By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen
Season: The Third Sunday of the Epiphany
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10 | 1 Cor 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20
The clear message from our readings this morning is about being called by God and following God through Jesus. God called Jonah to give a message to a troubled city. Paul calls the people of Corinth to not rely solely on worldly things. Mark tells of a moment when Jesus calls more fishermen to follow him.
As I read the selected verses from The Book of Jonah, I thought how much more confident we all might be if we knew in advance that our messages – to love and seek justice for all – would be warmly welcomed and acted upon. Instead, perhaps, like me, you experience a real hesitation to speak up and act out for love and justice. I suggest you go back and read the full Jonah story… This story is much more layered than the sanitized verses of the lectionary. One writer calls it a slapstick comedy with whales, storms, and worms. It is not about one prophet simply doing what God wants with a successful outcome. It’s a bit of a farce, a story of someone who did not want to do at all what God called him to do – and even when he finally does do what is asked of him, and the people repent, Jonah would have still preferred to have the people destroyed. He wanted to be the power holder, not the people of Nineveh, not God. (1)
As I prepared for today, I realised my hesitation at doing things because they may not work is based on my own agenda of anxiety and my thinking that I have to do it all, that all of this delivery of “good news” is somehow solely reliant on me, on us as a church rather than something God has already put into place of which we are witnesses. Yes, I/we may need to discern better some of the details of our ideas and callings, but fear of failure is my humanness, something to notice and to attend to but not necessarily a reason to do nothing. As a community, neighbours, friends, and strangers, we need to be honest with one another about our fears and anxieties as well as our hopes and dreams. We don’t need to leave those bits out of our conversation as they were left out of today’s readings. In fact, hearing the story in the wider context, we are reminded that “by God’s grace, a good guy with a bad attitude helps the bad guys do the good thing.” (1) Bit of a miracle, I’d say – imagine what we can get up to!
Paul, in his way, is saying that in sharing the Good News of God, we should not get bogged down with worldly endeavours. The three verses from Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth remind us the world has already changed because of God’s working through Jesus. Now, I often get distracted by Paul with his language, and so, dear gathered ones – let us be reminded that we read from an ancient text. This missive is not an instruction for men to trash women and leave them behind, nor is it a call to ignore family commitments or the joy of life. It is a call to be aware of our life choices. There may very well be things of which we need to “let go” to live more fully in God’s way of love and justice. It’s an ongoing invitation and challenge.
While Jonah and Paul both seem to point to near-future events, the words we have for Jesus proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Which indicates that the action has been completed and the result is ongoing. (2) Jesus calls us as he called the fishermen to join him. Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee and called those now famous fishermen – Simon, Andrew, James, son of Zebedee and his brother John, and they “…they followed him”. We understand this to mean that God is calling us. And yet, what is the call in this text? The call is to Repent! To change your hearts and lives! Being called to repent, to put it bluntly, as one writer did, is often interpreted as “you’re on a highway to hell, and this is the last chance exit!” (2)
Thankfully, as Pastor Stephanie Sorge writes, Jesus’s call to repentance is not offered in anticipation of the final tick of the cosmic doomsday clock but because of what has already happened. The kingdom of God has already come, and it is still unfolding. Because of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ, our hearts are changed, and we can change our lives. This is the Good News. God’s realm continues to unfold in our midst, and we are called to respond with lives that reflect the realm of God and anticipate its completion. We are called to be disciples in how we live our lives and in the care and encouragement of others. And again, to put it bluntly, “Fisher of people” does not mean dragging people into church or even converting them to Christianity. Writers remind us that Jesus didn’t convert anyone. If we rely on some Fishing Shows for our discipling education, we will think to fish is to catch and to subdue and perhaps in some way consume the one we have caught.
Thankfully, I have noticed some fishing celebs on the telly are now returning the fish to the sea. The call is about turning our loving attention toward the needs of others, not being one-eyed with our needs and preoccupations. Jesus’ call is an invitation to live in a new way for a new purpose, a call that is renewed every day, every moment.
I was able to join online, as I know others did, for Bishop Gilberd’s memorial service on Friday. One speaker mentioned how +Bruce loved fishing so much that one time, he set out 4 rods. Unfortunately, the minute one line became engaged with a fish, all four lines became tangled. I take this as a cautionary tale about fishing – as we sit with this image from Mark – to consider what lines of thinking and being in our own lives may need untangling so we may be more able to engage and listen to others. What rubbish is caught in our tangled lines? What fears need to be unhooked?
The invitation is to meet and be with one another and to share what we ourselves have experienced – love, forgiveness, peace, and the call to be engaged in the world. The “call” isn’t just to be a pastor or evangelist but to be a loving person. That takes many forms. (1) We are to spend our lifetime listening and responding. And if we remind ourselves that God is already here and in action, it need not be exhausting but rather life-giving.
Take a moment now to consider callings you have answered or ignored in years gone by and God’s call to you in this time…
To end, I offer this Celtic blessing:
Blessed are you, O Child of the Dawn,
for your light that dapples through creation
on leaves that shimmer in the morning sun
and in showers of rain that wash the earth.
Blessed are you
for the human spirit dappled with eternal light
in its longings for love and birth
and its pain-filled passion and tears.
Blessed are you, O Christ,
for you awaken me to life.
Blessed are you
for you stir me to true desire.
May the light of God
illuminate the heart of our souls.
May the face of Christ
kindle us to love.
May the fire of the Spirit
free us to live,
this day, tonight, and forever.(3)
- https://pres-outlook.org/2024/01/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany-january-21-2024/ Stephanie Sorge is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
- J Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction – Morning and Night Prayer. p 4-5. © 2000. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co.