Sunday’s sermon: An Urgent Mission

following

Texts used – Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

  • The idea and importance of “following” is engrained in us as children, isn’t it?
    • Elementary school: following in a nice, quiet, straight line from classroom to lunch … art … music … gym … everywhere you’re going
      • “Top Banana” from 2nd grade
    • Games that we play
      • Simon Says
      • Follow the Leader
      • New video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band (the better you follow what’s going on on the screen, the more points you get)
      • Progressive movement/name games: first person either says their name or does an action → 2nd person has to repeat the 1st person, then add their own name/action → 3rd person repeats what both the 1st and 2nd person said/did → And so on.
    • Also a powerful method of teaching young children things
      • “Can you use your spoon like Daddy?”
      • “Can you brush your teeth like Mommy?”
      • Imitations/following = critical tool in play therapy for things like speech correction, occupational therapy (both gross and fine motor skills), physical therapy, music therapy (think about teaching a new song or “call and response” songs)
    • From a very early age, we are taught the power of following – of modeling behavior after someone else’s example. → no different in the church
      • Called to follow Scripture – read, interpret, embody
      • Called to follow some basic tenets
        • Scriptural e.g.s – 10 commandments, Jesus’ commandments
        • Church e.g. – confessions (Apostle’s Creed, Heidelberg Catechism, Brief Statement of Faith, Confession of Belhar) → As Presbyterians, we are a confessional church. We place value in the interpretations and statements of faith of those who have come before us.
      • And, of course, we are called to follow Christ, not just in name but in thought, word, and deed. But when it comes to following Christ, how do we follow? Do we follow blindly? Do we follow half-heartedly? Do we follow enthusiastically? Do we even follow at all?
    • Today’s Scripture readings = three very different examples of ways in which to follow the call of God
  • First e.g. = Jonah → I think if we were to boil Jonah’s form of following down into one word, it would be: reluctantly.
    • Today’s reading comes from ch. 3 → literally halfway through Jonah’s story (only 4 short chapters in the OT)
    • Reminder of Jonah’s backstory
      • Jonah = rock star prophet enjoying a cushy life of notoriety and praise → abnormal because most prophets were scorned, reviled, and mistreated, even threatened
      • Out of this life, God calls Jonah to Nineveh the first time: The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”[1]
      • Jonah’s response: So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.[2]  → Now, let’s put this journey in perspective a little bit. If you picture a map of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East …
        • Joppa – city from which Jonah departed = located just 40 miles west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea.
        • Nineveh = located in what is northern Iraq today (just across the river from Mosul)
        • Tarshish – city to which Jonah was trying to flee from God’s call = all the way across the Mediterranean Sea in the southern tip of Spain.
        • So from Iraq all the way to Spain – 2641 miles. That is how far Jonah was trying to run. That is how far Jonah was willing to go to avoid following God.
      • While Jonah’s on the ship headed for Tarshish, God causes a great storm → sailors on the ship draw lots to see whose bad luck is causing the danger → lo and behold, Jonah draws the short straw! → admits that he is trying to run away from his God → sailors throw Jonah overboard → Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish → in the belly of the fish, Jonah has a change of heart → fish spits Jonah out on the shore
    • Come to today’s text: The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word.[3]  → So Jonah does indeed end up eventually following God, but he does so reluctantly. Jonah has to basically be dragged into following by God.
      • Sometimes like the way we follow God → We feel God’s pull down one path or another, but it looks hard … it looks scary … it looks intimidating. In all honesty, we want to go any way but that way!
  • Second e.g. of following = Ninevites → I think we can categorize the way that the Ninevites follow as “reminder following.”
    • Jonah’s only being called there because the Ninevites have forgotten God’s call and commandments → Remember God’s words to Jonah the first time he is called to Nineveh? “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
      • The Ninevites know about God and all God’s commandments, but they have fallen away – distracted and corrupted by other things → So Jonah goes with the message that God sent him to deliver – text: Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[4]
    • Ninevites response: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. … God saw what they were doing – that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.[5]  → So once they’ve been reminded of the way they should go – the way they should follow – the Ninevites are once again “back on track.” They acknowledge their mistake, ask for forgiveness, and turn their eyes, hearts, and lives back toward God.
      • Not so different from the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt
      • Not so different from the disciples – especially Peter – returning to Jesus after they scattered following his arrest and crucifixion
      • Not so different from the way we follow sometimes, is it? → We get distracted. We lose our way. We stumble and fall. We need to be reminded of the way that God is calling us to go.
  • Final e.g. of following today = disciples in our Gospel story → I definitely think we can categorize the disciples’ following as urgent.
    • Story comes on the heels of what we read a couple of weeks ago – Jesus’ baptism in Mk → talked a few weeks ago about the secrecy of that – how, at least according to Mk’s telling – Jesus was the only one to witness the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and hear God’s pronouncement: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[6]
    • Today’s scene = Jesus sort of wandering around proclaiming, “Now is he time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[7]  → Jesus may remain secretive about the part that he will play in the coming of this Kingdom, but he is definitely not subtle in his approach!
      • Interesting scene because at this point, no one really knows who Jesus is yet! → just some random guy walking around and hollering about God and the Kingdom and repentance
    • But then Jesus comes to the seashore. And things start to happen – text: As Jesus passed along the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away (immediately!), they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s songs, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment (immediately!) he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.[8]  → There is so much urgency in this text. Maybe not in the way Jesus in traveling – simply strolling along the beach – but Jesus is undeniably urgent in the way he calls the disciples, and they are undeniably urgent in their response to follow.
      • Andrew and Simon (who will become Peter) drop their nets – their very livelihood – the only life they’ve ever known → Remember, these men are simple fishermen. They’d never had any schooling. They probably couldn’t even read or write. They’d probably never been more than 10 miles from the home in which they were born. But they dropped all of that and started following.
        • Apprehensive? Probably.
        • Afraid? Sure.
        • Uncertain? No doubt.
        • But still, they immediately left their nets and followed.
      • James and John literally walked away from their family → father in the boat with them and hired hands mending nets, but when Jesus called (urgency being on Jesus’ part this time: “Immediately he called them”), they followed him, leaving their father behind
        • Leaving the familiar
        • Leaving the comfortable
        • Leaving the strongest tie they could possibly have – that familial, tradesman, pass-down-my-knowledge-and-my-business-to-you-when-I’m-gone kind of tie
          • Bond can be strong today but was absolutely crucial to survival back in Jesus’ time → Remember, there were no colleges or trade schools for these disciples to go to if this “Jesus thing” didn’t work out. The only way they could learn a trade was either from family or to apprentice under someone else. So abandoning their father and that business so abruptly pretty much obliterated whatever livelihood, whatever life they thought they were going to have up until that very moment.
          • Were there others they were leaving behind? Siblings? Fiancé? Wife? Children? We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible. That is how strong God’s call was for them. That is how urgent God’s call was for them. Without question, without hesitation, they followed.
    • I think this is the hardest example of following for us to relate to this morning. We are so used to weighing options, analyzing decisions, taking everything into consideration – every possible scenario and outcome, every possible pitfall and downside – before we make a decision, that’s it’s hard for us to imagine just dropping our lives and following.
      • Important point: Not about blind following but about following with a purpose
        • Scholar: From their ordinary work on the seashore, Jesus awakened the disciples to a new sense of meaning and life-changing purpose that compelled them to drop what they were doing right away and follow him. This deep sense of urgency overrode any need for full understanding of what was at stake or even a complete grasp of whom they were following. It was enough to take a step of faith.[9]
  • This intense, life-altering purpose behind the disciples following made me thing of a new therapy method for children with autism that I heard about just last week: Son-Rise Program. [10]
    • Instead of trying to correct various repetitive behaviors, Son-Rise therapy sessions based on the counselor joining the child in whatever safe, non-destructive motions/actions he or she is engaging in – spinning, pounding on something (e.g. – a table), etc.
      • Provides moments of powerful connection
      • Allows these children to be seen, and more importantly, to feel seen in a way they never have before
    • From the program website: “The Son-Rise Program is an alternative autism treatment based upon the idea that the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. This means that, rather than trying for force our children to conform to a world that they don’t yet understand, we join them in their world first.” → Friends, this is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God came down to first join us in our world – a world that can be full of challenges and pain, wrong turns and frustrations, misunderstandings and dark corners – to show us the way out: a path of love, a path of forgiveness, a path of grace, a path of light and hope and life after death. God joins us in our world but asks us to follow. Will we? Amen.

[1] Jonah 1:2.

[2] Jonah 1:3.

[3] Jonah 3:1-3a.

[4] Jonah 3:4.

[5] Jonah 3:5, 10.

[6] Mk 1:11.

[7] Mk 1:15.

[8] Mk 1:16-20 (alternate translations added).

[9] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Third Sunday after Epiphany: An Urgent Mission” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 96.

[10] http://www.autismtreatmentcenter.org/contents/other_sections/index.php.

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