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Sermon For Sunday, 22 Jan 2012

FIRST READING Jonah 3:1–5, 10

1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

PSALM Psalm 62:5–12

5 For God alone I wait in silence; truly, my hope is in God. 6 God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall never be shaken. 7 In God is my deliverance and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge. 8 Put your trust in God always, O people, pour out your hearts before the one who is our refuge. 9 Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath; those of low estate cannot be trusted. Placed on the scales together they weigh even less than a breath. 10 Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it. 11 God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God. 12 Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord, for you repay all according to their deeds.

SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 7:29–31

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and 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 possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

GOSPEL Mark 1:14–20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

What kind of disciple are you?

I heard a tale the other day that in a way is representative of our Old and New Testament Bible readings for today. It seems there was once a fisherman who was blessed with twin sons. He and his wife loved the children very much, but couldn’t think of what to name them. Finally, after several days, the fisherman said, “Let’s not decide on names right now. I think that if we wait a bit, the names will simply occur to us.” Several weeks later, the fisherman and his wife noticed something peculiar. When left alone, an odd thing occurred; one of the boys would turn toward the sea, while the other boy would face inland. It didn’t matter which way the parents positioned the children, the same child always faced the same direction one toward the sea and the other away. “That’s it,” said the fisherman. “Let’s name the boys Towards and Away since one boy is always looking TOWARDS the sea and the other is always looking AWAY.” His wife agreed, and from that point on, the boys were simply known as TOWARDS and AWAY.
Years passed and the boys grew tall and strong. The day came when the fisherman said to his sons, “Boys, it’s time that you learned how to make a living from the sea.” So they provisioned their ship, said their goodbyes, and set sail for a three-month voyage.
But things didn’t go as planned. The three month voyage turned into three years. Naturally the fisherman’s wife feared that all three of her men had been lost at sea. One day, however, the grieving woman saw a lone man walking toward her house. She recognized him as her husband. “My goodness she exclaimed, as she ran to meet her long lost husband! What happened and where are the boys?”
The ragged fisherman began to tell his story: “We were barely one day out to sea when Towards hooked into a great fish. He fought long and hard, but the fish was more than his equal. For an entire week they wrestled upon the waves without either of them letting up. Eventually the great fish started to win the battle, and Towards was pulled over the side of our ship. He was swallowed whole, and we never saw either of them again.” “Oh dear, that must have been terrible!” said his wife. “What a huge fish that must of been!” “Yes, it was,” said the fisherman, “but you should have seen the one that got AWAY!” Corny I know, but it does illustrate that oftentimes any situation can go either way.
Our Old Testament reading is one we’ve heard many times. The story of Jonah’s call to service and his response, like our fish story, can be seen as humorous, yet tragic, at the same time. It also reminds us that our opinion of what’s right and wrong isn’t always what God sees as right and wrong. It also helps illustrate just how differently people can respond to a call of God.
The book bearing the prophet’s name records how God came to a man named Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh, a wicked city, and “preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.” In other words, his assigned task was to proclaim God’s judgment on Nineveh’s sins. But Jonah didn’t want to go. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the historic enemy of Israel. In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., the Assyrians plundered Palestine, looted and burned its cities and deported its inhabitants. And about 721 B.C., it was Assyria that destroyed the Northern Kingdom taking the inhabitants into slavery and scattering them throughout the region.
For what could easily be considered good reason, Jonah hated the Assyrians. So when God came to him and told him to preach to the people of Nineveh, Jonah went in the opposite direction. He boarded a ship traveling westward, bound for Tarshish on the coast of Spain, at the opposite end of the known world. He was fleeing from his calling; he was fleeing from the Lord. Of course, Jonah didn’t understand that Ha Shem is a universal God from whom there is no escape.
I’m sure we’ve all heard sermons before from the book of Jonah on the futility of running from God. Yet we’ve all done it or will do it at some time in our lives. We may not board ships. Instead the majority of us simply run with our hearts and minds. Many run by simply tuning God out. We ignore the voice that calls us to serve our neighbor, serve our church, serve our God. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it like this, “At each man’s birth, there comes into being an eternal vocation for him, expressly for him. To be true to himself in relation to this eternal vocation is the highest thing a man can practice.” We all have a calling and trying to run from that call can have adverse consequences.
Methodist Bishop Dr. William Willimon tells an amusing story about a young man named Sam who was quite troubled. Totally irresponsible, he made many mistakes, including flunking out of college. Forced to find a job, he met a woman at his work and married. They began attending a small church. As time went on Sam felt a tugging on his heart, as if God were calling him toward the ministry. He dreaded telling his parents. Finally however, he did. He explained, even though his life had taken uncertain twist and turns, he now felt he had found his calling. When he had finished saying this, his mother burst into tears. She cried, “I’m so ashamed! I can’t believe this has happened!” The young man was baffled by her response. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I can’t believe this has happened,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you that before you were born I had had a couple of miscarriages? I didn’t think we would ever have a child. So I promised God that if He would let me have a baby, and if it were a boy, I would name him Samuel and would dedicate him to God, just like Hannah did back in the Old Testament.” Sam couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” he asked. “You could have saved me a whole lot of trouble if you would have told me about this.” “We’re Methodists,” the mother replied. “How was I to know something like this would work? I didn’t even know that we even believed in this kind of thing. I suspect many of us would be surprised at how many of the prayers we’ve prayed over the years have been answered. Sam was destined for the ministry. He wouldn’t be content anywhere else.
Jonah tried to flee from his calling and from God. And he found out the hard way just how difficult that was. The ship that he was on encountered a vicious storm and was tossed about on the waves like a toy. The winds and the waves were so fierce that seasoned sailors begged to their gods for mercy. Finally in desperation, they cast lots in order to determine who the gods were angry with. “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?” they prayed. The lot, of course, fell upon Jonah. Jonah confessed that he had displeased his God by trying to flee from God’s presence. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” Jonah replied, “and it will become calm. It’s my fault that this great storm has come.”
To their credit, these men didn’t want to throw Jonah overboard. They did their best to row back to land. But they couldn’t. Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, don’t let us die for taking this man’s life. Don’t hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, LORD, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. And the Bible tells us that the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and he was in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights. Some might forward that this is nothing more than some fish tale; if that were the case then why did Jesus use it as an example?
It’s interesting to note that Jesus once referred to the story of Jonah. Recall if you will how Jesus told skeptics that the only sign that they would receive would be the sign of Jonah? Christ would emerge from the ground on the third day after His crucifixion just as Jonah had emerged from the belly of the fish. And like the tomb which couldn’t hold Jesus, after three days the fish coughs Jonah up on dry land alive and well, and probably well chastened.
At this point God comes to Jonah a second time and tells him to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah was in no mood to argue. He goes to Nineveh and preaches like he’d never preached before. It was a short but effective message, just 5 words in the Chaldean language. “Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown”. Forty days is all you have to repent. And much to the displeasure of Jonah, “The people of Nineveh believed God.” They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least. Even the king of Nineveh repented. He dressed in sackcloth and issued a decree of total surrender to the will of God. They even put sackcloth on their animals and no one was allowed to eat. One could say that the revival was an astounding success. Every sinner repented. Every heart was changed. You’d think that a preacher would rejoice in such a great victory; but not Jonah. The very thing Jonah feared most, occurred.
God changed His mind and decided not to destroy the city. Then we come to some of the most fascinating verses in all the Bible: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. We’ll sing these words before the gospel reading during the Lenten season. Jonah continued, “now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” The whole story is difficult for us to comprehend. Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. But our sensibilities aren’t God’s sensibilities.
God tells Jonah to go and after some special encouragement from God, he relents and preaches to the Ninevites. They believe and repent. And because they had repented, God changed His mind about destroying them. Jonah should have been thrilled. Instead Jonah was so upset that God changed His mind about destroying these people and he became so angry he asked God to take his life.
So stomping off like a three-year-old, Jonah goes and sits on a hill overlooking the city to see what would happen to Nineveh, to see if God would acknowledge Jonah’s displeasure. So God decides to have some more fun with His cantankerous prophet. God causes a plant grow up near Jonah to shade him while he sits and pouts. And the plant pleases Jonah immensely. It’s one thing to have a temper tantrum. It’s quite another to sit pouting all day in the hot sun. I mean, if he’s going to sit there until he dies, at least he should be able to do it in comfort.
Then dawn comes the next morning and the Lord sends a worm to attack the plant that’s shading Jonah so that it withers and dies. And if destroying Jonah’s shade isn’t enough, God also sends a hot east wind, and the sun beats down on Jonah’s head. The heat is so intense Jonah faints. I’ve served in the Middle East in the summer when daytime tempretures reached 130 degrees. It was so hot on the ramp that you had to wear gloves to touch the equipment or aircraft. I can appreciate the discomfort Jonah was experiencing. The heat makes Jonah so uncomfortable and so angry that again he asks God to let him die. Instead God speaks to Jonah. God asks Jonah if he’s angry over the plant dying. Jonah answered that of course he is, angry enough to die.
Then God teaches Jonah a lesson. In two of the most important verses in the Bible, God says to Jonah, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” And that’s how the book of Jonah ends. But despite the question about what happened to Jonah and the future of Nineveh, we can still learn several lessons.
First, God’s ways are not our ways and that His love is a universal love. God’s love is as certain for the people of Nineveh as it is for the people of Jerusalem or Charlotte, Phoenix or Lincolnton. God doesn’t respect nations or races or even religions. God loves all people, regardless of color, age, socioeconomic status or position in society. God isn’t interested in labels, professions or even philosophies. God is only interested in people who will turn their hearts to Him. John 3:16 doesn’t say, God so loved North America, or English speaking people, or capitalists, or liberals, or anything like that. “God so loved the world” that’s the gospel.
Next the book of Jonah teaches that God has a plan for each of us. We might be able to run for a while, but God is everywhere. As we used to say in Special Ops, you can run, but you can’t hide. God is patient, and as the story of Jonah demonstrates, God also has a sense of humor. God calls each of us to service and we must respond. We can try to run like Jonah or we can answer that call like the son’s of Zebadee did in our New Testament lesson.
Today’s Gospel is about Jesus’ calling of His first four disciples. It’s about the first people who were called to hold the job which we hold today. And while Mark’s story isn’t very elaborate, it’s short and to the point. Jesus calls and these men answer. They immediately dropped what they were doing and take up their new vocation. However, what the story doesn’t tell right away is what those men were getting into by becoming followers of Jesus. To find this information we have to keep reading. And what we discover is that being a disciple wasn’t all that glamorous. In fact, it was downright dangerous.
Later in Mark we hear Jesus say, “Whoever loses his life for My sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.” Matthew also includes another comment: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” These are disturbing statements, especially for those of us who are today’s disciples. What Jesus is saying is that being His disciple isn’t always an easy task. He’s saying that the gospel is a disturbing force in the world which can upset individuals and nations alike. It brings change and new experiences to all who hear it. And as Jonah and the Apostles found out, we might be the ones who are disturbed. We might be the ones who are on the wrong side of what seems right. Being a disciple of Christ will not always be easy, because the task of the disciple is to be the bearer of this radical gospel message. It’s a message that at times challenges the comfortable views that people hold.
We know what happened to Jesus. His message disturbed those in power and they tried to silence Him. Of the four men in this gospel text, three were executed for their witness. The powers that ruled the ancient world were upset by the gospel, and they tried to silence its voices. I’d like to be able to say that’s all ancient history, but there are still governments today which oppose the gospel. It’s important for us to realize that the truth of the gospel is like a two-edged sword: it is both comforting and disturbing. And the messengers of this gospel may find themselves similarly regarded by those who don’t want to hear that message, even in countries where Christianity is protected by law.
Jesus’ two-edged sword can also strike close to home. I wonder what Peter’s mother-in-law and wife had to say about his chasing off with an itinerant preacher. I wonder how old man Zebedee felt when his two sons simply picked up and left their half-mended nets in the boat. I suspect that the family relatives in this story were not too pleased. But that, too, is the nature of the gospel. It can upset individuals and disturb even family relationships. Jesus’ call to service can be a call that provokes controversy and difficulty.
It reminds me of Hans Luther, Martin’s father. He had dreams that his illustrious son’s practice of law would be the means of pulling their family up from their humble origins. Hans probably had dreams of his son standing before kings. And Martin did stand before kings — but it was as an outlaw, not as a champion. It’s like the man that came to his pastor one day and said, “I would like to join your church, but I have to live with my wife, and she’ll have none of that.” Jesus points us to the reality that the gospel can be disturbing, both on a world-wide basis and as close as home and family.
Why? The answer lies in the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. Once we meet Jesus Christ on the road of our own individual life, we will be changed! We can’t help but to become different people! Many try to ignore God’s call, they resist the change that the gospel brings. Many want see the gospel through rose-colored glasses — wanting to see only the joy, comfort, and light — not wanting to see the difficult or disruptive. “Behold, I will make all things new,” said Jesus. That’s the other side of the two-edged sword.
There are two important words in this morning’s gospel, one of which is the word repent! Too many folks think “repent” means to feel sorry for what you’ve done — and then, go do it again. That’s not it at all. “Repent” means to change direction. It means a change in priorities. It means living with a whole new approach to life! It means accepting God’s call for our lives and living our lives in accordance with His will. But to do this also means that we embrace the second key word, believe.
Believing doesn’t mean listing your denomination as Lutheran on some application blank. It means trust and reliance and placing one’s whole life in God’s hands, regardless of what happens in life. It’s called faith; it’s called discipleship. That’s what makes us different. That’s the kind of change that occurs when we accept God’s call rather than running from it. There’s no turning back, because it’s a difference that won’t go away.
And answering God’s call to discipleship doesn’t mean were suddenly exempt from the power of sin in our daily lives. Even Peter, one of the trusted inner three can attest to that. He denied he ever knew Jesus three times. But later he went out and wept bitterly. The change was there. He couldn’t turn back. He was changed by the power of a gospel that left an indelible mark upon his soul.
Being a disciple is a real blessing, despite the gospel’s two edges. We know that God has promised to be with us always. That means that we’re never alone in life, no matter how we may feel at a given moment, or how unsettling life’s changes may seem to be. Being a disciple means that God isn’t just a Sunday friend, but a daily companion. It means that all things “work together for good for those who love Him.” It doesn’t guarantee that we won’t get the flu or have to face unpleasant experiences. What it does mean is that as God’s follower, He will take the events of our life and turn them toward the good, even though we may not be able to see that good at the moment.
Being a disciple also means that we will be part of the greatest change of all, the time when God will change this age into the age of eternity. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ stands at the center of our faith, because we know that our mortal nature will be changed into an immortal nature. And we shall be changed — one final time.
The gospel is a great power. It shakes nations, it disturbs and changes lives. But above all, it gives new life — both for today and eternity. However, because the gospel does change people, we sometimes are tempted to hide in its words of comfort rather than embrace the new life to which it calls us.
I’d like you to consider this in closing this morning. “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would you be convicted?” We are today’s disciples, and it’s not an easy task. Thankfully, our Lord gives us the strength to do the job which He has given us. The big question is: will you be reluctant like Jonah and try to run from God or will you drop what you are doing and gladly follow? “What kind of disciple will we be?”

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