I try to use this column as a spiritual discipline, writing down thoughts and stories connected with the Biblical texts for the week in a way that may not be total sermon material, but still kind of interesting enough to spark the Biblical imagination (or maybe even make up for a bad sermon I preach on Sunday).
I know, I know, sometimes these columns for other pastors and at other churches are more typically devotional, and sometimes they relay information about something coming up in the life of the church. And sometimes I do that, too.
But normally I’d just rather riff off the texts a bit and connect it with real life somehow. This time is no exception.
But, I’m conflicted. Because the texts for this week are awe-some, in the truest sense of the word. All three readings (from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels) are packed full of wonderful imagery and golden threads that, if pulled, will unravel a whole tapestry of spiritual meaning for the attentive person.
So instead of just riffing off of one, I’m going to point out three major themes, one for each reading, and I’ll let you connect it with your life however you need to. Ready?
First up: Jonah 3:1-5. Go ahead and read it first…I’ll wait.
See, here’s the thing we miss about the story of Jonah: the whole thing is about his dead relatives. At least, that’s my take on it. You missed that part of the story, right? Well that’s because it’s not in there, but it is implied for the student of history.
See, God asks Jonah to speak a saving word to Nineveh, and because he’s reluctant to do so, we think that he’s just hard-headed and hard-hearted. But what we miss is that the Assyrian Empire and Israel’s Northern Kingdom had a sordid history, including a number of battles and clashes that took a heavy toll on Israel to the point that Israel had been paying tribute to Assyria as a servant would pay tribute to a ruler.
The Assyrians beat up on Israel more than a few times, resulting in much death.
In other words, the story of Jonah is a story of God asking Jonah to save the very people who looted, plundered, and yes, probably killed, his grandparents’ generation (or great-grandparents, depending on which scholarly time-lines you trust). Which would require a whole lot of forgiveness on Jonah’s part, or at the very least a whole lot of “bygones being bygones” and letting go of grudges. And if you think that’s too long to hold a grudge, well, you’re not thinking with an ancient brain.
Grudges lasted in those days, Beloved.
And, if William Faulkner is correct when he asserts that, “The past is never ‘past…'” then we can safely say that grudges still last.
Forgiveness is a tough pill to swallow. But what if swallowing it meant saving the people who killed your grandparents and continued to threaten your existence (throughout ancient history Israel and Assyria were, at best, friends of convenience and, at worst, fierce enemies…and Assyria would eventually win that battle)?
The question that falls out of the book of Jonah for me is this: could/would you save the killer? Especially we who come from a shared history of Hatfield and McCoys, of “Never Forget” bumper stickers, the death penalty, and “you get what you give” karmic mentality.
Could you effectively offer redemption, forgiveness, to the one(s) who did/do the unthinkable?
Yeah, Jonah is a book that stings the conscience when you dig deep.
Next up? 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You’re really going to want to read this one or else you’ll miss what’s going on.
A funny thing about 1 and 2 Corinthians: we’re pretty sure they’re in the wrong order. Historical critical study thinks that Paul probably wrote 2 Corinthians first, and then 1 Corinthians as a follow-up to another letter, and there’s probably a lost correspondence somewhere in the middle there.
And another thing we’ve lost is the perspective of St. Paul and the ancient churches. They were certain, certain(!), that they were living in the “last days,” much like some Christians today (and of every generation…funny how Jesus says, “no one knows the hour,” and yet in every era someone claims to know the hour).
And this response of St. Paul’s to Corinth is indicative of this “last days” mindset. The ancient church’s urgency was real. How did they get it so wrong?
Or, was their life so difficult that the thought of escape was a relief rather than a fear?
And what do we Christians do on the other side of this text, knowing that it was not the “last days” anymore than any day is the last day for someone?
But there is certainly some truth to this passage. The present form of the world is always, continually “passing away,” and indeed Paul knew in one sense or another that Jesus’ ministry, life, death, and resurrection ushered in something new and reality-altering.
The question is: do you live as if it is new and reality-altering?
Ok, and then the Gospel: Mark 1:14-20. It’s familiar, but read it again anyway.
It’s Jesus calling the first disciples, his “inner-circle” as it would turn out: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. All fisherman tearing their hands while tearing fish from the sea.
Jesus first appears on the scene “proclaiming” the “good news.”
But here’s the thing about that phrase, “good news.” In the Greek it’s not just any phrase, it’s a royal phrase. The Emperor is the only who who gave “good news.” All news not from the Emperor was just regular old news. In fact, there are ancient artifacts that use that exact phrase to describe the Emperor’s decrees.
And so, when Jesus shows up on the scene proclaiming the “good news,” he’s speaking out against the supposed “good news” of the Emperor, speaking against the powers of the day and saying a
Godly word in contrast to the Emperor’s godly word (because Caesar was supposed to be a god).
No, I missed something. We need to circle back. Because he was not just speaking, but proclaiming.
And while you might get the picture from the reading that Jesus is casually wandering around the sea-side picking up followers like one might pick daisies in a vacant field, the Greek betrays the urgency of the scene. The “follow me” that Jesus throws out to the net-throwing fisherpeople is not a question or a plead. It is in the imperative form, which means it was a command.
No, not just a command, a yell. Jesus yelled, “Follow me!”
We don’t like to think of Jesus yelling, but here in the Gospel of Mark that’s all he’s doing in these first verses. And he’s probably yelling because Jesus knows humanity too well, and knows our propensity to fish for all sorts of things: fame, fortune, compliments, correct answers. He know how easily we follow any sort of good news we might hear: advertisements, political gossip, political decrees, racist jokes, Siri’s bad direction, sales pitches.
And so Jesus starts out yelling because, I think, God knows we are a people hard of hearing. Or rather, we find it hard to hear God amidst everything else we’re listening to and fishing for.
Ok. I’ve gone on long enough. Now the task is yours, Beloved.
Consider a question from Jonah: what have/haven’t you forgiven about others or yourself? What if God is asking you to? What do you need to claim God’s redemption upon?
Consider a question from 1 Corinthians: do you live as if the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means a darn thing in your life? And I’m not asking if you go around converting people (can we be honest about how annoying that is at the coffee shop?), but in your daily life, how do you live? Afraid? Angry? Mean? Full of regret or grievances?
And finally, consider a question from Mark’s Gospel: What are you fishing for that you need to put down? What kind of “good news” are you relying too heavily upon that you need to let go of? And what in the world is Jesus yelling about today that you need to listen to?
And with that…I’ll see you in church.