3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 22, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 62:5-12
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:14-20
By Rick Marshall

"For the form of this world is passing away." (1 Cor 7:31)

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." (Mk 1:15)

"On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. (Ps 62:7)

"When God saw what they (the people of Nineveh) did how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it." (Jonah 3:10)

There is a great deal of public debate about national security these days. The current president has taken it upon himself, as a mission, to protect the USA. As Commander-In-Chief, it is his swore duty to lead this nation in its defense. The focus of his efforts have taken on religious zeal. Questions become urgent: Were the reasons for going to war in Iraq justified? Has the war been conducted competently? Will the effort contribute to national security or compromise it? Will the costs be worth the promise of security? One economist calculated a cost/benefit assessment of the war and estimates the total cost of the war and its fallout on our society in the trillions of dollars over many years. At the heart of the debate is a theological problem: where does ultimate security come from? And to what extent can we guarantee our own security on our own terms? How are our leaders susceptible to arrogance, overreaching and sin? Where does accountability come from?

The above biblical quotes, each taken from the four texts assigned for this Sunday, point in a certain direction and, taken together, the texts can help us think about these theological questions about security.

In the Corinthian text, Paul has been giving advice on marriage and generally how to live in the world within the context of the expectation of the immanent return of Jesus Christ. His theological point is the world is passing away. This is not a cosmological point, because "the world" has to do with the way the powers that be are set up, how society is organized in unjust ways, how deathly policies are imposed, how life is hijacked by those who are rich and powerful, how coercive power is embodied in the structures of human relations. The world is passing away because the kingdom of God is emerging. The gospel, the good news of the coming kingdom of God, radically relativizes "the world." The way the world is, is not what God intends. Structures of worldly power are based on coercive power, on manipulations, on maintaining systems of oppression and injustice. Sin is deeply embedded in the world. The world rationalize its self, rewarding religion that sanctifies its power and punished those who threaten it. The Bible is a powerful critique of what it calls "empire." The United States of America is the current empire and the biblical critique of empire applies directly to the American government and its power structures. To be Christian in the empire is to critique its policies and its religion from a biblical perspective. The gospel, the Good News, is a direct challenge to empire.

Any discussion of security within the context of empire goes directly to whose interests are threatened or secured by the policies of the empire. Who defines whom as terrorist? Simply because an empires has the power to impose its will on others and harm others, does not make it Christian. Paul's advice is to sit loosely with the world. Be in the world but not of the world. In other words, do not be defined by the values of empire.

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." (Mk 1:15) This announcement is meant to be a direct challenge to the world. The good news is that there is another value system, another power, that leads to life and not death. This kingdom, or way of life, is embodied in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. The  Prince of Peace is a direct challenge to empire, any empire.

"On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. (Ps 62:7) Beyond empire, beyond the power structure of this world, beyond the self-interest and self-justification of the rich, there is another power. It is the creative, transforming power of God. That power is the basis of reality. That is the power that leads to life. That is the power that brings peace. The gospel is ultimately an open, realistic respect of reality.

The people of Nineveh are an example of how a people can turn from their sinful (worldly) ways toward life. The world can change.

Taken together, this set of texts can form the basis of a solid prophetic sermon on the Gospel's direct challenge to "the world" or the powers that be, as they are embodied in the American Empire. Without getting personal, or naming names, it would be most effective to talk about the general problems of empire and then relate them to the American Empire by implication. It's important to remain nonpartisan: the system is corrupt regardless of party affiliation. 1 Samuel 8:10-18 is especially helpful in pointing out how explicit the Bible is against empire.

Maybe a sermon could focus on what it means to say "God bless America." What would that mean coming from the power elite? What would it mean coming from the mouths of the poor and homeless? What would those words mean coming from soldiers who are put in harm's way? Or a preacher could struggle with the problem of whether or not to display the American flag in the sanctuary.

From the perspective of process theology, the power embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ is a persuasive power, power-with, not power-over, a transforming power. It is the opposite of the coercive, controlling, deathly power embodied in the empire.

A children's' sermon could focus on the problem of bullies at school. What kind of power do they have? Is it a good power? Does it work? What would be a better power? Treating others with respect?

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.