Homily for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Nike will soon release its long-promised MAGs – sneakers capable of lighting-up and self-tightening, inspired by those worn by Marty McFly in the dystopian sci-fi film Back to the Future II. The trilogy of films explored in a comic way the mess we would make if ever we had power over time. Our MAGs-footed hero Marty (played by Michael J. Fox) tries to repair the damage done to history by his previous time-travel adventures, but in the process allows his nemesis, Biff (played by Thomas Wilson – not our choir master), to go back in time and give his younger self the results in advance of all sports matches and so build a dark empire on the proceeds! Marty goes forward in time rather than back, hoping to prevent his future children getting into trouble.
In 1989 when the film was made the distant future in which Marty’s adventure was to take place was… 2015. It’s interesting what people back then thought life would be like now. ‘Hoverboards’ were expected to replace skateboards and skyways our highways so our traffic jams would be air-traffic jams for our flying cars. The real 2015 doesn’t fulfil these transport prophecies, but the film got some of it right. It imagined that by 2015 there’d be cameras all around the city, flat TVs mounted to the wall, and video or skype calls.
The makers of Back to the Future took expert advice on what 2015 would look like. Professional prognosticators and strategists are paid by governments and corporations to survey technological, social and economic trends and map the future so they can keep ahead of the game. These forecasters don’t seem on average much more accurate than those in the past who used crystal balls, star gazing or tarot cards, but predicting the future certainly titillates our interest.
Despite our willingness to use the best available information for planning, Christians have always been sceptical about predicting future human behaviour in detail. Human beings, we insist, have free will: predictable as they often are, they are free to do the most unexpected things. What’s more, by His wise providence only God steers history and He, too, is free to surprise us. Our Scriptures warn against soothsayers, mediums and necromancers (Dt 18:9-14; Ex 22:18; Gal 5:19-21): at best they are naïve imagining they can read or control destiny, more often they are charlatans trying to defraud the gullible, and worst of all they are dabblers in dark arts with diabolical assistance. Believers do not try to read or control the future in these ways; and Back to the Future II suggests that more technological methods of predicting and changing the future could be equally unpromising, and equally dangerous.
Not that this excuses complacency about time and the future. However many years or minutes we are given, they are a tremendous gift, entrusted to us by the Lord of time to use wisely. Our time is not unlimited. In our first reading today the Prophet Jonah warns the people of Nineveh of the self-destructive effects of their behaviour and calls them to immediate repentance (Jon 3:1-5,10). In our epistle the Apostle Paul sounds a similar note of urgency: “The time is growing short… Don’t be engrossed in the things of this world. For the world as we know it is passing away”; salvation is near at hand (1Cor 7:29-31; Rom 13:11-13). And in our Gospel the Lord Jesus’ first public words are equally exigent: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” (Mk 1:14-20) “Now,” He says to Peter and Andrew, “drop everything; leave your boats behind and follow me… You too, James and John, leave those nets at once and join us fishers of men.” Consumed as we are by the minutiae of daily life, the prophet must break in, here and now, and draw our attention to the bigger picture of God, the world and ourselves, and what is ahead for us.
What is this kingdom so close and important that Jonah, Paul and Jesus think we’d best drop everything and turn our lives around? The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth once confessed that he’d long thought Jesus came to preach some faraway place or state of being called “God’s kingdom”. Only late in his life did he realize that Jesus preached, right from the start, not a what or a where so much as a whom. “Follow Me,” is what Jesus said. As the second-century Egyptian theologian Origen pointed out, Jesus is autobasileia, Himself the kingdom. And that means God’s kingdom can come very close indeed, in the Word and Sacraments we receive into our very being, in the other graces we receive such as life and time. For the one who transcends time enters it Himself, that He might reconcile all men to Himself (Col 1:20). And so the Kingdom of God is right here with us, on the shores of Sydney harbour, in 2015 – every bit as much as it was with Peter and the lads, on the shores of Lake Galilee, in 30 AD. In returning to Him through Scripture and the Eucharist and then coming back to the future, we too are remade as fishers of men.
Now, this is good news, the best news ever heard: that everyone from ancient fishermen to modern technocrats, from the high and mighty to the poor and persecuted, the just and generous, the humble and faithful, all can be citizens of God’s Kingdom. But that Kingdom only comes to those who are open, receptive, welcoming: only to those who freely receive the King and repent of all obstacles to His mission. People must hear and must choose: in the history of salvation there is none of the inevitability of the time machine stories.
To receive the King and His Kingdom is to be ready and willing to change. For Jonah’s Ninevites sackcloth and ashes signalled a whole new way of life. For Paul’s Corinthians, focusing less on present concerns and more on eternal ones. For those who first heard Jesus it meant redirection also: from shame to repentance; from bad news to Good; from fish-fishers to fishers of men. Recently Opera Australia and Musica Viva have been offering subscribers a chance to bring a younger person along for half-price or even free. Their hope is doubtless that that first taste of their music might occasion new subscribers for the future. In calling us to be fishers of men, Christ is charging you and me with netting a new generation of subscribers, fish, disciples. So let me challenge each one here today: when did you last ask a non-Catholic or a nom-Catholic (nominal Catholic) to join you for Mass, to “come and see where the Lord lives” as Andrew said to Simon?
Christians are not time-lords: they can’t change the past or control the future. But they can repent so that their past no longer defines them and by God’s grace they can build a better future. There is a seriousness, then, a real urgency, about our evangelical mission to draw others to Christ and draw more closely to Him ourselves. By investing each moment with the full weight of eternity God’s kingdom comes, now on earth as it is in heaven.