January 24, 2021 The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

     From the Book of Jonah, “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    Well, what a fascinating week this has been – a week filled with proclamations both past and present.  On Monday, we commemorated the life and witness of slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in challenging us to choose – actively choose – to rid ourselves of, and repent for, the sin of racism, proclaimed his vision of an America where a person is judged based upon, and I quote, “the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”

    On Tuesday evening, then President-elect Biden proclaimed a time of prayer and remembrance on behalf of the 400,000 people who have perished in the Covid-19 pandemic reminding our nation that, “in order to heal, we must remember” and remember together, remember in and as, a community.

    Wednesday, we witnessed the inauguration of Kamala Harris, our first African-American, Asian-American, and female Vice President, as well as the inauguration of Joe Biden, our 46th President. Both of these newly sworn in leaders proclaimed their desire for our nation to be healed from not only physical sickness, but political divisions as well, and, thereby, reclaim a sense of community where everyone is committed to working together for the greater health, welfare, and good of all.

Indeed, it has been a week of proclamations and for good reason: proclamations always grab our attention. When meditating on our scripture lessons for this Third Sunday after the Epiphany, I was struck by how clearly each lesson is a proclamation not just for the people who heard it at the time, but for us still today.

    One of the many things that I like about the Old Testament is that, while it is clear God intended for Israel to be a model and light to world about how to live in a right relationship with God and neighbor, there is an overriding message that God will save whom God chooses to save: That salvation is not dependent upon birthrights or national origin, but rather, a gift of God’s grace for those who will believe God.

    That truth is at the heart of the Book of Jonah. Sometime ago, I learned from a Rabbi colleague that the entire Book of Jonah is read aloud from start to finish on every observance of the Day of Atonement – the Yom Kippur – perhaps the holiest day in Judaism’s Calendar year. It is proclaimed because, while this story appears to be just another affirmation of the transformative power of God’s grace that unfolds when God’s people repent – and that is a good message - it is far deeper and more timely than that.

See, this story is not about saving God’s people, it is not about saving Israel at all, but rather, it is about saving the citizens of Nineveh, the incredibly corrupt capital of Assyria – Israel’s archenemy. Knowing this about Nineveh, perhaps we can understand a little better why Jonah was so reluctant to go there. After all, shouldn’t God be focused on God’s chosen people: God’s faithful people? Why should God care about the welfare of Gentiles? And that’s the point of proclaiming the story of Jonah on the most solemn day of the Jewish Year. It reminds Jews, just as it should remind us, God’s grace is available to all who will believe God - everyone – even our enemies. Jonah concludes saying, “the people of Nineveh” believed who? “believed God … and God changed his mind about (judgment) and did not do it.” God’s grace is for all.

    Some have suggested that the entire 7th Chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is anti-marriage. That could not be farther from the truth. Paul was very supportive of marriage and taught that fidelity, being faithful in marriage, is a way to demonstrate to others our faithfulness to God. Remember: Paul repeatedly urged the Corinthian Church to understand that God has not saved us from something, but rather, that by God’s grace, we have been savedto a new way of life that furthers Christ’s reconciling light and presence in this world. Paul was convinced that Christ would return at any moment and, so with a sense of urgency, begged his readers to let nothing distract them from living into their calling. So, he says if you’re single: stay single. If you’re married: stay married. Whatever your station, remember you have been called to a new life that demonstrates and embraces God’s values, God’s commandments. Paul says that is what we need to be focused on. Now, he was wrong about Christ’s return, and, yet, it didn’t dissuade him from believing God or choosing to live faithfully.

     Today’s Gospel lesson is often subtitled, “the calling of the disciples.” But the truth is it was quite some time before these men actually became “disciples.” Disciples don’t simply listen to a particular teacher, but rather, disciples seek after him and learn to embrace his teaching so deeply that they become just like him.  While Mark is clear that these men are attracted to Jesus as a teacher or Rabbi, our familiarity with this story can cause us to miss a very important point of Jewish teaching. In calling these fishermen, Jesus reversed tradition. See, in Judaism, the onus was always on the student to seek their rabbi, their teacher, and yet here, we find the reverse: the rabbi seeks them just as God sought out and called the prophets of old. And Jesus, using the image of fishing for people, proclaims that his followers are saved to something: that we have a purpose and role in society that goes beyond mere learning; it is a call to action; an action that comes not simply from within us, but rather, from God’s own self who says, “I will make you fishers of people.”

    And all of this, Mark tells us, occurred after John the Baptizer was arrested. In other words, as John’s ministry ends, Jesus’ ministry begins. Remember: for every ending there is always a new beginning. It was true then and is still true for us today. For in Jesus’ proclaiming the good news of God and the coming of God’s kingdom, we, are invited to embrace a new beginning: a new life, a redeemed life that begins in us when we, too, believe God.

    And that leads me to ask this question, “what does it mean to believe God?” Not to believe in God, but rather, believe God? When God promises to judge us, to always be present to us, to hear us, to watch us, to engage with us, to chide us, to save and redeem us, do we believe God? And if so, does believing God change how we think, how we act, and how we live?

   You see, there is an even deeper message for us in today’s scripture lessons and it has to do with what happens after we believe God, after we seek diligently for Christ, after we hear and respond to his voice. It is about how we follow him. For it is through how we choose to live, through our demonstrated faithfulness to all that God in Christ has taught us, we proclaim the good news of God and invite others to believe God.

    History tells us that following Jonah’s journey and proclamation to the people of Nineveh, that after they believed God and were spared God’s judgement, Nineveh was completely transformed. Her people changed how they lived. They began to look out for their neighbors and seek the greater welfare of all. At one time a corrupt, selfish, and greedy city, Nineveh became a center for learning and sharing the cultural arts. It became a city where every resident was valued, where everyone had access to fresh water, and all were cared for.

    See, too many Christians tend to think of God’s intervention in this world and our response to God, our believing God, as an ending. But God’s action and our choosing to believe God is always a beginning. Remember: Faith is never static. Faith, believing, always leads to action. Like the people of Nineveh, believing God should change our lives not just once, but every day.

    So, what is it that our scripture lessons are proclaiming to us this morning? Well they invite us to consider what it means to believe God, what difference believing God makes in our daily lives, and how we might choose to live differently. I will leave the answer for you to discover. But, beloved, know this …

    The story of Jonah concludes, “And the people of Nineveh believed God” and that believing changed their lives, their city, their world. Our lessons invite us to realize that our choosing to believe God can change us, this parish, our community, and nation. And in so choosing, it could be said of us, “And the people of Holy Cross believed God” and that believing changed not just their lives but the lives of everyone. God grant us the grace and the humility to think on these things. Amen.