January 21, 2018 The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

 

Jonah 3:1–5, 10, Psalm 62:6–14, 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, Mark 1:14–20

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the world. Amen.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? On Wednesday evening, our adult class began a course on The Bible, and in the first session, the author of the course described the Bible as a play in five acts. The first act is the story of creation, and the second act the fall of the creation into sin. The third act is the story of Israel and God’s first covenants with the people. The fourth act introduces us to the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection, and the fifth act is the story of Christians and the Christian Church. The author goes on to explain, “[O]n this model the Bible contains the first four accts and the opening of the fifth act (The Acts of the Apostles). Our task as Christians is to read these first four and a half acts and then carry on the story in our lives.” (“The Bible,” Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey, p. 12.) The author goes on: “God’s grand play of love is not yet complete and we are called to take our parts in that play.” (Ibid.) In other words, the final act is not written down; we continue the play through our lives and witness. This is one creative way of describing what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The Bible teaches us what God desires for the creation, and we who are called by Jesus to be disciples then live out that desire in word and action in and for the sake of the world. The story is open-ended, and we are an integral part of the story.

In the story of the calling of the first disciples, two things stand out. First, Jesus comes proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God—that it has come near in Jesus’ life and ministry, indeed, in his very physical presence in the world. Second, Jesus invites people to repent and actively devote their lives to work to bring the kingdom into the world—to make God’s desire for the creation a reality. Two questions immediately arise. What is the good news of the kingdom of God, and what does it mean to repent?

The good news of the kingdom is, very simply, the good news of God’s love for the creation. In the story of Jonah, our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, Jonah is called by God to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, which had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and call the people to repent and turn to God. The back story of Jonah is that at first, he refused to go as he was called and ran away in the opposite direction from the call of God. But God found him and stopped him (in a most dramatic way). Our reading for today picks up the story here. Jonah grudgingly went to Nineveh and proclaimed a word of repentance, but he didn’t want to because he knew there was a chance the people might well repent, and an even better chance that God would show mercy and love if they did repent. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened, and in light of this, Jonah then went off by himself and pouted. He, from his human perspective, wanted Nineveh to suffer for its many sins; but Jonah knew that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knew that given half a chance, God would act on the side of love, grace, and compassion because that is God’s nature, and that is God’s desire for the creation. This is the point. The good news of the kingdom is the good news of God’s love for the creation; and our call as disciples of Jesus is to shine with that love in the living out of our lives.

To do so requires repentance. Now, repentance, in the traditional sense of the word, means to turn around and go in a different direction. Most specifically, repentance means to turn ones back on sin and evil and seek the good. Certainly, this understanding of repentance is still important, as we will soon rediscover on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent. But here I would like to suggest that repentance can be taken in another sense: to repent is to change one’s view of the world and embrace God’s view of the world and God’s vision for the world no matter how naïve or untenable such a position may be. The apostle Paul declares in the second reading from 1 Corinthians that “the present form of this world is passing away.” What does he mean by that? Simply that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the old way of sin, death, and the power of evil has been defeated and that God’s kingdom of love, grace, and compassion—the good news—has replaced it. Further, this is a present reality despite appearances to the contrary, but that the reality cannot be fully realized until all disciples of Jesus embrace this vision as their own and work to make it a reality. That, to me, is the fullness of repentance: Not merely to turn from sin and evil, but to turn to God’s vision of love, grace, and compassion, and not to give in to those who disparage such a turn as pie-in-the-sky or Pollyannaish.

 So, we are not discouraged by threats of nuclear war, natural disasters, or reckless and cynical politics. We refuse to be disheartened by war and terrorist acts. We refuse to let our grief get the better of us, though we grieve for those lost without a trace or for those who have died and we see no more. We refuse to become bitter and resentful and cynical ourselves, but rather insist on living lovingly, graciously, and compassionately even when we are attacked or disparaged for it. We refuse to live in the world as it appears because we are people of hope called to a new reality and to live into that new reality with every fiber of our being.

The present form of this world is passing away, says Paul. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven has come near, says Jesus. In our call as disciples of Jesus, we hasten the new, coming of the kingdom of God. This play is not yet over—the fifth act is truly in progress. Amen.

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