A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018. The scripture readings are Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:6-14, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, and Mark 1:14-20.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
It seems like much of December and January, I’ve been in conversations with people making some big decisions—about colleges to apply to, about jobs to leave or begin, about relationships, about changing the focus of one’s energy or the programs one’s group offers. It’s been interesting to walk along side people and notice the different ways people decide.
Some make decisions quickly. Bringing God into it, they feel like God has given them what they need, equipped them with a good mind/heart/soul and so they decide and go forward.
Today’s scriptures offer us a number of situations in which people approach what could be called “decision time.” By listening in on their decisions, perhaps we can learn how to deepen our own deciding.
In the reading from the Book of Jonah, it is definitely “decision time” for the people of Ninevah. It has already been decision time for Jonah, the reluctant prophet. If you know the story, you know that God calls Jonah, and Jonah runs away. He runs in the completely opposite direction of Ninevah, he jumps on a ship, a great storm comes up and the crew on the ship figures out that God must be angry at someone—and they guess that it’s Jonah. They throw Jonah into the sea, the great fish swallows Jonah, he is eventually thrown up on the ground, and he finally decides to do what God is asking, and prophesy to the Ninevites. But he still doesn’t really want to.
He doesn’t really want to do what God is asking of him. He knows how a prophet is received. He knows what it is like to be the bearer of bad news, but eventually, he realizes that there’s no getting away from God. And so he prophesies to the people of Ninevah.
He tells them that it is decision time for them. This is their stop. They need to get off the train, to sort out their lives and live decently, with justice and goodness, and mercy toward one another. This is the time, or else…. And the Ninevites listen. They understand and they realize that this is, indeed decision time. They decide. They choose a new way. They choose to repent, to turn, to change, and to move toward God.
The people of Ninevah repent, put on sackcloth and put ashes on their heads—historic forms of mourning. They beg God’s forgiveness. And God forgives them. The people of Ninevah understood that at the rate they were going, God might stop their clock any day. They understood the idea of decision time.
The story of Jonah is a great poem about repentance, about following God, and about knowing when it is time to make a decision (and deciding well.) We relate to Jonah because we sometimes are like Jonah. Carl Sandberg once wrote, “If I should pass the tomb of Jonah I would stop there and sit for a while; Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark. And came out alive after all.” (Sandberg, “Losers”). But Jonah and the people of Ninevah are not the only ones to make big decisions in today’s scriptures.
When Jesus calls the disciples, it is Decision Time in a big way. They leave families. They leave communities. They leave possessions. They leave their jobs and livelihoods. They leave their expectations of God. They’re called to travel lightly so that they can respond quickly whenever there is a need.
When Jesus calls us, it’s also Decision Time. Sometimes, we’re like those in Ninevah and we’re asked to turn away from our normal way and face God, we’re called to repent. God might call us to talk to someone and say, “I’m sorry, I may have been wrong.”
Or the decision for us may less be about repentance and more about action. God might call me to write a note, or write a check, or pick up the phone and call some one. We might be called to give up a few hours and volunteer. God might call us to prepare a meal and take it to someone. God might call us to explore a new spiritual discipline, like praying more, or fasting, or meditating, or reading scripture.
I don’t know exactly how God is calling each one of you. (Though for several of you, I have some ideas.) What I know for sure, is that God calls. God calls each one of us, and it becomes decision time. The faithful response is like that of the first words from Jonah, “get up, and go!”
In that today is January 21, and it occurs during a weekend of marches by women and on behalf of women’s’ rights, I would be remiss if I did not mention a saint who is remembered on this day. Agnes of Rome was a young woman of 12 or 13 years, who was martyrs for being a Christian in the year 304. But her Christianity was only part of the story. It seems that Agnes was beautiful, and men wanted their way with her. Some wanted to marry her, but she refused all of them. She had the temerity to DECIDE for herself and to make that decision known. Some of the men reported her as a Christian, and she was abused, persecuted, and killed. It is important to remember that in many places of the world today, girls of 12 or 13 still have no voice. In some places, women of any age lack a voice in civic affairs, religious affairs, or even family affairs. As we think about the decisions we make and the decisions we are permitted to make, let us never forget those whose power is restricted, especially the girls and women whose voices need to be heard.
Each day, each moment, there are opportunities for us to respond to others out of faith. May God give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, that when Decision Time comes upon us, we will have the faith to do what is right, and to follow wherever Christ leads.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.