Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Trust in him at all times, ye people; Pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.

When we listen to the story of Jonah, we often focus on how Jonah rejects the call of God, refuses to go to Nineveh and gets mad when God does what God does: gives the people a second chance. In the text today, as we hear it, the focus is turned on God. Jonah did God’s will, the people heard God’s Word, and the people believed God. Then, the most incredible thing happened: God changed His mind.

We live in a society in which changing one’s mind is seen as a form of weakness. If you change your mind, you must not know what you want or believe. If you change your mind, you must be easily swayed, blown by every wind, willing to jump over the fence for any reason. If you change your mind, then you must have discovered that you are wrong about something; if you are wrong about one thing, might you be wrong about everything? We don’t like to be wrong. We don’t like to consider that our point of view is skewed. We don’t like to show any signs of weakness, so if we hold on to our original thoughts even if we realize that we should relent, repent or change.

As parents, we often think that it would be a bad idea to change our minds about something we’ve done or said to our children. If we do, we think that the child will become confused or will think that they can manipulate us. We have to stand by our decisions, hold fast to all our rules. We can’t change because we know that our kids will not respect us if we are indecisive or are found to be wrong about something.

I hate how much time my son plays video games. I try to be patient with it because it is likely the skills he’s learned playing those video games will play a part in his future as a mechanical engineer. I laugh when I watch the show “The Big Bang Theory” because those guys are successful scientists and engineers, and their lives revolve around the very things Zack enjoys. I try to be patient because he is doing well in college and he seems to get things done, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way to spend his time and his money. While he was home for Christmas, Zack decided to exchange his old video game for a newer model. He was able to get it at a discounted price because he traded in some older games and had a coupon, but I was unhappy that he wasted his money.

Zack was very helpful around the house during Christmas vacation. Not only did he do the things that I asked him to do, he did some things without even being asked. He went above and beyond my expectations during his month home, and I was proud of him. Though not perfect, he is becoming a very responsible adult. I decided that I would buy him a game for his new system. Does this mean I am a flip flopper? Does this mean I’m weak?

When my children were small, they would often ask me for things in the grocery store. What child doesn’t try to get Mommy to buy that candy bar or new toy? Like most mothers, I didn’t give in to their every wish. Sometimes I said “No.” There was always a good reason to say “No.” If I thought it was too close to dinnertime, I didn’t buy that candy bar. If I thought the toy was inappropriate in some way, I didn’t buy that toy. I didn’t say “No” every time. I didn’t say “Yes” every time. I judged the circumstances and made a decision. But sometimes, after further reflection, I changed my mind. I decided to give in and let them get what they want.

The same can be said about some of the punishments they received over the years. In the heat of the moment I often said something I regretted later. I had to consider, then, if the punishment I meted out was proper. The danger, here, of course, is that by changing my mind, the kids might think that they could get away with the same actions that brought on the punishment in the first place. But I had to be fair. There had to be room for grace. I had to relent, repent, and change.

Have my kids turned out poorly because I changed my mind? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think they recognize the humility in admitting that I am occasionally wrong, and they respect my decisions more because I could change if the circumstances allowed for it. I don’t know what happened to the Ninevites after this story, but in our text today we see that God has given them a second chance. They heard His word, they believed and they turned to Him. Certainly God was willing to change His mind from the beginning, after all He sent Jonah to the Ninevites in the first place. He wanted them to hear. He wanted them to believe. He wanted them to change. They did, and so like a good Father, He changed with them.

Changing course in the middle of a journey is hard, but it is exciting, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set a particular route for a trip, but for some reason find myself turning another way. If I find myself in the middle of a traffic jam, I may decide to go to a different store. If I leave at an unusual hour, I might go a different direction. When it comes to my life, I am certainly going a different way than I ever expected. When I was in college, I expected to be a teacher. I didn’t expect to ever leave Pennsylvania. I never planned to be a writer. I’m not sure what I would have answered if you had asked me twenty-five years ago where I would be today, but I’m sure the answer would not have looked like my life.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be those first disciples. In the story according to Mark, the disciples seem to have no connection to Jesus or John the Baptist when Jesus called. Yet we know that they were familiar with the ministry of John from the other Gospels. When Jesus came by their boat, they probably recognized Him. That doesn’t make this story any less miraculous. When Jesus called, they immediately left everything they knew, everything they owned, everything they loved to follow Him. Simon and Andrew were in the middle of their work. Yet they left it without hesitation.

Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Did they know that Jesus would be taking them on a long and dangerous journey? Did they know they’d have to speak God’s Word into the lives of people who would not listen or believe? Did they know they would face demons and persecution? I find it hard to believe that they knew what they were getting themselves into when they left their nets by the sea. And yet, like the Ninevites, they heard the Word and believed. They turned to God.

The scriptures for this week teach us that faith means changing our point of view. It means seeing the world from a whole new perspective. Jesus turned our world upside down, calling us to live within this great and wonderful world while being different. Faith means that we are called to take God into our neighborhoods, to share a word of hope that comes from the reality of God’s grace. It means trusting in God, leaving our burdens at His feet and letting Him bring about the change that will truly make a difference. It means looking at those parts of our life that matter to us, like our marriages, from a new point of view, remember that God is not only a part of our individual lives, but that He’s in the midst of our relationships, making them new as well. Faith means being called to do a whole new thing in the world.

Faith means focusing our lives on God and what God wants. God wanted the Ninevites to be spared. God wanted the disciples to follow Jesus. Despite the fears and doubts, Jonah and the disciples went forth in faith to do what God called them to do. It could not have been easy to change the direction of their lives. For Jonah, even entering Nineveh was frightening because the Ninevites were his enemy. The disciples knew how to fish, how did Jesus ever expect that they would know how to teach people about God? Who would listen to them? Who would listen to Jonah and the disciples? Who will listen to us?

Does it matter? The call to faithful living is not about doing what others expect us to do, or even about doing what we expect to do, but it is about seeing the world from God’s point of view. It is about turning our attitudes around, trusting God and letting Him guide us into a new life. Paul knew what it was like to have to change course. He met Jesus on the road to Emmaus; he was traveling there to destroy those who believed in Jesus. After a brief, unexplainable encounter, Paul became a new man. Instead of destroying the Church, he embraced it. Instead of hurting Christians, he spoke God’s Word into the lives of many, many more people so that they, too, would believe.

Today’s epistle lesson is written in the context of marriage. Paul believed that it was best for Christians to stay single because there are far fewer distractions than those who have chosen the married life. However, Paul does not believe that everyone can or should choose to remain single. Instead of reading this text as a call to celibacy, we should read it as a call to change our mind, to turn our attention to God. In the text, Paul is adamant about keeping one’s self from distraction. The time had grown short and Christians needed to 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 and friends, ignoring the things we love most. It meant giving up all their stuff. It meant giving up all dealings with the world.

Is the time short now? We can’t possibly know the day or the hour, and it is hard to imagine that the time is still short after two thousand years. And yet we are closer to that moment than we have ever been. The time is now, as it was then, for us to keep our eyes on Jesus. We, too, are called to give up everything for the sake of Jesus and His Gospel. We are called to ignore the things we love most. We are called to give up our stuff so that we can follow Jesus wherever He leads us.

Mark uses the word “immediately” often, and we hear it twice in today’s passage. This word is used as a connective, linking one activity to the next as we might use the words “next,” “then,” or “so.” The word also gives us a sense of urgency. The time was now, not later. Jesus did not give them the time to say good-bye or have closure. The call was urgent, the following immediate.

The texts remind us that God should be first in our lives. 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. We may want to make excuses, try to follow later, but we should not be encumbered by the cares of the world. God is our salvation, our rock and our refuge. Though we might want to focus on other things, He should be first in everything.

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.” 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.” God alone is our salvation; He calls us to see the world through His eyes. He calls us to change direction, to respond to His Word and follow Him wherever He might lead.

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