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Sermon for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

 The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.


Psalm 62

 1For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. 2He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken. 3How long will you assail me to crush me, all of you together, as if you were a leaning fence, a toppling wall? 4They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor; lies are their chief delight. 5They bless with their lips, but in their hearts they curse. 6For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. 7He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. 8In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge. 9Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge. 10Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted. 11On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together. 12Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it. 13God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God. 14Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, for you repay everyone according to his deeds.


Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-35

 29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.


Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

 14After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 16Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.


It’s My Life, or is it?

“It’s my life.  I’ll do what I want with it.”  Or, “it’s my body, I’m the one who has the ultimate say over what happens to it and in it.”  What do you think?  How do we respond to such statements?  Our society today wants us to believe that this is my life and it’s mine to do with whatever I please.  What I do is no one’s business but my own.  In one sense, and one sense only, these are accurate statements.  Our life has been entrusted to each of us.  My life has been entrusted to me and yours to you.  We can do with our lives whatever we please.  We’ve been given the ability to choose.

We can choose to mess it up, even waste it.  Or we can make something of our lives that is useful and noble.  God gave us a mind to think, a will to decide, and the freedom to choose.  In this sense, as long as no one else is affected by our decisions, and what we’re doing is in accordance with the current laws, no one has any power to stop us.  We are free.  Stop and think about what a gift that is.  And what a responsibility it is as well.

God has created each of us to be a special and unique individual.  In the entire world, there is no one else exactly like you.  You have been created to become a person that no one else can be.  And God has a plan for each of us, and only you can be the person God intends.  God has gifted each of us with certain talents, inclinations, temperaments, and gifts, to enable us to become that one of a kind special person.  But, because God wants us to be persons, and not puppets, He has set us free.

God wants the relationships of life to be real – relationships between us and others, relationships between us and God.  And the only way for relationships to be real is for them to be entered into freely.  That’s one of the things that impresses me about God – He loves us so much that He has given us freedom.  He allows us to do with our lives whatever we please.  We can mess them up, or we can fulfill God’s plan for us.  But the choice is ours.  We are free to choose.  However, there are two things we must consider.

First, as we confess each Sunday, we are captive to sin, and we cannot free ourselves.  Because we were born in sin, we sin each day in thought, word, and deed.  Thankfully, God, because He cares, frees us from that bondage to sin.  God calls out to us and reaches out to us and pleads with us.  And God isn’t the only one who cares, other people can, and do, care what we do with our lives.  But neither God nor anyone else who cares for us has the power to compel us.  We can do with our lives whatever we please.

Having said that, we must also recognize something else; while we are free to do whatever we please with our lives, we are not free to make them turn out the way we want.  Whenever we use our freedom to make decisions and to take actions, there are always consequences.  If we do what’s right, there are usually positive consequences.  If we do things wrong, there are negative consequences.  But, for every action we take, there are consequences.  From the beginning to the end, the Bible insists that we’re living in a morally dependable world.

Our choices are not a matter of indifference, something important is at stake when we’re deciding how to live our lives.  That’s the way it is because that’s the way God has created the world to be.  Our decisions are important because we’re important.  Therefore, just living any old way won’t do!  The Bible is clear: in Galatians 6:7 we read, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.”

When you jump off a three story building, you can expect the law of gravity to take you to the ground.  The moral law works just as dependably.  The law of sowing and reaping works just as dependably.  If you lie continually, don’t expect to be trusted.  If you are undependable, don’t expect to be relied upon.  If you fail to give your best efforts at work, don’t expect to be promoted.  If you refuse to study, don’t expect to make good grades.  If you don’t care about other people, and if you’re unwilling to put yourself out for them, don’t expect to have people lining up to be your friends.  If you neglect prayer and worship and the reading of scripture, don’t expect to be growing ever closer to God.  What you sow, you reap.  You can count on it.  It’s a law.  We are free to do what we please with our lives, but we are not free to manipulate the results so that a life lived poorly will turn out well.  It won’t happen!

What I’m talking about is one of life’s most difficult lessons.  It’s a difficult lesson because we like to rationalize that morals are for other people.  We make excuses by saying that consequences are things that happen to other people.  The sin within us makes us think of ourselves as the exception to the rule.  Isn’t it amazing how we rationalize ways to let ourselves off the hook.  How often have you heard someone say, “I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t think anything bad would happen to me.”  Too late they learned that the moral law is no respecter of persons.  We will reap what we sow.

I remember the young doctor in one of Lloyd Douglas’ novels.  He was bright, gifted, at the outset, idealistic.  But, over time, he cut a corner here, made a compromise with his values there, until the night came when he came face to face with himself as he had become, and he didn’t like the sight.  In a drunken stupor he cried out, “You thought you could get away with it.  You thought you were getting away with it.  But, by God, you weren’t!”  It’s true, every day we sit down to a banquet of consequences.  And we don’t always like the taste of them.

God has designed this world to function in a certain way.  If we cooperate with God’s intentions, by and large life is good.  But if we play fast and loose with God’s intentions, we will suffer the consequences, and we will cause other people to suffer the consequences of that as well.  There is a way that leads to life.  It’s God’s way.  Yes, we’re free to choose a different path, but if we do, we’ll miss it.  We’ll blow it.  We’ll mess it up – because God has designed all of life to function according to His way.

God has given us the ability to choose, our lives are ours.  We can do with them as we please, experiencing the consequences of that, both positive and negative.  But, if we’re at all sensitive and responsible, we know that there’s a claim placed upon our lives by everyone who has ever loved us.  And our best chance in life is to respond to that love as it calls forth the best from within us.

St. Paul, in our Second Reading for today tells us: “You are not your own.  You were bought with a price.”  Teachers, coaches, friends, family members pay the price with their love.  And, supremely, Christ paid it with His ultimate love given to us at the cross.  Think back over your life and I know you’ll agree that everything good in life is the result of someone’s love.  By their love so many people have invited us into good experiences.  By their love, they have forgiven us and set us free of guilt. By their love they have encouraged us, supported us, and believed in us.  By their love they have called forth the best from within each of us.

If we’re willing to acknowledge this, if we care at all about that, how then can we live our lives just any old way?  To do so would be to turn our backs on all those who have invested themselves in us?  To do so would be to say that their love doesn’t matter.  I can’t do that.  Every person who has ever loved me has placed a claim upon me.  And the more I acknowledge that, and the more my life is influenced by that, the more I’m better as a result of that.

At the outset, acknowledging that I am not my own may feel restrictive, limiting.  However, the reality is, it’s the source of our greatest freedom.  Not the false freedom to do as we please, but that greatest freedom, the freedom to do what we ought, to be what we ought to be, to be what God intends us to be.  Love sets us free to be the best we can be!  When Paul was writing his letter to the Church at Corinth, he wrote, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price,” he was talking about God’s love which comes to us through Christ.  He was talking about that redemptive, saving love which places an ultimate claim upon us.

Think about it.  God – the designer and creator of everything – the one who sustains all life and the one who provides for all our needs – that infinite, inexpressible, all-powerful God loves us so much that He had to find a way to get through to us.  For years He sent prophets and priests and holy people to spread His word.  But it wasn’t enough.  Finally, He sent His Son.  Jesus took upon Himself our weakness, our vulnerability.  He was rejected, betrayed, falsely accused, unjustly condemned, tortured, ridiculed, and finally nailed to a cross and left there to die.  All of that just to get through to us, to let us know of the depth of His love.  If that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what more God can do!  What more can one give than their very life?

So, the hard question to ask is, how can we turn our backs on a love like that?  How can we live our lives indifferent to a love like that?  Oh, we’re free to do it.  We can walk away from it and do our own thing if we’re determined to.  But we must remember, there are consequences that come with our decisions.  When we reject God’s love and its claim upon us, we’re turning our backs on our best selves.  And we’re letting that abundant life that Jesus talked about slip through the cracks in our fingers.  “You are not your own” – not if you’re sensitive, not if you’re responsive – “You are not your own.  You were bought with a price.”  Christ’s great love has placed a claim upon us!

In Mississippi there lives a woman who is old and tired.  Her life has been hard, given generously on behalf of her only daughter.  Her husband left her before their child was born.  The wife wasn’t well educated.  She had no work experience, not well equipped to do very much.  So, she took in sewing to support herself and her little girl.  She worked late into the night most evenings so that she would have time during the day to spend with her daughter.  She tried to make up for the fact that she didn’t have a father.  She made all her daughter’s clothes by hand.  They were not only as good as, they were better than anyone else’s in school.  She always had party dresses and spending money, and all the rest.  Her mother saw to it.

The daughter grew up and got into trouble.  Her mother bailed her out.  She was married and divorced, and her mother came to her rescue.  The mother lived all her life on the ragged edge of poverty, but she never turned down a call from her daughter.  Today the mother is old and wrinkled and tired.  But she works on.  She must.  She was never able to save anything because her daughter always needed something.

Perhaps the mother gave too much.  Maybe she was overindulgent.  Maybe she tried too hard to compensate for the lack of a father.  I don’t know about any of that.  But I know the day will never come when that daughter will have a right to say, “This is my life and I will do what I please with it.”  No, her mother’s love has placed a claim upon her, and that love is her best hope in life.

The truth is, everyone who has ever loved you has placed a claim upon you.  Especially, God’s great love made known to us in Jesus Christ has placed a claim upon us.  When we acknowledge this fact and live our lives in the strength of that, then it saves us, and we’re never again the same.

For those who have receive the Lutherans for Life quarterly magazine, you know that today has been designated as “Life Sunday.”  For a good many folks, when they hear the topic of sanctity of life, they automatically think of the subject of abortions.  But when Lutherans, and others I’m sure, talk about the sanctity of life, we’re talking about the precious gift of life from conception to last breath.  All life is a gift of God and should be guarded and treated with awe and respect.  We belong to God and all our decisions should be made with that in mind.

Yes, probably the most visible activities of life marches are centered around preserving life in the womb, but rest assured those who are actively upholding the value life are just as concerned about the dignified treatment of the aged, of efforts to legalize Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide and of suicide itself, as they are about preventing abortions.  All life is precious from conception to last breath, and we need to keep in mind what is written in Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  God gave us life and we must respect His amazing creative work.

God formed us and He gave us life and as the psalmist says, we were “fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14).  The Hebrew word used here for fearfully is no-rA-oat, which means that we were made in a respect filled way, a way that inspires awe, amazement, and honor.  We know from other passages in the Bible that we are loved by God and that our life is precious to Him.  So precious in fact, He sent Jesus to redeem us and save us from our sins.  This is why St. Paul writes in our Corinthians reading for today, “do you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?  You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  And because we are not our own, we are called to “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).


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