Sunday, January 25, 2015

God's Call

A Sermon preached on January 25th, Epiphany III at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

The word “Epiphany” means appearance or manifestation. In the Christian understanding the appearance or manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. But our readings during the Season of Epiphany also look back to other divine appearances. Last week for example to God appearing to Samuel in the Temple. And when God appears it’s not just to say hello or to prove that God exists. No, when God appears God usually wants something from us. And that is the case in this week’s readings too. God appears as the word of the Lord to Jonah or as God’s Son to the fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with very specific, but also very different requests.  What is also striking about the 3 readings is not just how different these callings are, but also the reactions of those being called.

God calls Jonah to “get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) This turns out to be a very difficult message, anything but good news, as Jonah has to tell the people of the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy that “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4) OK, there is a happy ending, but Jonah did not know that, though God did. What the passage tells us is that sometimes God’s call will be difficult and challenging, especially if it entails telling truths that are unpleasant or unexpected to those they are addressed to.

In 1 Corinthians we do not hear God’s voice directly, only Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth. And Paul’s advice is that they need to detach themselves from the world, from their sorrows and joys, and from their existing commitments: “let even those who have wives be as though they had none …. and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 31) To put it into context, this was written when Paul and the first Christians still expected Christ’s second coming to be just around the corner, in which case Paul’s recommendation to avoid new commitments makes a lot of sense. It might also be, and this is an idea from Tom Wright, a well-known Anglican New Testament scholar and former Bishop, a temporary injunction in a time of famine or crisis. But either way, a calling to detachment, to withdrawing from the world to focus on prayer and worship is still a valid one for some people - it is the monastic calling. I personally do not feel called to live as if I had no wife, and I’m sure that Heidi will be pleased to hear that. 

Finally we have the Gospel passage about how Simon, Andrew, James and John are called: (Mark 1:17) “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” Jesus says. This is a double calling – follow Jesus as a disciple and help Jesus make other people into disciples! What is unusual in the context of the day is that Jesus seeks out the disciples. Normally Jewish disciples would seek out and attach themselves to the Rabbi of their choice. Jesus’ call has massive consequences for the two sets of brothers that go beyond what Paul is asking of the Corinthians. Not just to behave as if they had no possessions, but to leave them and family behind, to do without them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John are not day laborers either: they owned their nets and boats and they had employees, so they are leaving a business behind them. 

These three callings are very specific, but that does not mean that being called is restricted to just a few people, or that you can hope perhaps that God will pass you by….Being called by God is not restricted to a select few, and certainly not to those who wear a special collar. One of the books I was given when discerning my call to ordained ministry was titled “Called or Collared?”[1] Because they are not always the same. It’s not the case that I have a calling and you all just have jobs!  A lot of what I do, in administration, in communication, in running meetings is a job too, but one I love and feel called to. God in Christ came into the world to call every single person back into a relationship with God and through God into a loving relationship with one another. That is God’s general or universal calling to all humankind.

The Church teaches that all the baptized are called to a ministry and some elements of Jonah’s, Paul’s and the brothers’ calling also apply to all Christians. We must speak the truth, in love. We do not have to detach ourselves completely from the world and its business, but we must still live without fear and worry knowing we have a promise that goes beyond this world and this life. And for the same reason we mustn’t behave as if the world and our society will go on forever in this form. That’s not what we want, believe, hope or work for. And like the first disciples every Christian is called to follow Christ, to bear witness to him, and, using the very particular and specific gifts we have been given, to accept and live out the very particular and specific call God has for each of us.

I said earlier that in today’s readings it is not just the callings that are very different, but also the reactions of those being called. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” (Jonah 3:1) And I’m sure you all remember what happened when the word of the LORD came to Jonah a first time: he ran as fast and as far as possible in the opposite direction and needed a lot of “persuasion” to accept his call. One of the problems we have with Paul’s letters is that they are sometimes a bit like reading a dialogue but hearing one side of the discussion. We don’t always know just what he was reacting to, what questions he was answering, or what problems he was dealing with. However, especially when Paul feels the need to urge people to do something: “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short,” (1 Cor. 7:29) we can assume that he was meeting resistance and that his recommendation was not just a popular one. So, while the Corinthians were not running away from him, they still needed persuasion.

By contrast Simon, Andrew, James and John seem to be the very model of the right response. Jesus’ call is so compelling that they need no time to think or to deliberate, and they don’t have to go home and talk it over with their families. They immediately leave their nets or father to follow Jesus. How unlike Jonah. One thing I’ve never noticed or thought of before is that actually the evil people of Nineveh are much more like the disciples. When Jonah started his long walk through the city, the people of Nineveh reacted immediately – they believed the word of God as proclaimed by God’s messenger, and by proclaiming a fast and putting on sackcloth, “everyone, great and small” gave a visible sign that they had heard God’s word and were acting on it.

Looking back at my own life and my specific call, I’m definitely more like Jonah. OK, I didn’t run away or leave the country and thankfully I did not have to spend any time in the belly of a large fish. But I certainly did not immediately leave my desk, rather than nets, and follow Jesus and I did not immediately leave my family. But I didn’t ignore it either, I asked God for time for preparation, time Simon and friends neither took nor needed, it appears. And once that period of preparation was over, I did eventually leave my job and we did move, first to the USA for seminary, and then eventually here to Wiesbaden.

God is patient, and if necessary God will keep coming back until you hear the call, and if it takes longer, God will make sure that the time until you act and react is well spent. Everyone has a calling from God. As human beings made in God’s image it is the universal calling to be in relationship with God and with one another. As Christians it is to follow Jesus and, as we prayed in today’s Collect, to “proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” As individuals it is a specific call that we have to discern. It might mean change, it might be what we are already doing, and it might be risky. You might hear it in prayer, or when you hear or read scripture, or in something or someone you experience, or perhaps even in one of the retreats or conferences this church or the Convocation offers for that purpose. But you can be sure of one thing. If it is really God’s call it will be so compelling that you will not be able to ignore it, however long that may take.

[1] By Francis Dewar, SPCK, 2000

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