In Mark chapter 1, Jesus is calling for repentance and for earnest followers.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
“Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”
Perhaps many of us here today have already responded to Jesus at some point in our past. Maybe it looked like coming to the altar when a preacher invited sinners to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. Maybe you prayed a “sinner’s prayer” and found yourself a Christian. Maybe you were already advanced in age or perhaps you were just a little child, as I was, praying with mom and dad to receive Jesus as my Savior at 5 years old. It’s also likely that your conversion experience looked very different from either of those experiences (because there’s no magic formula), or that maybe you don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus yet. No matter where you are in your spiritual encounter with God, I ask you to lean in this morning and listen closely for the Holy Spirit’s prompting. I have no way of knowing what the Spirit is calling you to today, but I am convinced He is calling each of us to something, and in all honesty that calling might be challenging. So hold tight when things get uncomfortable, I promise there is hope.
To begin with I’d like each of us to reflect on Jesus’ words from Mark 1, to repent and follow him. Where are you at in the “following” of Jesus? Did you start moving in the direction of Christlikeness at one point? Are you still following? Are you still repenting? It’s also so easy to grown apathetic or complacent or idle in our following of Jesus. Life gets in the way. Life is painful and messy. People hurt us, we hurt people. Work is exhausting. Being home is lonely. And repentance and following Jesus disappear from sight.
The truth of spiritual formation and this Jesus-life is that it’s not a one-time thing. It’s continual and dynamic, requiring constant attentiveness. The garden is an excellent metaphor for the spiritual life. We prepare the soil and plant the seeds, but the work doesn’t end there. We daily tend to the seedlings, watering and pulling weeds, thinning the plants to provide the best growth environment. And as the plants mature, growing fruit, there’s still constant attention needed, right? The weeds never stop growing, the weather is unpredictable and threatens drought or floods, dangerous winds or hail that could destroy a crop. Fungus or pests could eat away at a perfectly healthy piece of fruit, slowly destroying the entire plant. The work never ends, but it’s so worth it. The process is rich and rewarding and the harvest is more delicious than anything you could buy at the store. Gardening requires attention and discipline, a rich rhythm that enhances your own life as you tend to your plants. A life of following Jesus is the same. So let’s ask ourselves: How have I grown spiritually in the last week? In the last month? In the last year? And be honest with yourself, I mean, really honest. Don’t sugarcoat things for the sake of your subconscious. Once we begin to pull away the dead overgrowth and the choking weeds in our heart, I believe we’ll find signs of in our spirits, and we’ll be able to welcome the Spirit of God to work with us and make something beautiful of the stagnant mess we’ve made.
Friends, no matter where you are in the journey with or away from Jesus, I believe He is asking me to call you to repentance this very day. Ours sins or missteps may not look obvious. We may be doing such a good job of living a “Christian” life that we have fooled even ourselves. In fact, many of our stories, both yours and mine, might look a lot like the prophet Jonah’s.
When we opened the service today, we read from the book of Jonah. Would you go ahead and open your Bibles again to that passage (p 655)? It’s near the middle of the Bible, a small book of only a few chapters. We’re going to re-read chapter 3 verses 1-5:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
And now for a little background on this Nineveh and Jonah situation.
Nineveh was the sprawling capital city of the Assyrian Empire. It was prophesied in Jonah’s day that Assyria would one day conquer the land of Israel. Not cool if you’re an Israelite, am I right? And on top of that, this empire was just plain evil. The Ninevites were idolatrous and known for heinous acts of violence and cruelty. Their evil lifestyles is the reason for God sending a prophet to them demanding their repentance OR ELSE. God was threatening to completely destroy their prized city if something didn’t change.
Jonah was a follower of God, and God, in all his omniscient humor, saw fit to commission him to bring a hard-hitting message to some seriously evil people. The Ninevites were basically Jonah’s arch enemies. Jonah hated everything about God’s call to him, and he revolted again and again. He ran from God, he hid, he went in the exact opposite direction, he nearly drowned. Finally Jonah relented and followed through with God’s command to prophesy to Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And LO AND BEHOLD Nineveh responded. This cruel people group, including their powerful king, repented immediately and fasted and prayed and begged God for mercy. And to Jonah’s dismay, God granted his mercy. And Jonah hate every second of it. THIS WASN’T FAIR. Nineveh was terrible and evil and deserved to be destroyed.
But God has mercy on whom he has mercy. Amen and Amen.
Sorry Jonah. But that includes your mercy for on worst nightmare.
So how exactly are we like Jonah?
In the introductory material to the book of Jonah in the Life with God Bible, Barbara M. Musselman writes,
“God is on a quest to forgive people and reconcile them to himself. […] He takes a chance on brutal and spiritually ignorant Nineveh and, even more intriguing, on malicious and spiritually arrogant Jonah. God insists on showing mercy to whomever he pleases.”
As I read Barbara’s descriptions of the spiritual ignorance of Nineveh versus the spiritual arrogance of Jonah, I couldn’t help but feel squirmish, like God was asking me, “Which are you – ignorant or arrogant?” And I believe God wants me to ask the same question to you. Are you living in spiritual ignorance, blissfully naive to your need for reconciliation to God? Or have you got your spiritual-act together? Are you living in spiritual arrogance. Who have you ignored or mistreated? Who do you think is undeserving of God’s mercy? Which person or people group is utterly abhorrent to you? Be honest with yourself and with God.
Some of you might be skirming in your seats right now, completely uncomfortable with the possibility that you might be spiritually ignorance or…even spiritually arrogant.
If you’re willing to lean into the discomfort and respond to the poking of the Spirit inside of you, I would invite you now to move in a new direction, to turn over the arrogant or ignorant or complacent soil of your spiritual life and let God call you to new groth.
I think the Psalm for today answers that question quite well. Psalm 62 (page 409) calls us to practice some seriously challenging spiritual disciplines – silence and solitude – on a regular basis. We must set aside time to be still and wait for the Lord in silence. This is where the transformation begins. These moments alone with the Spirit are the remedies for our arrogance or our ignorance.
Verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 62 reinforce the message of God’s unequitable mercy and the smallness of our humanity in comparison to Him.
9 Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Whether your name is Jonah or you’re more of a Ninevite.
No matter your race or the race of the people on the edge of town;
Despite your spotless record or the heinous crimes committed by those in state prisons;
Regardless of your job title or lack-thereof; your savings account or church giving records; the number of underlines in your Bible or the fact that you haven’t prayed an honest prayer in your life – here is the conclusion of the matter:
God is about the business of being with us, each one of us. He is constantly pursuing us to invite us to repentance and reconciliation.
Whether you’ve felt a strong conviction already today or not, the call begins with silence. We each must get alone with God and then….shut up. Don’t talk to him, just sit and listen. Devotional books and journaling and prayer and scripture reading are all good and necessary to spiritual growth. But I commend you to do the hardest thing and to sit in silence with God. It’s hard….so hard, because being alone and quiet allows for the inner demons to crop up, the frantic thoughts to swirl, the anxiety to increase. But if we practice this discipline (and I need this as much as anyone here), we’ll cultivate spacious in our hearts, rich soil in which God can expose the unhealthy things you’ve kept hidden. He’ll call you to repentance and He’ll call you to action. And we need to be ready and willing to get up and follow Him.
So I exhort you, brothers and sisters: go home and seriously examine your daily schedule and make time for silence and solitude with God. You can make time, just ten minutes a day, I promise you. The way we spend our time reflects your priorities. And if you find yourself needing some help in reorienting your schedule, Pastor Kevin or I would be more than willing to help you in the process.
As we go today, feel a bit disquieted and uncomfortable, I would like to close with this Franciscan Benediction
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.