Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
It may be winter still, and cold, but have you noticed the light coming back? The mornings dawn just a breath earlier and the afternoon light leans longer into eventide. As the light gently grows, so does optimism seem to take hold in our hearts.
When Jesus was born it was night. This is the way the Christmas story quite intentionally begins. This present season of Epiphany glimmers with the emerging brightness of the star that guided the magi, then the luminous figure of John, and finally Jesus the sun of righteousness. So the story of Christ coming into the world moves with the migration of the sun toward its equinox.
How could we ever have imagined that God is static when the scriptures reflect God so dynamically? Israel has always felt the moving presence of God, perhaps rarely so beautifully rendered as in Genesis’ recounting of Enoch who for three hundred and sixty five years (all the days of his life), “walked with God” in deepest conversation.
Through the Spirit, God moves again and again, covering the face of the deep; filling the expanse of our lives; moving us to pray, sing, dance, and weep. We fall and we rise held within God’s grace. Yet, ever held with such a feather touch, that we are inclined to forget to bless God’s name.
Jesus is God’s most dynamic expression of love. Though born into time and space, Jesus was not, and is not, constrained. Not by the limitation of human imagination, nor by our faintness of faith, nor by our slowness to become the children of Light that Jesus calls us to be. Jesus came, Jesus is still coming, always yearning to move us Godward.
Human reluctance and failure of spirit stars in the story of Jonah right alongside God’s moving presence. Though the book of Jonah is read as a story about repentance, the anonymous Israelite who wrote this story wanted God’s people to grapple with what it means to be called to serve God. Jonah had one job to do – bring God’s word of judgment and hope to Babylon’s great city Nineveh. But he resisted. Even tried to run away. After all, these weren’t even Israelite people.
But Jonah got turned around by God, and sent back. This is a subtle and delightful riff on the whole repentance thing which literally means to turn around and go the other way. Jonah actually became the very image of his own message.
Jonah’s message by the way, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown” included a word full of portent – forty. Could God be offering other people hope and a way out of spiritual and material captivity, mirroring that long-ago escape from Egypt? Short answer: yes.
God’s persistence eventually got Jonah moving. And glory of glories! All Nineveh repented, right down to the cats and dogs.  But the prophet (spoiler alert!) never completely got over his anger. That Israel’s God would save people whom Jonah considered unworthy just sent him into a complete tailspin. Jonah was no optimist. He just could not bless God’s name in that moment.

Every generation, every servant of God is challenged with this story. Does God save according to our schemes, our preferences, or according to God’s mercy?  In our own faith, witness, and service, do we trust God?
What does it cost us, when God’s salvation is so generously dynamic? This question is answered at the end of Jonah, in case you’ve forgotten: God’s saving grace costs God’s servants exactly nothing.  Do I hear an Amen? Let us not be modest and mainline in this. Do I hear an Alleluia! Can we bless God? I truly pray that we can.  
God’s startling movement in Galilee caused a stir too. One day the men were fishing as usual, cast, haul, pull the fish; cast, haul, curse your luck, mend the nets. Same old same old. Along came Jesus and next thing you know these common fellows are signing up for a lifetime of service in the name of God. How did that happen? Short answer: Jesus moved them off dead center and out of a dead end with good news. Immediately, according to the gospel.
Jesus didn’t make up the catchphrase good news. It was the common call of a herald or public announcement of the day. Usually good news was something from the offices of the Roman Empire and it wasn’t usually good news for the common citizens.
But the good news of Jesus was different: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” As in Jonah, repent means to turn. This was actual, real, good news: the word that God’s own reign was near. So near as to be standing there speaking to them. Right now. So listen, turn, believe, and follow.
The urgency of the moment was to awaken to God’s ways of righteousness. Fishing was not a free enterprise in the first century. Rome controlled the industry, imposing a brokerage system. There were many avenues for corruption to enter the process. Perhaps this was a chance for these men to break free from their own shadowy existence and enter fully into the light of day.
Leaving their nets to fish for people, Simon, Andrew, Peter, James and John were set free. And of their own free will they joined their future to God’s good news. Jesus has a way of doing that.
That setting free is really what Paul is getting at in First Corinthians. It’s typical to read the passage as if Paul meant abandoning this world, or worldly things, for the sake of faith. In the first century, a man was responsible for his wife (and children) in every way. Mourning and rejoicing also came with weighty lists of cultural requirements that had to be satisfied. Business and government duties took over lives. Honor was earned by serving as the culture demanded.
There is a more generous way to hear Paul. It’s not get thee to a monk’s cell and wait! The apostle encouraged Christians to single-mindedness as disciples of Jesus. In God is our honor as Psalm 62 says. We are to bear good news in all places. In places of pandemic; hate-based activities; abuse, hopelessness; all dim and destructive forms of this world. This is the service God calls every one of us to, through Jesus.
God is on the move. Turn and look and see! Let God urge you, lighten your load, carry you, change you from a servant of the world to a servant of God’s own bright reign. Amen.

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