Epiphany 3 | Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20
There are many places in my life I consider pivot points, moments in time where the before and after were markedly different. Going away to college was one of those, getting ordained was another. Probably one of the biggest was the moment I saw Lisa’s profile on Match.com.
My life before Lisa and after Lisa are very different things indeed. Those of you who knew me pre-Lisa can probably attest: I was not a very happy guy. I’m still a pain in the neck, granted, but I’m a way happier guy, all the way around. My before Lisa and after Lisa lives are as different as night and day, and I can’t imagine ever going back to those dark times…before.
Not everyone has had the privilege of meeting or marrying Lisa (thank God), but I think lots of us have pivot points. Some that I have observed in friends and loved ones include having a child, acting in a play and discovering their true direction in life. All too often, it’s illness. How many times have you heard people talking about the day they got their cancer diagnosis as the day they started living?
Those pivot points are different for all of us, but we all have them—and in fact, most of us have a few. What they have in common, though, is that they’re complete game-changers. Life before and after is dramatically different. The pivot point is a wake-up call to a different KIND of life. It’s the doing that you can’t undo, it’s the accident you can’t unsee, it’s the meeting that you can’t unmeet—because the YOU before and after are dramatically different YOUs.
The pivot point is the key to understanding this week’s disparate Scriptures. At first glance, today’s scriptures seem like slim pickings. They’re short. There’s not a lot of meat on them bones. And yet, as I meditated on them, I realize that the thing they had in common was what we all have in common: the pivot point. Each of these readings is about the moment when a person’s life changes forever.
At first, what strikes us about these selections from the lectionary is that they are shot through with eschatological expectation. They are all about the end of the world, in one way or another. That seems particularly poignant in light of what our friends in Hawaii had to endure this week, with their very eschatological false alarm!
In our reading from the Old Testament, God is about to rain fire and fury down upon Nineveh for their sins. The warning comes not from a text message but from the prophet Jonah, who goes about yelling in the streets, “Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
In our epistle reading, Paul is also expecting end of the world at any moment, and, in classic Chicken-Little fashion, he’s freaking out a little bit. “We can’t just pretend nothing is happening!” he’s saying. “The appointed time has grown short! We have to live differently in the small amount of time we have left!”
And meanwhile, Jesus, right here at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, starts his preaching career, declaring, “The end of the world is here! The Kingdom of God is near!”
I’m sure all the folks in Hawaii were tremendously relieved to discover it was a false alarm. Time to get a new set of swim trunks and hit the beach.
It was a false alarm in Ninevah, too, to Jonah’s great surprise, because the fire and brimstone…never quite arrives. I’m sure Paul was surprised, too, that the end of the world he expected at any moment…never quite got here. And what could Jesus, who ought to know better, have possibly meant by his preaching “The time is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God is here!”
Below the surface of all this doom and gloom anticipation, we see something else taking place—not the end of the world, at least, not as we normally think of it, but the end of business-as-usual. I’m sure that the crisis in Hawaii caused more than a couple of people to examine their lives. At least, one would hope so. Those kinds of moments tend to become pivot points for lots of folks.
It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant when he proclaimed that “the time is fulfilled!” but we can say with some confidence that, as far as the disciples were concerned—eschatological concerns aside—the time BEFORE meeting Jesus and AFTER meeting Jesus were very different indeed.
Check out the disciples’ strange, impulsive behavior in our gospel reading. It’s hard to know just what they were thinking. Note that we don’t see Jesus promise them anything—not even a job. And yet, inexplicably, they feel compelled to quit their jobs, right then and there, just upon the strength of his personality. They certainly don't understand who he is or what he’s about—and won’t for a very long time, if Jesus’ frustration with them is any indication.
Check it out: All they did was MEET HIM, and their lives CHANGED.
I think that’s something that many of us can relate to. Forget all the theologizing, forget all the intellectual arguments, forget all of your Sunday School mythologies. When you meet Jesus, when you REALLY meet him, when you have experience of his presence, or his grace, EVERYTHING CHANGES.
Holding this in mind, Paul’s letter begins to make some sense. Once we’ve met Jesus, it affects everything in our lives. Paul says, “let those who have spouses be as though they had none.” Thanks for the advice, Paul. We’re just going to set that…over here and take it under advisement. But Paul’s right about one thing: meeting Jesus changes lots of things in our lives, including our romantic relationships.
I remember when Lisa and I were first dating. One night I told her, “You know, you’ll always be Number Two in my life”—meaning that Jesus would always be Number One. To my amazement and relief, Lisa smiled and said, “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
But there are certainly relationships that don’t survive when one partner has a spiritual transformation and the other doesn’t. I read once that half of all marriages don’t survive once one partner goes to seminary. That’s not a surprising statistic, because I don’t know many people who have gone through seminary who have not been spiritually transformed by the experience. It’s a pivot point. You can’t pretend that life before and life after an experience like that is the same—nor are our relationships.
Paul then turns his attention to our emotional lives, which we might today see in the light of our psychological health. Spiritual transformation often looks a lot like mental illness. Our friends think we’re crazy. By all objective standards the world gives us, meeting and following Jesus, this spiritual transformation thing—it IS craziness. And it sometimes feels like madness, too, when we’re in the thick of it. Was it crazy for Peter and Andrew and James and John to throw down their nets, quit their jobs, abandon their families—including, in Peter’s case, a wife and kids—to tag along after a peripatetic street preacher? That’s…pretty crazy.
But it only seems crazy from a distance. We weren’t there. We didn’t meet Jesus when they met Jesus. But many of us have met Jesus in our own time, in our own lives, and we can attest: It changes you.
And when you meet Jesus—not just consider Jesus, not just study Jesus, not just worship Jesus—but when you truly MEET Jesus, things before that encounter and after…they just aren’t the same. Meeting Jesus affects our relationships with people, with money, it affects how we use our time, how we see our lives, how we construct meaning, how we spend our money, how we employ our talents.
Because when we really meet him—when we surrender ourselves to the mystery of him, when we consent to having our small lives joined to his Big Life in baptism, something big changes. We no longer belong wholly and completely to ourselves. When we take the knee and bow before him and accept him as Lord, a huge shift occurs in us. Our money, our time, our talents are not ours alone, not anymore. Our relationships all now have three people in them—and if that’s not okay with one of them, one of them will eventually go. Our relationship to our feelings even change, because they are ephemeral not eternal, and we have surrendered ourselves to be ruled by another.
Meeting Jesus changes us. And usually, when you look at the big picture, it’s for the better—but it's rarely what we had planned for ourselves. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It’s not something you plan for. It’s just something that happens. And before it happens and after it happens are very different. It's a pivot point—not just in history, not like BC and AD, but in OUR history. It is a major dividing point in the story of our lives.
It could be that you haven’t had an experience of Jesus like this. Hearing about him and meeting him are two very different things indeed. And the one does NOT prepare you for the other. And if you value your life the way it is, meeting Jesus is probably not something you want to do, because it will bring nothing but turmoil and loss and a major change of plans. It’s very disruptive. I don’t recommend it.
But…and there has to be a “but” doesn’t there? It depends on what you want. Do you want transformation or peace? You can’t have both. Change is disruptive. When God breaks into our lives, when, as Jesus put it, “the Kingdom comes near,” it’s rarely welcome, it shatters all of our illusions, it strips away our false identities, and it leaves us face to face with the poverty we’ve surrounded ourselves with. And that revelation is so stark that we can’t continue to live like we did before. Something has to give, something has to go, and the business-as-usual just isn’t going to cut it any more.
I want to acknowledge that God breaks into our lives in many ways, through many agents, employing many different faces and metaphors and symbols—but for those of us in this culture, raised with this heritage and history, God most often breaks into our lives in the form of Jesus, this man we resist and don’t understand and struggle with. This Jesus, who taps us on the shoulder and says, “Follow me.”
And if we do, when we do, when we finally stop fighting it and surrender and follow…everything is different. Let us pray…
God, is it any surprise that we live in fear of the time we’ll be tapped on the shoulder by Jesus? We ought to fear it. We would be fools not to fear it. Because you call us to a transformation of life that changes us completely, from the inside out. Give us the courage and strength to endure our “little apocalypses,”
as you reveal to us our true and secret names. For we ask this in the name of the one who finds us in the midst of our daily lives and says, “follow me”—the two scariest words in the world. Amen.