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Third Sunday after the Epiphany — January 21, 2024

We can hear the urgency in the lectionary texts for January 21, but how does that translate to us today? — Stephanie Sorge

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

I’m old enough to have paid nominal fees for unique ringtones on my first few cell phones but young enough to be one who always has my phone on vibrate and prefers not to answer if I receive an actual phone call. I’m especially unlikely to answer a call from an unknown number, but if someone calls twice in a row, I figure it might be a call I need to answer.

Last week’s texts gave us some classic call stories, and this week we get a few more. Why two weeks in a row? Why two different accounts of Jesus calling the disciples? How many times will we sing, “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky”?

God’s call to Samuel in the night (1 Samuel 3:1-10) and Jesus’s invitation, “Follow me” (John 1:43), were clear and direct. This week’s texts convey urgency. Jonah has wasted time and gotten off course — he must go to Nineveh immediately. Once there, he delivers the ultimatum: four words in Hebrew saying, essentially, “40 days, you’re toast!” (Jonah 3:4). Paul reminds the church in Corinth that time is of the essence. And when John is arrested, Jesus immediately gets to work.

In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus calls to Simon and Andrew, and then James and John, all of whom respond immediately. I always feel bad for poor Zebedee, left holding his nets in the boat. Did James and John commandeer one of the smaller boats? Or did they jump in the water and swim to shore? However they got there, and when Jesus called, they responded without delay.

While Jonah and Paul both point to near-future events, Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark uses the present perfect continuous tense, indicating that the action has been completed, but the result is ongoing. The phone has rung and keeps ringing. Are you going to answer the call?

What exactly is the call? Repent! Change your hearts and lives! It’s a message I see on sandwich boards at certain intersections in my city. Often, the message is more like the one Jonah proclaimed. Repent before it’s too late. To put it more bluntly, you’re on a highway to hell, and this is the last chance exit!

Jesus’s call to repentance is not offered in anticipation of the final tick of the cosmic doomsday clock but because of what has already happened. The kingdom of God has already come. It is still unfolding. And because of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ, our hearts are changed, and we can change our lives. Because God’s realm is already unfolding in our midst, we are called to respond with lives that reflect the realm of God and anticipate its completion.

We can hear the urgency in these texts, but how does that translate to us today? Is the call the same? And is it still urgent? It’s not like the very Son of God is standing at the doors of our offices or classrooms or homes and calling us to put down what we’re doing to follow him. But if we believe that God is with us, maybe we ought to stop what we’re doing to look for God, and for signs of God at work in the world around us.

Paul’s words of warning come from a sizable passage in 1 Corinthians addressing questions around marriage and celibacy. The central concern for Paul boils down to this: what things in our lives distract us from the work to which we’ve been called? That’s a question even more relevant for us today.

We are surrounded by competing interests and messages, and everything screams urgency. It is easy to spend all of our time and energy on the urgent. Jesus pulls our focus to the important. What could be more important than joining in the work of God by following Jesus Christ? That’s our invitation to discipleship.

Thankfully, God’s work continues and is not dependent on us. We aren’t the first ones to hit ignore or decline when we first hear the call. But just as God’s work continues, so does our invitation to participate in it. The call will come again. The good news will still be good. Our hearts and lives can still change. Thanks be to God!

Questions for reflection

  1. Consider a variety of call stories — your own or others’. When has God’s call been clear? Are there times when God’s call is also urgent? How have you experienced the persistence of God’s calling in your own life?
  2. Contemporary calls to repentance in our culture often resemble Jonah’s proclamation, “Repent, or else!” Has that shaped the way we understand or use the word “repentance”? Beyond the corporate confession in worship, how do we speak about repentance in church?
  3. Is God’s call to us today urgent? If so, how? How do we adjudicate between the various important and urgent calls within our lives, including family needs, career, church involvement, community engagement, and more? What distracts or deters us from responding to God’s call?

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