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3rd Sunday before Advent

05 November 2021

7 November, Jonah 3.1-5,10; Psalm 62.5-end; Hebrews 9.24-end; Mark 1.14-20

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IN WORSHIP, we read the Bible selectively. We grumble if bits are left out. We grumble if too much is put in. But the Bible itself is always there for us to go back to. Whenever we leave worship wondering how the readings fit into their context, our guardian angels must be cheering us on to “come and see” (John 1.46 etc).

All today’s readings depend on us remembering their context. Two begin with words that show that they are stages in an unfolding story: “For Christ . . .”, and “Now after John . . .”. They make sense only if we keep that bigger picture in mind. We need some background to make sense of Hebrews 9.26 (disclaimer: other theological interpretations are available). Two Greek words are applied to the sacrificial death of Jesus throughout Hebrews: hapax and ephapax. Both mean “once”. The NRSV phrasing, “once for all”, emerges in eucharistic prayers to tell us that his death was a unique event that cannot be said to be re-enacted or real-ised (for example, through the eucharist, as some denominations believe).

Translating hapax and ephapax as “once for all” sounds as if it means that the death was “for everyone”, referring to people; something all-embracing. That is a fair reading of the death of Jesus, but not of the Greek of Hebrews, where the sense of the original is expressed better by the New Jerusalem Bible’s view of it as a pivotal moment, “once and for all”. Hebrews is about a unique moment in time, not the inclusion of all humankind.

Scrabbling our way to a meaning is not always so tough, or so tendentious. The Gospel is mercifully clear, and the author has done his best to make it so. We hear Jesus calling people to “believe in the good news” (v.15). That echoes the very first verse of the Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. By the time Jesus speaks directly of the good news of God, Mark has twice (1.1,14) prepared us for the content of his preaching, making us receptive to that good news, and encouraging us to trust him.

In a similar way, simple repetitions guide our absorption of the lakeside scene. “Follow me. . . They followed him.” “He called them. . . They followed him.” Two weeks ago, Blind Bartimaeus became Mark’s last example of one who responded to Jesus by following him. Today, we are right back at the beginning of it all: Simon (Peter) and Andrew left their nets; James and John left their father Zebedee. That act of leaving prepared the ground for Jesus’s teachings about letting the dead bury their dead (Luke 9.60, Matthew 8.22) or setting one’s hand to the plough and not looking back (Luke 9.62).

Whatever mistakes the disciples made later, they began with an act of outstanding faith and courage. Letting go of what we know is never easy or painless. Sometimes, the familiar — even when it encompasses suffering or abuse — feels more reassuring than the unknown. “Better the devil you know” is a piece of folk wisdom with persuasive psychology behind it. We instinctively understand why Abram’s departure from Haran was such a world-changing journey in the divine plan for humankind.

We can also sympathise with another person whom God sent on a journey: a man whose reaction was not world-changing, though it made for an unforgettable tale. This man, Jonah, did not want to go where God sent him, or do what God told him. He ran away and tried to hide from God (Genesis 3.10) — not a plan that was ever likely to succeed. Then he got angry with God for making him look ridiculous (Jonah 4.1).

This tiny prophetic book covers less than four pages of my RSV Study Bible. Yet its message is every bit as important as that woven into the story of Abraham. For if we read the whole book (it only takes a few minutes), we discover two messages. One is that God is persistent when he calls us, and that if we do not respond at once, he will simply keep calling until we give in and respond (see also 1 Samuel 3). The other is as truly a foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of Jesus as anything in all scripture: that it is God’s divine prerogative to show pity — even upon people who, in our opinion, do not deserve it.

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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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