Lectionary Commentaries for January 22, 2012
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Paul S. Berge

The text for the Third Sunday after Epiphany continues the dramatic action in the Gospel of Mark.

Without a nativity story we are “immediately” (Greek, euthus) (1:10) into the ministry of Jesus with the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven (1:9-11). The engagement with Satan in the wilderness (1:12-13) has set up the cosmic battle present throughout the Gospel of Mark. The battle will appear hidden as “the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15). God’s reign and rule is present in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth as the battle is enjoined with the cosmic forces of evil.

As noted in our study in Working Preacher two weeks ago on Mark 1:4-11, the destiny of John and Jesus are linked together. As John is “arrested” (actually a better translation of the Greek word is “delivered up” ([Greek, paradidomi] the same word describing Jesus being “delivered up” to crucifixion throughout the Gospel of Mark). Jesus is not just “saying” (NRSV) the announcement we now hear, but “proclaiming” (Greek, karusso) the good news of the kingdom. Once again the NRSV translation misses the power of the Greek verb “to proclaim” by translating with the word “saying.” Jesus’ words are proclaiming that God’s time is not only near but is here. God’s kingly reign and rule is breaking in presently in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth (1:14).

Jesus’ call of engagement in God’s rule is present in two imperatives. The first is a call “to repent” expresses immediacy at a point in time; it is time to turn around in response to the call of discipleship. This call is followed up with a second imperative “to believe,” which expresses a continuing response to the obedience of following. The object of believing is “the good news” of God’s reign present in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (1:15).

Examples of the immediacy of Jesus’ call to turn around and believe are present in the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John. The scene is the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a lake about 12 miles long and 8 miles at its widest point. The lake is harp-shaped and also known by the name, Chinnereth, from the Hebrew word for a harp-like instrument.

Perhaps it is a day like any other day in the life of those who fish these sometimes treacherous waters. Wind storms come up quickly as a Northwester blows in from the Mediterranean Sea and over the hill country that surrounds the northwestern shore of the lake. Suddenly and without warning the boats are in danger as the waves threaten to overpower the boats. A story in Mark 4:35-41 describes a crossing of the disciples who encounter such a wind storm on the lake.

Simon and Andrew, perhaps weary from a night of fishing, are still plying their nets when a stranger approaches them on the shore in the person of Jesus. The dialogue is brief. In fact it might have appeared to them that this stranger was not that familiar with their trade. Jesus’ words must have sounded strange as he doesn’t talk about the usual fishing for lake trout but fishing for people? Now to rugged men of the sea this would have no correlation with their experience.

The text gives us no clue to what is going on inside their heads at such a strange proposal. There was no preparation. The only note we get from the text is the second occurrence of “immediately” (Greek, euthus) in the Gospel of Mark as Simon and Andrew “immediately leave their nets and follow him” (1:18). All we can say about the call is that “the kingdom of God” has broken into their lives in the immediacy of Jesus’ call. There are also two other fishermen on the shore mending their nets, James and John, sons of their father Zebedee. The call of Jesus to them is the same and their response is the same. They leave their livelihood and their father and “immediately” follow this stranger (1:20).

These are epiphany moments early in the Gospel. As readers and hearers, we too have no preparation this early in the Gospel for such a story. Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard. But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even “immediately” as pure gift. Martin Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed says it so clearly:

I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus
Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.
In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life.
This is most certainly true.

These are words of grace and call through the work of the Holy Spirit breaking into our lives, and through the call of the Son of God whose words invite us and claim our lives to follow. Jesus is the one who alone, in his death and resurrection, gives us the gift of life to follow him and live with him eternally. This is most certainly true.

First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Callie Plunket-Brewton

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

It is difficult to imagine a less elegant prophetic oracle in the Old Testament. There are brutal messages of judgment and painful indictments throughout the prophets, and I can think of none so bare of rhetorical flourish as Jonah’s proclamation, yet this message inspires an entire city — inhabitants both human and animal — to repent, don sackcloth, and fast. No other prophet in the Old Testament had such an overwhelmingly positive response!

Jonah sounds a distinctive note among the prophets for a number of reasons. First, the content of the book is not primarily oracular as is the case with the literary prophets, in whose midst we find this biblical book. Jonah tells the story of a prophet faced with a difficult message and mission, and it is the story of his struggle with this calling that is at the forefront of the book rather than the message itself. The story is told in prose, with a psalm embedded in the narrative, and the prophetic oracle itself is not even a verse long. The second distinctive note of Jonah is the fact that the inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh are the recipients of the prophet’s message.

The prophets of the Old Testament offer oracles of judgment or of hope to the people of Israel or Judah; even those that deal with other nations still have Israel/Judah as their intended audience. But Jonah makes no mention of God’s chosen people. Considering the brutal treatment the people received from the Assyrians, it is interesting that the book does not mention the history of the Assyrian empire and its terrible destruction of Israel and many other nations in its quest for dominance. It is certainly not the case that the author or audience was oblivious to this history, and so it must be the case that the omission of the history serves a narrative purpose. What might this purpose be? Perhaps to acknowledge the elephant in the room and force people to talk about it. Am I not making sense yet? Bear with me just a bit.

The story of Jonah is well known. An Israelite prophet is called to deliver a message of judgment to Nineveh, the capital city of the dreaded Assyrian Empire. In typical Hebrew narrative style, the internal reaction of Jonah, son of Amittai, is revealed through his actions. He takes a boat going to the other side of the world, away from Nineveh and “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3c). The audience is left to assume that Jonah is simply acting sensibly, fleeing a prophetic call that would surely result in his death. Jonah’s behavior and speech on the boat bound for Tarshish adds another level of insight into the character of the prophet, who tells the sailors — panicked by the unnaturally fierce storm — that he is fleeing “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9-10).

It is God who has provoked this reaction in Jonah, not fear of the Assyrians! Jonah is then thrown overboard at his own request and ends up in the belly of a big fish, where he remains for three days and night. This lectionary reading finds Jonah back on dry land and confronted once again with the divine call to proclaim a message to Nineveh. The lectionary selection focuses upon the delivery of the message, when the prophet walks barely a third of the way into the city and shouts his warning, remarkable in its brevity. And the people of Nineveh — Nineveh! — respond with immediate and total contrition. Then the narrator reports: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (verse 10).

It is at this point that the elephant in the room becomes impossible to ignore: Jonah is talking about Assyria, a by-word for brutality in the ancient world. The Assyrian Chronicles describe horrendous acts of torture which were employed to create fear and, thus, submission in the enemies of the empire. It is all very well to be forgiving and merciful when say Tarshish is involved. It is quite another thing to forgive Assyria. Justice and mercy at this point seem diametrically opposed.

When later in the narrative the prophet sits beneath a dead bush, angry that it can no longer provide him shade from the relentless sun (4:6-8), we the readers should not be too quick to poke fun at him. Rather we should be spurred to ponder how on earth we are to deal with one who is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:3). This God is willing to forgive even Assyria.

There is much that is absurd in the book of Jonah: a man gets swallowed by a fish; animals don sackcloth, and a prophet gets so angry over the death of a bush that he wishes he were dead. But the questions the story provokes are quite serious. Is God clueless or just terribly irresponsible? How can justice be served in the face of such mercy? How on earth can human beings hope to make sense of such a deity?

As we consider these questions in the context of worship, it is vitally important to remember that God’s ability to do the incomprehensible, to extend mercy to the least deserving that opens the door to our own hope. A friend recently remarked that the spiritual gift most Christians seem to possess is the gift of righteous indignation.

Jonah challenges the perspective of the righteously indignant to put aside moral superiority and take on the character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Cycles of violence and blame can only be broken where mercy is extended. The only way forward for any of us is to demonstrate the same mercy that has been offered to us.


Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Rolf Jacobson

Retain the Refrain!

The psalm selection for the third Sunday after Epiphany is 62:5-12. As is often the case, the worship leader is faced with the choice of reading the entire psalm or of going with only the selected verses. In favor of reading the entire psalm is the repetition in verses 1 and 5 of the refrain.

Notice the refrain (and notice that there is a slight variation in the second clause of the refrain):

1For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.

2He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

5 For God alone my soul waits in silence,1
for my hope is from him.

6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

If one opts to read only the selected verses, one misses the repetition — and thus the emphasis — of the refrain. So the suggestion here is to retain the refrain. However, the worship leader who goes with only the second half of the psalm can still focus on the trust expressed in these verses.

So what is this psalm? It is one part trust and one part instruction. As for the part that is “trust,” this keynote is evident in the refrain (noted above, verses 1, 5) as well as in the closing expression of confidence, which confesses “that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.”

Throughout the poem, vocabulary typical of the psalms of trust is used. God is a “refuge” (verses 7. 8; compare Psalm 46:1, 7, 11); the psalmist “waits” in silence (verses 1, 5; compare Psalm 22:2); the psalmist says “I shall not be shaken” (verse 2; compare Psalm 16:8 and 121:3). As for the part of the psalm that is “instruction,” the psalm is mainly addressed to other humans beings — “How long will you assail a person” (verse 3), “trust in him at all times, O people” (verse 8), and “if riches increase, do not set your heard on them” (verse 10), and so on.

Putting the elements of “trust” and “instruction” together, Psalm 62 is a poem of “instruction about trust.” The psalm is an instructional meditation that offers to teach something about the life of faith (the life of trust).

Learning a Lot from a Little Particle — ‘ak

That great master of the malapropism, Yogi Berra, is reputed once to have quipped, “You can observe a lot, just by watching.” When it comes to Psalm 62, the careful reader might observe a very small Hebrew word — which seems to occur quite a lot in this short poem. Such a reader might notice that the Hebrew word ‘ak occurs six times in this short poem.

For comparison sake, the term occurs only 24 times in the entire Psalter — and in each case, the term begins a sentence — which means that 25 percent of the occurrences of the word occur in this short poem. The term carries both a restrictive meaning — “only” or “alone” — as well as an asserverative meaning — “truly” or “indeed.”2 The poem plays on the dual meaning of term to make a theological point. Here are the six sentences that begin with the term:

verse 1      For God alone (‘ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 2      He alone (‘ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 4      Their only (‘ak) plan is to bring down a person of prominence. . .
verse 5      For God alone (‘ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 6      He alone (‘ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 9      Those of low estate are but (‘ak) a breath. . .

In the translation above, the New Revised Standard Version always takes the term restrictively, meaning always either “only,” “alone,” or “but.” One could also take the term asseveratively at each point — always translating it with “indeed” or “yes” (so the TNIV and also Goldingay).
More likely is the approach that mixes translations — sometimes asseveratively (“indeed”) and sometimes restrictively (“alone”). The truth is that in Hebrew the term most likely has a sense of double-entendre — at each point it means carries both senses of the term. To wait for God alone means to wait on God indeed! To truly hope in God means that one must hope only in God!

And that is the big faith-lesson conveyed by this small particle in this short psalm. The life of faith (the “way of trust in the Lord”) carries both restrictive and asseverative qualifications. To trust in the Lord, according to the Israel’s scriptures, means to trust in the Lord alone. As the Great Shema puts it, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Meaning, we have one God — and only one God. But, moreover, to have only one God is to know exactly, precisely, definitively to whom we entrust our lives — to God indeed! Those who follow Abraham and Sarah’s God are spared the confusion of those who either worship many gods — whom shall we trust in this matter? — or of those who trust no gods — in what shall I trust? Those who follow Abraham and Sarah’s God trust in God alone, and in God indeed.

Preaching the Psalm — Playing with the Poetry

Now that the theological foundation of this psalm has been explored, a few thoughts on preaching this marvelous poem. Play with the poetry! Play in the poetry! Enter into the rich imagery for God — my rock, my salvation, my refuge, my fortress. Also note the rich imagery for human beings. At times when we feel oppressed by others, we feel like “a leaning wall, a tottering fence.” But whom are we fearing? Other humans, who oppress us, who are, after all, “but a breath . . . in the balances they go up; they are lighter than a breath.” The image here is quite literally playing with how much a breath ways on a set of ancient balances. When weighed against God — “my rock” and “my fortress” — all human beings are essentially weightless.

Notice how the psalm critiques the things that we humans can give our ultimate allegiance to (other than God). It was Luther who noted that whatever one fears, loves, or trusts the most — that is one’s God. Jesus, similarly, suggested that where our heart is matters most. The psalm speaks negatively to setting one’s heart on riches. If we pursue riches, we make them our god. And they cannot deliver. The psalm also warns against fearing the enemies, who oppress. It is strange to realize if we fear the enemy who oppresses, in some fashion we are acknowledging them as God. To worship the Lord is to be freed from serving any human enemy.

The Promise

One last comment: Sermons about trusting God can get rather preachy (in the negative sense) rather quickly. In order to preach about trust, the preacher must at some point move beyond instruction in how to live the life of faith (lecture) and move to the promise (to the thing that inspires faith). The psalmist knows that the only thing that can produce faith is a promise. And, in fact, the psalmist knows that behind the type of faith that the psalmist commends in this poem, lies a promise:

            “Power belongs to God.”
            “Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.”

If you preach on this psalm, remember that it is this promise that really matters.

1I am following here the emendation of the NRSV, which understands this clause as parallel to verse 1b. NIV, NJPS retain the feminine singular imperative pointing of the verb “be silent,” thus reading: “Yes, my soul, find rest in God” (so NIV).
2See Goldingay, Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 245.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Frank L. Crouch

This brief passage revolves around two related ideas: “the appointed time has grown short” (verse 29) and “the present form of this world is passing away” (verse 31).

This (plus this week’s gospel reading) could prompt one to focus on things eschatological.  If one’s congregation has not recently (or ever) pondered the varieties of biblical eschatology, it might be an exercise worth undertaking.  One thing to keep in mind, however, is that we do not have to settle on one variety of eschatology at the exclusion of all others.  Several varieties coexist in the Bible, and the creation of the canon did not require any one to prevail over all others.

Briefly, one’s eschatology could, with sound scriptural basis, consist of any or all of the following (each item is condensed and over-simplified):  

Imminent Eschatology: Christ is returning soon.  Watch, be faithful, be ready.  (This passage, this week’s gospel, Mark 13 and parallels, I Thessalonians 4, 1 Corinthians 15, etc.)

Realized Eschatology: The kingdom of God is already present among us.  May the eternal life God makes possible in Christ be visible in our lives now.  (Primarily the Gospel of John, though John also has elements of proleptic eschatology.)

Proleptic Eschatology: The kingdom of God is already present in some ways but not yet in its fullness.  May that kingdom be visible in our love for God and our neighbor as we patiently wait for its future glory.  (Particularly the Gospel of Luke, but throughout the gospels and the epistles.)

Prophetic Eschatology: The world is under the power of evil.  Let God lead you to establish justice and righteousness in the earth.  (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Sermon on the Mount (Matthew), Sermon on the Plain (Luke), parables of Jesus, etc.)

Apocalyptic Eschatology: The world is so much under the power of evil that only God’s action will establish justice and righteousness in the earth.  This calls for the patience and endurance of the saints.  (Primarily the book of Revelation, although Romans 8, Ephesians 6:10-24, etc., fit as well.)  (The distinction between prophetic and apocalyptic eschatology finds thorough exposition in Paul Hanson’s, The Dawn of Apocalyptic.)

Each of these views has two parts — a description of present and/or future realities and a call for us to respond in particular ways.  In each case, whether or not one agrees with the description of reality, the various responses deserve reflection and, in fact, constitute common emphases in preaching throughout the year.  Many congregations experience those emphases regularly without the eschatological underpinnings that accompany them in scripture. 

If one chooses not to explore eschatology, one could focus on the last sentence, “For the present form of this world is passing away.”  This idea connects with another strand of thought woven throughout scripture, the transience and non-permanence of life and this world.  It finds, perhaps, its most vivid expression in Ecclesiastes, which soberly and relentlessly describes human desires, plans, and schemes as “vanity” and “chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, then some variation appears over 25 times).  And, the idea finds brief expression here.

This theme is not a popular one in contemporary, dominant American culture. News, popular, and social media continually focus on what we have or want.  The advertising industry daily drives home the message that our purpose in life is to want, to desire, to seek, and to have — most succinctly summarized in the bumper sticker “Born to Shop.” 

Life, according to our dominant culture, does consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.  If not that, it consists in abundance of relationships (How many Facebook friends do you have?) or the quest to find that one true soul mate who will make our lives complete.  If not that, it consists in the quest to be ever happier, more beautiful, more handsome, more confident, and more successful — as measured by one’s money, job, clothes, appearance, house, happiness, and so on.

In stark and shocking contrast, Paul advises the married to be as if they have no spouse, mourners not to mourn, rejoicers not to rejoice, buyers to act as if they had no possessions, those who deal with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  In this view, our relationships, current emotional state, and status in terms of the world’s standards have little or nothing to do with the essence or quality of our lives.  People — even those we most deeply love — will die, feelings will pass, and so will this world. 

That being said, this is not a call to depression, despair, and retreat from the world.  After all, Paul says these things in the context of our life in Christ.  It is, however, an ultimate gut-check, an ultimate reality check.  Our world — at every level we can think of it — is not as substantial, dependable, and unchanging as we would like it to be.  We know this in our vulnerable moments; we live along its edges when we lie awake at night.  Paul hammers it home, not for the sake of despair but for the sake of focusing us on the one, true, and ultimate reality upon which we can depend.

This passage cannot be faithfully interpreted without its larger context in 1 Corinthians and in the whole of scripture.  But we too often let a “faithful” response gloss over life’s most painful realities as if they are not real or they won’t happen to us.  As the saying goes, we prefer resurrection to crucifixion.

Yet, we can’t really get to the statements in today’s reading from the Psalms without this understanding from Paul.  Until we’ve found ourselves in a time with no discernable place to stand, no shelter, no harbor, no friend, nothing that will really last, we can’t truly say with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from [God]. [God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 62:5-6).