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Sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Wayside (in Newburg), MD on January 21, 2018.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany; Year B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Ps. 62:6-14; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever wondered what a split-second decision that changes your life looks like? As I was working on this sermon, I noted that we passed the 9th anniversary of the amazing emergency landing on the Hudson River of US Airways Flight 1549 by Captain Charles “Sully” Sullenberger. You will recall, the plane had been hit by a flock of geese after taking off and lost both engines. With no time to make it to the neighboring airports, the pilot landed in the freezing waters off of Manhattan. All 155 souls on board were saved by an army of rescuers from across New York City and New Jersey.

My friends, THAT’S an immediate decision that changed the lives of many people! It is as profoundly life changing as the disciples hearing Jesus’s call and leaving their own lives to follow him.

Today and for the next two weeks, we get accounts of Jesus’ early ministry from the first chapter of Mark. Today we get a sample of Jesus’ preaching and his calling of the first disciples. Next week we will see Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. Two weeks from today, we’ll hear about Jesus healing physical ailments. Through these readings, we look for insight and faith for what all of this means for us.

Today, we hear Jesus speak to us, saying, “Repent, Believe, and Follow.” Repent and believe -- well, that’s a summary of Jesus’ preaching. And Follow: that’s the summary of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Repent, believe, and follow. These are three imperatives, three commands, from the lips of Jesus. Repent, believe, and follow. Three words that lead to forgiveness, faith, and purpose in life for every one of us.

Let’s start with Jesus’ preaching. We read: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” This preaching, the proclamation of the gospel, begins with an announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” What does Jesus mean by these two statements?

“The time is fulfilled.” Everything that has been leading up to this moment and preparing for this moment has now come to pass. All of Israel’s history, the whole of human history, has reached the point God had in mind. The prophecies foretelling what the Lord would do – those prophecies have now reached the point of fulfillment. This is the moment the world has been waiting for. Indeed, this is the moment the Lord has been waiting for, and working toward. It is now here in the coming of Christ. All of that is packed into Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled.” Consider what St. Paul writes in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” And this was that fullness of time. This was just the right moment for Jesus to come on the scene.

The time is fulfilled, “and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God -- This is God’s gracious rule and reign among us. It is God’s end-time kingdom of grace and blessing. Jesus is the king who ushers it in. That’s why Jesus can say this kingdom is “at hand.” It is right here among us. The kingdom arrives with the presence of Jesus. That’s how it works.

The Lord had promised this end-time kingdom in the prophecies of the Old Testament. The arrival of this kingdom would mark a time of marvelous abundance and blessing, of a sea-change in the affairs of all, a shift in the ages. God would visit God’s people to bless them and redeem them, the Lord coming in the end-time to act in salvation and in judgment. That’s all wrapped up in Jesus’ announcement, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” So now what? What does this mean for our lives? What is Jesus’ message to us in view of these things? It is this: “Repent and believe in the gospel.”

Repent and believe: The two go together like hand in glove. You don’t have one without the other. When Jesus calls us to repent, he also calls us to believe. Jesus calls us to believe in the gospel, so that repentance doesn’t leave us desolate and in despair.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.” What is Jesus saying to us when he says, “Repent”? He is saying: Rethink how you are living. Turn away from whatever causes pain, whatever does not bring joy, whatever separates from the good that God created in you. Change your minds, alter your way of thinking, move from the world’s way of thinking and from the selfish desires of your flesh, which is turned in on itself. Acknowledge commandments you may have broken, how you have not loved God with your whole heart, how you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. That’s what Sin is. Being apart from God. That’s what being a sinner is. Walking our own way rather than the path God has given us. We must own it. And then we must confess it. Don’t rationalize it or excuse your sins.

We must not compare ourselves to other people, focusing on how bad they are, to make ourselves look good. No, we must look in the mirror with clear eyes. To see how each of us have sinned – in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done wrong and in where we have fallen short. We must admit that we are sinners, who will be lost without God’s mercy and forgiveness, having no righteousness in ourselves that would be available before God. We must recognize our need and our powerlessness before God’s righteous throne of judgment. The wages of sin are death. All that–yes, all of that–is packed into this one word of Jesus, “Repent.” Do you hear this call to repent? Jesus speaks to all of us today.

But Thank God, Jesus has another word to speak to us today. And it is this: “Believe in the gospel.” The gospel is the good news, the glad tidings of God’s undeserved favor toward sinners like you and me. This is something to rejoice over, that God does not have only words of judgment to speak to us, but that God also speaks words of salvation and grace, words of comfort and consolation.

For many years, my wife Chrissie and I participated in marriage preparation weekends for engaged couples. One of the themes we introduced to those about to commit to one another was the idea that “God does not make junk” — in other words, no matter how much we may feel we are falling short of our own ideals of perfection, God still loves us and wants us to be the best people we can be. This idea has stuck with me as I sometimes still struggle with my own sinfulness, my own inability to be everything I want to be, everything I believe God wants me to be. God made me. God made you. God will help us each achieve our own perfection.

That is good news for all of us, way beyond those preparing to be married.

But this gospel is not just some vague pronouncement of “Everything’s OK. God is good. God won’t hold your bad stuff against you.” No, it goes deeper than that. It has more specific content than that. The gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness comes to us freely, and at the same time, it came at great cost. For Jesus Christ is the heart and center of this gospel. His person, his work – the person and work of Christ is the specific content of this good news. Who Jesus is and what he has done – this is what makes the gospel good news.

This man Jesus who is going about Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing – he is the very Son of God come in the flesh, come down to earth to bring salvation to lost sinners. True God and true man, he is our brother and our Savior. As our brother, he fulfills the law on our behalf, always doing the right thing, the way humankind was meant to be. And Jesus is our substitute also in taking the punishment that the law requires for sinners. Even though he had no sins of his own, Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross. He shed his holy blood for our forgiveness and our cleansing. Because he is the holy Son of God doing these things, his sacrifice is sufficient for all of us, for everyone everywhere. Christ’s righteousness is enough to cover the entire world. God pronounces us righteous. It’s a gift.

This gift, then, is received through faith. That’s why Jesus says, “Believe in the gospel.” To believe, biblically speaking, is not just to know about something in your head, with no connection to life. No, rather, to believe is to trust, to entrust yourself to this gospel of Christ, to know in your heart that this is your only hope of righteousness before God. “Believe in the gospel,” trust in Christ your Savior. Take refuge in him. God’s mercy through Jesus Christ will save you. He has saved us from your sins. He saves us from death and eternal damnation. He saves us all by the power of his resurrection unto eternal life, so that we will share in his resurrection on the last day. This is the content of our faith.

And this faith is worked in you by the Holy Spirit, creating and nurturing faith through the means of grace, and Word and Sacrament. The fact that you trust in Christ your Savior –this is itself a gift from God. The Holy Spirit gave you this gift of faith in Holy Baptism, and continues to strengthen our faith as we receive Christ’s body and blood at the Holy Eucharist at this Altar. Yes, God’s mighty word creates and awakens the very faith it calls for.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.” Now one more word that Jesus has to say to us today: “Follow me.” This is the word that Jesus spoke to those fishermen, way back when, calling them as his disciples. To be a disciple of Christ is to follow him in faith and to learn from him. It is a learning that is personal and practical. We are meant to grow in wisdom and in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to learn what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, in our daily life.

The call of Jesus to come and follow him may mean a change in our vocation, as it did for those fishermen of old. For them it was immediately! A life changing decision. At the very least, this call is the transforming of your mission and ministry in the world, to see yourself as Christ’s person in every aspect of your life. As a member of the church. As a citizen in society. As a family member, in our relationships to parents, husband or wife, children, friends, and even the stranger in our midst. It includes our jobs, our workplaces, our life in all the spheres of living. Jesus is calling all of us to learn the life of love. Love for our neighbor, caring for one another. Forgiving each other when someone has wronged us, or when we hurt someone. It is taking the initiative to seek reconciliation where relationships have been strained. This is the living out of witness, mercy, and life together in Christ. All of this is packed into the words of Jesus, “Follow me.”

Dear friends of Christ Church, Jesus comes to us today, here, into this place, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Hear his voice and heed his call. Jesus comes to us today, to our Galilee, to our fishing boats, summoning us to the new life of adventure he has for us as his disciples, speaking to each one of us his powerful words of life, “Follow me.” You have many exciting days ahead of you! You, in fact, will see a different kind of life changing decision bearing fruit in your lives as you welcome your new rector.

My prayer for you is that you pull together like those people of New York City and New Jersey in 2009 and create your own wonderful tale of being the best Christ Church you can be.

Yes, hear the voice of Jesus saying to us today, “Repent, believe, and follow.”