Opportunity & Urgency

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time


It takes great skill to know when the time is just right. Or maybe it’s instinct. Or maybe it’s the perfect combination of the two. Good timing is an essential factor when you want to accomplish any goal, like when to combine certain ingredients in any given recipe and when to give up and order pizza, when to speak your mind and when to let sleeping dogs lie, when to quit while you’re ahead and when to throw caution to the wind and let the chips fall where they may, when to make an entrance and when to make an exit. It is usually obvious to most people when the timing is just wrong. Amateur comedians and the clueless are typically the culprits of bad timing, making comments and cracking jokes about sensitive issues before the audience is prepared to hear them. You can usually tell from their stunned silence at first, followed by audible gasps and groans, then an open display of disapproving looks and gestures.

Now the window of perfect timing is seldom that wide to start with. I am reminded of a scene in just about every movie about space travel where NASA scientists and engineers painstakingly calculate what it would take to get a spacecraft and its crew safely into orbit, then what it would take to bring them back home safe. Tensions are always high when life and death are at stake. Luckily for us and our meandering life adventures, that is not always the case. If we miss one opportunity, there’s a good chance we will get another soon.

In the passage we read from his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes with great urgency. Early in his ministry, he was more than convinced Jesus would return soon, as in sometime next year, two years tops. So he saw little need for his fellow Christians to focus on the short term—the trials and tribulations of family life, making a living, even any pressing disappointments, sorrows, and tragedies. “For the world in its present form is passing away.” It soon became evident that such was not the case. And the truth of the world’s passing away took on a whole new and different meaning. Time is short, we are reminded. Even a lifetime is short. While young people are often in a hurry to grow up and accomplish amazing things, the generations ahead of them are always telling them to slow down and smell the roses, and asking themselves where all the time has gone. And yet time marches on, its pace ever constant, neither picking up speed nor slowing down.

What he is perhaps calling our attention to is God’s window of opportunity that might contribute greater meaning and purpose to our living. When we were infants, we were in no great hurry to grow up, most likely because we had no real understanding of our potential or of our life’s purpose. But before we know it, we develop an insatiable urge to travel to amazing places, meet amazing people, and do amazing things, which isn’t at all surprising since most everyone else around us has likely gone places, and met people, and done things. So when a young life is tragically cut short by an untimely death, or their once unlimited potential impeded by illness or disability, we consider it a grave loss because we have gone further ourselves and experienced so much more by comparison. But the brevity of their journey and the scarcity of their achievements is not exactly what God considers most important. We see it all the time in people who live with profound joy and genuine purpose. What matters ultimately is not how long you live, but rather how you choose to live your life. When we look back upon our journey, and we should probably get in the habit of reflecting on our journey, what brings us greater joy is not the number of medals or trophies or plaques that grace the walls in our homes, but the remarkable enduring impression we leave behind.

Jonah was, putting it mildly, an unwilling and defiant prophet. We pick up his story late in the book, after he had received instructions from God to go to the great city of Nineveh, and preach against their wickedness, and call them to repentance. But Jonah decided instead to book passage to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh. So when their boat is caught in a terrible storm at sea, the captain pleads with everyone to call upon their gods for deliverance. Meanwhile Jonah is asleep in his room. Eventually, Jonah confesses he is running away from God, and volunteers to be thrown into the sea. Immediately the storm dies down, and a great fish swallows him whole, spewing him out on to shore after three days and three nights. A second time God called out to Jonah, and this is where our reading begins. Nineveh was an enormously great city, we are told. It took three days to walk through it. But after only one day of preaching, the people believed in God, called a fast, and put on sackcloth. It would seem Jonah’s accomplishment was a great success. But he had something else in mind. And the important point for our consideration is that despite Jonah’s resistance to God’s plan, God accomplished what he set out to do, and the great city of Nineveh was spared the destruction they deserved.

Jesus was beginning his public ministry. He would teach, heal the sick, feed the crowds, and raise the dead. But he also knew his time was short. So his urgency is understandable. “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” He would also need the assistance of close collaborators who would carry on the task of proclaiming Good News and drawing many to reconciliation with God long after he was gone. God had sent prophets and judges in times past to preach repentance and assure people of his mercy. And there would be many more in years to come who would preach repentance and assure people of his mercy. But there would only be one Jesus Christ, and his timing had to be impeccable.

The world is probably not going to end tomorrow, despite Kim Jong-Un and the government shut-down. But Paul, and Jonah, and Jesus are persistent in their urgency. And we will also probably keep doing what we want, whatever we have been doing all along, taking our sweet time, ignoring God’s messengers, resisting God’s invitation to repentance, and healing, and renewal, justifying our attention to the concerns of this passing world, measuring our success according to the number of toys we own, and the medals and trophies and plaques on our walls, and the money in our bank account.

God might have impeccable timing, but we can still ignore him. God provides us windows of opportunity to achieve what is truly important. As well God sends us signs, unmistakable and subtle signs, powerful and gentle signs. It would be tragic if when we cross the finish line, all we considered important amounted to a pile of dust, just because we chose to turn a deaf ear, thinking we had all the time in the world.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018