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5th September 2021

Into The Unknown-are you out there?

Passage: Mark 1;14-20


For many of us the 1st September has long felt almost like a New Year. Children go back to school and start in new classes; families take up the new routine; traffic patterns, that is, traffic jams enter a whole new timetable- most of us are affected. And this year, September looked even more like a new start both for the church and for the nation. With Covid restrictions lifted in July, we thought well, we’ll take things slowly through the summer and then we’ll be all back to normal in September. Only we are not…. Covid is still with us, and the next few months remain uncertain. Parallel church may be making maps right now and good luck to them, but I don’t know what they are making maps with. Personally, I could paper this entire church with lists, plans and directions we have made over the last 18 months, only to have to discard them. The Worship Team chose the title, “Into the Unknown” for our church services this Autumn because, unlike the usual excited, confident planning which takes place in September, we are indeed heading into the Unknown.

I chose that story from Mark’s Gospel to start us off, telling how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him. And they went. Just like that. There is a strong tradition that Mark’s Gospel is based largely on Simon Peter’s personal memories of Jesus, so this story-with that Simon in it- is about as reliable as any story this old can be. Jesus called and they followed. No mention of a Risk Assessment or Job Description: these men had no idea what they were getting into. So, why do you think they went? It was not like Covid. They had a choice what they would do. What was so compelling about Jesus?

Mark says that Jesus was preaching Good News and they needed some Good News (don’t we all?) This news was not just about God but from God. It was God getting involved in people’s lives.

“The kingdom of God is near,” says Jesus. And the kingdom of God is not some far off place in heaven where you go after you die. It can be a living reality right here, right now.
“Repent,” he says, “turn your lives around to face God and you will see Him coming to you. Prepare the way of the Lord”
For Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John the term “Good News” was only used in the context of the Roman Empire under which they lived. “Good News to all” meant it was the emperor’s birthday or his accession to the throne or his victory in battle. Receiving this “good news” meant you were simply confirming the emperor’s supreme power. The men we just heard about would have done so with gritted teeth because the Emperor was not good news to them. They felt oppressed, downtrodden and counted as nothing.

Jesus was offering an alternative culture. He did not-as we know- try to lead a rebellion against Rome. But he did teach that Rome was not the supreme power in the world nor the supreme judge of their lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” is not about an emperor or any political ruler but about God.
Lives are transformed when you live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven 24/7. It is not just about church. It is about encountering God in the office or the marketplace or the home. It is about meeting God even when you are scared, under attack or in deep pain. It is about receiving God’s power which proves stronger even than that of the secret police or the armed guards. It is about finding your true worth in God and not in the assessments of your culture. And Jesus was not just talking about all this. He was making it happen because he was the Son of God; God himself living among them. Those men needed some of this and followed this Jesus into the Unknown.

Could we do the same? Or are we seriously doubting that there is anyone “out there” to follow? Our title “Into the Unknown” is also the title of a song from the film, Frozen 2. And the singer admits that she is afraid of leaving the security of where she is, even though where she is, is not where she wants to be. “I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you.” Faith is a big challenge.

Every September, when I was starting back at school, I yearned for one of those large pencil cases in which everything was set out in perfect order: coloured pencils, mathematical instruments, plain pencils, rubber, sharpener, ruler, fountain pen. I could never afford one and I am not sure it would have been much use, given that I was totally devoid of artistic skill so the coloured pencils would hardly have been used. Nor was I over gifted in mathematics, so some of the instruments would have remained a mystery and being left-handed, writing in ink tended to leave a trail of smudges. I guess what I wanted was a sense of control- perfectly ordered pencil case equals perfectly ordered life. And it would not have worked, would it? As a teenager, with your body changing so fast, you are in a perpetual state of physical, mental and emotional chaos. My school days were also complicated by the introduction of Comprehensive Education making my school unrecognisable. Structural things, such as pencil cases, have a use but they cannot give you real security.

And I guess that is the same, now. Covid has just highlighted the fact that the systems and structures of life are never 100% safe or secure.
Even before Covid, life could be thrown into unknown territory by illness, relationship break up, financial collapse, all manner of unexpected challenges at home or at work. And I think we would say that what we really need is first a source of inner strength to face and to deal with The Unknown. And second a guide and support as we journey through it.

This is where the Christian faith offers us not just theories and strategies but a personal God- a source of love, strength and guidance. Jesus did not offer his first disciples a Job Description because it was not a “job” he was offering them but a relationship. It was about following him, letting him into their lives 24/7, finding God in him, finding themselves in him.

Jesus did not offer his disciples a Risk Assessment because Faith is all about taking risks. Remember- the opposite of “faith” is not doubt. The opposite of faith is “certainty.” Relationships are always based on faith, not certainty. In relationships we gradually come to know each other. In relationships, we trust only in our love to hold us through bad times. We cannot know right here, right now everything there is to know about God. We can only trust in the God revealed in Jesus to know everything there is to know about us. We can only trust him to be there for us and not “out there” but “right here.” One of the most famous promises Jesus made to his disciples was “I shall never leave you. Even when you cannot see me, I shall still be there- until the end of the world.”

And that, for them, was enough. The Roman Empire (and it was not all bad) would rise and fall. Their culture would change because cultures and social structures always do. Good times and bad would lie ahead, because that is life. But the one person they could trust was Jesus because he was God, and they could believe his promise always to be there for them. He held back from declaring himself publicly the “Messiah” or “Saviour” of the world because he knew that every single person would need to find this out for themselves, through their own relationship with him. And when you look at the cross and at the unbelievable power in a love that would willingly suffer and die in the cause of reconciling us to God, you start to understand what “Jesus is my Saviour” could mean to you as you reach out for a hand to hold Into the Unknown.

Talking of Making Maps, then, maybe it is not such a crazy idea. It all depends on what kind of map. Writing many years later, when he had become the leader of a large and fast-spreading Christian church, Peter, whose life remained outwardly unpredictable, wrote the second of two letters to the churches and set out a map which worked for him as he went Into The Unknown: The loving power of Jesus, he says, has given us all we need to be children of God and to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. So, as you go on your journey, start with faith and then add to faith goodness- knowledge-self-control-perseverance-godliness-kindness-love.

Jesus says to each one us “come, follow me.” Take a moment to think about your response to his invitation and to the map YOU might wish to create as we go Into the Unknown.