Saturday, January 21, 2012

A sense of urgency

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

Rather than offer another sermon on evangelism – fishing for people – as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel reading, I decided to talk about the sense of urgency in today’s readings.
Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God to tell the Ninevites that God plans to destroy the city. For Jonah, Nineveh is enemy territory, non-Jewish territory, the people are doing a lot of evil and injustice, and Jonah does not want to have anything to do with this mission. He resists going there, and starts by taking a ship headed in the opposite direction; he gets thrown overboard, he is swallowed by a big fish and then is vomited up onto a beach.
Finally, he realizes that God means business, and in the end, he does what he has been commanded to do. He walks about the city giving a very short message. “In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” Even without Jonah telling the people of Nineveh why it will be destroyed, they believe the message and repent from their evil doings and the city is not destroyed after all. They understand the urgency and respond accordingly.
Reading Mark’s Gospel often gives us a sense of urgency. As soon as John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus begins his ministry. He immediately begins to choose disciples; and the first four follow him immediately. Now, actually, I believe that Jesus knows these fishermen; they have heard him preach, and they are prepared to follow him when he gives them the word, “It’s time to go.” The way Mark tells the story gives it a strong sense of urgency: “Here’s the good news. You should believe it and believe in Jesus, and you should do it now!”
When we get to the letter from Paul to the Corinthians, we also find a lot of urgency. In the early church, there was a lot of anticipation that Jesus would return soon in a sort of cataclysmic event to change the world. As a result, Paul advises the believers to make sure their focus is in the right place – on Jesus. Don’t think about your spouse, your grief, your joy, your possessions, your political influence, or anything related to this world, because it will be different when Jesus returns.
Paul believes that what we call the end times were near. There are several passages in the New Testament where this same message is expressed, but it is not the only view of the end times in Scripture. The study of the end times is called “eschatology,” from eschaton, the Greek word for “the end of time.”  
There are five basic understandings of eschatology in Scripture. I have adapted a handy summary of the varieties of eschatology in Scripture from one of my favorite preaching resources ( ).
The first is Imminent Eschatology. Of the five types of eschatology, this is the only one with a real sense of urgency. In this understanding, Christ is coming soon, so believers should watch, be faithful, and be ready for the eschaton. We see imminent eschatology in today’s passage from 1 Corinthians, Mark 13, 1 Thessalonians 4, and a few other texts.
The second is Realized Eschatology, referring to a belief that the eschaton has already occurred, and the kingdom/reign of God is already present among us. Believers are called to seek eternal life through a relationship with God, who is present with us through Jesus Christ, and to invite others to know Jesus the same way. We see Realized Eschatology especially in the Gospel of John.
The third is Proleptic Eschatology, and this refers to an already/not yet understanding of the coming of Christ. There are signs of the kingdom/reign of God already present in this world, but it is not yet complete. Believers are called to work to make the reign of God visible through our service to those in need. Proleptic Eschatology is evident especially in the Gospel of Luke, but seen throughout the gospels and the letters. Proleptic Eschatology appears often in Lutheran theology.
The fourth is Prophetic Eschatology, which describes a world in which evil reigns and we need God to do something about it. Believers are called to allow God to work through them to establish justice and righteousness in the world. This form of eschatology is seen in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Hosea. In the New Testament, Prophetic Eschatology shows up in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, and in Jesus’ parables.
The last form of eschatology in Scripture is Apocalyptic Eschatology, which expresses the belief that only God’s action will defeat evil and establish justice and righteousness on earth. In this eschatology, believers are to remain patient and faithful in a time of difficulty and persecution. Apocalyptic Eschatology appears mostly in the book of Revelation, and in Romans 8 (for example, where Paul writes, “the world groans in labor pains”) and in Ephesians 6. (Put on the full armor of God so you can stand against the devil.)
Each form of eschatology has a description of the present and/or future and a call for believers to respond in faithful ways. We can be both comforted and challenged by eschatology: the thread running through all five forms of eschatology is that we are believers in Jesus and at some time and in some way, Jesus is going to take care of evil and bring on justice and righteousness. Believers are called to respond to the challenges of this world with faith and endurance, and participate in bringing justice to the world.
Since there are several forms of eschatology in the same Bible, we cannot say that one or the other is the only one or the right one. We must consider all of them as valid ways to understand the end times. Each form of eschatology meant something to the author of the text and the audience for whom it was written. Each form means something to us, too, and some of them make more sense to us than other forms.
Of all five forms of eschatology, the one we are least likely to believe in these days is Imminent Eschatology, the belief that Jesus is coming really soon. We have become so accustomed to waiting and waiting– for 2000 years we have been waiting – and we no longer really expect to see Jesus in our lifetimes, much less in the next few days or months. Our preferred eschatology wants Jesus to come soon, but not before we have accomplished certain goals – made a million dollars, baptized our great grandchildren, travelled around the world, written our first novel, developed a software program to prevent viruses from invading computers forever, and so forth. We want Jesus to come, but on our time table.
In truth, Paul’s urgent message to focus on Jesus’ imminent return and ignore our worldly concerns seems unnecessary to us. Because we have been waiting for so long, Jesus is often pretty low on the priority list. We would do well to take note of Paul’s words and have a better balance between our concerns for this world and our concerns for our relationship with Jesus.
Even if we don’t believe Jesus will come soon, the truth is that we will all see him one day, and we never know just when that will be. It makes sense to have some sense of urgency about our relationship with Jesus, so that we feel secure in knowing how much he loves us and wants the very best for us.
Please pray with me. Jesus, you call us to follow you, and we do, within our own limits. Help us to set aside our own concerns enough that you can lead us into a more faithful relationship with you and be ready to do whatever you are asking of us. Amen