Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35)
Mark 1:14-20

And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

I know what it is like to harbor bad feelings, to withhold the words "I forgive you" from someone who has done me harm. I think we all do. I also know what it is like to say the words in a meaningless way. It is fairly easy to say “I forgive you” but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. I've said the words, I've written them on my heart, I've tried to return the relationship as it had been, but I can't. My heart aches when they say something that reminds me of the pain; I lay sleepless, writing letters in my head to remind them of the wrong. Even if I say "I forgive you," those are just words if the relationship remains broken.

Rev. Walter Everett was the father of a young man who was murdered. When he heard the news, he became very angry at the murderer. His anger began to destroy his life. At the hearing, the young man who had done this horrible act stood before the court and said he was truly sorry. A few weeks later, Rev. Everett wrote to the young man, confessed his anger and asked some questions. Then he wrote that he was glad to hear what he had said in court and though it was hard, he wrote, "I forgive you." Those three words brought the young man to his knees in his cell and he prayed for forgiveness from God. Rev. Everett and the young man continued to write and visit, sharing their faith journeys together. Rev. Everett then testified at the young man’s parole hearing. He was released early and they remained friends. They both learned about the true freedom found in forgiveness. It was also a lesson in mercy.

God forgives, but He’s also merciful. It is actually fairly easy to say “I forgive you” but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. Rev. Everett not only spoke the words, but became a traveling companion through the journey of faith in Jesus Christ with the man who killed his son. He shared the Gospel, encouraged the young man's faith and helped him become free in both spirit and flesh. That’s mercy.

Jonah was a Jew and the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of his people. Border skirmishes between the nations caused too much suffering; Jonah could not forgive. That's why he ran away when God called him to preach to Nineveh. Jonah did not want them to repent; he wanted them to experience God's pain so that they might suffer, too. But God had plans for them, so he sent his reluctant prophet into the city of sin to warn them to repent or die. Jonah's hope was that it wouldn't work, that they would just go on sinning. Yet, the word of God had an awesome affect on the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh believed the prophet, they repented and God spared them His wrath.

Sometimes we would rather hang on to the anger and bitterness than see than love our enemies. I once heard someone ask, "Is it ok to wish someone were dead?" She was upset by the actions of someone who had harmed her family and she just wanted them out of her life. We can all identify people in our lives, either past or present that were like enemies for us. The young man was an enemy to the Reverend. It does us no good to hold on to our anger; it is harmful to our spiritual and physical health. However, when we forgive, we open a world of new possibilities. Perhaps, such as in the story of the preacher and his son's murderer, we may lose an enemy and gain a brother in Christ. I'm not sure I could do the things Jonah or Rev. Everett did.

The call of God is never easy. We'd rather focus on the benefits of being a child of God, the promise of eternity and His provision in our lives. God blesses those who trust in Him, although we must be careful what we consider blessedness. Some will tell you that God has promised big cars, big houses and rose gardens. They will insist that if you love God enough, that He will ensure your health and wealth. They tell you that you will have nothing to fear because God will put a hedge around you and will protect you from all harm.

We know, however, that faith in Jesus does not guarantee warm fuzzies. The Saints from throughout the ages will tell you that it means persecution, and possibly even martyrdom. It means rejection, especially when we begin living a new and different life under God's Word. We will still get sick and we will die. We will still experience the troubles of life like lost jobs, broken relationships, natural disasters and human sin (both the harm of others' sin and the consequences of our own.) The promise of God is that He will be with us through it all and in the end we will spend eternity with Him.

In the meantime, we are called to a life of obedience to His Word. We are called to follow Him. The work may be hard; we may think we are completely unqualified, but we can trust that God will be with us through it all. When God calls He equips, provides, qualifies and enables; we may not be called to do something that is comfortable, but God will give us all we need to accomplish it.

Simon and Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Most scholars will tell you that they were probably not educated beyond the schooling they would have received as children. They were probably familiar with the scriptures, learned at the feet of their mothers. They may have had enough knowledge in the common languages of the day so that they could conduct the business of fishermen. It is likely, however, that they were strong, dirty and rough, mouths filled with foul language. Though they could have recited the psalms, they were probably more likely to tell an off-color joke. They were surely not prepared to follow Jesus. They were men of the sea, hardworking, patient and willing to endure hardship, but the life of wandering the wilderness or hanging with crowds in the villages was beyond their scope of experience. Worst of all, they were not preachers or teachers. How could God possibly call these guys to this life?

I think most of us, at some time or another, ask the same question of our own lives. "How could God possibly call me to this life?" I don't mind following Jesus, although I'd much rather if He would go the way I want to go.

We don't see that in today's Gospel story. Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John left their fishing boats "immediately" and followed Jesus. This has always struck me as amazing. Even with the Holy Spirit urging them to faith and obedience, I find it difficult to identify with someone who would leave everything without thought or consideration for the costs. I'd want a few answers, first. Where are we going? What will we do? How will we survive without nets, or jobs, or our families? Can we go home and get a change of clothes and hiking boots?

We assume by the text that they heard the call of a stranger and just left everything for him. When we see the chronology in the other Gospels, however, we realize that the four fisherman were familiar with Jesus and the work he was doing. As a matter of fact, this story does not happen until chapter four in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law after healing in the synagogue before He called the fishermen to follow Him. We don't know how long it was between the wilderness temptation and the calling of these disciples. It could have been months or even a year. We do know from Mark that the time was right; John the Baptist was arrested, passing on the work he began to the One for whom it was begun. These fishermen didn't drop everything at the call of a stranger. Andrew was a follower of John and heard John tell the crowds that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. He told Simon that they had found the Messiah. (John 1)

The fact that these guys had time to think about it doesn't make it any less amazing. As a matter of fact, thinking about it might have been the worst thing they could do. Who really walks away from a good living without considering the costs? Here's what's amazing: Jesus certainly met many people in that time between the wilderness and calling the disciples. What made him pick this rag-tag group of men? Why would He choose fishermen? Why would He pick the ones that have no experience with ministry?

He chose them for that very reason: those disciples were clay that could be molded. The religious establishment was too set in their ways, there was too much for Jesus to overcome. He chose people who weren't afraid, who could learn, whose hearts were open to the Holy Spirit's guidance. They weren't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Even after traveling with Jesus and spending all their time with Him, they did not understand. Even to the cross, the disciples thought that they were picked for a different purpose. James and John thought that they were chosen to rule with Jesus when He became king. None of them expected Jesus to surrender to the cross. They wanted to follow the Messiah. Would any of them have really followed immediately if they thought Jesus would end up on the cross?

There is a sense of urgency to the mission throughout the Gospel of Mark. The kingdom of God was at hand and Jesus knew He would not have very long to teach the disciples. Jesus never forced faith on anyone. He was received and believed through the grace of God. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter and Andrew. Jesus invited them to leave the life they knew for some unknown, and they immediately left. They did not even clean up their nets to follow Him. James and John did the same thing, leaving the responsibilities of this world to their aging father and the hired hands. I'm not sure I could do the same thing.

Add to my own doubts the reality of the world in which I live. Now that my children are grown I have more freedom to follow God's expectation of my life, but it was much harder when my children were small. I had opportunities to travel, to speak, to teach, but I always had to consider the cost. Could I get away from the children for a few days? Would Bruce be available to be there when they got home from school, to cook them dinner, to tuck them in at night? I worried that Bruce might get deployed while I was gone; I wondered if I could get home in the case of an emergency. Even now I have to consider my relationship with my husband when I make decisions, just as he does the same for me. We find it difficult to follow God because we've made promises to each other.

Paul honored marriage, but in today's epistle lesson he talks about a reality that we do not often consider. Paul wrote that the time had grown short and that Christians should keep their eyes on Jesus, 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 seems rather extreme to us, after all Jesus was not against marriage.

Paul is not telling us to reject earthly things like marriage. Paul is more concerned about sparing the Christian from the trials that occur when distracted from their calling from God. A spouse, 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 to follow 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 went immediately.

I think, sadly, we are more like Jonah. I'm sure he was a devoted Jew, willing to obey God, except for this one thing. We jump with excitement when we hear God calling us to work we like, but we tremble with fear or drag our feet when it seems His calling is something uncomfortable. Sometimes we even run away. We get angry when God accomplishes a work that seems to be against our best interests. We have to remember, though, that God doesn't call us to worthless or unimportant work. He calls us to follow Him. That might take us to places we'd rather not go.

In today's 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. We might be more likely to be like Jonah, thinking that we have a better understanding of what is happening. We are easily distracted by the world, using ever excuse to keep from following immediately. 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 psalmist writes, "Trust in him at all times." The psalmist, probably David who was having troubles of his own, knew that the best way to deal with trouble was to trust in God. David had so many enemies. His enemies wanted him dead or at least off the throne. His life and his honor were at stake. However, he knew that he could not defeat his enemies on his own. He had to wait on God, for God's plan is always right and good.

God has mercy. He had mercy on the Ninevites. He has mercy on us and He calls us to have mercy on our enemies that they might hear the Good News of forgiveness that is found in the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Psalmist reminds us that God alone is our salvation, that He is our hope, our rock, our rest. Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God who came into time and space to draw people into the kingdom of God. We are really nothing, our stuff is useless and time is fleeting, but God is strong and loving, our refuge. This God calls us to follow, to join Jesus Christ in sharing the Kingdom with the world. We need not worry that we are unprepared because He will provide us with all we need to accomplish His work in the world.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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