Sermon–January 21, 2018


3 Epiphany—B

January 21, 2018

William Bradbury

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:6-14, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

The Book of Jonah is a parable, not a history, about God’s call and our response: The parable opens with God’s first call to Jonah: Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Not happening says Jonah: “Jonah set out in the opposite direction to flee from the presence of the Lord. He…found a ship going to Tarshish; so he pays his fare and goes on board, to get away from the presence of the Lord.”

We remember what happens: there is a violent storm at sea, the sailors throw the cargo overboard to lighten the load, then they try to row to land. Finally, they figure out that Jonah is the cause of this storm, and Jonah, to his credit, tells them to throw him overboard and save themselves. So they throw him overboard, the waves calm down, and the ship is saved.

But God is not through with Jonah, because God’s call isn’t a one shot thing and that call is stronger than our resistance. So instead of letting Jonah drown in the waters of chaos for his disobedience, God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah and after three days and three nights the fish pukes him up onto the beach.

And that’s where our reading today starts today: We are told “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And guess what–now Jonah obeys God’s call and heads to Nineveh, to proclaim the message of repentance. He’s not a happy camper, especially when Nineveh repents of its sin and turns to God, but we’ll have to save that part for later.

Unlike Jonah, when the call comes to Peter, Andrew, James, and John they drop everything and follow Jesus. On the natural level this makes little sense. Surely there is a missing middle chapter between the calling and the following, where they consider running in the other direction.

But the fact is no matter what happens between the calling and the following, the four young men do leave behind work, family, and home, as well as taken on a life of tremendous risk following this unproven rabbi.

How do we explain such a thing? Maybe there are psychological reasons—they hate this life they’ve inherited. Maybe they want to strike out on their own to find, as the Dixie Chicks sang, “Wide Open Spaces—the room to make her big mistake.” There may be economic reasons: maybe this has been a bad year for fishing. God will use any handle he can to get us to choose our authentic selves in Christ.

But the deepest reason they follow Jesus is Jesus. Something about him hooks them in them deeply and they feel their life depends on going with him.

Young people do this kind of thing all the time: As a college student I remember seeing the Hare Krishna’s at the Old Atlanta Airport, with their tambourines, Eastern robes, and shaved heads and wondering what in the world got into these American kids?

But then who can explain why a life-long, middle of the road guy like me joined conservative Campus Crusade for Christ? Who can explain how you ended up at All Saints’ Church engaged in the counter-cultural activity of worshipping to the Jew from Nazareth?

What must poor Zebedee think as his sons walk away to follow this Jesus in order to fish for people, whatever that is?

When they walk away from his boat Zebedee is watching his pension fund and old age retirement walk away too. How could they? Isn’t this a violation of the commandment to honor your father and mother?

Most of us aren’t so radical. Don’t we see ourselves doing the same thing or do we imagine there are levels of participation?

One common ploy is to say, “Well, today, all Jesus is interested in is giving us a warm feeling in our hearts while we keep to our old familiar, comfortable life.It shouldn’t cost us a thing.”

Others escape the bite of the call by saying, “No, Jesus calls us today, so that when we die we will go to heaven, therefore in the meantime, we can carry on with our lives without worrying about Jesus upsetting our carefully controlled lives.”

Lastly, some try to escape the demand of the call of Jesus by thinking that the four young men must have had great faith to do this. And since we don’t have that faith, we don’t have worry about ever following Jesus. It’s for people like Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, not ordinary people like us.

All three ways—becoming a little more pious, waiting till we die and go to heaven, and judging we don’t have enough faith to respond—are evasions and not much different from what Jonah does in getting on the boat to Tarshish.

But these evasions miss a strange, yet key fact about following the call: the four young men don’t follow Jesus because they have great faith in him. They follow him as an act of obedience and in obeying him they find their faith starts to grow.

German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that we don’t need to grow our faith so one day in the distant future we can follow Jesus. Rather, the reality is that as we take little steps to obey Jesus we find our faith starts to come to life.

As he says, “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” The disciples’ “response is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.”

It’s like those rabbis who say the waters of the Red Sea do not start to recede until Moses in obedience to God starts wading into the Red Sea.

I’ve seen this over and over: I remember a retired military guy named Robert in North Carolina who one day helps a man living in a burned-out van and before too long Robert is helping the local churches start a homeless shelter for all the others Robert finds who are living on the streets.

Like Jonah we can run from God’s call to follow him, but that won’t stop God from pursuing us, because God means to use us for the healing of the world: to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Jesus’ first words to Peter this morning are follow me.

And his last words to Peter in the Gospel of John after the resurrection as the same: Follow me.

He calls us because he loves us and wants us to find the lives we were created for.

Don’t worry about not having enough faith. No one does. Just take the first small step of obedience and see what Jesus does in your life.