The Bible (opened)
Sermon - Year B

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Recently, a friend of mine came across a street preacher in Aberdeen city centre. His efforts seemed to have no traction with the city dwellers, unlike the prophet Jonah in today’s first reading. The street preacher’s enthusiasm, zeal and megaphone failed to attract any attention. I can admire his resolve as he continued despite having no effect on anyone. I know how soul-destroying and frustrating it can be because I’m a professional preacher. I mean that “it is my profession”, not that “I deliver professional results”. In my case, it takes me almost a week of reflection, meditation and thinking about the biblical readings, accompanied by some research or study, followed by three hours (on average) on a Friday night to compose and write down my sermon, then have it proof-read by a well-educated friend for final tweaking and polishing on a Saturday morning. After all that time and effort, you get a sermon that is about 10- minutes long and often coma-inducing; its only saving grace is its relative shortness. Imagine what you could get if I were a talented preacher. Unlike in the case of the street preacher, your perseverance and resolve must be admired, and greatly so.

The process of preaching requires two sides: a preacher and an audience. There’s little point in talking about “how to preach and be successful”, as most of you are on the receiving end of the process. So, it makes more sense to consider that side of it. Today’s gospel reading offers us a great opportunity to do so.

“The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” These are the very first words of Jesus reported in St Mark’s gospel. However, when we pay a bit more attention, the evangelist didn’t mention any audience Jesus had addressed His call to. It’s as if He was talking to nobody in particular. That would be very bad preaching unless it was something completely different: the overarching theme of the gospel or Jesus’ entire ministry encapsulated in one opening line. The kingdom of God is the main offer; it’s imminent, and to make it happen, we have to respond positively with repentance and faith.

In the highly politically charged atmosphere of the early first-century Holy Land, the proclamation “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand” could have been easily seen as a call to arms against the Roman Empire in the fine tradition of popular uprisings. There was no shortage of fighters with itchy fingers waiting for a leader to lead the rebellion. So, such a proclamation would have certainly caught people’s attention, which is the first “must-have” in the preacher’s handbook. It’s a time-honoured mechanism used in all walks of life: a promise of reward, achievement or advantage is made to grab people’s attention. This is the reason why we all hate adverts – despite being called “targeted”, they rarely appeal to our needs or desires; they miss their aim. The same applies to us when we hear the phrase “the kingdom of God is close at hand”. What do you think or imagine when you hear that? Are we going to die very soon? Or are we on the cusp of creating a theocratic country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but with Christian ideology at the heart of it? I suppose that the most common reaction would be: “Whatever”. How do we translate “the kingdom of God close at hand” into modern language to convey its perennial meaning? This is something we will have a chance to consider over the next 40 weeks or so when we will read and listen to the gospel of St Mark on most Sundays. I hope we will find the idea of the kingdom of God attractive and appealing at the end of this process.

The proclamation of “the kingdom of God close at hand” demands a response to make it happen: “Repent and believe in the gospel”, to use the most literal and – at the same time – highly imprecise translation from the Greek original. Our English version strongly implies a single, one-off action or decision. But that’s not what Jesus said. Let’s start with the first word, “repent.” In common English, it’s associated with changing one’s moral stance, turning away from evil and to good deeds,  often a bit begrudgingly. The Greek word “metanoia” used here must be translated in a descriptive way as “changing one’s mindset”; a moral change – if and when it happens – comes almost as a by-product of such transformation, not as its main goal. Such a meaning is connected with another crucial aspect of the phrase “repent and believe”. The Greek original uses the form that implies a continuous process; it can be translated as “keep changing your mindset and believing the gospel”. That makes it far more applicable and relevant to our lives. How often have you made a strong resolution to change something in your life and then failed miserably? In my case, so often that I have already lost the ability to blush; otherwise, my face would be permanently red. I’m pretty sure my experience isn’t unique. Having failed at the first hurdle, we should have given up, but Jesus called us to keep on trying.

There’s another aspect to the continuous form of Jesus’ call to “repent and believe in the gospel.” Life is ever-changing; it throws a great variety of challenges, problems, and troubles at us. Every time, we have to adapt or find solutions or ways of dealing with such situations. If we approach life from a religious perspective, we dynamically apply our principles. For example, although an instinctive reaction to being hurt is to pay back in kind (and a bit more for good measure), we apply the “turn the other cheek” principle to stop or break a vicious circle of vengefulness and to try to resolve the conflict peacefully. That’s the practical meaning of “believing in the gospel.” Because we don’t always succeed in such attempts, we have to keep trying to change our mindset, “metanoia”, so eventually we will be able to take control of our actions. Those two things are intertwined: you apply the principle (“believe in the gospel”) and reflect on how successful it’s been (“repent”). Then rinse and repeat.

The last but not least important aspect of the phrase is well reflected even in our necessarily imperfect English translation. “Repent and believe in the gospel” is inherently inward-looking. You can’t “repent someone else”, only yourself. In that respect, when I’m preaching, I’m addressing myself first and foremost. If anyone else benefits from that, that’s a bonus. For a “professional” preacher like me, it’s a perfect way of avoiding frustration because there’s always someone who listens to me: myself.