An Urgent Word

Mark 1:14-20 / Epiphany 3B / 21 January 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

A reluctant court prophet who gets swallowed by a very big fish. Eschatological urgency on the part of the apostle Paul. And four fishermen who are called by Jesus to become fishers of men. Today’s three readings are the homiletical equivalent of a basket of mystery ingredients on the Food Network show Chopped where contestants are given a basket of four unmatched ingredients like balsamic vinegar, limburger cheese, chocolate peanuts and cucumbers and are expected to create a palatable appetizer, main course, or dessert in 20 minutes. Hopefully, I won’t get “chopped” at the end of the hour.

Let’s start with Jonah in our OT reading. Jonah was a court prophet, with a nice cushy job advising the king. God had other plans. He wanted Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites, the avowed enemies of Israel who were known for such cruelties as skinning their enemies alive. You can understand why Jonah decided that a little trip to Spain might be more to his liking. And then came a storm, stirred up by the hand of God, and Jonah gets pitched overboard by the sailors as a kind of sacrifice to the gods of the Deep, and the storm quiets and Jonah gets “rescued” by being swallowed whole by a very large fish who subsequently unceremoniously barfs Jonah on the beach. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. “Nineveh is that way, Jonah. Go and preach there.”

When the Lord calls, you had better listen, and don’t plan any cruises to Spain.

So Jonah scrapes the seaweed out of his hair and heads off to those awful Ninevites and gets only about a third of the way through the city when lo and behold the whole bunch hear the Word of the Lord and repent, which really gets Jonah hopping mad because he was hoping to see a major whooping from heaven. And all he gets is repentance and God’s turning away His anger from His enemies and the perennial persecutors of His people.

Now the glorious take home lesson from all this is that sincerity really doesn’t seem to count for much when it comes to preaching the Word of God because the Word is not dependent upon the personality of the preacher much less his mood or general love for people. If that were the case, I’d be doomed. And so would you. Let’s face it, if we waited until actually loved people in a a religious way before we spoke even so much as a syllable of Gospel to them, then there wouldn’t be very much Gospel spoken, would there? And, if we waited for them to become our friends and like our religion, then what really is the point of outreach since they would have already been reached?

Or to put it in the terms of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, if you love only those who love you, how exactly is that any different from the pagans and the atheists who do exactly the same thing?

You see, it’s the devil’s big trick that he likes to play on us that we need to be “sincere” in order to be effective. And the old Adam in us goes right along with the program. “I’ll pray when I feel spiritual.” “I’ll tell someone about Jesus when they appear to be ready.” “Oh, I don’t want to tell those Ninevites the Gospel! What if they repented, believed, and starting coming to our church?” It’s like the pastor who decided to go to the local biker bars in his town to evangelize all the bikers. “Couldn’t you go where the nice people are, pastor?”

We think we need to be sincere, and that our sincerity will help God along, help His Word get through. So, if we don’t really feel like doing something, then we shouldn’t do it, right? That would be “hypocritical” and “insincere,” and we know that God’s Word can’t work unless we have our hearts completely in it, and so it would be better perhaps if we booked a ship to Tarshish rather than preach to those nasty Ninevites.

The story of Jonah reminds us that the living and active Word of God does not return empty, even when the prophet’s heart really isn’t into it. So don’t hesitate to speak the truth of Jesus even if you’re not feeling particularly “evangelical.” And don’t hesitate to pray even when you are not feeling particularly prayerful. In fact, pray especially when you aren’t feeling prayerful. Insist on it. Stop whatever you are doing and pray against your piety, which is coming from the old Adam. And when you don’t feel like going to church and feel like you’re “just going through the motions,” go anyway. Go especially then. Go ahead and go through the motions, because the motions that count are God’s motions, not yours, and the Word never returns empty.

The time is short. The urgency comes in the second reading. We think we have all the time in the world. The old adam is a great procrastinator when it comes to the things of God. I’ll pray later. I’ll worship tomorrow. “The appointed time has grown very short,” the apostle Paul wrote. The Day of the Lord is closer today than last week, and creeping ever closer. Paul says, “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” And stop right there, I know what you’re thinking. He doesn’t mean go and act as though you were single, though unfortunately a lot of people, Christians included, seem to think that. He goes on to say that those who mourn should live as those who were not mourning, and those who rejoice as those who were not rejoicing, and those who trade as though they had nothing, and those who deal with this world as though they had nothing to do with this world.

And the point is this: The present form of this world is passing away. We see it. The evidence is all around us. The old is passing away. The new has already come in Jesus. That means a different set of mind. Minds set not on earthly things but heavenly things. Hearts up, as we say in the Liturgy. “Lift up your hearts.” Looking past the things temporal to the things eternal.

Again, it’s the old Adam in us who is glued to the things temporal, and so we will let nearly anything get between us and Jesus – from baseball practice to Tupperware parties to whatever else occupies our present moment. What shall we wear? What shall we eat? What shall we drink? Do I have enough shoes? Even the pagans run after these things, and your Father in heaven already knows that you need them too. But you, dear disciple, you baptized child of God, you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things, these temporal, passing away things, will be given you as well.

Think of those four young men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – two sets of brothers working for the Zebedee family fishing business. One day Jesus turns up on the beach while they are tending their nets and says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Did they feel like it? Did they know where the words “follow me” were going to take them? And what about Father Zebedee who was left there high and dry with his servants to run the family business while his boys went chasing off after this rabbi from Nazareth with questionable credentials?

It’s odd that Jesus should choose fishermen. Why not rabbinic scholars? (Oh, that would come later with Paul.) Why not civic leaders or people with great influence and power? But fishermen. Really? What kind of apostles would they be? Patient? Well, remember James and John, the Boanerges Brothers, the “sons of thunder” who wanted Jesus to call down fire and brimstone on a town that didn’t roll out the red carpet for them? Odd. As odd as Jonah, the reluctant prophet. As odd as you and me with all our quirks and foibles, not to mention our sinfulness, called to be a disciple of Jesus. It would seem He can use most anyone. He can use anyone. He’s the Lord, and the power of salvation resides in His Word, not in these men.

We need to make an important distinction between disciple and apostle here. A disciple is a follower, an apostle is one who is sent with authority by another. Jesus says two things to the fishermen. One is an imperative: Follow me. Those are the disciple-making words. The other is directed toward their future as apostles: I will make you become fishers of men. You are now fishermen, but you will become fishers of men.

I say this because you will probably hear interpretations that lay these passages on you in the same way, as though these words applied to us in the same way as they applied to Peter and Andrew, James and John. If we took those words literally and to heart, we’d all leave our jobs and families and go wandering around like a bunch of itinerant preachers. And that would be a mistake.

We are not so much fishers of men as we are fish caught in their apostolic nets. Peter and Andrew, James and John were destined to become apostles, sent with Jesus’ authority to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus was weaving His own net, the dragnet of God’s kingdom that is cast to the ends of the earth and literally hauls everything ashore to be sorted out at the Last Day. Jesus was going to die and rise, and Peter and Andrew, James and John were going to follow Him, to be eyewitnesses of what He was doing, and to be sent by Him as His authorized representatives, the Twelve, the foundational pillars of His church and His holy ministry.

What about Pa Zebedee and the servants? Are they not saved because Jesus didn’t call them? Of course not! He just needed the boys. Zebedee and the servants could take care of the fishing business and the Lord would provide. Zebedee too had to trust Jesus enough to let the boys go, even if it put the family business at risk. Discipleship is always risky business when it comes to the temporal things of this world. That’s why the apostle Paul says we are to live in this world as if we are not of this world but looking forward and ahead to the coming kingdom.

We are as fish caught in the dragnet of the kingdom of God, a net woven out of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and net in which we die in order to live. And maybe that’s the best common theme among these three disparate texts this morning. Dying in order to live. Jonah died in the belly of the fish in order to rise and live as God’s prophet to the Ninevites of all people. Jesus Himself pointed to Jonah as the pattern for His own death and resurrection. “As Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man must spend three days in the belly of the earth.”

The apostle Paul counseled the Corinthians to live as though dead to the things of this world, because that’s what they truly were in Baptism. Dead to Sin and Self but alive to God in Christ Jesus. That means that we hold the things of this world, and yes, even our marriages, with a loose dead hand of faith Just like Father Zebedee let the boys go on their little adventure with Jesus. He held them and his fishing business with the loose dead hand of faith. What do the dead have to lose? Nothing. They are completely free. “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone. They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”

Peter and Andrew, James and John, died that day to their vocation, their family ties, their comfort zone, to embark on a journey whose end they could not foresee. When Jesus’ said “Follow me,” they had no clue as to where He was going.

To be baptized to is have the call to discipleship spoken to us. “Follow me,” Jesus said to you in your Baptism. And there in the water you were caught in the net of God’s kingdom, caught by a love that will not let you go, caught in a death that means freedom and life. All fish struggle to get out of nets. And rightly so. The net means their death and doom. Our old Adam always goes with a struggle. He doesn’t want to be netted, he wants to be “free” meaning enslaved to Sin and Self. But the believer in you knows that this is a Gospel net, a good news net, that leads not only to death but also to resurrection and life. Jonah illustrated it with his life. Jesus did it with His.

The kingdom of God is at hand. The call has never been more urgent, my friends. It is more urgent than when Jesus first said it. More urgent than when the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. More urgent than the day you first heard that kingdom call and believed. Hear it again. Take it to heart. Repent and believe the Gospel.

In the name of Jesus,