3rd Week after Epiphany
Bethel Lutheran Church
These weeks after Christmas are the time to be spent with the epiphanies. This is the time to be retooled for our tasks – kingdom tasks. Just in case you missed it and even if you didn’t, I want to call attention to the Collect for today. We asked for the anointing of the Spirit so that we might be about the same work as the Son, proclaiming the kingdom. We are God’s people – now! We do not need to feel uncertain about the grace of God that enfolds us. All of this doesn’t mean that we have overcome the resistance to the common Christian task of “bringing good news to the afflicted, binding up the broken-hearted, and proclaiming liberty to the captive, in the name of Christ.” We read about Jonah and easily convince ourselves that we would be neither as foolish nor as disobedient as the prophet. We read the words to the Corinthians and if we aren’t careful take them to mean that withdrawing from responsibility in the world is part of the commission to people living in “these last days.”
But wait a moment! Interesting games can be played with words, even the words of the Scripture. Interesting games are played with words when it suits what seems to be our best interests. But we are not playing games with God’s word. It is for this reason that we ask and ask again: What do those words mean? and what in the world do those words mean?
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord (Jonah 3:1-3). The word that God spoke the second time was almost exactly the same as that of the first encounter. Did Jonah deliberately plan to disobey God when he ran from the first call? Hardly! He played games with the words from God and he convinced himself that his travel plan should take him in the opposite direction. We, apparently, have no problem understanding what it was that God intended and wanted Jonah to do. God would not have to speak to us a second time. He certainly wouldn’t have to go to all the trouble of rearranging a big fish’s schedule to turn us in the right direction. We don’t know how Jonah would have answered if we could have asked, “What in the world do these words mean?” but let’s try it out on ourselves as we’re confronted with the kingdom.
We are Attached to the World
Jonah had his agenda when he received God’s message and we have our own as well. I’m suggesting to you that the agenda with which you approach words, even the words of Scripture, has an effect on the way you receive them. What in the world do these words mean? “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning…for the form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). We find it convenient to detach kingdom values from life in the world. It’s not at all unthinkable that the words of this epistle would serve as encouragement to us when we want to shrink our responsibility “out there in the world” toward our marriage, our work, our day by day living. This is the subtle and devastating spiritual and secular division. The point here is that we do have problems because we are so attached to the things of this world. We place such finality in them. Marriage, mourning, rejoicing, buying, general events of life are important considerations. We experience too much irresponsible living in these areas and know what chaos it brings about. So what in the world do those words mean? Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
The more we look to ourselves, the more we maneuver our lives to find some solid footing, some permanent foundation. “In the world” marriage, mourning, rejoicing, buying and selling, are important matters. They are not permanent. They do not have the eternal value for which we look. The very fact that it could seem harsh for us to speak of marriage in this way, “let those who have lives live as though they had none,” indicates the need to hear and to see the reality of the call of the Gospel. There are plenty of examples of people who imagined that they knew when the end time was coming and consequently made light of and even abandoned the responsibilities of the day. Just as challenging is the temptation to attach such value to these everyday responsibilities that the foundation of life is built upon them.
Jonah experienced this attachment to the things of this world. It gave him his understanding of what should happen to the Ninevites. It gave rise to his anger over the dying plant that shaded him. He also learning how futile all of this is over against the gracious direction of God. The permanent things of the world seem less so from the inside of a great fish.
The disciples had their own struggles with what they considered to be permanent. Even though some of the disciples left their families and their nets at the call of the Master there is indication that they struggled with that commitment later on.
What in the world do those words mean? They help us in the necessary action of repentance. St. Paul didn’t exhaust the list of things that should be considered “as though they were not.” When our Lord prepared the disciples shortly before his death he said, “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of this world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that though shouldst that them out of the world, but that though shouldst keep them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).
“in the world, but not of the world.” Are certain experiences of my life so rooted that they determine the whole course of my life? It might well be my marriage. As much as the ties of marriage need to be strengthened, and these words do not discourage this, the relationship or the value that we place upon it can get in the way of our understanding of the permanent values of the kingdom. It might be our work. It might be a whole host of things that are so much a part of our living and so vital to our living. What in the world do those words mean? You can feel the tension that develops once you begin to wrestle with them. This kind of tension is an important part of the growing Christian life. “Lord, do I place too much permanence in the things about me; the things that are to my liking or part of my expectation. I just can’t tell the difference at times between faithful commitment and false maneuvering. I bring this to you. Give me both forgiveness and guidance.”
Unsettled by God
We are most likely to ask, “What in the world do those words mean?” if they unsettle us. And they should unsettle us. Epiphany is an ideal time to remember that when the light of God shines into the darkness of our world, it is unsettling. These words from St. Paul weren’t the last that the Corinthian Christians needed. They didn’t hear these words with unanimous agreement either. They had an unsettling effect. When God spoke to Jonah he rose to flee. The whole matter wasn’t to his liking. The people of Nineveh were about as popular with him as Washington Redskins are with St. Louis Cardinals. In this case it was unsettling and Jonah ran away. This unsettling however, serves its purpose. We can live with it because we can trust the One who unsettles us. To lay bare our reliance on things, our desire to detach life from confession or from our desire to twist the words of God to suit our fancy, must be unsettling.
It is at the same time the beginning of renewal. St. Paul was not suggesting that the Corinthians become some strange group that lived drastically unusual lives in marriage or the other events of life. He was pointing to the centrality of the kingdom, the centrality of Jesus Christ. God is squeezed to the outskirts of life by a whole host of experiences and values. He wants to be back in the center with his grace and his care. Jonah pushed God into the fringes because he didn’t want the Ninevites to share the kingdom, and God in his mercy overcame that foolishness. God shows himself to us in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the certain foundation in the middle of everything else. He unsettles us but yet confirms us in the joy of the forgiveness of sins. He knows our fears over the uncertainty of the world; our need to make our marriages, our business transactions and all of the other preoccupations something solid upon which to build our lives. He will not allow it, but he doesn’t destroy us in our weakness. In his unsettling, God opens new possibilities for us so that the words do begin to have meaning and to have meaning in the world.
How easy it would be to use the words of the epistle as a rigid directive against one another. How easy it would be to make these words the basis for some kind of cold, moral structure. They are the encouragement of the kingdom and the promise that our God gives us the foundation upon which to stand. There is no need to play games with the words or to fear them or to turn away from them. This si the day of the kingdom of God and we are a part of it. In death and in resurrection God returns to the center of life…to the center of our world. We are invited to share in the excitement.
Commissioned by Christ
We have direction from all of the lessons for life “in the world.” Jonah was called and ran away. Jonah was disciplined and recalled and he went and accomplished the mission even though reluctantly. The disciples were called by Christ and with startling moves left everything and followed him. “And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:16-17). And it was the same with James and John.
The call of the Lord comes in different ways to different people. There is something within us that wonders whether the reaction of the disciples was realistic. They left immediately and followed Jesus. Does this mean that I have to interrupt my life, leave my wife or husband, completely change my routine in order to be a part of the kingdom movement? It could be, but it is not necessarily so. This diversity is part of the excitement of the kingdom. Our calling may be, and probably is for most of us, right where we find ourselves. What in the world do those words mean? They can open some exciting possibilities as under the power of Christ we bring good news to the afflicted, bind up the broken-hearted, and proclaim liberty to the captive. It is “in the world” right where we are that these things open up. There are of course people like Simon and Andres, James and John who make this drastic break with their past and take up their following of Christ in dramatically different ways. Most of us however we hear his call where we are as husbands, wives, people who rejoice and mourn, who rise and sleep, who work and rest and who live in a thousand different situations across the face of the earth. What in the world do those words mean? They are the gentle urging of our Lord to see the kingdom and to experience its joy and excitement.
When God stands firmly in the center of our life by the epiphany of our Lord we begin to understand the language that teaches us to beware of making anything in life permanent except his live. What is equally exciting is that in this very call to the kingdom those everyday actions of love and work and relationship become filled with greater meaning. “The form of this world is passing away,” but rejoice that God who calls you in unmovable and his love reaches to the outskirts of Nineveh and to your very lives.