Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 25; I Cor 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

The simple opening lines to today’s gospel might be passed over too lightly. One is tempted to "get to the story." But we "get to the story" by paying attention to what may seem like a simple introductory phrase: "After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God...." Now that the Baptist is arrested we know what, by Herod’s order, will soon happen to him. So, the atmosphere is froth with danger for anyone who follows after John. If the popular and influential John could be scooped up, immobilized and then executed – what could Jesus expect?

With the precursor gone, the attention now shifts to the one about whom John has been proclaiming: "One mightier than I is coming after me." What Jesus is announcing about the reign of God being at hand, certainly will attract the attention of those waiting for God to come to their aid – the poor, outcasts, sinners and the neglected. But the message will also attract the ire of religious and political powers who don’t want their world of privilege threatened. Hostile and suspicious eyes will soon focus on this upstart preacher who seems to have stepped into John’s shoes coming from, of all places, Galilee.

Later in this gospel, in Gethsemani, Mark says Jesus was, "filled with fear and distress" (14:34). There, the evangelist narrates, Jesus prayed, "If it were possible this hour might pass him by" (14: 35) and he beseeched, "Abba, you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me" (14:36). As is Mark’s custom, the agony in the garden is succinctly narrated. It shows a human’s reaction to an approaching painful death. Jesus could have left the garden and his mission behind. But he was free to withdraw from his mission long before the choice placed before him in the garden. Jesus made choices all during his ministry to accept what was coming.

He had to notice how his words and deeds were infuriating religious leaders who had connections with the Roman occupying forces. Each time he decided to keep teaching his message of God’s welcome to sinners; each time he ate with outcasts and called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, Jesus was deciding again to be faithful to his call to proclaim God’s reign. But he was also taking another step that would seal his fate with the authorities – another step towards his big decision in Gethsemani, to accept what awaited him.

Throughout our lives we each face many decisions. These choices are often small, daily and seeming inconsequential in light of the overall picture of our lives. But, in reality, the daily choices are important; they either further confirm our life’s path, or they take us away from it – one step at a time. For Christians, who have heard the invitation, "Come after me...," the daily choices either identity us as Jesus’ followers, or they don’t. If we spend our lives "going with the flow," never speaking a contrary word when an issue of fairness, or justice is raised; never taking a stand to defend a person wronged, or a cause we hold sacred; never risking love – then, step after step, we have pretty well decided to ignore the call to be Jesus’ followers.

Many of us, at some moment our lives, will have to make a big decision for right or wrong; for integrity, or dissolution. When that moment comes, how we have been choosing on a daily basis, will determine how we hold up under the big test. Jesus makes a decision to enter the public arena and fulfill his calling, despite the risks. It may not seem like a big event at this moment in Mark’s gospel; he hasn’t gone before the crowds in Jerusalem, he is still in the "little leagues." But he is already preparing for his final "Yes" in the garden. We say in the colloquial, "Don’t sweat the small stuff." In a way we should, for the little things we do prepare us for the bigger moments when more is on the line.

Jesus left the wilderness area and began preaching in the towns and villages. He is not an ascetical hermit who retreats to the wilderness to rid himself of "the evils of society." Rather, he goes to where people live and work. That’s where Simon, Andrew, James and John were, at work. There he delivers his invitation. Where do we expect to hear God’s call? At the ocean, or contemplating a mountain panorama? Where do we expect to hear the call to live a new, or more committed life ("Repent and believe...") – only on a silence-filled retreat? Lord knows we could use more of those moments! But most of our lives don’t provide a lot of time for gazing at the ocean or a mountain; nor do we have the luxury of a lot of silence to hear our "inner voices." These pandemic days have been a terrible strain on people and families. But some say there has been a surprised blessing for them. They have had some time for quiet, reading and prayer. How fortunate to have found that blessing in all this mess and anguish!

From the beginning, Jesus made daily decisions to follow God’s will and proclaim the reign of God. From the beginning he would also have known that his daily decision to be faithful to his mission would eventually put him on a collision course with the authorities of religion and state.

Here, early in Mark’s gospel, we are responding once again to the invitation to follow Jesus and be his witnesses in the world. At this Eucharist, we ask for the Spirit that came upon Jesus in the Jordan when he was baptized by John. This Spirit will strengthen and confirm our resolve to follow Jesus; for on our own, we might take the short cuts that tempt us each day and that eventually get us to follow another voice on another path. But with the Spirit as our guide, we will take the steps that lead us to respond daily to Jesus’ invitation, "Repent and believe in the gospel."

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