By Chuck Robertson
“Doc, are you telling me that you built a time machine…out of a DeLorean?” A memorable line from the popular film Back to the Future. Let’s face it, time travel has been a recurrent theme in movies, in books and short stories, in television episodes and graphic novels. At the heart of all the various tales is a bold attempt to go back to a critical moment in order to change or undo a word, an act, that unwittingly leads to some awful consequence, whether a global cataclysm or a personal heartache.
Unable to time travel in reality, we make whatever technological improvements we can in order to make our lives easier. Letters give way to memos, to emails, to texts and to tweets, and still we struggle to keep up with the demands on us, the demands on our time. Ever embattled, we look forward with worry, look back with regret. Time is what we don’t have enough of…is not on our side…is catching up with us…is passing us by. We spend it, waste it, lose it, need more of it. And still we worry, still we regret.
Time plays a significant role in the Gospel of Mark, from which today’s passage is taken. Although it is the second Gospel in our New Testament canon or authorized collection, Mark actually was the first of the four to be written and served as a literary model for the others. Matthew and Luke added their respective parables and extended teachings onto Mark’s streamlined template. As commentators have frequently noted, Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel of action. While Luke often uses the phrase “in those days” to signal a change in scene, and Matthew the phrase, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” for Mark the key word throughout his account is “immediately!” Things happen fast in his tale…and if you blink, you just might miss a crucial detail.
This is certainly true in the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where we first encounter Jesus, right there at the inauguration of his public ministry. How different from Matthew and Luke, who begin their accounts with Jesus’ birth, or the author of the Fourth Gospel, who goes even further back to the dawn of creation when “the Word was with God and the Word was God.” But with Mark, the curtain opens as if in the middle of the story, with an adult Jesus on the scene, first being baptized by John in the Jordan River, then tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and then taking the first steps into his public ministry. For the remainder of that first chapter, we find Jesus engaged in a whirlwind of activity: preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, from dawn until the setting of the sun. And it all begins with those first words he utters, words of invitation and challenge: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
It is a bold proclamation! Notice, he did not say, “Keep doing what you’re doing, the kingdom of God is a ways off yet” or “the kingdom of God is what you will experience after you die.” Isn’t it interesting that in movies, when someone dies and makes it to the afterlife, to heaven, they usually beg for a chance to return to their life here on earth. Heaven, they declare, can wait! The implication is that this life is somehow more enjoyable, more real than whatever comes next. Or perhaps it is simply so that they can right some wrong, make good on some regret, solve something that is causing them to worry. In any case, is it assumed that the kingdom of God is something not yet, something that can be put off.
Not so, says Jesus. The kingdom of God is not a place separate from this place. It is God’s reign–God’s presence and power and peace–and is quite near indeed, closer to us than our very breath. Eternity walks side by side with time. This is what Jesus tells us at the start of his ministry. You don’t have to wait until you die to experience a whole different kind of life. Now is the time. Not someday, not just at our death, but now. John’s Gospel puts it a slightly different way: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The abundant life is available right now for any who would dare to open their–open our–hearts to the reality of God-with-us in the midst of our busyness. Indeed, God who is with us understands our busyness.
When Jesus encounters those four fishermen, he finds them, like us, working hard, earning a living, fulfilling their family obligations. And like some of us, perhaps he also finds them struggling to hold it all together, looking forward with worry, looking back with regret. There are bills and taxes to be paid. For the sons of Zebedee, there is a father who relies on them. For Simon Peter, there is a mother-in-law with health concerns. Whatever the case, his call to follow him is a call to recognize the time of God-with-us, to welcome God’s reign in our lives, to “repent, and believe in the good news.”
Far too often we read such words in a strictly religious context, separate from the rest of life. In the Nicene Creed on Sundays, we say that we believe in God, but then live the rest of the week as if God is far off and everything is solely on our shoulders. Jesus calls us to repent, which means far more than simply feeling sorry or contrite about something. It also means “to change one’s mind,” to change our way of seeing and doing things. To repent means to dare to believe the good news that God is still God, still the Creator who can make all things new, still the Redeemer who can bring light and life where it seems like there is only darkness and despair, still the Advocate who stands with us and gives us strength. The good news is that my reign, my time of having to be totally in charge, struggling, worrying, regretting, is over! God’s reign is at hand. The time is fulfilled. So repent, change the way you see everything, and trust in this very good news that God truly is with you.
Ah, but how do we do this? How do we begin to change our mind, change the way we see our situation and let God be God? A nun named Sister Mary Paul once said, “We must learn a different…sense of time, one that depends more on small amounts than big ones.” Dorothy Day, the Christian social activist, said that “by little and by little” we come to God. Focusing on the “small amounts” of time means living fully in the present… embracing the Now. When our focus is on the past, with all that we have done or not done…when our focus is on the future, with all that we must do or will never be able to do…then we have little room in the ever-shrinking space of our heart to allow God to be God. But…when we find moments, when we make moments, to bring the past with its regrets AND the future with its worries, and lay it all before God-with-us and say, I cannot do this alone, then we can begin to unclog our spiritual arteries, let our heart beat once more with life and vitality. When we make time to breathe out the stuff that takes life and breathe in the spirit that gives life, then we will begin to know the abundant life. I’m talking here, of course, about prayer.
Returning to that opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel, after reading of Jesus’ hectic day of preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons, we find the following words: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Several chapters later, after Jesus sends the four fishermen and their colleagues out for their initial apostolic mission and they return to tell him all that they had done, he says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
In the deserted place, in that intentional moment of prayer, the late Henri Nouwen once wrote, we can discover anew “not only that God exists but also that God is actively present in our lives.” It doesn’t mean having to go away on a long mountain retreat, though that can be wonderful. It means doing what Jesus did, making time, intentionally carving out time from our hectic pace and rediscovering God and ourselves as God’s beloved. Thus we can live into a different time, the Now, and give thanks for the things right here before us, the gifts, the joys, yes even the challenges, for in the Now we know that we are not alone and we know that we are loved.
How easy to let our regrets and our worries create a wall around us, forcing us into a self-imposed solitary confinement. To follow Jesus is to commit ourselves to intentional time with the One who even now calls us by name. To repent, to change our mind, is to shake off the regret and worry that holds us hostage, and recognize that the God of the everlasting present, the God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, is now and forever…truly…with us.
Let us pray. 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, forever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Charles K. Robertson is canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church. This sermon was first preached for Day One on January 25, 2015.