Saturday, January 24, 2015

When the Time is Up

Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015
William G. Carter

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.

March 1, 1914 was a big day for the city of Scranton. That was the day Billy Sunday came to town to preach the Gospel. Sunday was a traveling evangelist. He had been ordained a minister by the Presbyterians, although that had always been an awkward fit. After all, he’s the guy who first said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”

His sermons were full of dramatic antics. You never knew what he was going to do or say. A former professional baseball player, he would run and slide on stage like he was stealing home plate. Then he would holler, “The devil says I’m out, but God says I’m safe.”

Another time he was introduced by a stately preacher in a town, who thanked him for coming to increase the number of church members. Billy Sunday stood up, looked at the preacher, and said, “Churches don’t need new members half so much as they need the old bunch made over.”

His passion was conversion, preaching a Gospel of changed lives. That’s why he came to Scranton. He was here for seven weeks. Sunday set up shop in a massive wooden tabernacle that was built just for that campaign. It was down on the corner of Washington and Walnut, down the block from where the AAA offices are today. And on the very first night he preached, Scranton got fourteen inches of snow, making it impossible for thousands of sinners in the tabernacle to escape the fire and brimstone of his preaching.

The reports of the seven week campaign are dramatic, even bigger than a similar event held the previous year in Wilkes Barre. 960,000 people attended the Scranton revival, which stretched from the second Sunday of Lent through the Sunday after Easter. It concluded with a huge parade down Wyoming Avenue, led by a 60-piece marching band playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Everybody cheered when Billy Sunday came around the corner. For the moment, the city belonged to the Kingdom of God.

It is worth exploring how long that holy affiliation lasted. When he went to Wilkes Barre in 1913, Billy Sunday had railed against alcohol in his sermons. As a result, two hundred taverns in that city permanently went out of business.[1] The next year in Scranton, the crowd for the parade got so enthusiastic that they overturned a beer truck that cut in line.[2] Now, can you imagine if that happened in a modern-day parade in Scranton?

These moments come along through church history. Billy Sunday was a major player in a movement, often called the Third Great Awakening. It was a time of great religious energy, especially among the American Protestants. Society was changing rapidly: the cities were growing, there were waves of immigration from Europe, poverty was on the increase, and people as a whole were anxious. A couple of months after Billy Sunday’s Scranton revival, World War 1 broke out in Europe.

Sunday and his bunch came with tent meetings and exciting speeches. They tapped the prevailing anxiety and pointed people to Jesus. Even the editorial cartoons of the Scranton Times depicted the revival as a really good show.

But then what happened? World War I happened, and then the Roaring Twenties happened. Preachers like Sunday would push through a constitutional prohibition on alcohol, but that simply encouraged the mobsters to traffic in booze and speakeasies, often gunning down the illegal competition until alcohol became legal again. So much for the Kingdom of God in Scranton. In fact, my wife says those two hundred bars that closed in Wilkes Barre may have moved to Nanticoke, and Shickshinny, where she’s from.

I tell this story to lay it down alongside the evangelistic call of Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s a story that informed what Billy Sunday and many other preachers have tries to do. But it’s not a direct fit. When we hear the word “evangelism,” we quickly think of the big tent revivals, the supercharged emotional appeals, the endless development of more effective sales techniques.

As one of my friends once wrote, “For many people, evangelism is a nose-wrinkling word, a term they hold in approximately the same regard as the phrase ‘professional wrestling.’ Both are considered to be activities that draw large, uncritical crowds, involve a measure of sham, work on irrational emotions, and could end up hurting somebody.”[3]

That’s an unfortunate description of what was, from the beginning, intended as the sharing of God’s good news. “Evangel” is from a Greek word that literally means “good news.” Jesus came preaching “the good news of God.” According to Mark, he was the original evangelist. I’ll say a bit more about that in just a minute.

But for the moment, we have to untangle what has passed as “evangelism” for the past 150 years in the American church. It’s been an approach I would characterize as a pep rally. Ever been to a pep rally? They can be a lot of fun - until enthusiasm fades, old habits re-emerge, and life slinks back to normal.

I recall a rally on the night before a high school football game. A dozen cheerleaders in red sweaters shouted as  people in the stands ignored them. They were twirling and cheering, but nobody was paying much attention. Finally the captain of the squad yelled at the crowd, “What’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t you listening? Don’t you know how important this is?” Well, the rally was for a team that wasn’t very good at all. In the grand scheme of things, it was not very important. Some of us were there because we had nothing else to do on a Thursday night.

Today we hear how Jesus gathers his first disciples. Let’s reflect on the contrast. There wasn’t a lot of yelling or flips in the air or slides into home plate. Jesus doesn’t stand before a large crowd and try to get their attention. No, he walks by a lakeshore, stops to observe a couple of the working fishermen, and then says, “Come, follow me.”

He never says where he is going – in fact, he goes down the shoreline to the next boat, where he sees a couple more of the fishermen, and says, “Come, follow me.” They leave their father in the boat, along with the hired workers – just as Simon and Andrew had probably abandoned their own hired workers. Two by two. Certainly not 960,000 onlookers in a big wooden pavilion, just two at a time.

It’s a striking contrast. I read through all of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus spoke to a lot of large crowds in his day, but I can’t find one instance where he says openly to the crowd, “Come, follow me.” He saved that invitation for a solitary tax collector, or a couple of fishermen, or a rich man who really wanted to come. To the anonymous crowds, Jesus spoke about God and his kingdom, a new dominion. But the invitation or the healing was always for one or two people at a time. It was a personal word, and never broadcast through a bullhorn.

What this suggests is that everybody is welcome to hear the broad news about God, to hear how the kingdom grows like a mustard seed, or how it’s like stumbling across hidden treasure and doing everything to acquire it. Everybody can hear these things. But we can only respond, one of us at a time, and that’s when it makes all the difference.

In our text, take notice of what Jesus the Evangelist does: he invites. He declares and he invites. He declares that the time is up, that the time is full, that the time has changed. Regardless of what you thought before, God is ruling over all things – including you. The ages have turned on a hinge, and this ruling – this kingship, as he calls it – now rules over you.  

God is right here, close at hand. So give up the yoke of all the false authorities and come home to God. That’s what “repent and believe” means in this context. Turn away from the powers and principalities of this world, turn away from the tyranny of addiction, the lure of power, the grip of wealth, the indifference toward others. Turn away from all the things that make us sick – and let God rule over your heart, your mind, your soul.

This is what God is doing in Jesus -- coming close: close enough to heal, close enough to forgive, close enough to empower us to make a difference in a hurting world. This is how the Gospel of Mark sees Jesus. He is the Strong Man of God who steps over every human boundary to set people free from the dominions of evil. That’s the announcement, the declaration.

It comes with the invitation: follow me, come with me, journey with me, live with me. Should you ask, “Where are we going,” Jesus doesn’t answer. He just keeps moving. Faith is always an invitation, not an obligation but an invitation. We are invited to travel with Jesus, to keep moving and growing, and to see and believe that God has come very close.

I think of the best kingdom invitations that I have ever heard. They go like this:

·         Would you go with me to the homeless shelter to serve a meal?
·         Would you teach the elementary school kids a Bible story?
·         Would you visit a man who is dying of cancer?
·         Would you drop by after he dies to spend time with his angry son?
·         Would you come with the pastor to serve communion in the nursing home?
·         Would you tell the story of how you knew you were forgiven?
·         Would you speak up for the teenager who is humiliated by his classmates?
·         Would you speak to your co-workers of how the Bible gives you comfort?

Each one is an invitation. Each one is a declaration that God has come to rule with love and justice. Never does it say that we have to be experts. Read the Gospel of Mark; those twelve people hardly ever get it right. In this Gospel, they are complete knuckleheads. But they keep following Jesus in a journey of growth.

They stay with him. They go where he goes. And when he departs in his death and resurrection, they are ready to keep the movement going deeper and wider.  In the process, they are changed. That’s how Jesus does the work of evangelism, one or two people at a time.

Anybody know what I’m talking about? I think you might. If you’re tired of living in a world full of lies and destruction and darkness and fear, the news that God comes near to rule over us is really good news. And it makes all the difference in the world.

One of the privileges of my work is that I see stories like this all the time. All of the stories are still in progress, please understand. But this new dominion, this kingship of God, continues to advance – for it is the work of heaven on earth.

One of my favorite stories is about a young woman who went on a mission trip some time back. It was surprising; she could have spent the summer any number of ways. Most of her travels took her to resorts or spas. But when she heard the announcement one Sunday in church, it was if something was tugging at her.

Soon she found herself at a clinic run by the Sisters of Charity in a third world country. She held children whose legs were as skinny as a pencil. She washed their withered skin and tried to calm their crying. She heard a noise at the gate, and went with the nuns to see what it was. A mother stood holding a limp child who looked very sick.

The mother had walked for three days to bring her child to that clinic. If she stayed out in the country, her baby was sure to die. If she took him to the clinic, he might still die, but at least there was some slim chance he’d make it. The nun promised the mother she would do what she could, and the mother turned away and walked three days back to her home.

Meanwhile this woman of privilege stood there with her heart in her throat. She fought back the tears and thought, “If it weren’t for Jesus, this clinic wouldn’t be here. If this clinic wasn’t here, these children wouldn’t be loved.” That day she resolved that she could not live her life only for herself any more. She went there to help out in some way, and she herself was set free. Ever since, she has continued that journey with the Risen Christ. I can’t think of a better evangelism story outside of the Bible.

Sometimes after dark, I sit in my chair at home and reflect on the discipleship stories that so many of you tell me. Some are heroic, some are every day moments. And it occurs to me that this is what it means to be the people of God. Not so much to sponsor pep rallies for 960,000 people who may forget in a few years why we called them together, but to invite one person after another to live  as if Jesus Christ rules over brokenness, destruction, and the power of death. For he does rule. He rules over a world that refuses him, and he rules over all who will crown him. 

And he stops long enough to ask each of us, “Will you follow me?”

When he finds you, what will you say?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Preaching About Evangelism: Faith Finding Its Voice,” in Preaching In and Out of Season (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990) 77.

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