Epiphany 3 B: Fullness Where We Least Expect It

Mark 1:14-20

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t know about you, but I suspect it didn’t look like God’s kingdom had come near to any of the persons Jesus first called to be disciples. I mean, they still had to work, long hard hours to scrape out a living as fishermen. Whatever challenges they had at home were still there. Whatever unfulfilled dreams they entertained were no closer to being realized. Moreover, Rome was still in power. They were still living in an occupied nation. Herod was the brutal puppet leader of their region and Pontius Pilate still governed Judea with an iron fist from Jerusalem. No, I doubt that it looked very much like God’s kingdom was coming.

Nor do I imagine that it looks that way today to many of the folks who will hear us preach this week. I am writing this letter to you on the day set aside to honor the work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so it is hard to avoid the obvious and painful conclusion that we seem no closer to – indeed, perhaps several large strides further way than just a few years ago – the dream of racial equality he articulated. Confidence in our government is approaching all-time lows. The stock market continues to soar, but wages remain stagnant. The opioid crisis deepens. We discover more and more accounts of sexual assault and abuse. False alarms of a nuclear attack remind us of the reality of that possibility. And church attendance continues to ebb. No, I doubt it will feel to many this Sunday like the kingdom of God has drawn near.

But perhaps that is because both Jesus’ original audience and his contemporary one misunderstand the nature and character of that kingdom. Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply say that God’s kingdom is coming near. He presages that statement by first declaring, “The time is fulfilled.” Two notes on this short but crucial confession. First, “time” here is “Kairos,” not “Chronos.” Not the mundane, ordinary time of minutes and seconds, that is, but rather the opportune, even royal time of God’s action and activity. God is getting involved. (Which is also the word used in today’s Epistle, when Paul says, “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor. 7:29) and shows up again in a passage that is not read today – but could be! – in Romans 5: “at just the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6).)

Second, and more important, is the word translated here as “fullness.” It comes from the Greek verb πληρόω (pronounced play-ro’-o) and means not simply fullness but totality, completeness, something rendered perfect and filled to overflowing. And what’s striking about this word choice isn’t simply what it means, but where Mark records Jesus as using it. Here, when he calls his disciples, and just once more, this time at Gethsemane, just after his disciples feel asleep while he prayed and Judas the betrayer met him with a kiss. In that context, Jesus says to the crowds who have come to take him away: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled” (14:48-49) And then Mark closes the scene with the stark pronouncement that “All of them deserted him and fled” (v. 50).

“Let the Scriptures be fulfilled” – completed, brought to perfect, come to their intended end, be filled with to overflowing, abound beyond expectation – in a setting of disappointment, betrayal, violence, and apparent failure. Not what anyone expected.

Which is characteristic of the Gospel, when you think about it, and especially Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel that begins with Jesus promising no-account laborers that they would soon be catching people and ends with Jesus’ cry of dereliction and the surprising confession of the one who crucified him. God regularly shows up where we least expect God to be. In the words of a young African American minister who felt totally over his head, in the actions of a woman fed up with having to give up her seat to those deemed superior because of the color of her skin, in the perseverance of a teacher who keeps faith with students deemed by the culture “under achievers,” in the courageous testimony of those who speak out about abuse they endured and hid, in the fidelity of a single parent caring for her autistic child, in work done by so many not because they find it fulfilling but because it puts bread on the table, in the quiet but faithful gestures our people make each day for their family, communities, and world, gestures which for most of the time go unheralded and even unnoticed. Because God is there.

And yet God is there. Perhaps that’s the good news for our people this week, Dear Partner. That God has not given up on this world or on us. That God continues to show up where we least expect God to be. That God will put to use the gestures of fidelity we offer toward ends we cannot imagine. That God is here, and that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near even – and especially! – when it doesn’t look that way. The promise of the Gospel is not that hardship will be taken away, but that God is with us in the hardship. It is not that evil will be defeated before our eyes, but rather that, in words we heard near Christmas, that “the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Gospel is not, finally, a word of obvious victory but rather of sustaining and courageous hope. The Gospel is experiencing fullness when everything looks empty. And yet God is there.

That word, Dear Partner, still changes lives and will change the world. So please remember and believe that you, too, are a part of this on-going work, as God shows up in your words and deeds, sounding forth the Gospel and calling new disciples, even when you don’t realize or expect it. Thank you for your courage, persistence, and fidelity.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: “Commissioning the Twelve Apostles,” Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1481