The challenge I laid before us last Sunday was to listen to God, in all the various and assorted ways that God speaks to us: through people, events, epiphanies. This Sunday’s challenge is presented in our opening prayer: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call … and proclaim to all people the Good News of … salvation …” So we are not only to listen for God’s voice, but we are also to act upon it once we hear it. Come and see, as Philip said last week. “Follow me” Jesus says today….and every day. Are you ready to respond to the call?
Our Bible readings this morning give us some insights into how our responses get shaped, what influences our choice of doing this or that, what inspires us to be followers of Jesus. The story that Mark tells today takes place right after Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, and following his 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus heard John’s call – really God’s call, was baptized, and then took some time off to reflect on what just happened and what that might mean for his future. That is a great model for us: listen, act, reflect. God is constantly speaking in our lives through insights, encounters, hunches, dreams. If we are to be faith-filled followers of Jesus, we must make time and provide space in our busy lives to listen. Then we must act upon what we believe God is calling us to do. Using our wonderful human gift of reasoning, we can then reflect on how our actions did or did not proclaim the good news of salvation.
We all have had the experience of our actions having unintended consequences. We thought we were doing a good thing, but the powers that be stood in our way. We believed that we acted in a Christian way, but we were met with jeers at best, and indifference at worst. We hoped that our witness would bring others to know and love Jesus, but we were dismissed as just “pious do-gooders.” What do we do then? Give up? Lick our wounded pride and go home? Lash out at those who didn’t live up to our expectations? No. We reflect. We listen more deeply. And then we go back into the world, renewed and refreshed, and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near.”
This morning, Jesus not only announces that “the kingdom of God has come near,” but he also calls on us to repent. The call to “repent” can carry a lot of baggage with it. I grew up in a small town in Ohio. Every summer in the vacant lot down the street, a huge tent was pitched. An itinerant preacher would appear and loudly proclaim to any and all who would listen, “Repent”.
Repent because you have done something wrong. Repent because you have violated God’s laws. Repent because you have acted in a shameful way. Now we all do “wrong things,” and we all probably have violated one of God’s laws along the way and most likely we all have done something that we are ashamed of. We have not lived up to someone else’s expectations. And we have not lived up to our own expectations as to what it means to be a “good” person, a true Christian.
But repent mean a whole lot more than being ashamed or just feeling sorry. Repent means not only to acknowledge that we have not acted in the best of all possible ways but also to do something about it…to turn around, to change our mind, to commit to a different way of being. Repent means that our hearts of stone once again become hearts of flesh. Repent means that we not only seek forgiveness, but that we forgive others without ever being asked to. Repent means to put off the old and put on the new. So repent. Believe the good news. Act accordingly.
Paul called on the Corinthians to act upon their faith, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” What Paul meant by this was, that because of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, ascension and his promised return, the ways of this world no longer have the ultimate authority.
Paul doesn’t mean that marriage, or mourning, or joy or business as usual are bad things, in and of themselves. What he wants the Corinthians and us to understand is that a new light has dawned upon us, that there is more to life than meets the eye, that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways. We are not the authors of our own salvation. Jesus is. We cannot save our own souls. Only Jesus can. We are not the creator. We are the created ones. But we are God’s beloved community, filled with God’s heavenly grace and benediction, made in God’s own image and likeness. And while all that God created is good, our focus must be on God and not his creations. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. That is what Paul’s message is all about.
And as you well know, God’s kingdom doesn’t necessarily always match our hopes, our dreams, our expectations. That is the point of the story of Jonah. God called Jonah to preach repentance to his worst enemies, the inhabitants of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians were invading the Promised Land. They were killing God’s chosen people. They were destroying all the sacred places. Why in the world would God waste time by calling the Ninevites to repent? Why wouldn’t God just punish and destroy them instead? That’s must have been what Jonah was thinking. What Jonah forgot was that God loves all of creation, even those parts we don’t see as lovable. God is always calling each and every part of creation into wholeness, into reconciliation, into the fullness of God’s life and love…whether we approve or not.
Perhaps Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites because he forgot that God’s love is more immense and universal that he could ever imagine. Just because God loved the Ninevites didn’t mean that God loved Jonah any less. There is no end, no qualification, no limits to God’s love. There is enough of God’s love to encompass all creation, starting at the beginning, and not only going until the end of time, but continuing throughout all of eternity. God can and does love those we love, as well as those we might find unlovable: the homeless, the alien, the druggie, the sex worker, democrats, republicans, atheists, agnostics. And, just because God loves someone else, doesn’t mean that God loves you or me any less. God loves each of us individually, uniquely, completely. That’s what Jonah discovered when he preached to the Ninevites.
So let us listen to God’s voice. And then let us act. And then let us spend some time reflecting… remembering that the call to repent includes the call to love: to love God above all else and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
The Rev. Thomas Wilson
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31