Sunday, January 22, 2006

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

God hath spoken once, Twice have I heard this, That power belongeth unto God.

Have you ever tried to get people together for a meeting? Everyone sits down with their calendar open, looking for the one day in a month that no one already has plans. One person says, "I am not available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays." Someone else says, "I can't be there on Tuesdays and Thursdays." The building you want to use is heavily booked, so your choices are even more limited. You finally find a date that is acceptable to nine out of ten of your group, but the tenth person is the one that has the resources necessary to accomplish your task. It can be very frustrating.

This happens because we are all very busy. We are busy with our work and home. Our kids are involved in school and other activities. We have our hobbies, our clubs and our leisure activities. We also have our church related activities. In the midst of it all, we have to find our priorities. What is the most important thing in our life? What matters the most? We don't want to give up anything so we try to squeeze it all in, but in the process we often miss out on things that are even more important.

How often have we missed out on the opportunity to have a nice dinner with our family because we are running out the door on our way to some sporting event? How many good-night kisses have we missed because we are stuck at the office much too late? How often have we missed out on the opportunity to serve Christ because we are too busy to follow Him?

The sporting event might be a very good thing for our kids. They learn important lessons in teamwork and sportsmanship when they play. The extra hours at work might just have been to meet an unusual need and perhaps God was able to do some amazing work through you for your co-workers. The work being done at that committee meeting might just change many lives. Our activities are not necessarily bad. However, those activities often become such a distraction that we miss hearing God calling us to service.

I suppose that's why Paul was adamant about keeping one's self from distraction. In today's epistle lesson, Paul wrote that the time had grown short and that Christians should keep their eyes on Jesus. In this passage it meant even living as though one did not have a spouse. It meant turning away from family in their greatest time of need. It meant ignoring the joyous times of life. It meant giving up all their stuff. It meant giving up all dealings with the world.

This particular passage, cut out of a chapter focusing on marriage and the Christian, seems rather extreme to us. After all, Jesus was not against marriage, neither was Paul. He encouraged those that could not stay pure to live within a Christian marriage to avoid the sins of the body. He gave men and women instructions in how to live in marriage.

He did not marry because he knew the distractions that come with family life. If we look at these verses in context, we can better understand what Paul is saying. Just before our passage Paul writes, " Yet such shall have tribulation in the flesh: and I would spare you." And immediately following, "But I would have you to be free from cares."

Unfortunately, there are those who would read the verses from Paul and think that he would have us reject all things of this world. Instead, Paul is more concerned about sparing the Christian from the trials that occur when distracted from their calling from God. A wife, the responsibilities of work and children, the care of a house and property keeps us from time that might be devoted to Christ. It is not only a matter of time. It is also a matter of the emotions that come with the relationships and responsibilities. Our hearts are torn every time we have to choose between a family need and the calling of God.

Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John were busy when Jesus happened by their boats and called them to follow Him. They dropped everything and went with Jesus. This was an incredible commitment, particularly since James and John had to walk away from their father. They could have just as easily told Jesus they'd be along when the nets were prepared or the fish caught. Instead, they dropped everything to follow Jesus.

When we think about the characters that Jesus chose to be His disciples, we can't help but think that he might have done better just to go it alone. After all, as the divine Son of God, Jesus could have certainly accomplished so much on His own. Yet, Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to join Him on His journey to the cross. He called eight others and throughout the scriptures we hear about their failings, their denial, their fear and their doubt. Yet, Christ does not call us into some solitary relationship with God. If that were the case, Jesus would not have needed to have any disciples. The message of repentance that He gave to the people did not require a group of messengers. Rather, we see in today's lesson, as well as in last week's lesson, that Christ calls us to believe within a community, to work together to share the kingdom of heaven.

The trouble with all those other things the spouse, home, family, job and activities is that they can become such a distraction that we lose sight of Christ. If Simon, Andrew, James and John had stayed at the boat to finish one project, they would have gotten caught up in something else, never really getting around to following Jesus. Eventually they would have just forgotten that Jesus even called them to His side. Jesus did not give them the time to say good-bye or have closure. The call was urgent, the following immediate.

When we begin planning that meeting time, trying to find the perfect date to suit everyone present, we lose time and energy. Instead of haggling over our calendars, perhaps those of us in leadership positions should just follow Jesus' example. We put out the call and those who hear will come. Though it might be difficult, those who are committed to the work will find a way to be present. Those that come are those who have heard God's call. Though they may be married with children, a job and other responsibilities, they recognize the voice of God in the midst of their busy-ness and find a way to keep Him first in their life.

I suppose this sounds as harsh and impossible as Paul's words in today's Gospel lesson. After all, aren't we given our spouses and children as gifts from God? Are not our very jobs another opportunity to share the Gospel of Christ? Isn't it easy to get caught up in the Gnostic notion that everyone of the world is bad and should be rejected? Simon, Andrew, James and John gave up their livelihoods and their families for the sake of following Jesus. Is that what God wants from us? I think it is important that we notice that though Jesus had many followers, only the twelve were called to wander with Him for those three years in ministry. Lazarus, Mary and Martha continued to live and work in Bethany and they were beloved friends and fervent believers in Jesus. Our place in this world is very real and need not be rejected completely.

Yet, we should also remember that the appointed time has grown even shorter in the two thousand years since Christ walked and Paul wrote his letters. God still calls us to follow Him, to be a part of His ministry in this world. In today's Old Testament lesson, we see what happens when we finally give up on ourselves and follow God's calling. Jonah, after surviving a harrowing three days in the belly of a big fish was spit onto land. In the belly he promised in prayer to God that he would make the sacrifice and go give the message of salvation to his enemies.

On that beach, barely recovered from his experience, God calls him again and sends him to Nineveh. I think it is interesting that in this story, God sends only one person Jonah. We hear that Nineveh is a big city, so big that it would take three days to walk across. Jonah goes one day and gives his sermon a short sermon at that. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." The people heard the message and repented. It almost seems too easy. God's grace had to be upon the people of Nineveh before they even heard Jonah's words. To have such a simple message do such a mighty thing, it must have been strengthened by God's power. It makes me wonder, why did He even need Jonah?

He didn't need Jonah. He called Jonah to join Him in His work in this world. God could have saved Nineveh without Jonah. Jesus could have saved the world without twelve imperfect men. Yet, God chose to include fallible human beings in His plans, to call them into His kingdom and share with them both the work and the glory of His salvation in this world.

So, once again we are drawn to the words of Paul which seem so harsh. What of our spouses that are also Christians and are called with us to be helpmates in the kingdom? Do we not find comfort in mourning as we are reminded of God's grace and the promise of eternal life? Is joy not a gift and fruit of Christ's spirit? Haven't we been blessed to be a blessing to others and aren't we called to go out into the world to share the Gospel message?

In these passages we are reminded that while our attachments in this world might be gifts and they might be useful for our ministry, God demands to be first. When He calls, He expects us to hear. His calling is urgent and our obedience should be immediate. Can God accomplish the work without us? Of course He can. Can we accomplish anything without Him? No, absolutely not. When God calls us to join Him it is because He has chosen us to the task. He does not need us, but He wants us to follow. I think we are more likely to be like Jonah, thinking that we have a better understanding of what is happening, so we try to run away. We become distracted by all those other things, using them as excuses to keep us from having to follow right this minute. We'll think about joining Him later, after we've fixed the nets or brought in the catch. Maybe then we will have a better idea of what He's planning to do. After all, what if He calls us to take the Gospel to our enemies?

The cares of the world keep us from being all that God has created us to be. We may not be called to be like Simon, Andrew, James and John, leaving everything behind to follow Jesus as He wanders around the earth. We may be like the other followers who continued to live life in their homes and villages with their families and worldly responsibilities. However, we are called. When we are called, it is best that we are not encumbered by the cares of the world. We can't hear God if we are too busy or too focused on worldly dealings. We hear when we recognize that God is our salvation, our rock and our refuge.

The psalmist understood the need to keep God as the first in his life. "Trust in him at all times, ye people; Pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us." In this psalm we are reminded that the things of this world do not offer us anything but vain hope. "Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: In the balances they will go up; They are together lighter than vanity." Through it all, we can trust that when God calls, there is power in His Word. "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that power belongeth unto God."

We are definitely caught up in a busy-ness that keeps us from immediately responding to Christ's urgent call to follow. Yet, if we considered more fully the Gospel message that we have received and that Christ has chosen us to serve with Him in taking that message to the world, we might realize that our distractions are little more than excuses keeping us from doing that which we know to be right and true. Perhaps we are afraid, like Jonah, that God will ask us to do something that we really do not want to do. Perhaps we get caught up in the cares of life and would prefer to finish preparing the nets, bringing in the catch or saying good-bye to our family. But Christ urgently to follow Him immediately because it is too easy for us to be so distracted we never get around to following.

Jesus might have chosen more competent men to be His disciples, but we can look to them for encouragement and assurance. Even when they failed, Jesus continued to love them. Even when they denied Him, feared the uncertainty and doubted their calling, He led them in the work of the Kingdom. We can rest in the knowledge that like the imperfect disciples and Jonah, if we miss Him calling the first time, He will give us another chance. As the psalmist writes, "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that power belongeth unto God." Thanks be to God.

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