A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 21 2018
Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Epiphany, the season of appearances, began two weeks ago, when Three Wise Kings following a star from Persia arrived at a manger in Bethlehem with gifts for the new born God-Man. The Divine Child appeared to the Chaldeans as the Spirit would appear to him, 29 years later, when John the Baptist immersed the adult Son of Man in the River Jordon. The Magi had been led by a star to the Christ Child; the Son of Man would be led by the Spirit into the desert. Each of us must make an analogous journey, from our birth-place to the wilderness; alone in the desert, each of us, guarded by solicitous angels, must have our mettle tested, before we can resume the company of persons and the responsibilities of cities. In this way, we undertake the process of theosis, the sanctification that perfects our love and its expressions. For a follower of Jesus, this process – our spiritual life – begins, but does not end, with baptism.
Last Sunday we heard how first Samuel, then Nathaniel, some centuries later, were “called.” Samuel heard a voice in the night; Nathaniel saw by daylight a person. Each answered as a servant, turned away from their old, familiar life, and set out in a new, strange direction. Something of the same sort happens when we repent and are baptized. Our “call” marks the beginning of theosis, that is, deification, which is the outcome of the process of being made whole and the realization of meaning in the world. In the “Here I am” with which we answer the Lord, love is re-kindled in our hearts, and in the process of perfecting our love, we reclaim our original image, the divine image – God’s likeness – which we were created to mirror, but abandoned, like a farmer who leaves his cows unmilked, or a gardener, who neither prunes nor weeds.
Today we hear Jonah’s story, not as he first flees from God, in what we now can recognize as a futile attempt to elude his vocation, and not as he is thrown overboard by his storm-threatened companions from the ship he sought safety on, and not in the infamous belly of the whale, where he miraculously escapes drowning. Rather, we hear Jonah’s story as God calls him a second time, as if a music’s repeat were being noted, and he is told to arise, go into Nineveh, and warn the city of the wrath to come. Jonah obeys the Word this time, and surprisingly, his warning is effective; the king of Nineveh acts with concern for his people and orders a thorough and very public repentance, and the city, along with its animals, is saved. Of Jonah’s buffoonery, there was more to come, but Jonah was without doubt the most successful of all the biblical prophets in bringing about the timely transformation of a people.
The Ninevites – a vast city of foreigners – responded to Jonah’s preaching with belief; the Ninevites believed in God and were not overturned. Their king demonstrated his wisdom; he took off his robes, put on sackcloth, and “sat down in the dust,” humbling himself. Then he issued an edict to fast, so that the magnificent city’s wrong-doing and violence would be stopped.
As we approach Lent, we find in Nineveh a precedent for the season’s forty days of dust and ashes, its fast from tastes of food and drink. Putting on sackcloth and fasting are signs of penitence; as God calls us out of slumber and the familiar, when we are penitent, we call to God in the hidden and majestic whereabouts of Divine Presence. During Lent, we shift our attention to the aim and objects of “calling on the Lord” with the hope that God’s mercy and compassion will overshadow us, and like the Ninevites we will be delivered from wrong-doing and violence.
Last week John the Revelator described how Philip and Nathaniel became disciples of Jesus. This week, as the Kingdom of God draws near to us, John the Baptist is arrested and put in prison, and Jesus begins his public ministry with a call to “Repent and believe the good news.” Mark tells how Jesus calls four of his disciples from their fishing nets on the Sea of Galilee. First Simon and Andrew, then Zebedee’s sons James and John, leave their nets and follow Jesus “without delay.”
The Ninevites also acted without delay; indeed, this is the kernel of today’s message: when we are called, we hear its urgency. There is not time to put off our call and go sailing in the Mediterranean. We are called in the present to act immediately; we are called to take refuge in the rabbi Jesus, Son of Man, heed the call of God the Father, and let the Spirit lead us in repentance away from evil and violence. Then, in the image of God, our minds will be changed with compassion, and we will be delivered from destruction.
And all the people said, Amen.