This sermon was preached at the Preaching Excellence Conference in Richmond, VA
Using the lectionary for the third Sunday of Epiphany, Year B
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
I love that today’s readings in Jonah and Mark were paired together because I love the sense of immediacy and urgency they both conjure up.
First we have Jonah—a story every Sunday school child can recount. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs the other way, Jonah is swallowed up by a fish, Jonah is spit out onto the shore, and here we have God telling Jonah a second time—the only prophet who needs telling twice—go to Nineveh and tell the people to change their ways. And perhaps more remarkably than Jonah’s 3-day residence in a fish’s belly, the Ninevites repent! Really! Jonah says, “Watch out, Nineveh will be overturned!” And boom—the people believe, fast and repent—just like that. They change their ways, God changes the divine mind, and no one is destroyed.
Then we have Mark’s Gospel. Mark doesn’t start his gospel with the story of Jesus’ birth, but with the story of Jesus’ ministry. And here in the first chapter we have Jesus’ first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Then, walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus says to fishermen Simon and Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And boom—Simon and Andrew drop their nets right where they are and immediately follow Jesus—just like that.
To read these two stories side-by-side is almost comical because the immediate belief and response of the Ninevites and fishermen is so contrary to our own skeptical world.
I mean, really, if a total stranger were to walk up to one of us on the street and hand us a $100 bill for no particular reason, chances are we wouldn’t respond, “Gee, thanks!” but “What’s the catch?”
I have been racking my brain for several days, trying to think of a situation in which I would drop everything and respond with the immediacy of the Ninevites and fisherman. But most of the situations I can think of are either from childhood, when faith is a way of life before skepticism creeps in, or from times when I felt absolutely trapped and desperate for a way out.
Perhaps the Ninevites felt trapped and desperate when Jonah proclaimed, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Perhaps they believed, fasted and put on sackcloth because the alternative was too grim. Perhaps. But why would a people so evil and set in their ways heed the call of a prophet like Jonah?
The fishermen are a different story. They weren’t trapped. They weren’t desperate. Fishing was a good trade in Jesus’ day. And yet they weren’t children either, filled with wonder and quick to believe. They were adults working in the family business. So why would they leave their nets, their job and their family to follow Jesus?
What could be compelling enough to make them follow? What would be compelling enough to make you or me follow?
I think the answer for the disciples and for us must be: the good news—that the kingdom of God has come near. And not the kingdom of God as in a place, or a thing—but as in the reign of God in our lives.
But what does that mean? How do we describe this good news? This kingdom of God? Preachers are meant to proclaim the good news—so what is it?
When I think of the good news of God’s reign, I have to turn to Isaiah:
he has sent me to bring good news to
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
to comfort all who mourn…
to give them a garland instead
the oil of gladness instead of
the mantle of praise instead of a
They will be called oaks of
They shall build up their ancient ruins…
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because the first part of this passage is precisely what Jesus in Luke’s gospel chooses to read in the synagogue on the day he proclaims his public ministry, saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
“He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,” we read in Isaiah. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” says Jesus in Mark’s gospel.
This is what’s compelling. Broken hearts are mended. Captives are set free. Prisoners are released. And those who mourn are comforted, anointed with the oil of gladness and decorated with garlands. That which has been ruined is rebuilt and repaired—the oppressed are lifted up.
If you’ve ever felt broken or trapped or stepped on or grief stricken, this is indeed good news. This good news is for you.
But here’s the catch: the good news for you is also your good news to proclaim. The fishermen didn’t just hear Jesus and say, “Why yes, that is good news!” and then keep on fishing. They dropped their nets and followed.
We cry out to Jesus saying, “Me! Me! Mend my broken heart!” And thank God we do. But once this kingdom of God draws you in and you experience the love that God is, watch out—it is not a love that lets us sit on our hands and watch the world pass by. This love we receive, this liberation we experience, it is a call to action.
If you believe in this good news, you best be looking for broken hearts to bind up. If you believe in this good news, you better start recognizing who the captives are and start working to set them free. If you believe in this good news, get ready to rebuild what has been torn down.
The good news is messy and it is edgy and it is worth dropping our proverbial nets so we can follow the one who gives it to us.
“Believe in the good news…follow me.”
I know we’re a skeptical people. I know we have our doubts. But if the Ninevites and the fishermen can believe and be transformed by their belief, maybe we can too. This good news is just as much ours as it was theirs—ours to live and ours to give.
God, help us make it so. Amen.
 Isaiah 61:1-4