(I preached the following sermon on Sunday, January 24, 2021 in response to the following readings, Jonah 3:1-5, 10, and Mark 1:14-20. You can find the entire service on our church website – www.stephenlc.org).
“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” “Immediately he called them; and they left their father and followed him.”
Immediately. No delay. No discussion. No farewell. No packing their bags and gathering their belongs. No grabbing clothes that might be needed. No grabbing money for the journey. None of that. Immediately they drop everything and follow him. No questions asked.
I’m always amazed by this story of the calling of the first disciples. I’m also amazed at the spin that gets put on it. “Well, you know, it says immediately, but…”. Nope, I’m sorry I don’t buy the spin. That’s not how it works.
Jesus is a kind of fire, ready, aim kind of God. Not a ready, aim, fire, kind of God. When you are God, you don’t need people to have everything in order, to know all about you, and to grab what they think they will need in order to follow. That’s putting a whole lot on people, and really reducing God to someone who is less than who God is.
Jesus doesn’t approach these first disciples and ask them – Hey guys, we’ve never met, but I want you to consider coming along with me once we’ve gotten to know each other and you’ve learned the whole Godly playbook and have answers to all of your questions. How’s that sound? Nope.
Instead, Jesus calls. That’s it. End of discussion. And the first disciples respond. That’s it. That’s how it works. It’s very Lutheran actually. Jesus acts first, because we can’t initiate anything with God. And once Jesus acts, we respond. And then we are equipped to live into the calling that Jesus has for us. Jesus equips the called. He doesn’t call the equipped.
Sometimes, God doesn’t even call the willing. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Why would he? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire – the same empire that wiped out the northern Kingdom of Israel where Jonah was from. Why would he willingly want to go to a place that he hated and wanted to see revenge done to it and then proclaim salvation to people he did not like?
But God had other plans. God’s call doesn’t always make sense to us. Which is why so often we run from God’s call, like Jonah, rather than drop everything and follow like the disciples.
You know, it’s great for us to read these stories. Jonah is certainly entertaining. And the story of the calling of the first disciples raises some great questions. But if all they ever are, are stories that happened in the past, then we’re wasting our time.
Why do we come to church? Why do we engage in the life of the congregation? Why do you come to church? For the social aspect? Even in the midst of a pandemic in which the building isn’t open we are able to be engaged with others in a social way thanks to technology. But is that the main reason we are a part of the church? I hope there’s more because there’s lots of other ways, some that make more sense, for us to be social.
Is it for the traditions? Tradition is an important part of church of course. Traditions can offer meaning and can connect us to the past. But there are plenty of other ways to do that. We just witnessed an inauguration on Wednesday, full of traditions in spite of all the changes that had to take place for it to happen.
Are we a part of church because it offers us comfort? Comfort isn’t a bad thing, as long as we don’t become comfortable. We comfort the afflicted in a variety of ways and that’s a good thing. But we are called to afflict the comfortable also. Something we may not like.
So, what is the purpose of the church? Well, there’s a deeper and more significant purpose than any of these things on their own. One of the main reasons why the church exists is to encounter the living God and have our lives and our world transformed, altered, changed – yes, literally. That’s why we are here. We may not want to admit it, but we are desperate to encounter God – right now. Otherwise, what’s the point? We come because we need Jesus and everything he stands for and is about. The world certainly isn’t going to offer that kind of transformation. The world isn’t going to offer us life changing good news.
We need that transformation when we are like Jonah, and we try to run away from God because God is messing with our plans and our life and we don’t like it.
We need that transformation when we are like Jonah, and we claim to not like change, but in reality, it is that we want to be in control, because we are afraid of what it means to have God in control over our lives and the world. We need that kind of transformation even if it scares us and we resist it.
We need that transformation when we are like Jonah, resistant to seeing the image of God in others, especially our enemies – the ones that we scapegoat, lay blame on, call names, assume the worst about, and dehumanize in numerous ways to make it easier to hate them and blame them.
Look at the state of politics in America today. It’s more divided now than at almost any time in our nation’s history. Republicans and Democrats assume the worst about each other, blame each other for anything terrible that goes on, believe that the other side is intent on destroying the nation, and many believe that violence is the only viable answer anymore. And violence can take the form of physical violence, political violence, verbal violence, and violent visual portrayals of ones’ enemies.
Where does our faith for transformation truly lie – in politics, politicians, and political parties, or in Jesus? Do you honestly think the transformation we desperately need in this nation right now will come through a politician, a policy, a political party or anything else that Washington, DC can offer? Politicians can give wonderful speeches and implement great policies – and they should. But only Jesus can transform us, change us, and alter us in ways that clear our eyes to see the image of God in others, that softens our hearts, and form us into faithful disciples who live into the great commandments to love God and our neighbor, and the great commission which is to baptize and teach people to follow Jesus – to make disciples.
That kind of transformation, that kind of encounter with God, is what we need and what we seek. It’s why we are a part of the church and why we come to worship. We come to encounter the living God and be transformed by that encounter. To answer the call that Jesus gives us. It will change the world and our lives in ways that we may not recognize and in ways that we can’t control.
We need that transformation when we are also like the disciples – responding immediately to the call – but being scared out of our minds. We need that transformation when we are like the disciples and think that following Jesus means leaving everything behind, when in fact, it means Jesus is going to use what we have, the skills that we have, who we are, in new ways and for a new purpose, no different than telling a bunch of fishermen that they would fishing for people from now on. We aren’t leaving everything behind. We’re finding out where we are going and discovering that Jesus gives us everything we need for the journey all along the way. In answering Jesus’ call, we discover more fully who we are and who we were made to be, leaving behind the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves.
I thought about sharing my call story as part of the sermon. Pastors are asked about their call stories a lot. And we get really good at sharing those stories. To the point that I wonder if lay people think that pastors have some kind of special encounter with Jesus that is inaccessible to lay people. That pastors are more special than anyone else. No, we aren’t. We’re human just like everyone else. Sometimes we’re like the disciples and other times we’re like Jonah.
And while being a rostered minister is a call, a vocation, it’s not the only one. We don’t have some kind of special secret access to Jesus that is not available to anyone else.
You have a calling too. A vocation. A Christian vocation. An important calling. Maybe not in some kind of professional ministry setting like a pastor or deacon, but a vocation and a calling none the less. That doesn’t make your calling and vocation any less important. It’s just different, that’s all. Maybe you’ve never recognized this before. But Jesus is active in your life right now. Calling you. Calling you and sending you. Taking what you have and who you are and molding you and shaping you for something wonderful.
Something that changes your life and those around you. Transforming you in ways that you may not realize or even want. Breaking down barriers within you and around you. Clearing your eyes and softening your heart. Jesus knows what he’s doing.
We come to church to encounter the living God who brings much needed transformation. We encounter Jesus in the Eucharist every week. Think about that for a moment. It’s the real presence of Jesus. He calls on us – take and eat. Come, follow me. We consume Jesus. Not because we are equipped to, or because we understand the mystery of the Eucharist – Not at all. Jesus becomes a part of who we are, quite literally – try to grasp that for a moment. And in responding to Jesus, he then equips us, feeds us. And then we are sent out, not full from the meal that’s for sure. A piece of bread and a little bit of wine or grape juice doesn’t fill anyone. But it’s enough. And we are sent out into the world with what we have and who we are – which is enough. Hungry for more – more Jesus. And whether we realize it or not, whether we resist Jesus or willingly go along, we are transformed. Changed. Altered. Sent.
Here’s my invitation to you. You are called. You have more encounters with Jesus than you realize. I invite you to do a couple of things. One, share an encounter with Jesus you’ve had this week. Put it in the chat section. It doesn’t have to lengthy or earth shattering. Jesus encounters some fishermen doing their job. But that encounter has long term impact on these fishermen’s lives. Go to the chat section. How has Jesus encountered you this week? That’s the question. Maybe it’s just a word. Maybe a sentence or two. That’s good enough. And read what other people write. Be amazed at how active Jesus is in our lives.
And second, I invite you to reach out to someone you know – either in this congregation, or a friend you trust, who cares about you. Reach out to them and ask them to share how Jesus has encountered them and share how Jesus has encountered you this week. If that sounds weird, you can use me as an excuse. Tell them the pastor gave you homework. If you want to share with me how Jesus has encountered you, I would love to hear it. Email me, send me a message, text me, call me. Post it on Facebook.
Jesus calls each one of us to follow him. Sometimes we are like Jonah and we resist and run away. And other times we are like the disciples who follow immediately. Regardless of how we respond, Jesus keeps calling us. Prodding us. Challenging us. Transforming us. Without that call, we’re fishing for meaning. We’re holding on to hatred for enemies. We’re trying to be in control of our lives, and it just doesn’t work. But the good news is that Jesus calls us. He calls us into transformational life. Not ready for it. Scared for sure. But not alone. Not empty. And not without meaning and purpose. Jesus calls us. He’s knows what he’s doing. Amen.