Sunday, January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after Epiphany /
Lectionary 3, Year B*

(For the sake of a desired continuing narrative from last week, we have exchanged the readings assigned for Jan. 24 with those normally assigned for today.  We will take on this week’s assigned readings – Lectionary 2B, next week.)

Prayer of the Day

Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image and by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.  Help us, like your servant Martin, to work for justice among people and nations, to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Repentance at Nineveh
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Living in the end times
Mark 1:14-20 The calling of the disciples at the sea

Sermon

Title:  Judging Jonah, Daring Disciples

Last week it was the gospel writer Mark who was holding the big flashing GOOD NEWS sign, drawing our attention of the good news that is ours in the gift of baptism. That good news breaking through the oppressing news back in Jesus day.  Breaking through the unsettling news that is filling media outlets these days, and every day really.  And since the news that the world has been and is offering doesn’t seem to be getting much better, we can be relieved and encouraged that there is more good news to be heard. 

But this week, it is Jesus himself who is the sign carrier. And he has his own bit of troubling news which he is breaking through with that good news sign.  We hear it first thing.  John, the one called the baptizer, has been arrested. Jesus, who hasn’t said a word, knows all too well that the news he is bringing, as good, as great, as it might be, is not welcomed in the halls of power of this broken world.  There is a clear and present danger to his message, his mission and his ministry of revealing God’s reign of love and mercy to the hurting world.

And yet, in spite of what is happening to his cousin John, and John’s impending execution, Jesus comes out of the wilderness temptations saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It is the natural progression from Mark’s proclamation that opened his gospel and that we heard last Sunday. As we celebrated last week, in baptism, through the water and the Spirit, we hear the good news that God has claimed us, we are joined to Jesus and in him we rise to new life, and now the Spirit is at work in and through us.  That was last week’s Good News.  And now Jesus is saying “Believe it.” Calling us to believe it.  Not just believe that it is real, but trust it, have faith in it, build your life on it. Calls us to so embrace this good news and our new selves that it turns us around, gives us a new prospective, a new reality.  The new reality in Jesus’ proclamation is called the kingdom of God, and the new perspective is gained when we repent.  Not repent as in confess a wrong, but repent as in turn around, re-focus, re-orient, change the way we see things.  So that we see everything through this new reality of the reign of God that has come near to the world in the person of Jesus.  Come so near that we can touch it, we can be touched by it, healed by it, encouraged by it, be filled by it, even taste it.  Using the fishing images that Jesus spoke to those first disciples – get caught up in the net of God’s merciful, life-giving reign.

And as we see with Peter and Andrew, James and John, the power of this re-orienting good news can, and does, change everything.  These rough-handed folks who knew catching fish up in nets, were now being called to catch people up in the net of God’s welcoming love.  Called not because of their theological training or insights, not because of their people-skills or wisdom, not because of their eloquence or marketing strategies.  Why did Jesus go to these fisherfolk first when recruiting disciples to help him carry the good news sign to the world?  Was it just so that he could use that wonderful turn of phrase about catching people rather than fish? What was it about them?

Why not recruit at the local college or university?  You know students always trying to impress their teachers with displays of knowledge and arguing with contradicting philosophies.

Why not call the financial gifted?  The boards of foundations certainly know the value of having rich people sit on them.  Maybe Jesus knew there would be too much for them to walk away from.

Why not engage with the powerful? Afterall, he’s come to change the world.  Build up God’s kingdom.  Imagine them hearing all his talk about being a servant, putting the other first.  No way will they surrender what they have worked so hard to amass.  Plus, they always want it their way.

So why these guys?  Perhaps because they more than most lived by blind trust – for they had to contend with the changing weather and waters in nothing more than their vulnerable little boats.  They lived with the mystery of where is the best place to fish today.  When their nets came up empty giving up was not a choice.  Persistence was required, a way of life. As was risk taking.

Jonah certainly was not the best candidate God ever recruited for bringing news to people of the world.  We get very little of his story in our short first reading this morning.  Some of you know it well.  God tells Jonah to go and offer a simple message to the people of Nineveh – a mighty, dominating city that Jonah and his people would have been happy to see suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and be erased from the face of the earth. The message is that in 40 days God will destroy the city.  But Jonah choses a vacation in Spain instead, and sails on a ship headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh that gets caught in a storm.  The sailors figure out that he’s the one responsible for their plight, so they throw him overboard.  Jonah gets swallowed by a fish who spits him up on the shore back where he started and God says, “Let’s try this again.”  Wisely, Jonah obeys this time.  And he proves the most effective preacher in history.  He proclaims God’s judgement, and the city believes and changes.  The king declares a city wide fast, and so God pardons them.  Everybody is happy, right?  Not Jonah.  The grumpy prophet says to God, that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and steadfast love is exactly why he didn’t want to come there in the first place. “Just kill me now,” he says to God.

Typically, we hear that Jonah was just too frightened to go to Nineveh.  Out of fear he refused to answer God’s call.  Afterall he was bringing some troubling news into a place that was dangerous for him.  However, seeing Jonah’s reaction to the full embrace of his message by the city, and then God’s salvific response in saving it, and then Jonah’s resulting accusation that he knew God would forgive them anyway; perhaps he didn’t want to bring God’s message into enemy territory because he didn’t want them to have a fighting chance at salvation?  Jonah had judged these people and judged them unworthy of not merely of a prophet’s attention, but of God’s. 

How often do we who are called to be disciples of Christ make that kind of decision?  How often do we decide who is worthy of being served of hearing this good news that we ourselves have heard, been resurrected by, been empowered and enriched by? 

Today we commemorate and give thanks for a modern-day prophet who, thank God, was no Jonah. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not refuse his call to bring a message of judgement to our sinful land from God.  He did not choose a quiet life, a safe life.  At great risk to himself and to those he loved, he trusted in God, and he spoke to a nation in great need of hearing his message. Now many will remember rightly, and be thankful appropriately, that Dr. King answered God’s call resulting in advances made in civil rights that bettered their own lives and the lives of those who would come after them.  Although we certainly see today that the work is in no way completed.

But as one who was born in the privileged class in this racially defined society, like the people of Nineveh, I give thanks that Dr. King looked on his oppressors with a compassion and love that Jonah did not know.  Without recoiling and withholding, Dr. King delivered a message that white America needed to face, and was blessed to hear, as hard as its judgement was and still is.  With profound love, King invited us to be freed from the very fear and domination that was keeping us from truly hearing and living the good news that Jesus is bringing.  Our racism and elitism kept, and keeps, us from seeing the kingdom of God that has come near.  It causes us to ignore God’s justice that builds the beloved community that Jesus introduced and invited us to join.  The iciness of our hearts rob us of knowing the other as friend and sibling and thus benefiting from the rich treasures of diversity.  At great risk that would prove deadly, fearlessly and with love Dr. King walked into enemy territory.  As prophet, he proclaimed God’s judgement.  As disciple of Christ, he spoke good news to all.

It is a challenging time to be a good news sign carrier, to be a disciple, to bring God’s kingdom near. Given the choice, most of us would choose the vacation in Spain, if we could travel.  But as our nation begins a new chapter this Wednesday, perhaps we can hear a renewed call to be disciples of Jesus at a time when so many need to hear the good news of mercy and grace – especially those who we regard as enemies, threats to our nation, and would just assume turn our backs on though they be our neighbors.  Again, hear our call to do the hard work of healing (in ourselves and in our nation), knowing that our nets might come up empty, but that only means we have to try again.

For initially and ultimately, we are listening to Jesus’ voice:  The good news of God’s kingdom has come near.  So let’s follow him into it.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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