This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow morning at Grace Anglican Church in Fitchburg/Leominster.
One of the questions I frequently ask myself in preparation for a sermon is “where are we right now?” This could be in terms of our congregation’s spiritual condition or in terms of the Christian calendar, or any number of other things. As I looked at the texts for this Sunday I found the question of time coming to the fore:
- In terms of the calendar, we’re in this short time between the Epiphany and Lent.
- In terms of the liturgy, we’re reliving the short time of of Jesus’ ministry between his baptism and his death.
- In terms of our own lives, we’re in this short time between our own birth and death.
Looking at this “short time” we have, I want to look at how we’re called to live accordingly, first in general according to the epistle reading, and then specifically according to the Old Testament and Gospel readings.
Part I – General advice for living from I Corinthians 7
When it comes to the idea of time being short, the wisdom of the world is often “life is short, eat dessert first!” But if I could dare to put words in Paul’s mouth in light of today’s epistle reading, his response would probably be “life is short, forget dessert!” Not to say that dessert is bad, or that we shouldn’t enjoy life, but it’s a matter of priority. Let’s look at five of Paul’s main statements in this passage.
v29 – let those who have wives live as though they had none. Our relationships should be affected by the fact that time is short. Paul is not telling me that I can neglect my wife for the sake of my ministry! What he is saying is that our marriage has to deal with the reality that God has a purpose for his people. One example from earlier in the same chapter is “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” Again, Paul isn’t putting down marriage as a second-class lifestyle, he’s uplifting the value and power of the single vocation. This is, in part, why the Roman Catholic priesthood is required to be celibate. Fortunately, the Anglican Communion does not make such a requirement, though there is a place for it in our tradition.
v30 – [let] those who mourn as though they were not mourning. Our mourning should be affected by the fact that time is short. Paul doesn’t mean we can’t ever be sad, but that our underlying attitude is different from a nonchristian. As he told the Thessalonians, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” We still mourn, but we have hope! We know that those who die in Christ are really still alive in Christ, and we will see them again someday.
v30 – [let] those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing. Our parting should be affected by the fact that time is short. As Paul wrote elsewhere in this epistle, “for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” Partying, having fun, celebrating, eating and drinking, are all fine things, there’s nothing wrong with them! But if we gorging ourselves while others are starving, something’s very wrong indeed, and we need to reassess our priorities.
v30 – [let] those who buy as though they had no goods. Our financial stewardship should be affected by the fact that time is short. We all know, here, the importance of charity and tithing, so I’m not going to get into that now. But one question we do often ask ourselves is where and how we should give. I’d like to offer an example from the Early Church, as reported by a Christian in Rome named Hermas. “Practice goodness; and from the rewards of your labors, which God gives you, give to all the needy in simplicity, not hesitating as to whom you are to give or not to give. Give to all, for God wishes His gifts to be shared amongst all. They who receive, will render an account to God why and for what they have received. For the afflicted who receive will not be condemned, but they who receive on false pretenses will suffer punishment. He, then, who gives is guiltless. For as he received from the Lord, so has he accomplished his service in simplicity, not hesitating as to whom he should give and to whom he should not give.” Granted, our economic situation today is different than it was back then, but it’s good to be reminded of what radical generosity looks like, and the fact that the greater judgment is upon the one who receives and squanders, and not upon the one who gives generously.
v31 – [let] those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. Our interactions with “the world” should be affected by the fact that time is short. Sometimes Christians interpret this to mean that we need to separate ourselves from the culture and isolate ourselves. But Paul clarifies this idea in his second letter to the Corinthians: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This idea of us as ambassadors is a very important one. It simultaneously captures how we live in the world, in the present, as well as how we don’t serve this world, or the present.
Part 2 – Specific advice for living from Jonah & Mark
That phrase, “ambassadors of Christ,” bring us to my second and more specific point about living in this “short time” of life: Jesus has a call for us, to proclaim a message, for a specific purpose. In particular, there’s the matter of our answering the call, and proclaiming the message, so that all may perceive the glory of the Gospel.
First, there’s answering the call. Jonah, we know, had trouble answering his call. He was sent to Nineveh, a couple hundred miles northeast of Israel, and instead fled to Tarshish, on the Mediterranean coast, and went out to sea – westward. God had to send a storm, and a whale, and Jonah eventually went to Nineveh after all. Jesus, by contrast, answered the call pretty promptly. After his baptism he went into the wilderness for 40 days of temptation and preparation, and then came out preaching the coming of the kingdom of God. And not only that, he also started recruiting people to help him spread this message.
Second, there’s proclaiming the message. What was Jonah’s message? We see it in two pieces, both in chapter 1 and chapter 3. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against is, because its wickedness has come up before me.” And Jonah elaborated, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Sometimes people come to the story of Jonah and point out that God seems to change his mind – first his message is that Nineveh’s going to be destroyed, but then God spares them. This is missing the point. Jonah’s word to the Ninevites from the Lord is that they’ve got 40 days left. That’s not just a countdown, that’s a warning, implying a chance to repent. Furthermore, the number 40 is symbolic of cleansing and purification; Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, there was 40 days of rain while Noah was in the ark, and so on. So the Ninevites were being given a chance to repent. Meanwhile, what was Jesus’ message? “The time has come; the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” It’s exactly the same message. God is coming, there will be judgment, it’s time to repent.
Third, there’s the purpose that all my perceive. Jonah’s message resulted in repentance and prolonged life for Nineveh. He was preaching to them around 720 BC, and the city of Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes & Babylonian empires in 612 BC, roughly 92 years later. Thinking about normal lifespans, that’s easily three generations! Think about it: this city, far away from the land of Israel, came to know and worship God so truly, that their sentence of destruction took nearly a century to come back upon them. This is very much like the results of Jesus’ message, except on a smaller scale. Jonah’s preaching brought temporary salvation to one city. Jesus’ preaching brings the salvation of eternal life to all who believe! And the coverage of this salvation is so wide in scope that I couldn’t even begin to cover it all today. But I can point you to some reminders that we do rehearse every time we receive the Eucharist together. Among the prayers of consecration that we’ll hear soon are some of these gospel promises:
For in these last days, you sent [Jesus] to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
So for us, what better way to sum up the message of today’s readings than in the Collect of the Day: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all people the good news of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works. Amen!