Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24th, 2021


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Our three main readings for the third Sunday of Epiphany are all very short. Six verses from Jonah, 3 verses from 1 Corinthians, and 7 from the Gospel for the day, Mark 1:14-20, the calling of the Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

The brevity suits the message. Punchy, direct, get down to business. The time is short, St Paul says. One thinks of the Nike ad, ‘Just do it.’

And of course the Gospel of Mark takes this kind of tone not just today but throughout. This is the Gospel in which greek adverb euthus: immediately, straightaway appears over forty times. Immediately upon coming out of the water Jesus saw the heavens opened, immediately they left their nets, immediately he called James and John, and in the passage preceding ours today, immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. This text we will encounter at the first Sunday of Lent. In just this first chapter of Mark alone, as if to set the tone for what follows, the word immediately is repeated ten times in 45 verses, slowing down only for the scene in which Jesus stops to pray, early in the morning, by himself, in a lonely place toward the chapter’s close.

I was privileged thirty years ago to hear the British stage actor Alec McCowen perform his celebrated rendition of the Gospel of Mark for which he had received a Tony nomination. He had memorized the entire Gospel and appeared in the church sanctuary with only a stool as a prop. Hearing again and again the word immediately underscored the drive, the electricity, the economy, the urgency of this Gospel. No time to waste.

It is as if, once the heavens are opened at Jesus’ baptism a kind of forcefield is unleashed. Drawing disciples, healing the sick, teaching with authority, raising demonic hackles, driving ever forward.

The more formal listing of the twelve apostles will come later in chapter 3. Jesus climbs the mountain and of those he calls he appoints twelve to preach and have authority over demons – as he has demonstrated this before them.

Here in the midst of the unstoppable forward movement of Jesus he catches four men in the midst of their daily routines, casting nets and mending them, by the sea and in the boat, brother and brother, side by said, father Zebedee and hired workers there too. Doing what they do and have done over generations. They will fish now for men, Jesus tells the first pair. Immediately they drop their nets and follow. Immediately, going a bit further, he calls James and John, and they leave their father and follow.

Our collect captures the theme. “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ,” it reads. The four answer readily. Immediately. Without any reflection. They stop doing what they had done always. And they continue what they were doing now with a new purpose and goal. And above all with a new reason to do that: Jesus Christ.

Our prayer is so right to speak of the gift of grace as what we pray for. Only this can get us out of ourselves. Only this has the capacity to teach us to see Jesus as the way ahead, in ways we cannot understand but find overwhelming, compelling, reorienting, life changing. Immediately and urgently.

The prophet Jonah began by famously heading in an opposite direction. After some time out-in the whale or big fish, he got reoriented himself. Today he has accepted his call and sets out to deliver the message God has given him. Straightaway, in the language of Mark. Nineveh is a big city. Notorious for its evil. Jonah prepares himself for a three day journey. Yet the reaction to his 5 word sermon is immediate. Fasting. Repentance. Belief in God Everyone. Like the forcefield unleashed around Jesus, the entire three-day-journey wide Nineveh believed and acted on that conviction. King included, and beasts in sackcloth for good measure. God’s reaction is likewise immediate. He forgives.

Jesus announces that the kingdom has come. Repent. Believe in the good news. Allow this kingdom and its grace to fall upon you. Its transforming power is witnessed to in Nineveh and on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in four men who dropped what they were doing and followed.

We who hear the 3rd chapter of Jonah know as well the opening chapters and especially the one to follow this one. Here we have the famous Jonah. First disobedient and unwilling to expose himself to the dodgy business of preaching to the wicked Ninevites. What if God forgave them? Then the Jonah who sits down after this miraculous repentance, just outside the city, to see if it would stick. Forty-days is a long time.

But God does not engage in this conduct. He tries to get Jonah to see sense. It is tough work! Even the trick with the shade tree doesn’t get through to him entirely.

Yet the message of Jonah does not turn on Jonah’s getting it. Heck, in chapter one he is prophetic even as he hides and sleeps. The sailors figure it out and know his God is God alone precisely because he isn’t doing his job. And in the end, the Ninevites are precious to God no matter how much Jonah can’t get his head around that.

God’s intention in Jesus Christ is to bring Good News. To set up a kingdom of grace and truth. With immediate force. In him. The older son can object to the father’s lavish forgiveness of the younger prodigal, just as Jonah questions God. But the Kingdom and the Good news aren’t about keeping score but about a new chance, a new kingdom, new, good news, made possible because of Jesus and his word. The time is now here. Turn around. Leave your old nets behind. Believe in the Good news. Follow me.

The Psalm positions itself within this solid kingdom of hope and trust and new life. For God alone my soul in silence waits, truly my hope is in him; He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold so that I shall not be shaken.

In some ways the Psalm tracks nicely with the Epistle reading for today, as much as for the OT and Gospel reading. Paul is speaking of holding things of this world loosely. The nets of our boat that preoccupy us and rightly mean our daily bread. They can be set down when we are sure where our final trust is. The four men saw in Jesus a way ahead, a new and compelling way. And then he became the only way. For God alone my soul in silence waits. The four men will continue to be fishermen, but different kinds of fishermen, with a different captain now to direct them where to throw their nets. Let those who deal with the world be as those they had no dealings, Paul writes. There is something of genuine substance in being able to say and to pray: For God alone my soul in silence waits. This isn’t an add-on to make we judge important go well. It is the heart of our disposition as we follow our Lord. A solid rock, a sure refuge.

It is possible to think of the psalmist as behind us. It may be even a reflexive instinct. But time and time again we learn he is ahead of us. That the prayers being uttered are advanced in faith. God has spoken once, and it echoed twice in me: power belongs to God. For God alone my soul in silence waits is the language of someone there to teach us. To fit us out with words we need.

St Athanasius wrote with enthusiasm about the special book the Psalter is in his Letter to Marcellinus. He said many wise things there and I commend the entire letter. But this bit captures the sense of the Psalter to which I am referring.

…the marvel with the Psalter is that…the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person's feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart's utterance, just as though he himself had made them up…everyone is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.

In this case, descriptions of himself and herself we need for the road ahead, when we drop the nets of our daily patterns and ask to be reformed to a new purpose, following him, and waiting for him both. For the present form of this world is passing away, and that includes the things we release so that we can say with conviction, For God alone my soul in silence waits.

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