The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
21 January, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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Except for the psalm today, one of the things the readings have in common is a strong sense of urgency. Jonah is sent to Nineveh to call the people there to repent of their evil ways under threat of imminent destruction. Paul urges the Christians in Corinth to get their house in order because the Lord may return any day now. And as John the Baptist falls silent, Jesus takes up his mission of calling people to “repent and believe in the gospel,” because “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Yet the psalm seems to convey a quite different message: “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.” That inner stillness and peace is a stark contrast against the chaos of the world, and the urgency of the message from God that’s common to the three lessons. But for the messenger, the one God sends to proclaim his Good News, the silence that the psalmist talks about is pretty essential.
Jonah was the most reluctant of the Old Testament prophets, and is unique among them all in that he was the only one God sent to Gentiles, non-Jews. Most of you know the story of Jonah and the whale. God sent him to call the Ninevites to repentance. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire in those days, and is now a suburb of Mosul in Iraq. Jonah’s tomb was there, and was venerated by both Christians and Muslims, until ISIS destroyed it four years ago. But Jonah refused to do God’s bidding because the Assyrians were Gentiles who didn’t worship the God of Israel. He put his intense nationalism ahead of God’s will. By that time, God’s people had become rather smug in the knowledge that they had been chosen by God above all other nations to be his special people. But they had lost sight of why he chose them in the first place, which was to be the channel through which he would bless the whole world, and ultimately redeem it through the ministry of Jesus. By Jonah’s time that fact had become an inconvenient truth which God’s people continued to ignore, by and large, right up until the coming of Jesus. It was the same kind of nationalism that pops up in different countries every so often, including this one, as well as my home and native land.
So Jonah ran away. Instead of heading east, over land toward Nineveh, he boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction. That’s when he learned the first lesson he needed to know about God. Popular opinion in those days was that the gods of a particular nation were either powerless outside their own lands or just couldn’t care less. So maybe fleeing the country seemed to Jonah like it would be the solution to his dilemma. But– surprise, surprise– Israel’s God is the God of all creation, and there’s no running away from him. Some three centuries before Jonah, King David sang, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?… If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Ps 139:7,9-10). And nearly 3,000 years later Martha and the Vandellas sang that there’s “Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.”
Even though God’s people had known this long before Jonah, he thought he’d give it a shot just the same. So God stirred up a storm. And at Jonah’s own behest, the crew threw him overboard in order to get his God to calm the storm, which God immediately did, and also caused Jonah to be swallowed by “a great fish” (= Hebrew). Then after three days and nights of penitent prayer in the belly of the fish– don’t ask me about the science around that, I don’t have a clue– the fish spat Jonah out on dry land pointed in the direction of Nineveh.
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” He went this time, and as we read today, he preached the Word of the Lord to them, giving them forty days to repent, which they did, from the greatest to the least. Today’s reading skips over the next few verses for the sake of brevity. What it says there is that the king of Assyria also repented and ordered a city-wide fast. And the reading ends with God repenting and being merciful to Nineveh. The text we read says God ‘relented,’ not ‘repented.’ Most modern translations do that because otherwise it confuses some people who think that repentance is strictly about turning from sin. But in Hebrew it says God ‘repented.’ Repent simply means to turn around, to change your mind. When you’re going down the road and suddenly realize you forgot something at home, you repent, you turn around and go get it. The Ninevites changed their mind, they turned away from their sin; and in response God changed his mind about destroying them.
Then came the second lesson Jonah needed to learn about God, which is that Israel’s favored-nation status was not all about them at all. It was all about God using them to bring all nations into his kingdom. It was about redeeming the whole creation. Jonah was pretty upset with God because the Ninevites repented– he didn’t want them to, because they weren’t his people, or God’s. That’s his nationalism coming out again. But essentially God said, “you just need to get over that.” Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was designed by God to point forward to the mission of Jesus, including the three days and nights in the belly of the fish that foreshadowed Jesus’ three days and nights in the grave, from his dying to his rising.
Now, at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is setting out to preach the same message as Jonah– repent and believe in the good news from God, the Gospel. The urgency of Jonah’s preaching was because Nineveh had only forty days to repent, or face the wrath of God. The urgency of Jesus’ preaching was because, as he said, “the kingdom of God has come near.” In fact, at that time, Jesus was the kingdom of God. It’s embodied in his own person, so that by being born as one of us, he has introduced it into the world that has been in rebellion against it since the first sin of our first ancestors. By his incarnation, the eternal Word of God established a beachhead from which to launch his mission of advancing the kingdom of God until it finally conquers the whole fallen world and redeems it, making it fully part of his eternal kingdom. It’s not there yet because it’s still filled with sin and death. But Jesus has set about to change that through a campaign of evangelization, of proclaiming the Good News of God, conquering the hearts of God’s creatures and recreating them as his children, one by one, little by little until, as the prophet Habakkuk said, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
The inaugural step of Jesus’ ministry was to be baptized, which signalled the end of John the Baptist’s ministry. From there Jesus set out to preach the Good News and the need to repent as the necessary first response to it. At the same time, he started recruiting disciples, the core group that would become the leaders of the movement after him. He hit the ground running because of the urgency of the message, which lies in the fact that each of us is only here for a limited time, and the Church’s job is to reach out to every person on earth with the Good News about Jesus.
The urgency conveyed by Paul in today’s second lesson comes from the fact that he, along with the other apostles and a lot of others in the new Church, believed that the second coming was going to happen any day. That’s why he was working so hard to straighten out the messes, and clear up the bad teaching, in the churches of Corinth and Galatia. By the time he began writing the letters that make up so much of the New Testament, official persecution of Christians was becoming a pretty big thing. And the apostles, among others, worried that their movement could be completely wiped out at any time. But they also trusted in the promises of Jesus enough to be confident that he would return before that could happen. So weighing those two things– the increasing persecution and their firm hope in Christ– they concluded that he must be coming pretty soon.
But they didn’t teach that as core church doctrine. Jesus did promise to return in the fullness of time, and that is a core doctrine of the Church, as we say in the Creed every week: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (BCP 359). But as for when that will happen, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Emphasizing the end time above other things is not a Gospel imperative, although you can make a lot of money doing it. So when Paul says, “the appointed time has grown very short,” he’s only expressing his own considered opinion and the general feeling of his colleagues in light of what was happening all around them. He says as much several verses before what we read today: “I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1Cor 7:25).
Today’s little reading is part of a larger discussion about marriage and whether people should stay single or get married for the sake of the kingdom of God. Next he says, “I think that, in view of the present crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are” (7:26). That crisis is the increasing persecution of Christians which would eventually lead to Paul’s own death and the deaths of all the other apostles except for John, and of countless more believers before it ended about 250 years later. What Paul is saying here is that, in light of the ordeal that the Church has found herself in, which is only going to get worse, her members should remain as they are, whether single or married. Because to make such a major change in one’s personal life at such a turbulent time could make the situation far worse both for individuals and for whole congregations. And it could weaken their resolve to keep the faith no matter what.
Paul and his church in Corinth were part of the kingdom of God that Jesus initially proclaimed after his baptism. They were incorporated into it as each of them was baptized, and so are we. And from the beginning, the Church has been caught in the middle of the struggle between that kingdom and what St Paul calls “the dominion of darkness.” Through baptism, Paul teaches, Christ Jesus “has delivered us from the dominion [kingdom, power = έξουσίας] of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). It’s the dominion of Satan, of sin, disease and death that Jesus came to overthrow in order to take back what belongs eternally to him. That’s why, in the prayer that he taught us, the very first petition is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The fact that he taught the Church to pray that prayer means that it’s the primary prayer of the Church. And the way the petitions are arranged in that prayer teach us that what the Church is supposed to desire first and foremost is the advancement of his kingdom.
And when his people are solidly grounded in him, when we’re filled with the conviction that he is the King and Lord of all creation, when his desire becomes our desire, when we can pray with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him,” then we’re ready to proclaim, not that the kingdom of God has come near, but that it’s already here, and is advancing, and will one day cover the whole earth, “as the waters cover the sea.” And because he wants to welcome every person into his kingdom, then inviting every person to come and check it out must be our urgent priority. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+