A Sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20
For someone in a long-term relationship and desiring to get married—especially for us women—most of dream about that day someone special asks us the big question.
“Will you marry me?”
I have a friend who knew her day was coming and called me regularly to practice how she was going to say that one word she’d be dreaming all her life to say.
Should I say: “Yes!” Like this she’d muse.
Or maybe like this? “Yes.”
She told me she’d be secretly practicing her answer for months and months in front of the mirror. Though I secretly rolled my eyes, I knew this was serious business!
When my friend asked me my engagement story to Kevin I was no help to her practice.
For when Kevin got down on one knee and proposed to me at this parents’ cabin on Christmas Day of 2006, I could not seem to get the word, “Yes” out. Even as I tried and tried nothing came.
Instead, I stared at Kevin and stared at the shiny thing he put on my hand and after a VERY long pause spoke saying: “Does this ring have insurance?”
True story. And I haven’t been able to live down my lack of “yes” and the question since . . .
No matter if we are saying yes to a marriage or any other big life decision, there’s an assumption on so many of our parts that when we get to the big moment that we’ll magically say yes with roses and confetti falling from the sky, of course.
And our Old and New Testament lessons for this morning don’t steer our attention otherwise. For what we find are people responding to the call of God with seemingly radical obedience that makes our day-to-day struggles of following Jesus look weak and without conviction.
But is this really accurate?
Let’s start with Jonah.
As we read our lection taken from Jonah chapter 3 what we find is “the word of the Lord coming to Jonah” telling him to go to Nineveh, one of the largest city in the modern world at that time and preach the a message of repentance.
And what do we see happening? Verse 3 tells us “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord.”
As he preaches, verse 5 tells us that the “people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on a sackcloth.”
Seems beautifully simple doesn’t it? Jonah says yes to God. He preaches as he felt like God was telling him to do. And the crowds believed and turned their lives back to the Lord.
And then there is our gospel lesson. After Jesus returns from the wilderness of temptation, he goes into Galilee and begins to preach saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent believe in the good news.”
Soon after this we are told, as Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee he finds Simon and his brother Andrew. Jesus approaches these two fishermen. Then, just as they cast their net into the sea, Jesus asks them to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Again it appears to be a simple story: Jesus accepts God’s call to preach. Jesus extends an invitation to these brothers. And they respond by “immediately” following him.
So is this what we are to make of what it means to pattern your life after Jesus? Is this how we are to describe the call of God going out into the world? Simple, straightforward, full of lots of non-stuttering “Yes’s?”
Well, when we dig deeper into the context from which these two lections came what we will discover is not so much.
For, the witness of Jonah or Jesus’ disciples is not one of blind obedience, or even obedience without a long dialogue.
Let’s go back to Jonah. We might have missed something in verse 1. Let me read it again, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah for the second time . . . “
For by chapter 3, this was not Jonah’s first rodeo with God’s calling.
Because we know Jonah’s name is associated with one particular thing, right? It’s a ____ (whale).
For when we go back earlier in the text, we discover that the word of the Lord came to Jonah the first time and he said no.
He ran. He got on a ship heading for the farthest place from Nineveh because he didn’t believe “such people” were worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.
But when he found himself on that ship and the waves grew and the winds howled, his fellow passengers threw down lots deciding to kick him off the boat. And Jonah ended up in the belly of what scripture calls a “big fish.”
A metaphoric tale or not, we learn that Jonah got 3 days to sit and reconsider what it was that God asked him to do in the first place. Then he said yes.
It takes a journey for Jonah to say yes to God’s call, not just a moment.
And then there were those disciples—Andrew and Simeon Peter. If you were here last week, you remember that we studied how they ended up with Jesus from the perspective of John’s gospel.
It’s was a great education for me to prepare to preach last week—to see the longevity and interconnectedness of the disciples to Jesus.
Do you remember? Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. When John refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” Andrew jumps on over to Jesus’ camp. Then soon he tells his brother Simon about it. Then together they tell Philip who is from the same Galilean town, Bethsaida, and the story goes on from there.
But none of this back story is told in Mark’s version of the story. We only see Jesus passing by and using language that makes us think he’s in a hurry. Notice with me the words in the passage. Verse 18: “Immediately they left their nets” and in verse 20, “Immediately he called them.”
What we need to understand about Mark’s storytelling bent is he’s doer without hesitation.
He believes the kingdom of God is coming. So, there’s no time to waste in telling it to us and no time to waste in responding to it.
So, with all of this considered, I believe it was a journey for the first disciples to say yes to Jesus’s call, not just a moment (we just don’t see the full picture from Mark’s perspective).
But all of this goes against our popular notions of what responding to God’s call looks like, doesn’t it?
I mean, isn’t following Jesus about saying yes during a “Just as I Am?” invitation hymn on the 6th verse right as the preacher is about to close the response time?
Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do around the camp fire at youth camp on the last night?
Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do when a missionary comes and gives a dramatic speech about how bad things are “over there?”
One of the great saints of the church who we hear mentioned more often these days because of the current pope is St. Francis.
Though many of us might know about St. Francis that he loved the dramatic and blessed animals and trees, do we know where his story all started?
Francis, one of seven children, was born in 1181 to an well-to-do family.
Francis grew up with everything he could have possibly wanted and more: the best clothes, the best food and drink and a high-class education.
And with this mentality, Francis’ father, Pietro, a respected cloth merchant, believed his son would follow his footsteps or even do something more honorable than him, I guess as most parents believe about their children.
And Francis has ambition and gumption too. He wanted to be well-known and accomplished.
When he was 20 years old, scholars believe that Francis left home and joined the army. Francis coveted the knighthood and sought to be brave in battle.
However, while fighting in Perugia Francis was captured. He is believed to have spent the next year of his life in prison. There began his process of listening and discerning the call of God on his life.
When released, Francis felt like he heard the words from God, “Repair my church.” He felt overwhelmed one day while visiting Portiuncula, a church in disarray.
Francis began to do just this. He used the resources he had, which was his father’s fine cloth, sold them and used the money to repair the church.
You can imagine how well this went over. His father felt disgraced, for this way not the way that his inheritance was to be spent! Francis could not bear to face his father and according to tradition, hid in the woods for one month before returning home to face him.
Francis soon stopped attending family events, going about business as usual and talked to the bishop about joining the ranks of the clergy.
Soon thereafter, Francis gave back the money he had made on the cloth. Then before the bishop of Assisi, he tore of his clothes and gave everything he had back to his dad.
Francis’ call to follow Jesus would be one of complete surrender—giving us his family ties, his money, his power and even his dignity to say yes to Jesus.
Later, he would take a vow of poverty and go about the work of “repairing the church” as he’d heard the calling long before—not as he’d first thought (in repairing the physical structures of church buildings) but in the work of reconnecting souls to the heart of the gospel.
But again, just like in the case of Jonah and Jesus’ disciples this call for Francis to say yes to God was about a process, not a moment.
And I love each of these three stories in all of their uniqueness because of how they tell us something about saying “Yes!” to God.
So many of us crave that moment when the light bulbs go off when we figure out exactly what we are supposed to do with our lives. Or we crave that dramatic conversion experience. Or even we crave the perfect moment when we use just the right infection of our voice—which we’ve been practicing for weeks of course in preparation.
But if we want to follow God and God’s call in our lives through the life and death of Jesus Christ, then, we don’t have to feel so anxious toward having a perfect moment.
No, because I believe God knows what it is going to take for each of us to say yes to the calls in our lives. And God gives us grace for the journey.
I don’t know about you, but from all of my years of growing up in church, I think it was easy for me to get the idea that God was somehow like a man standing over me with big stick. And that the nudgings of the Holy Spirit were somehow to be received like daggers in my back . . . when I felt like God wanted me to do something I needed to do it right then or else!
But, my friends, I don’t think this is how our God of grace works. God gave us our lifetime to walk with Jesus and learn.
We’ve all got our own process that will be completely different from our neighbor’s. And we’ve all got a loving heavenly parent who is by our side (if we allow it) encouraging us step by step toward the path that is our way.
So it is ok if it takes us a while to say yes. And it’s ok if we ask: “Does this come with insurance?” Questions, concerns and emotional ups and downs are welcome in God’s kingdom. None of us are ever asked to be faith robots.
God doesn’t want our forced conversions that we are going to wake up the next morning and regret like a bad hangover. No.
God wants us to journey our life through toward that which heals us, that which makes us whole.
Of course it might be easier to say yes to God the first time God calls—I mean, if we don’t want to be like Jonah and in the belly of the fish and all—but still God’s plans for us remain the same.
And as long as we are breathing on this earth, there’s time to say yes.
So I ask today, will you say YES to the journey?
(If you are interested in learning more about the life and calling of St. Francis, I just read this lovely book. And while fictional it offers some great insights, in an approachable way about his life).