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Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 3B

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On the Third Sunday of Epiphany each year, we walk with Jesus through the episodes of his early ministry in Galilee (northern Palestine). At this juncture in the church year, the church selects Gospel readings that highlight our Lord’s earliest preaching events, the various responses of the people to hearing his teaching, and his labor to form the community of disciples. In Year B, from the appointed Gospel reading out of Mark 1:14-20, we hear that all-important summary of Jesus’ preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (15), followed by the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John into service with the compelling invitation, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (17). 

Out of the assigned OT reading from Jeremiah 3:19-4:4, we overhear the prophet’s presentation of a dialogue between YHWH and the people of Israel. The church would have us hear God’s crying out in this reading, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness” (22) as a parallel to Jesus’ preaching, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Sponsored

We are meant to listen for the responses of Israel in Jeremiah, alongside those of the characters in Mark, and contemplate our own responses, individual and corporate, to the call of God to proclaim the Good News. By reciting the words of the assigned Psalm 130, we put ourselves in the right frame of mind to answer the summons of God to us: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! (1); and then to wait expectantly for the strengthening of the Lord, I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (5).

Our Sunday contemplation of the middle chapters of 1 Corinthians takes us to the assigned NT reading from 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Into a lengthy discourse to the Corinthians on matters regarding Christian marriage, Paul inserts what he terms a general rule in all the churches that every Christian should lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him (17). On a Sunday in which the other three readings evoke an enthusiastic response to the call of God to ministry in life, this teaching will add the caveat that we stick with it afterward. In keeping with the Scripture readings, the assigned Collect is our plea to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ,” and in doing so, to join the larger mission of God to “proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”  

The Collect

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Circumcise Yourselves to the LORD (Jeremiah 3:19-4:4)

For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:
“Break up your fallow ground,
    and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord;
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
    and burn with none to quench it,
    because of the evil of your deeds” (4:3-4).

Yahweh’s crying out “return” to the people of Judah in this passage and the people’s ready response Behold, we come to you (3:22), is a parallel to Jesus summoning the fishermen and their immediate surrender of everything to follow in the assigned Gospel reading (Mk. 4:14ff). The coupling of images of plowing ground and circumcision at the end of the passage seems strange, but consider this: Plowing and circumcision are both activities defined by cutting in. And the commands to Break up your fallow ground and to remove the foreskin of your hearts require cutting in further, deeper, and wider.  

Spiritually, we can easily find ourselves working over the same small parcels of surrendering without allowing the Lord access to the outlying (or deeply buried) areas that he also wants for himself. The word of God reaches for the outlying sections only to find them still fallow due to a lack of repentance, like sowing seed among thorns and circumcising the body but not the heart. I have noticed in myself this settling for less with God is especially problematic as I get older. So Oswald Chambers writes, “There is no joy in the soul that has forgotten what God prizes.”  

Today, in the Spirit, ask Jesus to show you the areas of your life that require your cutting in further and for the strength to repent that he might have it, all of you.  

My Soul Waits (Psalm 130)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love, 
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

This is a psalm that comes up often in the three-year lectionary cycle. This year alone, we may be reciting these words at three key times: this Sunday, Good Friday, and early Pentecost (Proper 5B). Though the song was likely written as a liturgical piece for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, its appeal is the sense of personal devotion. At any time, but especially in moments of crisis, we can join in from the opening lines: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  

Dear Jesus, I know and trust in the promises of forgiveness that come to me from the Scriptures–Come to me…and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28); In [Christ], we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (Ephesians 1:7); If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And yet, with all that, like the psalmist I find myself waiting, in that place between confession of sin and assurance of restoration where I feel myself in a quiet, wintered forest, beautiful yet barren, still but cold. I wait for the morning. And even as I wait, I still do encourage my brothers and sisters to hope in the Lord. I know you are there, even there in the silence.

Today, in the Spirit, saying the words of this psalm on Sunday, I fix myself on that inner place where the pilgrims to Zion find themselves, rejoicing in your forgiveness heart and waiting for the morning to come with the rising of the Son.  

Lead the Life that the Lord Has Assigned Him (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

Reading a passage like this, our instincts for self-preservation and self-justification rise up within us like hot blood to the brain–first, to question the extreme language: Surely, when Paul uses the terms all or each one, he can’t mean that literally, can he? And, then, to run for shelter behind ambiguous terms: What does when called (the translation of the Greek καλέω used ten times in this text) really mean when we become aware of Christ? Baptized? Converted? It is no doubt conversion, but what does that mean for generations of Christians after Paul who were born into the faith? Devotionally, we do well to bypass these considerations and ask instead why Paul would counsel and command Christians to remain in the condition in which he was called (literally, “in the calling which he is called”). 

Why? Taking the focus off ourselves and our individual circumstances, turning to the larger movement of the gospel, we may find that the apostle’s concern is not just the personal happiness of the believer but also what God can accomplish toward his saving purposes through believers who remain in unfavorable personal circumstances. Later in this chapter, Paul explains that the appointed time (for the gospel, before the return of Christ ) has grown very short (29). Earlier, he teaches it is possible for an unbelieving spouse to be made holy by a believing one (14). Paul does concede that God has called (there’s that word again) us to peace (15), but we need as Christians to seriously consider in each case the call of God to stay as well as the permission to go.

Today, in the Spirit, hearing Paul’s teaching to remain where I am in my personal circumstances, I relinquish the right to determine for myself what is best and give God the right to call me as his servant to assign me as he sees fit.

I Will Make You Become Fishers of Men (Mark 1:14-20)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.

One might think Jesus would have stood little chance to win over these four–Andrew, Peter, James, and John—in how he approaches them. This time, they were not “on retreat” in Judea like they (at least Peter and Andrew) were when they met Jesus the first time (see John 1:35-41). This time, by the sea, in their hometown, they were busy working. They also had family and friends around watching the proceedings. It is logical to think the pressure for them to do just the opposite of what they did–leave their nets and go–would be enormously high. But the four of them do go with Jesus. How can that be explained?

One answer might be that in this instance, recorded in Mark and Matthew, Jesus approaches them (not the other way around as before) and challenges them to become fishers of men. In saying this, Jesus was not only speaking to them in a language they could understand but also addressing in them a deeply felt need in their hearts. No doubt, after meeting the Messiah in Judea earlier, they were impressed, and the longing to give themselves to the things of God was growing within them. In his book “The Celtic Way of Evangelism,”

George Hunter commends the missionaries of the fourth-century Celtic Christian movement in Ireland and Britain for attending to what anthropologists call the “middle-level issues of life”—not ultimate issues such as God, heaven, and hell, but everyday issues like purpose for everyday living, dealing with common adversities and who to consult in times of trouble. Hunter observes: “Western Christianity usually ignores the middle level that drives people’s lives most of the time…[Celtic] Christian faith and community addressed life as a whole and may have addressed the middle level more specifically, comprehensively, and powerfully than any other Christian movement ever has.” The Celtic Christians learned from the ministry of Jesus himself, as seen in this narrative.

Today, dear Jesus, through your Spirit, speak into the felt needs of my everyday life as you did to your first disciples and build me up in the skills to do the same for others.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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