Repent and Believe

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – January 24, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ Point: “The Kingdom of God”

Throughout Ordinary Time there is the temptation to forget everything we just celebrated and placed before our hearts and minds during Advent and Christmas, and instead kick back and look for some nice advice from Jesus or a nice story about him. But we can’t just forget all we just celebrated, the whole context of Jesus’ life and ministry and mission. Because when we do, we miss the point of who and what Jesus is and what he’s doing. We miss the journey that allows us to see and to feel and to realize the point, to live the point.

One of my favorite examples is the Wizard of Oz. And I use this example because if you haven’t seen the Wizard of Oz by now, it’s your own fault and it’s not my fault that I’m ruining it for you. What happens at the end of the Wizard of Oz? We find out that it’s just a dream. Ok, there it is. It’s just a dream. But is that the point of the movie? No. The point of the movie is not that life is all a dream and it doesn’t matter, no. The point of the movie, the purpose of the movie is to help us to see and to feel and to realize: “There’s no place like home.”

In Ordinary Time, we can easily forget the bigger picture of what’s going on, or tell ourselves the twist at the end and think that we get it: “Well, in the end Jesus dies and rises from the dead and now we’re supposed to go to Mass.” And those are all true statements, but is that the point, is that the purpose of the Gospels? No. The Gospels are not trying to make the point that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s true! He did! And that’s the key to everything! But they just assume that. Jesus’ rising from the dead isn’t the point, but it proves the point.

The point, the purpose is to show what Jesus is all about. And what Jesus is all about is exactly what he says he’s about. This little sermon of Jesus in our Gospel today is what he is all about: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.” And he’s going to flesh out this sermon in his preaching and teachings, in his miracles and signs. But here in the beginning, and what should be engrained in us by the end, what we should feel and realize by the end, is just this point: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. I have to repent and believe in this good news.”

What Jesus announces is the good news of the kingdom of God. What Jesus is announcing is “the good (and extremely dangerous) news” that God’s kingdom, His reign, His authority over all the world—God’s kingdom is arriving and breaking in, now, today, through him. That’s the point.

The Response Jesus Is Looking For: Repent and Believe in the Good News

And the response? How are we supposed to respond? If God’s kingdom is arriving and breaking in through Jesus, how are we supposed to respond? “Repent and believe in this good news.”

And this is where we need to chat. Because if I had to take a wild guess, what you hear when I say, “Repent and believe in this good news,” is probably something along the lines of, “Stop sinning, be sorry for your sins, and be a Christian.” Right? The question, though, is how would people have understood this when Jesus said it?

“Repent” means something more like, “Turn around. Turn your mind and heart away from goals you have defined for yourself and turn them back to the one true God.” For the people of Jesus’ time, this would very concretely have meant turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into social unrest, and violence, and tribalism. It would have meant calling these people to turn back to a true loyalty to the Lord, to the one true God, instead of the power-politics they were engaged in. That’s “repenting.”

“Believe the good news” presents a whole other slew of challenges. Because first, you have to ask what does “good news” mean? Because “good news” is talking about how something has happened as a result of which everything looks different, the world is now a different place, the future looks brighter. The “good news” Jesus is announcing, again, is that God’s kingdom, His reign, His authority over all the world—God’s kingdom is arriving and breaking in, now, today, through him. And so to “believe in this good news” means to trustingly accept and yield to what God is doing in Jesus. “Believe” is the same word the Bible uses for “faith.” And again, faith isn’t just believing certain ideas, no. At its foundation, faith is trust, entrusting yourself to an other.

Our response, then, isn’t to “stop sinning and be a Christian,” no. Our response is to repent: to turn away from the goals we keep setting up for ourselves; away from all of these social and political agendas which drive us mad; turning back to a true loyalty to the Lord. And to believe in the good news: to trust that what the Lord is doing in and through Jesus Christ will win the day, will bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Repent and believe the good news.

And this is really the crux of the matter for us: repenting is hard, and believing/trusting in this good news is hard. And even though we all come to Mass and say the “I believe in one God” and “Amen” to receiving the Eucharist—this past year really revealed the disposition of our hearts. One thing that has become very apparent to me this past year, especially based on how divided we have all become—one thing that has become very apparent to me is that we have doubled down on our social and political agendas. And why? Because we don’t really believe, we don’t trust the good news as much as we seem to think we do; we don’t trust that God now—even now—is ruling over everything, even our enemies and those that seek to do harm.

What’s the Story of Jonah Got to Do with This?

And this isn’t new. Our first reading was about the prophet Jonah, and the book of the prophet Jonah is probably one of the most mistold stories in the Bible. Usually, people tell the story that Jonah was too scared to preach God’s message to the Ninevites, and so he decided to run away. Then there is that storm on the sea, and the people on the boat get angry when they find out that it’s Jonah’s fault and throw him into the sea. And then, Jonah gets eaten by the fish, changes his mind, and then goes and preaches to the Ninevites and they are saved. Hooray, Jonah! That’s not the story of Jonah.

Jonah is called by God to preach to the Ninevites, yeah. But Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, as in the bitter enemy of the Israel, a military superpower that wants nothing more than world domination. And God calls Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance in Nineveh so that He doesn’t destroy them. So Jonah starts to run in the opposite direction, to the ends of the earth! Why? Because he’s scared? No. Because he’s rebellious, he is upset and hates that God loves his enemies, the Ninevites. Jonah runs because he wants Nineveh to be destroyed!

And so he hops on a boat, and that storm comes up. And when the people on the boat find out it’s Jonah’s fault, that he’s running from God, they aren’t angry with him. They just ask him, “What should we do?” And Jonah says, “Kill me. Throw me overboard.” Which sounds like Jonah is taking one for the team, until you realize that Jonah is actually trying to avoid going to Nineveh!

And then this great fish swallows him—which should be the death of him, but it actually serves as a time for Jonah to turn back to God, and agree to do God’s will, regardless of what he thinks about it. And so the fish vomits him up on dry land. And that’s where our reading picks up today.

Jonah goes through the town of Nineveh, half-heartedly preaching. It’s almost as if he is trying to sabotage his own mission. He’s doing the bare minimum. He simply says, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” And even though it should take three whole days to walk through the great city, after only one day, the whole city repents. And God decides not to destroy it, and they’re saved.

And Jonah? He is ticked. He is so upset with God. He tells God, “This is exactly why I didn’t want to preach! I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” Jonah is so angry and upset that he prays, “Please kill me, Lord. I would rather be dead than see this.” Jonah would rather die than live with the God that forgives his enemies. And then the book ends with God asking Jonah: “Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, and all of those hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their way?” And we don’t get Jonah’s answer. Because the question is meant for us.

Are you ok with the fact that God loves your enemies? Can you see Jonah in yourself? Can you see in yourself that you try to get God to hate your enemies, just like you do? But even more so, aren’t you glad that God loves His enemies and puts up with the Jonah in all of us?

It May Not Go Well, but Trust

Why do I tell you this whole story of Jonah? Because that has been us this past year. We have all—-all of us—gotten very entrenched in our social and political opinions and preferences and ideologies. We have labeled people our enemies, and then decided that they must be God’s enemies too—but how does God treat our enemies? And we have almost said that we would rather be dead than see our enemies live and thrive—but have we forgotten how God looks upon us, and hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us?

I would like to say that the story of Jonah has a happy ending. But you know what? A couple of years later, Assyria, the same nation that Jonah was going to let be destroyed—that same nation came and wiped out the ten northern tribes of Israel, the northern kingdom of Israel. In other words, by doing what God asked him to do, things seemingly got worse for Israel, not better. Jonah’s greatest fear, it came true! And I’m sure he lost his marbles.

But God had a plan, and God never ceased working his plan. And when the time was fulfilled, when everything was ready, God sent his son. And that son, that beloved son with whom he is well pleased came proclaiming the good news of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.”

And the question is again put to us. Will we repent? Will we turn away from the social and political agendas which are driving us into social unrest, and violence, and tribalism; will we turn back to a true loyalty to the Lord, to the one true God? And will we believe in this good news that Jesus announces? Will we cut loose our other ties of trust, all of the social and political and economic things we are actually placing our trust in; will we trust and believe that what the Lord is doing in and through Jesus Christ will win the day?

“Come after me”

This is hard! I know. I get it. And the fact of the matter is there are no simple solutions, or magic answers. “They” are never going to see it like you see it and “change their mind.” So what do we do?

Well, that last part of our Gospel gives us a great idea. Jesus calling these first disciples gives the answer. You have to follow, drop everything, and “go after” Jesus. It seems like such a simple thing, but these guys—Simon and Andrew, James and John—they drop their job, they abandon their family business, and they follow Jesus: they repent and believe. In other words, they stop placing their trust in all of the normal things people place their trust in—everything. In a culture where family obligations were paramount (it’s like abandoning your dad to the family farm)—even then, they leave everything else they are placing their trust in and believe that the good news Jesus is announcing is true.

Friends: what are we really placing our faith and trust in? And perhaps the call to repent and believe in the good news isn’t for “them,” but first and foremost for us.

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