These words, in most cases, would be words of caution and warning. Yesterday, these words were words of celebration for the thousands gathered in Vatican City, awaiting the announcement of who the next pope would be. Ever since the white smoke appeared and the cardinals announces Pope Francis I, the question that has been on so many lips has been, “So what can we expect from this new pope?”
Mark’s gospel begins with an announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). You can consider this the “white smoke” moment of the gospels. But there is a question that would chase Jesus throughout his ministry, the same question that is now pursuing Pope Francis I: what can we expect?
Through word and deed, Jesus would answer this question. We can expect God’s promises to be fulfilled. We can expect sins to be forgiven. We can expect Satan to be vanquished. We can expect an end to sickness. We can expect the dead to rise.
But we can also expect the unexpected. Those who shout to the rooftops proclaiming how righteous they are may find themselves face to face with a Lord who is wondering who they are. Those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first. There will be crosses to take up, possessions to give up. And what was that about “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life …”?
Perhaps the saddest words I read this week were in John 6:66: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” I imagine these folks were all excited to see the smoke, to hear that the time had come, but found themselves disappointed when the kingdom of God as revealed in Christ did not meet their expectations. So many times, our spiritual journeys become sidetracked by disillusionment and discouragement when it seems that Christianity is less than what we hoped. Jesus even told a parable about this reality (Mark 4:3-9).
If this is where you are in your journey, I want to invite you to consider this: when so many turned and left Jesus, He looked at His disciples and asked, “Do you want to go away too?” I love Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).
There will be unexpected tests and struggles as part of our Christian journey. But there will always be unexpected blessings. The prodigal son is welcomed home. The Samaritan is the hero of the story. The one lost sheep is not left behind. And even when the unexpected is unpleasant, our hope remains assured: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Our faith is not a product of smoke and mirrors. It is our response to the Messiah who has come calling for His children to turn to Him. It is because of Him, because of His resurrection, that we expect eternal life. And so we follow on, joining Him in sharing with the world this good news: “The time has come, and the kingdom of God has come near.”