THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
“Discipleship By Listening”
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
After the whale, Jonah had a sense of urgency about time. He felt something big was about to happen. He said to himself, in essence, “I don’t have much time left. I need to act now.” “Forty Days,” he cried to the king.
Unfortunately, the modern church is on a similar time frame. Our anxieties generally remain focused on the short term. Some issue needs to be fixed, now. You will read in your annual report, there were some moments of financial uncertainty during the last year. And most of the hand-wringing over this fiscal anxiety produced questions about how we will meet the budget this year. I know, it does not relieve the angst felt by so many to suggest to fearful folk that through faithful discipleship, stewardship really, these issues can eventually come to heel. Anxiety is for now.
Hope is for later. It is not so much that we don’t have hope, but that it rests in something off in the distance.
Too often, I think, modern congregations like us have become so captivated by the second coming of Christ that we fail to emphasize that he came in the first place. Many things can be postponed “until the Lord comes.” These things do not only apply to macro level concerns like world peace or the end of racism. These postponed opportunities to act also concern those things as important as adapting our way of life together to serve our changing society, and adjusting service of this same God, so that the kingdom might be experienced here and now. See there is a generalized sentiment that even the worst among us are not beyond the ability of the coming Christ to redeem. So what we do, as much as anything, is bide our time, bop along, avoiding what God would have us do. Jonah believed this.
The problem with this is that every little success will get in the way. Meeting a budget can get in the way of doing the heart-searching work of being a good steward. Receiving enough members to offset those who die or move or whatever can stall the important work of evangelism. These days, even the ability to keep the church doors open can be the enemy of the change we should be making, or becoming the church we should be being.
I shouldn’t say should, let me say instead ‘the people and congregation God is calling us to be.’
Fortunately, we have the tradition of reading the creeds, why occasionally we even drag out the Heidelberg Catechism. These should be dusted off from time to time to remind us of our purpose. It is purpose that keeps us going in the right direction. No amount of right thinking will move us in the way we think God is calling us. We must put one foot in front of the other. Remembering who we are called to be is important.
Strategy is also important. Nothing wrong with a strategy, but to behave strategically we need to understand what our purpose is. Purpose is a map that describes a destination. Purpose helps to focus our attention. I believe that our purpose is to make and strengthen disciples. This idea is important because we can either become a church that we form ourselves to be, or we become a church that the world or others make us be.
Knowing who we are called to be is a matter of purpose, it is a matter of faith.
Nevertheless, whatever goals we may establish for ourselves, by whatever creeds we live, by whatever purpose we are guided, Jonah reminds us that we should not be surprised by a sudden change in direction. This does not mean that our purpose has changed, or that God’s intentions toward us has changed. It may be that God is redirecting us in ways that we should have gone in the first place. Jonah heads out for Tarshish and ends up in Nineveh. The proud King removes his robes and humbles himself in sackcloth and ashes. And a close reading of the original Hebrew reveals that even God’s mind is changed.
Finally, let me say something about this purpose of the church that I’ve spoken about. Disciples must be formed through faith practices. The Ninevites did not simply say “I am sorry.” No, they engaged in lament, in prayerful contrition. This was a faith practice, it was a ritual, a sign, of their convictions.
Discipleship requires support. Discipleship is not easy and so, even believing we have arrived, we all need a supportive faith community to call ‘home.’ And this home is not made up of folks who look exactly like you. Did you ever notice that the Apostles were not called for themselves? Did you realize that Jonah was not called to speak to the Israelites? He was called to speak the word of the Lord to the hated Assyrians (whom God forgave by the way).
Despite the immaturity and the inadequacy displayed by Jonah in the story, the grace of God was manifested magnificently, and the “bottom line” of the story was good news for any wanna be disciples who listen, just as it is even now.