Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 24, 2021)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Today’s readings need to be understood, as all preaching should be understood, in the interplay of God’s eternal wisdom and the challenges of history. While our lives reach beyond the present moment, including the inauguration and the first days of a new administration in the United States, we cannot preach God’s good news apart from historical consciousness. God is more than the USA, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Black Lives Matter, and Christian and white nationalists, but God’s creative word gives light to our lives “in the days of the inauguration of Joseph Robinette Biden.”
With the change of administrations, the perfect storm of riotous Trumpism, and impeachment give witness to the affirmation, “All things flow.” The historical process moves onward and, as Heraclitus of Ephesus once noted, you can’t step in the same waters twice. In fact, they are new waters even as you dip your toes in for the first time. The author of Lamentations had a similar image in mind, when he proclaimed that God’s mercies are new every morning. Today’s lectionary readings invite us to embrace change, whether it involves our vision of God, personal plans, or our way of life or congregational aspirations. In fact, God may be the ultimate engine of change and creative transformation. Yet, God’s vision takes us far beyond the “breaking news” of the moment to experience our lives and politics in light of God’s transcendent and everlasting vision, manifest in the “thin places” of our lives.
It’s difficult to preach about the Book of Jonah without retelling the legend in its entirety. Jonah has earned the title, “reluctant prophet,” but often for the wrong reasons. Jonah flees the call to preach to the archenemy Nineveh, but his flight is not so much the result of disobedience, as his inability to trust in God’s vision when differs from the faith he was taught and still affirmed. In the faith Jonah affirmed, there was no place for divine mercy for Israel’s opponents. They deserved nothing but destruction. But now, God appears to have changed God’s mind. God is calling him preach to an immoral, unclean, and oppressive people, giving them one last chance to repent. And repent they do!
Even the animals of Nineveh hear Jonah’s message of gloom and doom. Perhaps, the king and the people believe that by beginning a spiritual fast and changing their ways, they will avert divine destruction.
Regardless of the Ninevites’ motives for repentance, God relents and spares the city. God recognizes our fallibility and even if the Ninevites are simply trying to escape destruction, that suffices in God’s eyes, in the same way that our repentance may have as much to do with avoiding pain, indignity, and illness as moral rectitude and spiritual growth. Rather than being consoled and elated by God’s mercy, Jonah is angry. Too quickly, he forgets that God spared his own life and gave him a second chance to follow God’s vision to minister to the benighted Ninevites. In his anger, however, Jonah is told that despite their iniquity, God loves the people of Nineveh. More than that God’s love extends to the people’s companion animals. The non-human world is also an object of divine care and a revelation of divine wisdom. After all, Jonah’s own life is saved by the wise and obedient behavior of a great fish.
Jonah is profoundly theological in its affirmation of God’s universal love. We may have enemies, but God doesn’t. There are consequences in turning from God’s vision, but God’s aim is always healing and salvation. God’s mercy extends far beyond Israel to all the peoples of the earth. (For more on Jonah, see Bruce Epperly, “Jonah: When God Changes,” Energion Publications.)
Jonah may have particular relevance in our current national and planetary saga. Our politics have been binary and divisive. Not just the Christian nationalists who storm the Capitol, threaten violence, and deny factuality while holding onto fantasy. They are easy to pick out as people who would stand with Jonah in hatred for their enemies. They would like to see Nineveh destroyed. But, we may also have our binary limitations. For us, Trumpites, Donald Trump and his family, the enablers, and the white supremacists may be our Nivevites. We may wish hell-fire and brimstone to fall on them. We may need to repent our own hard heartedness and we seek to glimmer something of God in the neighbor still wearing is MAGA hat or parading his flag on his car as if he is the only patriot in sight.
Psalm 65 counsels us to wait in silence for divine revelation. In silence, we are liberated from anxiety and panic and discover the nearness of the Saving God. God is our hope and refuge, but God’s presence is not always obvious and God’s movements in our lives and the world are often subtle. For those who wait and listen, the God of salvation will be revealed, bringing hope and consolation.
While the eschatology of I Corinthians 7 is foreign to most of us, we can relate to the realities of a dynamic and ever-changing world. Life passes swiftly and we must seize the moment, living by God’s values, and making the most of the time allotted to us. The perpetual perishing of each moment, even the best of times, to cite Alfred North Whitehead, invites us to put first things first and discern what is important and what is penultimate. In light of our short lifespan, we are to become people who are both heavenly minded and earthly good. Paul’s counsels regarding relationships are curious and personally and relationally unhealthy if taken literally; but perhaps within them is the wisdom of non-attachment. Look at the world with the beginner’s mind, notice novelty, see the passing nature of life as an opportunity for creative detachment. Marriage flourishes when we don’t place our partners in a box, objectify them, and freeze them in time. Marriage and other relationships grow best when we respond with openness, appreciation, and novelty, and recognize both their fragility and beauty.
The gospel of Mark briefly describes the beginning of Jesus’ good news message. He invites his followers and us today to embrace God’s realm and be willing to leave the familiar to sojourn in God’s coming realm. Like the passage from Corinthians, the Markan passage counsels letting go, and sitting loose even of positive pasts. The security of tradition can support our spiritual adventures and congregational growth, but it can also drain us of creativity and relevance. We must be willing to leave our personal and congregational comfort zones to embrace God’s new thing. Like Peter, Andrew, and the Zebedee boys, we find new freedom by embracing the good news of creative transformation and divine novelty. There are no guarantees of security or success for these pilgrims – and for us – but there is the joy of living in the wondrous and holy adventure of companionship with God. (For more on Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly, “Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B,” Parson’s Porch Books and Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel, Energion Publications)
There is good news. God’s love encompasses friend and foe alike. We can be strong in prophetic healing and challenge injustice. We can also see the divine in those with whom we struggle, going beyond the binary, seeking to live out God’s Beloved Community.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS: and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.