.

Mark 1:14 and 15: 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.”

In so many ways we are shaped by a mistaken, limited, even suffocating vision of our lives, of our world, and of our God. Repentance is about turning around to receive the gift of a new vision, a new way of seeing the world. It’s about following Jesus and his way – and then beginning to see the world in a whole new, wonderful light. Amen.

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