January 21, 2024

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

January 21, 2024

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.

     One of the recurring messages throughout the Old Testament is that God will save whom God chooses to save. One’s salvation is not dependent upon birthrights or national origin, or race, or gender or anything else that divides nations and our society today, but rather, salvation is a matter of the heart and an incredible gift of God’s grace.

I was reminded of that truth when praying and studying today’s scripture lessons. And in so doing, I remembered that of all the books of the Old Testament, it is the Book of Jonah that is read aloud from start to finish on Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement. That is amazing because the Book of Jonah is not about God saving Israel, but rather, about God saving the Ninevites – Gentiles – a people who lived in the capital city of Assyria – Israel’s enemy. And history tells us that Nineveh, a city larger than Babylon, was incredibly corrupt. Now knowing that about Nineveh might help explain why Jonah was so reluctant to go there when God first called him to this mission. (Remember that first call? The Jonah and the fish story and his refusal to go to Nineveh?) After all shouldn’t God be focused on the righteous: focused on people like us; God’s faithful people? It’s like we hear in the world of politics at home and abroad: why should we care about other nations: doesn’t charity begin at home? Why should God care about these foreigners: these Gentiles? And that’s the point of reading Jonah on the most solemn day of the Jewish Year. As a Rabbi friend explained, reading Jonah reminds Jews just as it should remind us, that no one is beyond the reach of God’s hand, beyond the reach of divine justice for transgressions we have committed, just as no matter one’s past behavior, God's benevolence and mercy awaits anyone – Jew or Gentile – anyone who repents full-heartedly.

Yes, God will save whom God chooses to save. And whom does God choose? All who believe God: every one of them! Remember, our lesson from Jonah ends saying, “the people of Nineveh believed God … and God changed his mind about (judgment) and did not do it.”  All who believe God are saved. And here’s an amazing fact about Nineveh: Having repented and changed her ways – and that means changed how the city was governed so that justice and mercy were preeminent in every aspect of business and religious life, every aspect of civic life, Nineveh became a center for learning and sharing the cultural arts; a place where all residents had access to fresh water and, whether citizen or alien, everyone was cared for. In other words, while we might think of God’s intervention, our response to God, our repentance and believing God, is an ending, once again we hear that God’s intervention, our believing God, our decision to turn away from sin and embrace God’s way of life, is a new beginning: An opportunity to not only change how we live, but help transform whole societies.

     Some scholars suggest that the whole 7th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is anti-marriage. Well, that could not be further from the truth! Paul was very supportive of marriage and taught that being faithful in one’s marriage is a way to demonstrate one’s faith and faithfulness to God, as well as one’s righteousness before others. Remember, Paul urged the Corinthians to understand that God has not just saved us from something, but rather, that by God’s grace we have been saved to a new way of life that furthers Christ’s reconciling light and presence in this world. Now, Paul was convinced that Jesus would return at any moment and, therefore, with a sense of urgency, he begs his readers to live fully into their calling, to focus on what matters most. So, Paul says if you’re single: stay single. If you’re married: stay married. Paul says that regardless of marital status, we have been called to lives of righteousness and faithfulness that demonstrate, embrace, and foster God’s values; God’s commandments. Paul is not teaching about marriage or celibacy here, but rather, about faithfulness and righteousness. His point is that how we choose to live our daily lives is what people notice, that is what brings others to Christ, that is what makes a lasting difference in our communities and the world. Now, Paul was wrong about Christ’s return, and, yet it didn’t dissuade him from believing God and choosing to live as a faithful, righteous man.

     Today’s Gospel reading is often subtitled, “the calling of the disciples.” But the truth is, it was a long time before these men actually became “disciples.” See, a disciple is one who doesn’t simply listen to a particular teacher, but rather, seeks after him and learns to embrace his teaching so deeply they become just like him.  In today’s reading, these men are attracted to Jesus as a teacher or Rabbi. But our familiarity with this story can cause us to miss a very important point: When Jesus calls these fishermen he is reversing tradition. See, it is the responsibility of Jewish students to seek out 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, calls and reminds them and us that we 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.”

      Now, as much as I enjoy this story of Andrew and Simon and James and John’s call to follow Jesus, I cannot imagine any of us just picking up and leaving everything behind to follow our Lord. Let’s be honest: I think most of us would find it very hard to leave work and family and friends to venture into an uncertain future. Does that mean we are any less Christian or less faithful? I think not. While this story is inspiring I don’t think Mark imagined that people in this 21st century would or even could leave everything in order to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom. No, there is something deeper here 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.

We know that it is by faith, by God’s gift of grace, that we become Christians, but how we demonstrate that faith gets to the heart of what it means to be Christians. And I suggest that being a Christian, being Christ’s light in our communities, has its greatest impact through how we choose to follow Jesus as we go about our daily lives. Some follow Jesus by “being a teacher or volunteering to serve at hospitality house. Some follow Jesus by looking for those who always seem to be on the outside and inviting them in. Some follow Jesus by doing a job they love as best as they can in order to help others, or doing a job they loathe in order to support their families and the community. Others follow Jesus by being generous with all that they have, or by listening to those around them, around us, and offering practical help. Some follow Jesus by caring for an aging parent, or special needs child, or someone else in need.” (Paraphrase of Dr. David Lose)

See, the Christian way of life is not a contest to be “better disciples,” but rather, it is about knowing and experiencing Jesus more fully by following him right where we are; by believing God as the Ninevites did, and then letting God do whatever God chooses to do through us and in us right now. The Christian way of life – our decision to follow Jesus - is about being faithful in all things so that not only are we transformed, but so are the lives of those around us.

     The Ninevites believed God and their city changed her course for the better. Paul believed God and he was called righteous. The Psalmist believed God and his soul was content to wait in silence. Jesus calls us to believe God and follow him right where we are. Believing God, beloved, is a call to movement because believing is never an ending, but rather, it is always a new beginning.

     In our on-going journeys of seeking, listening for, and following Christ, may God help us believe God so deeply that we embrace each new beginning in ways that will not only change our very souls, but transform our everyday lives, our everyday priorities, and in so doing, carry forth Christ’s light into the world – Christ’s light that offers to illuminate and transform all who will follow him – follow him in thought, in word, and in deed – today and every day. Amen.