To Answer Readily The Call
A homily for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
Collect for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
* * *
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Text: Mark 1:14-20 (ACNA and RCL lectionary)
Now after John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the Good News.”1
The season of Epiphany kicks off with two major events observed in the east and the west of the church. In the early church and in the east it was most often associated with Christ’s baptism, wherein we have a glimpse of the Trinity, following the Chronology of Mark and the synoptics. But also in the west it was also associated more chronologically in the life of Christ as The manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, shone through the magi bestowing gifts To the new king. The common theme for the season is that of Christ manifested to the world: The Kingdom of God, is not just at hand, it has begun.
Today I want to focus mostly upon a point in the collect to inform our gospel reading.
Our collect has three points:
For us to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ
proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation
That we perceive the glory of his marvelous works
Note the order: there is a call, then a proclamation, then a vision. This dynamic in our collect is a repeatable pattern: We see it in the life of John the Baptist, in the ministry of Christ in our Gospel passage, and in the life of the apostles who leave their nets. In all of these Calling is the starting point.
What is calling?
I see calling as part of a relationship. One of the first things we notice about how God works with his people is the relational priority he places on his creation, specifically man.
In Genesis we see that God initiates the conversation by speaking into existence the world, “And God said.” This is the language of initiative. Through his initiative he created light, dark, heaven, earth, water, land, plants, animals, and finally, the pinnacle of creation, Man and Woman, who he created in his image. He created them to have a relationship with him, and when man sinned, that relationship was “bent” (to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy) and fellowship was no longer in its right place. From the very beginning at mankind’s exile from eden, God continues to initiate a relationship with us–we might also say, reveals himself to man–and continues pursuing us to bring all who are willing back into a right relationship. To do this, he reveals what is necessary, which is what mankind can accept at the time, at the right time.
John the Baptist
You will recall that at the beginning of Mark the gospel writer opens with “behold I send my messenger before you who will prepare your way, as a voice crying in the wilderness. make ready the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” John was called, sent as a messenger. John proclaimed in the wilderness by way of preaching a symbolic baptism of repentance, in preparation for the arrival of the messiah, akin to practices for proselytes to the Jewish faith. Preaching this makes ready the way, and makes paths straight; for such is very much what a life of repentance does: it straightens that which has been bent. John’s vision was his prophetic utterance, “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and the event of baptizing Jesus.
This brings us to verses 14 and 15 of our Gospel lesson:
“Now after John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the Good News.”
“The time is fulfilled”
The Greek word for time in this sentence is, Kairos. It is not the same as linear time–the passing of minutes, hours, days, years. That is called Chronos. Kairos’ primary meaning is “at just the right moment.” It was not that Jesus was waiting for a precise second in order to start preaching, but that it was the right season, or chain of events–I would say even the earliest opportunity given the state of the world– for Jesus to begin his ministry once certain things were set in place. John the Baptist prepared the way and it became the right time because he responded to his call, proclaimed the good news, and perceived the glory of God working in the world.
The alternative use of Kairos is at a time of crisis. Here the crisis is that John the Baptist has been arrested, and at just the right time Jesus begins his ministry. There are many reasons for this being ‘just right’ but the main point I want to make here is that calling is not just having a message to proclaim but discerning the right time to be responding to the initial call. At many points in life we may hear from God–through the still small voice, through his word, or through our neighbors–and expect that the thing that we heard needs to be responded to at that exact moment.
I don't believe that John the Baptist as an infant was instantly trying to go out into the wilderness, eat locusts, and wear camel's hair. Sure, it is fair to infer he may have always been an eccentric but it doesn't necessarily mean he started living out this calling at infancy: but he was aware of a calling, for he leapt while still in Elizabeth’s womb when she was near Jesus.
Similarly, Jesus is aware of who he is and his relationship with the father as we hear in St Luke’s Gospel: as a teenager he was already teaching at the temple and creating quite a spectacle. The gospel tells us they were amazed by his words and while there is some foreshadowing of Jesus's Ministry in this pericope, he does not launch directly into his message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and repent and believe the gospel. Knowing his father's business, he is patient to answer the call when the time is right.
As we might infer in our gospel these fishermen may have had a notion of calling– from what we know of them after they choose to follow Jesus, we might imagine in them a strong sense of justice for the Jewish people, or a desire to be used of God, or just simple frustration with their own lives to date and possible upward mobility. But it was at just the right time that they saw him and answered the call of Jesus.
Since I said “call” is a relationship or a conversation, it is good to recognize that it is God initiating, offering a call, but a fulfilled calling always has to do with our obedient response. Even if we think we are the ones ‘starting’ the prayer, it is always God who has preceded us in the conversation: his Grace goes before us, and he, holding all things under his sovereignty, is responded to when we approach him.
This is helpful in our spirituality and prayer life, because we often reverse this, and start speaking to God as though he wasn’t the one who spoke first. Our first step in discerning calling, and being ready for the just the right time, is not speaking to God, but placing ourselves in a posture of listening: If we are not listening, we begin to pray for things that he may not be calling us to, and because he is a gracious God he might be willing to answer them, the consequences of which sometimes affect the kairos of our actual calling.
When I became a Christian was that God gives three answers to our prayers: no, yes, and wait.
No: some things I have prayed for would have been catastrophic to myself or others had they been answered: these have especially to do with immaturity, need for growth, or unrepented sin.
Yes: some things I have prayed for fervently have been answered, but like the nation of Israel asking for a King when the “time might not have been right” came with consequences that, in hindsight, would have been better had I not prayed for it.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t ask for big things, and gladly accept them when he sends us direct and providential answers to our prayers; as children of God he wants to give us what is best for us, but all too often our imagination of what is best for us, and what is actually most healing for us is not the same. Sometimes the what we as for is right, but the kairos is not yet arrived for our request.
Wait: This is the answer that is most frustrating according to our own timelines. I can think of many times where I earnestly and fervently prayed for a solution to a very pressing problem, but my sense of timing was more urgent than God’s pacing.
But this is the one where we are most poised towards two essential spiritual practices: listening to the spirit and responding to the spirit.
To be waiting on the Lord is a posture of open communication with God; it is in these moments of receptivity that we are aligning our will more expressly to the Kairos of God's call: the ride the wave of his providence rather than make our own waves. This isn’t inactivity, but cooperation.
In addition to the contemplative live, there are habits we can encourage that open us to cooperating with the ways of the Spirit:
We can meditate on Holy Scriptures: Contained in them, as our Articles say, is everything necessary to salvation: if natural order gives us a map of the land, Holy Scriptures give us a compass to find our way back to God, and as the collect for the Second Sunday of Advent says “Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them”
We have a great resource for posturing ourselves daily towards God in the prayers of the prayer book: in the Daily Office and in the Family Prayers.
Invitation to Communion:
In a few moments we will be transitioning to communion from our Prayer Book. Jesus said in his preaching–his proclamation–that we are to repent and believe in the Kingdom. Our Liturgy proclaims our faith, prays for the world, and gives us the opportunity to repent of our sins. As we repent we are better tuned to God–our own paths made straight. And in response to our cooperation, the Lord offers himself back to us, where in Communion we have a glimpse of “the glory of his marvelous works” by having Christ in Us and We in Him.
St Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17–20 (RSVCE))
From Genesis to Revelation, God has been calling, pursuing us–each one of us–to become a new creation, and through faithful participation be agents of proclaiming the Good News that God is Active and seeking after reconciliation with those who do not know him. St Paul continues, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”