The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 21 January 2017

January 21, 2018 | by Bruce Epperly

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Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Psalm 62:5-12 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20

Today’s passages reflect on the moral and spiritual dynamism of the universe and human life.  God’s time is always now, and in the now, divine and human creativity merge to create new possibilities, both positive and negative. Turning from God can lead to disaster, but with God there is hope for transformation. Now is the time for repentance and our turning unleashes divine and human positive possibilities.  

“God changed God’s mind!”  Yes, God changed God’s mind.  That’s the heart of the Book of Jonah. Such an exclamation challenges some of the most cherished theological shibboleths – divine changelessness, divine determination and predestination, and divine impassibility.  When the reluctant prophet Jonah preaches to Nineveh, he actually expects God to destroy the city.  He anticipates doom, not redemption.  He assumes the oppressor nation’s fate is sealed.  Yet, God goes beyond friend and enemy and favored nation status to redeem the people of Nineveh.  To Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites hear his words of doom, repent and that sets into motion a change not only in God’s experience to the world, but also God’s response to the world.  God feels, God changes, and God responds.  What we do makes a difference to God and conditions God’s presence in the world.

Life is a dynamic, interdependent call and response.  God calls and we respond.  Yet, there are times when we call, that is, we change and God responds.  God’s relationship to the world is primarily creative, but it is also responsive.  Authentic love listens as well as acts, whether that love is divine or human.  God’s love embraces our enemies and, in the spirit of Jonah, we should do likewise.  We should go beyond “fire and fury” to give and take relationships and the possibility of change in ourselves and those with whom we contend.  God’s circle of love is infinite and includes enemy as well as friend, evildoer as well as righteous one.  Because God never gives up, there is always the possibility of healing, redemption, and reconciliation.  (For more on the Book of Jonah, see Bruce Epperly, Jonah: When God Changes.)

Today’s preachers may feel a bit like Jonah these days.  Our leaders seem quite intentionally to be following the pathway of planetary destruction – bloviations about nuclear war, threatening destruction to national parks for short-term gain, dog whistles of racism, and intentional neglect or outright destruction of the ecosystem.  The earth is in rebellion, reflected in severe weather patterns and extended fire season.  Are we at the point of no return, when all we can do now is pronounce doom on our nation and planet?  Or will unexpected repentance lead to reprieve from God and the non-human world?

“Those of high estate are a delusion.”  Whoa!  Self-important business and political leaders are like grass.  They come and go, strutting and fretting as if they alone can bring greatness to the world and the nation, when, in fact, beneath the charade, there is no truth and gravitas.  Their wealth and power cannot insulate them from death and debilitation.  In the context of political bloviation and wars and rumors of war, the Psalmist counsels us to be still, to wait on God, knowing that God’s wisdom and power outlast even the most self-important leaders.  Rich and poor alike are mortal.  In silence, we touch the wellsprings of divine redemption. What is most important is trust in God’s love and power and not our own machinations.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians can inspire other-worldly spirituality.  The time is short; life is passing; so, don’t invest in the earth and its joys and sorrows.  All things must pass, and the brevity of life is a reminder to put first things first.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” as popular wisdom counsels.  Yet, we don’t sweat because we have a larger perspective in which success and failure are relative.  We look at the long haul, at what matters, and not short-term fame or profit.  

Temporality can tempt us to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  It can also inspire us to joyfully and lovingly exclaim “this is the day that God has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it.”  We can seize the swiftly moving moments, filled with radical amazement and inspired to add to the beauty of the earth.

Mark’s Gospel announces “now is the time, repent and believe the good news.”  The good news is that God is near, as intimate as our heartbeat or next breath.  Jesus comes to announce the nearness of God in every moment and every age.  In each passing moment, Jesus calls to us: “follow me. “ Following Jesus means different things in different eras and different moments of our lives.  The process-relational pastor can challenge her or his congregation to consider the meaning of discipleship in our time. He or she can also challenge the congregation to ponder what “good news” means in our time and place.  In an interdependent, rapidly changing world, on the “eve of destruction,” following Jesus surely means earth care, speaking for the vulnerable, challenging the powerful to compassion, and working to create a sustainable world for future generations.  The good news of salvation must be imagined as global and relational as well as individual.  (For more on the lectionary readings from Mark, see Bruce Epperly, Mark’s Holy Adventure:  Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B.)

Today’s scriptures shout out “now is the moment.  Turn from chaos to community and death to life.”  Our turning may not ensure planetary restoration, but unless we turn personally and corporately, chaos and destruction await us.  Turning toward God opens the door for the injection of new and creative, life supportive possibilities, and the energy to bring them to fruition.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod.  He also serves as a professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of 45 books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with GodProcess Spirituality: Practicing Holy AdventureAngels, Miracles, and Mysteries: A Progressive Vision, and Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. He may be reached for conversation and engagements at