Sermon: Just in Time

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, January 24th 2021

Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

“Behave as if you have the virus, so stay at home as much as possible”, is the advice from our government. That sounds right to me, so I’m puzzled why they then say its ok to leave your home, and gather together in places of worship. We’re not going to risk that one, thank you very much. Mixed messages breed uncertainty and uncertainty is a big factor in today’s Bible readings.

Both readings feature people confronted by uncertainty.  Simon and Andrew were casting their net into the water from the lakeshore (1:16).when Jesus called upon them to ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people’ (1:17) Mark tells us, ‘immediately they left their nets and followed him.’ (1:18) James and John, possibly from a better off family firm that possessed at least one boat, and employed ‘hired men,’ (1:20), were mending nets when Jesus appeared. And there’s no hanging around there either. With no thought for the fifth commandment, about honouring your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12), they left their dad in the boat, and the lurch, depriving the family firm of two of its key workers. I doubt that Zebedee was a big fan of Jesus, at least not then.

The four fishermen now faced all sorts of uncertainties. They had jacked in their old jobs at a moment’s notice. Would fishing for people pay as well, or at all? Anyway, what’s involved in fishing for people? Might it involve risk? What are prospects? What’s the situation about pensions? Yet, focusing on Jesus, they leave their nets and their boats, get into line, and follow along.

A couple of decades later, Saint Paul is agony aunt (or should that be agony uncle?) for Christians in  Corinth. After writing about what he sees as their problems, he now responds to things they have written to him about and which worry them (7:1). Much of it is about relationships. Should they marry? If so, to whom? Is divorce an option? If so, on what grounds? What happens if one marriage partner becomes a follower of Jesus, but not the other? What if the non-believer then deserts the believer? What about those who have never been married at all, and what about those who are now widowed?

Writing as an agony uncle, Paul does not come across as a big fan of marriage, advising anxious Corinthians that although there is nothing wrong in single folk marrying, they’d be better to stay as they are. He suggests the same for widows, for the deserted, and the divorced. Later in the letter, he goes on to say, ‘let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it’ (7:29-31)

I doubt that any lovelorn Corinthians were very comforted or much impressed! It seems a bit of stretch to go from first century marriage advice to Jesus calling fishermen disciples … but let’s give it a go. I re-read almost all our reading from 1 Corinthians, but I omitted the opening and closing words. Paul begins, ‘I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short’ (7:29), and he concludes, ‘for the present form of this world is passing away’ (7:31).

Timing is also crucial in our Gospel passage. ‘After John the Baptist was arrested [- timing -] 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”’ (1:14-15). First, now was the time for Jesus to come to the fore. Second, just as Paul was to do after him, Jesus made  a significant statement about timing: ‘the time is fulfilled’.

Along with Simon, Andrew, James and John, in the company of Paul and our first century Christian sisters and brothers from Corinth, we need to see the world and the time in which we live in a different way. We need to view it, and act within it, in the light of God’s presence in the person of God’s Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

After a period of temptation, and after the arrest which sidelined the Baptist, Jesus believed now was the time to commence his ministry, proclaiming that God’s kingdom has come near. We’d entered into a new era; the one where God makes God’s will become a reality here on earth as it is in heaven.

Paul describes this by saying, ‘the appointed time has grown short’ (7:29), which conjures up images of the end of the world. Paul may well have thought this was coming in his own lifetime. and I’m open to the possibility that God will wind things up during my lifetime, but I’m not going to stop making my pension contributions. The point here is not about the ‘when’ of timing. It’s about difference; we’re living in a different era. That should concentrate our minds, encourage us to live differently, and take action; not to leave things for another day.

Paul does not tell the Corinthians or us to give up our wives (or husbands), mourning or rejoicing, buying or doing deals. He says, ‘let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and so on and so on.  Unlike the Galilean fishermen, most of us, will continue to live everyday life, but we should do so on the basis that time is limited.

This  imparts urgency to how we live as individuals and as a church. Responding to God by following Jesus, needs to guide and energise all aspects of life. Every act of worship, every prayer, every pastoral conversation, every action supportive of others you can take – they all have value in being part of living in this time when God is putting things right. We’re living in Covid-time, when for many of us one day seems very like the other, and they all stretch off into a future that will be God-alone-knows-how-long. That wears you down. How important then, to be reminded that we are also living within God’s different, purposeful, limited timescale; that the kingdom of God has drawn near; that the time is fulfilled; that the new era has begun;  that Jesus calls us to live every day in this world as though time was limited … because it is, and certainly that’s good news.

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