This is the message I presented on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 23 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Jonah 3: 1 -5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31; and Mark 1: 14 – 20.
As some of you know, when I look at the scriptures for each Sunday, I look to find the common thread among them. I think that this week the common thread is obedience. When the people of Nineveh heard Jonah, they immediately changed their ways and God spared them from the destruction that he had intended for the city.
Paul writes to the Corinthians in terms of dropping every thing that you are doing in order that they not missed what is happening. And when Jesus asked Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Him, they did so immediately, James and John leaving their father to take care of the nets.
Obedience is an interesting word. At some point in time, we have all rebelled against the concept of obedience. Sometimes it is good; other times the consequences are bad. As a child, we should be obedient to our parents but there are those times when we just don’t want to be and we pay the price. As adults in the “real” world, we find that we have to follow the orders of a boss, even at times when we just know that the orders are wrong and our boss is a down right fool.
But obedience to God is another matter entirely. Obedience to God is not simply an adherence to a static code of rules and regulations. It is an obedience that enables us to realize God’s presence in our lives every day and in every situation. When we have this obedience, it makes us easier to understand God and make more real His presence in our lives each day.
. It is perhaps the scariest thing about being a Christian for we have said that we would follow God without question or hesitation. Jonah is a pretty good example of this. When he was asked by God to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent; he rebelled and tried to hide from God. It was like God has said to one of us to go to New York City but in disobedience we went to Los Angeles or San Francisco. We are all familiar with what happened to Jonah because he initially chose to hide from God and not obey Him.
Jonah is not the only example of those who fought against the calling of God. Those who imagine that they are called to do one thing should understand that their own feelings, experiences, and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit. St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and he kicked against the pricks of the Spirit. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intentions. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called.
In all of these examples, and there are countless more, I am sure, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this – and they are constantly happening – gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way. It shows us that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.
What is it then that let the disciples drop whatever it was that they were doing and chose to follow Jesus? For each of the examples that I have listed, it is probably their faith. Faith in the value and meaning of life, even in the face of despair and death, is sometimes forgotten. But if we have a deep-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life, every experience holds a new promise, every encounter carries a new insight, and every event brings a new message. But these promises, insights, and messages have to be discovered and made visible. A Christian leader is not a leader because he or she has announced a new idea and is trying to convince others of its worth. They are leaders because the face the world with eyes full of expectation, with the expertise to take away the veil that covers its hidden potential. Christian leadership is called ministry precisely to express that, in the service of others, new life can be brought about. It is this service, done by all and not just a select few, that gives eyes to see the flower breaking through the cracks in the street, ears to hear a word of forgiveness muted by hatred and hostility, and hands to feel new life under the cover of death and destruction.
While our own personal concerns are sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, the deepest motivation for leading others to the future is hope. For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death. A Christian leader is a person of hope whose strength in the final analysis is based not on a self-confidence derived from their personality or on specific expectations for the future but on the promise given to him.
It was because of this promise that Abraham traveled to an unknown territory. It was this promise that inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery. And it is that same promise that is the guiding motivation for any Christian who keeps pointing to a new life even in the face of corruption and death.
Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in an encounter with another person and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history. Leadership is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life but rather because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event of the Resurrection. We should see this as a definitive break in the deterministic chain of human trial and error because it shows that there is life on the other side of darkness.
Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory. The most difficult thing that we will ever have to do is leave the safety of the present time and go into the future. It is an act of discipleship in which we follow the hard road of Christ, who entered death with nothing but bare hope.
To trust in the Lord is the hardest part of discipleship. The twelve chosen by Jesus were asked to follow him, with nothing to go on, with nothing to guide them but the hope that Jesus was the Messiah and that he would bring the Kingdom to earth. Jonah, after some hesitation, went to Nineveh, convinced that he would fail but finding out that he was successful.
The same is true for us. Are you ready this day to drop everything, to put aside all that you are doing. Will you be one of those that didn’t get away?