Setting Down, Picking Up, Moving Forward
We live in a time of doom. There are doomsayers on every corner, on every web page, and on practically every page of the newspaper, for those of us who still read newspapers. No matter whether you find yourself on the left, the right, or in the middle, there is probably someone you listen to, someone whose ideas you read, who is sounding the alarm and saying that we are in the midst of a great and dangerous crisis.
If there is any assurance, if there is any comfort to be found in the readings from scripture we heard this morning, it is the absolute assurance that we have been here before. We have lived through generations upon generations, centuries upon centuries, of doomsayers. We may have an awful lot of Jonahs out there these days, but once upon a time there was, well, Jonah.
Jonah is the prototype of a doomsayer. He is called by God to go to Nineveh for the specific purpose of preaching doom and gloom. And he does it very, very well. He does it so well that everyone listens to him and changes their behavior, with the result that he ends up unemployed. Of course, it’s only then that his most interesting adventures begin, but that is a different story for another day.
In Mark’s gospel this morning, even Jesus is a kind of doomsayer. His warnings are not quite as dire as Jonah’s, but he is still calling the people around him—and that always includes us—to take a moment to look at their lives carefully. He is proclaiming the end of one order, the fulfillment of one era and the opening of a new one.
What’s important for us to grasp about these stories is the difference between the things we get a choice over and the things we don’t. We don’t get to choose whether or not one way of ordering things is ending. Nineveh doesn’t get to bargain about whether the terms of God’s displeasure with the city are fair, or whether maybe they could offer perhaps fifty percent of the change in behavior that God is wanting to see in them.
What they do get a choice over is what to do in response to God’s declaration. Rather than spend their energy questioning whether God’s terms are fair, they focus instead on examining how they are living their lives and what they might do differently to align their hearts and their actions more closely with the covenant they signed up for.
It’s the same in what Jesus has to say. The people around him didn’t really have a choice in whether the old dispensation was coming to an end and a new one was beginning. Jesus has come in part to proclaim that truth, not to negotiate it.
The choice they have is more about what they will do when confronted with that proclamation. They can ignore it; they can decide that it’s false; or they can take it seriously and change their lives accordingly.
That last path is the one Jesus is advising. There are two parts to it. The first is to repent; the other is to believe. They are connected. You can’t do the second unless you do the first.
Some of us, at least, want to have it both ways. We want to agree with the premise that we need to change; we might even explore making a couple of changes. But at the same time, we are reluctant to do that other thing—to repent. We don’t really want to let go of...anything. We are too afraid of loss. We have worked too hard, sacrificed too much, put up with too much hardship to easily let go of what we have—even if it is weighing us down.
The lesson set before us today is a difficult one but a clear one. We can’t move in a new direction until we stop moving in the direction we’re headed in.
We can’t pick up the good news that is set right there before us unless we set down and leave behind the experiences, the wounds, the burdens, maybe even the accomplishments, the recognitions, the ideas we’ve been carrying along with us, hoping they somehow would become our fulfillment. The good news that comes from accepting the promise and hope of the gospel is only something we can pick up if we first open up our hands and let go of the things that are, whether we know it or not, killing us. That, in the end, is what repentance is.
Jonah was a doomsayer. Jesus, even here, is a bit of a doomsayer. But Paul is writing in the church newsletter of the church in Corinth. He is submitting his article for the Eagle. And what he is telling us is—another era is coming to an end. Another dispensation is ending, so that a new one can begin.
Sounds sort of extreme, I know. Sounds a little bit like that variety of Christian we tend to steer clear of—the end-of-timers, the prophets of doom, the rapture cheerleaders. All of that makes it easy for us to dismiss, or at least miss, what Paul is saying.
But if we think about it, you know, it sounds true. It seems right. “The present form of this world is passing away.” Big things we always took for granted, that we thought would always be true, are turning out to be impermanent. Not just companies, not just institutions, but even idea, even things we thought were virtuous, seem to be. . . well, in danger. Fragile. Endangered.
Here’s the lesson for this morning. We don’t get too choose whether or not this is true. We don’t get a say about whether the things we treasure, the things we have trusted always to be there, are dependable, or fixed, or certain—or trembling, and weakening, or threatened.
All we get to choose is what we are going to do about it. All we get to choose is what direction we want to head in—what values we want to stand for, what truths we want to hold on to, and whether or not we are going to head in that direction, or stay stuck where we are with things falling down around us.
If nothing else is true about this moment in history, at least this much is true: More and more people are being disturbed from their complacency. More and more people seem to have awakened to the sense that the present form of this world is passing away. Whether the things endangered are the climate, or basic human rights, or the dignity of women, or the hopes of the vulnerable children, or the ideals of democracy—whatever it is, the things we took for granted seem to be passing away.
And we must decide whether we will continue to cling to the belief that all is well, that everything will be all right, or repent of our complacency, and let go that alluring comfort. We don’t get to choose that things have changed.
What we get to choose is how we will respond—whether we will clench our fists around what we think we still have left, or grasp the good news that God is still in this with us; that we are still, first of all, God’s children; and we can still rise up and work toward the realization of that kingdom where love is the law, where justice is done, and where the equal dignity of all people in the eyes of God is the greatest of all things that humans can accomplish.