Only a few weeks ago we were in Advent, and we heard the message:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.
So we prepared ourselves for the coming of Christ and celebrated it at Christmas.
But now, suddenly, we find ourselves listening to the same message all over again. Look at today's Gospel:
The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news'
Look at the other two readings as well: Jonah preaching God's judgement on the Ninevites unless they repent, and St Paul reminding us urgently that 'our time is growing short' and we must change our way of living.
Didn't we have enough of this in Advent? Hopefully, we responded to it then, repented and welcomed the Christ child. And we know that before long Lent will be upon us with its own round of penitence and self-denial. Do we really need this message thrust down our throats yet again, when the glow of Christmas is still with us?
After all, there is a good case for saying that Christmastide does not end until the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, on 2 February, which is still a week ahead. Surely we could be left to finish the Christmas season in cheerfulness!
Well, perhaps. We do need variety. As the saying goes:
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'
-- and (we should add in these PC days) 'Jill a dull girl'. Work and play do need to go together.
But sometimes our preference for the one without the other inclines us to forget this. The language of advertising tempts us: 'luxury' apartments; 'gourmet' meals; 'win millions' on the Lottery.
But the 'special' ceases to satisfy when it becomes the 'everyday'. The alternation of feast and fast is a pattern that humans have followed for millenia, not simply out of necessity but from the experience that it gives a wholeness to life.
So too God's presence in human life has this twofold character, bringing joy and sorrow, clarity and blindness, love and fear, gentleness and rigour, comfort and terror. The familiar Christmas narratives in the Gospels please us with the tenderness of motherhood and a newborn child, with the joy of hope fulfilled and with the firm promise of peace on earth.
But there is also the contrary element: bewilderment and uncertainty for Mary and Joseph, myrrh foreshadowing death, the foretelling of the sword that will pierce the heart, the rage of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, and the Holy Family escaping for their lives to become displaced persons in a foreign land.
It is the same at the other end of the Gospel story. In St Mark the women who first heard of the triumph of the resurrection
fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
But how different it is in the other Gospels. In St John, the death of Jesus is his glorification; the one who is lifted up draws all to himself. The death and resurrection are one event in which God is glorified by bringing his life to a fallen world. The last words of Jesus in St Matthew are:
Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
So it is here, in today's Gospel reading. Jesus declares the Good News that the kingdom of God is close at hand; but to enter that kingdom we must repent and believe. Then he immediately calls together the core group of disciples, and at once commissions them to go out and become fishers of men. He gathers us together with Good News, and he sends us out with a task.
At every point in Christian life, therefore, we can expect this dual experience of God's touch. The call to repentance is constant, not just at Advent and Lent; but so is his consoling presence --
always, to the end of the world.
He draws us into a community, the Church, whose very existence is mission, movement, to go out and preach the Good News. He calls us to share in his enterprise which is one of total security ('God is faithful'), and at the same time one of unpredictable adventure.
It will certainly keep us on our toes -- and on our knees.