Lectionary Commentaries for January 25, 2015
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Michael Rogness

Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the “good news” of the gospel, which is that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).

Jesus’ coming was the “fullness of time,” because he is the messenger promised in the Old Testament (Galatians 4:4, Ephesians 1:10). Jesus repeats the message of John the Baptist, “Repent and believe in the good news.”

The emphasis of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ coming is the gospel, the “good news,” a term that in the first fifteen verses of the gospel occurs three times.

Since last Sunday’s story is from the Gospel of John, we don’t know the exact sequence of that text with this one from Mark, but the theme is the same. Today’s text continues the story from last Sunday, that is, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls his first disciples. Last Sunday we heard Jesus called Philip and Nathanael. In today’s story he calls four fishermen at the Sea of Galilee — Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

Once again we don’t know what there was about Jesus that led Simon, Andrew, James, John, and others to leave their homes and families to follow Jesus. Did they know him already? Or was this their first contact with him? In any case there was something remarkably compelling about Jesus to cause these and others to follow him into an uncertain future. The astonishing feature of the story is that they followed Jesus with no idea of where it would lead.

We know very little of the background of any of the disciples whom Jesus calls. The four in today’s story were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 9:9). What had the other seven done before Jesus came into their lives? We don’t know.

As far as we can tell, the twelve persons Jesus called to be his companions were ordinary men. As far as we can tell, Jesus didn’t do background checks to determine IQ levels, financial acumen, professional skills, or temple education. He picked people probably much like you and me. Furthermore, his disciples were anything but perfect. Many times they misunderstood him. They often hesitated to follow him. Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him.

But these would be the persons who would continue Jesus’ work on earth after he left — ordinary people, like you and me. They were called.

Furthermore Jesus’ first disciples were “northerners,” from the northern province of Galilee. The capital of Israel was Jerusalem in the former southern kingdom, the religious center with the temple. It is no wonder that Jesus was greeted with such skepticism when he travelled to Jerusalem from his home in Galilee with his Galilean friends. The religious leaders in Jerusalem naturally considered Jesus an “outsider.”

As far as we know, every one of the disciples was chosen and called personally by Jesus. We believe that God calls each one of us. God not only calls us to follow Jesus, but also calls us into the fields and careers of our lives. We often speak of “God’s call” too narrowly, as if God “calls” people only into ordained ministry. That is true: God calls people to be pastors and church workers. But God’s call is not limited to clergy. God calls every single one of us.

In the Middle Ages the clergy was considered a higher status of Christian than laypersons. They had their own regimen of frequent daily worship that laypersons didn’t have. They had church rules to follow, which laypersons didn’t have. They usually lived in communities — monasteries and convents — unlike laypersons.

The Reformation eliminated those distinctions between clergy and lay by affirming that God calls everybody. The word for this call to everyone is “vocation,” from Latin vocatio, “calling.” Everyone has a station in life, probably several stations in how society functions, and this “vocation.” Every job that works to build up and maintain society is a calling — teacher, insurance salesman, car mechanic, politician, etc. We also have callings within family structures — mother, father, aunt, uncle, child, etc. We serve God in these family callings as well.

A friend of mine is a junior high school teacher. Since he was active in his congregation as a boy, some of his relatives urged him to consider becoming a pastor. He told his own pastor that he felt no calling to be a pastor but felt God wanted him to be a school teacher. His wise pastor told him to follow his calling, and he would be serving God as well in a school room as in a pastor’s office. That pastor understood what it meant to follow God’s call in one’s vocation.

The Old Testament lesson from the book of Jonah is also a story about “calling,” but with ironic twists. Jonah is called to proclaim a message to people he doesn’t like — a message he hopes will not be accepted. After trying unsuccessfully to avoid his calling, he finally arrives in Nineveh and delivers the shortest sermon in the Bible, an eight-word threat of destruction. To his dismay the sermon is effective. The book of Jonah ends as God makes clear to Jonah that mercy is for everyone who repents.

Jonah’s call included the message he was to deliver, but in today’s gospel the four fishermen are called with no further instructions whatsoever. They are called to a totally uncertain future and would surely have been scared out of their wits had they known what lay in store for them.

God’s call is always into an uncertain future. When we enter into our callings we have no idea how it will all end up. We choose our careers and jobs hoping that we can use the gifts and talents God has given us, but there are no guarantees.


First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Jonah is more than just a big fish tale.

Jonah is more than just a big fish tale. It is a humorous story with a point, and it is worth telling the whole story in your sermon, lingering on the details.

If we follow the lectionary reading, we enter the story of Jonah right in the middle of the action. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” We all know what happened the first time. God said, “Get up and go to Ninevah … and Jonah got up and ran away towards Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.”

Jonah’s no Peter, Andrew, James, or John. He doesn’t leave what he’s doing and immediately follow God’s call. He jumps on the first boat going in the opposite direction and he hides in the hold of the ship, hoping that somehow God won’t take notice. It’s as if Peter, Andrew, James, and John, upon encountering Jesus, jumped into their fishing boats and rowed like madmen for the opposite shore, as far away from this dangerous itinerant preacher as they could get.

Jonah did just that, trying to get as far away from the LORD, and the LORD’s bizarre instructions, as he could get. Go to Nineveh? The capital of the Assyrian Empire, that destroyer of Israel, that brutal occupying force. It was unthinkable.

So Jonah runs away, but God sends a storm. You might review the story for your congregation. The sailors are more pious than Jonah but they eventually reluctantly throw Jonah overboard. The sea calms down immediately, and God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah.

Aldous Huxley imagines the scene:

Seated upon the convex mound
Of one vast kidney, Jonah prays
And sings his canticles and hymns.
Making the hollow vault resound
God’s goodness and mysterious ways,
Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.1

Jonah, totally immersed in sea water and fish blubber, does indeed sing a prayer: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.” The sea in the ancient Near East, of course, is the symbol of chaos, of danger, of wildness. But even in the heart of the seas, God hears Jonah’s prayer. God speaks to the great fish, and the fish vomits him out onto dry land.

That’s where we enter the story. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city.” And, this time, still covered in sea water and fish vomit, Jonah obeys. He walks into the city, one day’s journey, and preaches the shortest sermon ever recorded:

It’s a sermon of 5 words in Hebrew — “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

The response is electric. Immediately, the people of Nineveh believe God, and here’s where the humor builds. The people declare a fast. The king, not to be outdone, orders human and animal alike to fast and put on sackcloth. Then all those sackcloth-covered cows and sheep and people bellow out their repentance to God, and God changes his mind about the punishment, and does not bring it about.

We would think Jonah would be ecstatic. After all, he’s the only really successful prophet in the whole Bible. He has brought about a mass conversion that Billy Graham could only aspire to. Every inhabitant of the city, human and animal alike, has come forward for the altar call. Jonah should be ecstatic.

But Jonah is not ecstatic. Jonah is mad. “Ah, LORD, is this not what I said would happen when I was still in my own territory? That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. Because I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah, of course, is quoting the LORD’s own self-description (from Exodus 34:6) a description taken up by prophets and psalmists throughout Israel’s history to remind God of God’s own nature. But in Jonah’s mouth, it is an accusation: You, God, are gracious and merciful. I KNEW this would happen! I declared your judgment on this sinful city, and you changed your mind!

Here’s the thing, you see, here’s the thing all of us have found out about following the call of God in and through the waters: God is God and does not act as we think the Almighty should act. In good faith, we follow where we hear God’s call, we go to the city, or the suburb, or to small town and rural America, and we are prepared to bring God’s word to that place, and what we find is that God is already there before us. We find that no people, and no place, not even Nineveh, can properly be called God-forsaken.

Often, of course, that lesson is hard to learn. I think of a friend of mine whose first call was in a small town parish. The council president in that parish was a very, very difficult woman who tried to sabotage him at every turn. He tried, he really did. He prayed for her. He visited her and attempted to reconcile with her. He prayed and prayed, and finally one day he started singing (to the tune of “Bind Us Together, Lord”): “Bind her and gag her, Lord, bind her and gag her with cords that cannot be broken … ”

It is a prayer Jonah himself might have prayed.

As you preach this sermon, you might ask your listeners to think of a person that they find difficult to love. (Be sure, of course, to make clear that they are not called to stay in abusive situations.) Then proclaim to them that God loves that person, and that God loves them, too. The same God who gave Jonah a second chance gives the people of Nineveh a second chance, and we can’t begrudge that kind of mercy. This is a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, a God we know most fully in Jesus Christ.

And that, my friends, is certainly a Gospel story worth preaching.


Notes:

1 Aldous Huxley, “Jonah,” in The Cherry Tree: A Collection of Poems, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (New York: Vanguard, 1959) 211.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Shauna Hannan

This Psalm is for the asylum seeker, those who seek refuge from adversaries, those who yearn for security and stability.

Dare I say that this Psalm is for us all especially now?

The Psalmist’s experience of crisis prompts the big question of whether or not he (anyone?) can trust and take refuge in God in the face of enemies? The Psalmist’s undeniable answer is, “Yes!” Especially at such a time, the only thing that offers true refuge is God, the steadfast one.

There are multiple genres at work in this Psalm, which suggests the Psalmist does all it takes to declare his trust in God and instruct others to do the same. In Psalm 62 one finds lament, praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, exhortation. Most interesting is variation in parts of speech utilized by the Psalmist as he moves from testimony to exhortation to prayer. The second half of the Psalm (the lectionary selection) progresses like this:

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

     Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

          Speaking about people in light of who God is (3rd person instruction)

     Direct address to the people (2nd person exhortation)

Speaking about God (3rd person testimony)

      Direct address to God (2nd person prayer)

Working our way through the form itself offers a possible effective form for a sermon.

There are a few intriguing elements in the Psalmist’s testimony in verses 5-7.

1. The English translation covers up the emphatic and repetitive ‘ak that begins each of these verses. ‘Ak is translated as alone or only (“but a” in v. 9). “Only for God do I wait in silence. Only God is my rock and my salvation.” This important word occurs 7 times in the whole Psalm.

2. Verses 5 and 6 are an exact repetition of verses 1 and 2 with only one exception; “Salvation” in v. 1 becomes “hope” in v. 5.

3. The sequence of possessive nouns is powerful: my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my mighty rock, my refuge. The determined Psalmist claims God as his own and seems to create a verbal fortress with this series.

After this opening expression of trust, the Psalmist turns to others with unapologetic exhortation (v. 8). Clearly, the my does not give the Psalmist exclusive rights to this refuge. God can be your only as well. Trust in him! Lament (“pour out your heart”) before him. One of the most powerful turns is in v. 8b when the individual self-possession of God is transformed into a communal “God is a refuge for us!” The Psalmist’s experience of crisis turns into faithfulness in the only refuge, God, which then turns into exhortatory proclamation that others might trust only in this one, God.

Knowing that crises might lead some to depend on unfaithful means of hope and salvation (is he is speaking here from personal experience?), the Psalmist names those things that challenge the ‘ak; e.g., status in the world (interestingly, both high or low estates get in the way), extortion, robbery, riches.

Note elements of the wisdom tradition in vss. 9 and 11. Hebel (translated as “breath”) appears twice in v. 9 and reminds us of Qoheleth’s wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:2, etc. where hebel is translated as “vanity”). The numeric parallelism in v. 11, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this,” is akin to wisdom literature found in Proverbs (e.g., Proverbs 30:15-19).

So far, the Psalmist has gone from a personal expression of trust in God, to exhortation and instruction for the people to trust in God, before finally turning directly to God in prayer. It is the prayer’s affirmation of God’s hesed that solidly undergirds all that has come before; one could not exclaim God as one’s own without God’s hesed; one could not confirm God as rock or fortress or refuge without God’s hesed; one could not proclaim that God is the only refuge without God’s hesed; one could not exhort others to give up their delusional and vain dependencies without God’s hesed; one could not advocate reliance on God alone as refuge and hope and salvation without God’s hesed. It is the final prayer of praise and thanksgiving for hesed that gives this Psalmist both confidence and a restful soul.

Homiletical possibilities

Center of Gravity

Draw out one or all of these Psalm’s center of gravity possibilities. The first is the repeated verses 5-6 that serve as a refrain. The second is the outward turn from the Psalmist’s own claim that God is his refuge and hope, to the affirmation that God is our refuge and hope as well. The third is the emphasis on God’s steadfast love, hesed, that supports everything in the Psalm. Which of these, or which combination of these, might drive your sermon?

Mirror the form

Would you consider opening the sermon with your own expression of trust in God that has arisen out of an experience of crises? Then, what instruction or wisdom, based on your experience, might you offer the congregation? Name those delusional and vain dependencies that we all rely on. While most do not resort to explicit extortion or robbery, we might certainly be apt to set our hearts on riches and/or status. For our own good, exhort us not to put our trust or find refuge in these things, but in God alone. And then lead us in prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the steadfast one.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

While Jesus’ words in Mark are not to be read into this Psalm, Jesus himself is like the Psalmist when he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Calling others to repent is emboldened by God’s steadfastness. It is that steadfast love that is both good news and sign of the kingdom coming near. How powerful it is that Mark’s account of the gospel begins at this point of trust in God’s steadfastness.

Whatever the preacher does with a sermon based on this Psalm, the bottom line is that it is in God alone that we place our trust and take refuge in times of crisis.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

This section of 1 Corinthians is found in the middle of a series of injunctions concerned with marriage in particular.

It is closely related to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:17 where Paul admonishes his addressees to remain in the state in which they have been called. What matters to Paul thus is not so much the individual situation of each of his addressees but rather the fact that these addressees are living at a very particular time in the history of the world: the eschatological time.

The eschatological time

Paul understands what has happened in Christ inside an apocalyptic framework, which contemporary Christians might no longer share. For Christians today, it is often the case that their relationship with Jesus Christ means salvation (present and/or future) and reconciliation to God. It might also provide a moral orientation to their life. For Paul, what happened with Christ, both his death on the cross and his being raised by God, is first and foremost an apocalyptic event. It inaugurates the end. Paul was convinced that, now that Christ has come and has displayed perfect obedience in his death, the end was very near. For Paul, the end means that this world as human beings knew it was soon going to disappear and be replaced with a new creation, a restored creation. For Paul, the event of Christ means that the Christ believers now live in a new aeon, a new time period.

In this new aeon, they are the first representatives of this new, restored, saved creation and thus have a responsibility to behave as eschatological Christ believers. They are, to use Pauline language, the first fruits of the new creation, of what will happen when the world is entirely restored and saved (Romans 8:18-25). Because of the Christ believers’ particular position in time, they have a responsibility to behave in a certain manner. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is trying to establish this behavior in regard to marriage.

As if not

In the section of 1 Corinthians 7 that is under scrutiny, Paul broadens the discussion, and establishes a model behavior for his addressees. This model behavior is qualified by an attitude of “as if not” (os men): whatever the behavior or the quality concerned, the person should act as if that behavior did not really exist or matter. Paul’s examples of behavior “as if not” are framed by two affirmations about what time it is. In 1 Corinthians 7:29, Paul writes, “the appointed time has grown short,” and in 1 Corinthians 7:31, he says, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” Thus if one correctly understands where one stands in relationship to cosmological time, one should be in a position to correctly understand what Paul asks when he demands that one behaves “as if not.”

I find this section and the examples Paul uses puzzling: he discusses those who are married, those who are crying, those who are rejoicing, those who are involved in commercial transaction, and finally those who benefit from the world. There seems to be no clear logic to Paul’s enumeration, and no clear relationship between the different categories. The categories are also far from exhaustive. Previously, he had added circumcision and slavery to the type of situations that should not be modified. But in the case of circumcision and slavery, Paul seemed to say that there are matters of indifference. One should not bother one way or another. Here, with the “as if not,” Paul seems to introduce another nuance. One can continue engaging in whatever behavior, but one should engage in it “as if not.” What does this mean? And how do you do it?

Before I propose on reflection on that, I should probably insist that you can only engage in “as if not” behavior at the end, in the apocalyptic age. That was Paul’s conviction: he truly believed the end had started, and this belief deeply shaped the way he wants to organize his communities. In particular, they are not meant to last. Thus, we have to be profoundly aware that we are no longer in Paul’s context at all. The end did not come in the first century, and the Christ-believers’ communities developed in Christian churches that definitely became lasting.

Agamben on “as if not”

In his commentary on the first verse of the epistle to the Romans, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben proposes a reflection on the concept of “calling,” of “vocation,” in relationship to this living “as if not” that Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians.1 For Agamben, living “as if not” is characteristic of the messianic time, and related to the concept of vocation, of calling. Agamben defines the “as if not” as a technical term for Paul: it prepares the end of each condition, whatever it might be. This is why Paul can frame the appeal to the “as if not” by a reference to the passing of the present form of this world (1 Corinthians 7:31). In this sense, each condition is relativized.

It also, as Agamben points out, clarifies why Paul mentions “those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” This, according to Agamben, defines messianic vocation: it is a potentiality that one can employ, and yet never possess. In the apocalyptic time, each condition (freedom, slavery, marriage, celibacy, circumcision, uncircumcision) can be used, but it can never be owned. It cancels the hold that the world can have on each one of us, not by revolting against it, but by simply cancelling it.2 This can only truly happen, however, if the Christ believers are aware of what time it is.


Notes:

1 Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains. A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 2005).

2 I rely here on Agamben’s second chapter in The Time that Remains.