The Third Sunday after Epiphany, 24 January 2021

 The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2021

 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm 62:6-14

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

 

The Collect

 

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 


 


 

 

 

Background: Asceticism

 

In today’s Gospel reading, disciples called by Jesus “left everything and followed him”, and in the sermon we call Jonah, Nineveh, its leaders, and people, leave everything, proclaim a fast and believe God. Asceticism is not peculiar to just Judaism or Christianity. It is known amongst Buddhists, Jainists, Hindus, and in Islam as well. What is given up is widely varied as well, sex, certain foods, relationships, speech, even shelter itself. This ascetic attitude is especially helpful to the disciple – the Greek word that it descends from means either “training” or “exercise.” 

 

Dom Cuthbert Butler recognizes the importance of the denials that this “leaving everything” allows. He says, 

 

It was shown at some length that according to St Augustine’s mind the remote preparation for contemplation, and its indispensable condition, is a prolonged and serious exercise in self-discipline, self-control, self-denial, and the cultivation and practice of the virtues:—that is, Christian asceticism, when rightly understood as a course of training in the spiritual life.”[1]

 

This isn’t to say that we must all flee to the desert and position ourselves on the top of a pillar or deep into a cave. What it does indicate to us is an avenue to seeing, hearing, listening, appreciating, and approaching God. If we are indeed followers of Christ, what have we given up following him? Where is the wilderness that refreshes us? Perhaps Thomas Merton can help us understand the situation that we face. 

 

The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. Even our monasteries are not free from the smell and clatter of our world.”[2]

 

That is what is needful in this time of deprivation – no restaurants, haircuts, or cocktails with friends. It is rather training, giving us an opportunity for silence, or nothingness in which we can approach and give thanks to God. I hope you will see the paths that are offered to you in today’s readings, especially Psalm 62. 

 

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

 

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

 


 

The lectionary collapses the story of Jonah into a brief description of his mission (which he attempted to escape) and its effect (a success). In fact, the Book of Jonah is so brief, you might want to read it in its entirety in order to grant some context to today’s brief reading. Also interesting in this reading is a subtle universalism that is expressed in the phrase that is omitted in our translation, “a great city of God.”[3] That perception is implied in the reading – the love that God had for the people of Nineveh. There is a brevity in Jonah, in which the size of the mission and city is expressed simply. The proclamation that Jonah makes is simple as well, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The consequences, however, are writ large. The sermon is a success, and the people believe and “trust God.” This is where the theme of “left all and followed him” is noted in the story. The people declare a fast, and dress appropriately – sackcloth, and we might think, ash as well. What is remarkable is the scope, “great and small” and well in advance of the national leadership (a lesson for these days). 

 

“God changed (God’s) mind! This remarkable statement shows us the mutuality of repentance. God can move beyond initial judgments in order to show mercy. Thus we see the many sides of the God that Israel worships and that has called Jonah. We see God’s wrath and we see God’s mercy. 

 

Breaking open Jonah:

 

1.     To which sight of God in this story, do you relate?

2.     When have you shown mercy instead of hatred?

3.     What motivates you in life to be merciful?

 

Psalm 62:6-14 Nonne Deo?

 

6      For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
truly, my hope is in him.

7      He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

8      In God is my safety and my honor; *
God is my strong rock and my refuge.

9      Put your trust in him always, O people, *
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

10    Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, *
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

11    On the scales they are lighter than a breath, *
all of them together.

12    Put no trust in extortion;
in robbery take no empty pride; *
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

13    God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, *
that power belongs to God.

14    Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, *
for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

 


The first verse of this psalm introduces us to the theme of silence, “Only in God is my being quiet.”[4] In the first verse of our selection from this psalm that theme is repeated, this time linked with hope. The author moves from his own trust of God to a request that all people learn to trust God. There is an observation of life, and a question of who might be trust in place of God. All fail. The highest in society are a “fleeting breath”, and those of lesser status “cannot be trusted.” The sins of robbery and extortion are denounced, indeed, wealth itself cannot be trusted. Verse 11 of the psalm is similar to the Egyptian concept of ma’at, and is seen in the time after death when the soul is balanced against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Into the nothingness, the silence, and the breath, God appears with God’s “steadfast love.” The balance of life is seen in our deeds.

 

Breaking open Psalm 62:

 

1.     What kind of value does silence have for you?

2.     Where do you experience the deepest silence?

3.     Does God speak to you in silence?

 

Second Reading: I Corinthians 7:29-31

 

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

 


 

Paul interrupts his advice to married people with some musings on the End Time. The link is in his first line of advice, that because time itself is drawing to a close, we need to give up our close relationships. He goes on with the usual Pauline list: mourning, weeping, and the world itself. The final line of our reading is a sentiment that we can readily identify with: For the present form of this world is passing away.” Yes, indeed, our world has passed away in the midst of a pandemic and politics, we have learned to see something new and different. 

 

Paul expresses the wish that we should be free from anxieties, and we ask in turn, how might we actually do that? If there is a word that suggests how that might be it would be a word that we have heard in the readings for today, trust.” Paul trusts what is to follow what we all have known. Later in his first letter to the Corinthians he makes this observation of trust. “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”[5] Times will change, but our trust in God must not change. We will be called to give up many things, but trust in our God is not one of them.

 

Breaking open I Corinthians:

 

1.     What in life will you have difficulty giving up?

2.     What would you gladly give up?

3.     What do you wait for in faith?

 

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:14-20

 

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

 


Mark differentiates the time, noting as we move beyond John the Baptist, to the ministry in Galilee. Jesus speaks his Gospel immediately, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” At this point Jesus moves from a person who is acted upon, baptism and temptation, to one who acts. He initiates ministry in the calls to the agents who will not only learn from him, but who will serve as sent ones in this ministry. There is the call, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And there is the response, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Mark clues us into change, “The time is fulfilled.” We are alerted to expect something different. It begins with the Kingdom of God, and we are met with a problem there, a problem that helps us wrap our minds around what Jesus is teaching here. Is the kingdom something territorial, or is it a dynamic distinction – as in rule or reign. We are asked to see where God has suasion, and if we look closely in the theology expressed in Jonah, that territory is limitless. The tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures was that the rule of God was God’s alone, that it could be seen in the lives of individuals, and finally that it would be seen in the future in a form not formerly seen. 

 

Those whom Jesus calls are asked to step into this movement toward a Kingdom that is past, present, and future. They are asked to not only give up things and position (fishing and nets) but also their notion of God and God’s intent. This is a preaching point that the readings seem to point to, what we really need to pursue and possess, and that which we might give up.

 

Breaking open the Gospel:

 

1.     What do you see in the words, “Kingdom of God”?

2.     How might you enter that kingdom?

3.     What would you give to realize that kingdom?

 








General idea:              On being called into something new

 

Idea 1:                          Might God have a different idea about what is to be? (First Reading)

 

Idea 2:                          What might we see in our silence? (Psalm)

 

Idea 3:                          Waiting into our future (Second Reading)

 

Idea 4:                          Hearing God’s call to us. (Gospel)

 

Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller

 



[1]       Butler, C. (1926) Eastern Mysticism, Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life, Dover Publications, Mineola, Kindle Edition, Location 2131.

[2]       Merton, T. (1955) No Man Is an Island, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, Kindle Edition, page 109.

[3]       It is also omitted in the New American Bible as well. Robert Alter, however does translate it.

[4]       Alter, R. (2007) The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 5019.

[5]      I Corinthians 13:12

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