By Ajit John
It’s not often that a preacher following the church lectionary, with readings from the Old and New Testaments appointed for a particular Sunday, finds a common theme emerge as clearly as it does for this Third Sunday of the Epiphany season.
Suddenly and abruptly the Word of God comes to a group of people and there is a call to repentance. We see that in the Jonah passage. It’s an unrelenting word. That is to say, it comes not once, but twice. Even though Jonah ran away from the prophet’s task, God didn’t cast him off, as you know, but saved him from drowning and then gives him the same word to take back to the city of Nineveh.
In this case, repentance came easily to the inhabitants of Nineveh. The text says that as soon as they heard Jonah’s words, they believed God and without anyone suggesting it, they put on sackcloth and fasted.
And the word for them was amazingly harsh. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” In the previous chapters, “God to the great city of Nineveh,” Jonah was told, “and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Their time was up.
Now that same power, of a sharp word from the mouth of God, comes through Jesus at the very start of his ministry. We all know that Mark’s gospel, compared to the other gospels, is blunt – that is to say, very direct.
So here in the very first chapter, John the Baptist blasts onto the scene preaching repentance. He is thrown into prison and Jesus picks up the task of preaching repentance. Time is up, “it is fulfilled,” reads the text.
You may think it is the time of the Romans, says Jesus. But it’s not the Roman kingdom, but “the kingdom of God” that has come near. And because God’s own presence is in our midst, it’s a chance to repent of our blindness and believe the good news. Jesus brings that same urgency that we saw in Jonah, when the Word of God comes. It has the power of several armies and is unstoppable. Nobody, of course, could have imagined it when a young preacher from Nazareth entered into the cities of Galilee.
And finally, today, we have that wonderful passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Again there is that same urgency about the word from God. “The appointed time has grown very short,” he writes. Be awake to the reality behind the everyday grind – no lollygagging.
Even if you have family responsibilities, live as though you had none. Stop both the mourning and rejoicing. Stop retail commerce. Stop the advertising machines. Stop the social media barrage, as Pope Francis recently suggested. Paul sounds as if he is updating Jonah’s sack cloth and ashes remedy. Judgment is coming, and this world and its seeming power, all that we see and touch and feed and fear, is in fact passing away.
The Word of God in each of these three Scripture passages is clear. The present arrangement around you, political, economic, and cultural, is about to disappear. And, strange as it may seem, this disappearance is inevitable. That great city of Nineveh, the city that was considered impregnable, was, in God’s reality, about to collapse. The great Roman empire in Jesus’ time was giving way to another kingdom not of this world. The apostle Paul wanted the people of the powerful city of Corinth to know that the present form of this world was passing away. And the remedy or the proper response is to turn around – turn right around and follow something else.
The Word of God, when it comes, reverses the powers that we think are in control of our world. What we see clearly in these great texts is that God takes a very long view of history. Every empire is being washed away, even as God’s Word and God’s kingdom, God’s way of living, approach.
I am not a huge fan of the current trend of art installations. But I confess I saw something the other day that captured by attention. If you known Queens Park at all well, you may that enormous and magnificent equestrian statue of King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son. I’ve always been drawn to it because the statue was first installed in the country of my birth, India, at the very height of the British Empire, just before it all crumbled in World War I.
The Canadian artist very skillfully made a grey plastic cast of this statue and placed this enormous toy on its side in the shallow waters of the Don River among the weeds. There it rested in reverse glory, half drowning. To complete this art installation, the artist arranged for a man (possibly First Nations) to stand in a small boat gazing upon what remained of the ‘settler culture.’ For us reading the Scriptures, it could have been, of course, any plastic cast of any equestrian statue from a previous empire. Roman, Austro-Hungarian, ancient Chinese. They all die away and are remembered only by the monuments of a faded glory.
I was struck by the piece because its message is biblical. Look at the long list of empires in succession that subjugated the children of Israel, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Greeks, the Romans, and so on. All these empires, once glittering and powerful, end up in the shallow waters. As Christians, we must see them for what they are not. They are not the kingdoms of our Lord Jesus Christ. His kingdom is both here and it is not yet here, advancing with year.
So what do we make of our texts for this morning? The un-relenting word that Jonah preached to the great city of Nineveh is a word that can still be heard in every age. Warning and judgement, yet, but salvation and hope and joy as the real goal.
And there is Jesus, the final Word, stepping out into ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” What does it mean to really hear such a word? It means first and foremost that our hearts must be first ‘shriven,’ in a state before God that acknowledges that our desires and interests that had somehow ‘wandered off’ are now focused, humble before God, and seeking absolution.
Remember those cartoons with a bearded man pacing the streets with a sandwich board or a placard which read “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at Hand”? It’s comical, not because of the way he looks, but because of the busy-ness all around the poor fellows – the cars, shoppers, those in love or daydreaming, or struggling with pain – all of them completely oblivious to a word that could change their whole city.
The reason the Book of Jonah survives in the canon of scripture is to serve as a constant reminder that in the incredible grace of God, an entire city – a center of power, like Nineveh, a juggernaut hurtling down the wrong road – can suddenly stop. And not just stop, but turn around.
Jesus came and preached. But Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us what the effect was of this preaching. What Mark records is what Jesus does to further the message behind his preaching. It was to find the team he wanted to be formed as his disciples. The word that Jesus used was simply, “Follow me.” The response recorded in the gospel is immediate. Immediately he called; immediately they left what they were doing. They turned from their nets to watch the living Word, the glory of God come into their midst. And so, with these few disciples, the world eventually changed and all the heroic equestrian statues ended upturned. “The present form of this world is passing away,” writes Paul.
Let us close with this Celtic prayer:
Lord, you have always spoken when time was ripe. Lord, you have always marked the road for the coming day; though it may be hidden, today I believe. As you call me, help me to hear your Word calling me by name, Amen.
The Rev. Ajit John is an associate priest at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, in the Diocese of Toronto.