Lord Jesus, as we hear your word of invitation this morning, open our hearts and our minds to your presence, and stir in us a desire to know and love you better. Amen.
Intro – Violet’s Joy
This past Wednesday evening I received a very special text. I think many of you know I have quite a pack of nieces and nephews back home in Winnipeg. My family is pretty close-knit, and we often text each other back and forth throughout the day. On Wednesday evening the text I received was a video from my older sister of my five-year-old niece Violet. Violet is a charming and beautiful little girl with a ton of personality, and the video showed her dancing with a lot of attitude as she cleared dishes off the supper table. It took me a second or two to realise the sound was off, and when I turned it on, Violet’s voice came belting out: “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”
Isn’t that great? It’s not the first time she’s been caught on camera singing her heart out either – I have many videos of her singing beautiful praise songs to God while she’s playing, or dancing, or helping clear off the table. Every video is a treasure.
Violet is five years old, but even at that age, she knows who she’s following, and it brings her great joy.
God Calling Jonah & the Ninevites
Our lections today are all about people hearing a call from God. Our Old Testament reading is from the book of Jonah, and I’m so sorry that we get such a small snippet from it in the lectionary, because it’s a delightful and funny and challenging satire about a man who hears God calling him to go warn his enemies to repent.
Jonah was asked to go to Nineveh, which was at the time the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and one of Israel’s most brutal enemies, and to warn them that God was going to destroy them. And if you remember the story, Jonah couldn’t stand the thought of his enemies hearing his message and actually repenting, because he knew that God would be merciful to them, and he wanted them to, quite literally, go to hell. So he ran away, in the exact opposite direction from Nineveh. Well, a ship, a storm, and a big fish later, Jonah is back on land, and God is asking him – again – to go to Nineveh. That’s where our little lectionary passage picks up. Jonah seems to have learned his lesson about running away from God, so he obeys this time, and sure enough, Nineveh repents.
The rest of the story is just as entertaining – Jonah goes into a deep sulk because God was so nice to his enemies; God uses a worm and a vine as a fancy illustration; and the book essentially ends with God saying, “Really? Really, Jonah? You’re upset because I am compassionate enough not to want to kill 120,000 people?”
(Seriously. Go read it.)
God Calling the Disciples
So Jonah hears God’s call, and the Ninevites hear God’s call. What about our Gospel reading?
“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.””
The hymn that we sang a few minutes ago – Will You Come and Follow Me, by John Bell – is a paraphrase of this passage from Mark. In essence, it’s breaking down Jesus’ simple short statement to the disciples into thirteen questions of what life would look like if they dared to follow him. Here are some of the questions:
• Will you leave yourself behind and never be the same?
• Will you care for both cruel and kind?
• Will you let the blinded see?
• Will you kiss the untouchable leper?
• Will you love the ‘you’ you hide so deeply inside?”
If Jesus had asked all of these things up front, I suspect the disciples may have hesitated a bit more before leaving their nets and following him. Do you think they knew from the beginning what they were getting into? Following Jesus would turn out to be a life-changing and revolutionary act: one that would break down social barriers, overturn the status quo, and ultimately reshape the world. We don’t know whether there was more dialogue than what is presented to us in Mark’s typical abrupt and staccato style – all we know is that Jesus issued a simple invitation for these people to become part of his intimate circle, and they left their nets and followed him, and their lives were never the same again.
Does God Still Call?
At Alpha last Tuesday evening we discussed the fascinating topic of whether God still speaks to us today. Or maybe we could reword that in the light of these readings. Is this story in Mark just a story about a man who lived a long time ago, gathering friends and disciples around him – or is it a story that sets a pattern for how God relates to all of humanity, regardless of time and place? Does God still actively call us to follow him? And what does that look like if so?
There are a couple really important questions at the heart of all this. The first is, does God even exist, and if so, is he off in the distance somewhere or is he still working in the world? In other words, is he real, alive, and relevant? And the second question is, does God really care enough about us and our lives to be as involved in them as he was in the disciples’ lives, or the Ninevites’ lives? Does he still speak to each of us personally and individually, asking us to follow him?
How we are able to answer these questions dictates what our response to God will be. It may be, because of our upbringing or our experiences, that all we understand God to be is a distant, foreign deity who may have some role to play on Sunday mornings in the liturgy, but doesn’t have much to do with the world at present. Maybe we have felt betrayed by God, or maybe it’s just less threatening to relegate him to an hour on Sunday morning. I invite you to take a moment and to ask if that’s where you find yourself – and to make it easier for you, from the pulpit I freely admit that sometimes I am in that place. Sometimes my faith falters and I have a hard time believing that God even exists, let alone cares passionately and intimately about me and my life.
If you’re in that place – peace be with you. I’m grateful for you, for your honesty, for your courage, and for your presence here. And I believe that God is gently inviting you to just say that to him – to admit to him that you find it hard to believe that he exists. I invite you into that space of deep honesty with God. And I invite you to ask him to reveal himself to you this week, to pray at the beginning of each day that you would begin to see his living presence in your life.
Or maybe you’re in a different place – you know God is real and active, you trust in him, you pray to him, but it’s hard to imagine him actually caring about you, about every little detail of your life, about what is stressing you out at the moment and what you are secretly hoping for. Maybe it’s hard to picture that he actually wants you as part of his intimate circle, and is inviting you into it.
If this is where you are – again, peace be with you. I’m grateful for you, for your honesty, for your courage, and for your presence here today, because I’m here today to tell you that yes, God does love you. God loves you more than you can even begin to imagine. He longs to be in intimate relationship with you, a relationship of trust and honesty and joy and love.
God’s Call to Hard Places and Hard Things
And then there may be some here who have heard that call to follow Jesus and have been walking with him for a long time, but who are hearing God call you into a harder place – a place of forgiveness, a place of repentance, a place of brokenness. I appreciate both of our lections for today, because neither of them shy away from difficult things. Jonah was called to a place of mercy for his enemies. He had to walk, quite literally, into the enemy’s camp and tell them that God cared enough about them to warn them to change their ways. They had brutalised Israel, and Jonah wanted them to pay for it – but God called him to give up his hatred and his longing for vengeance, and proclaim to them a second chance.
If you’ve ever been in a place of being deeply wounded by someone, you’ll fully understand and empathize with Jonah’s reluctance. God’s mercy flies in the face of all that seems fair, and believing that his love and mercy and forgiveness even extends to the people who have hurt us worst is a tough pill to swallow. It is only in understanding our own desperate need for that very same mercy, and that forgiveness is love’s power to break the cycle of pain and hatred, that we can begin to open our ears and hearts to God’s call to forgive.
This is a tough journey and one that requires a lot of patience with ourselves and honesty with God. If you feel like God is calling you to forgiveness or repentance, and you just aren’t in that place – just tell him that. Say, “God, I know that is your desire for me and for my healing, but I just can’t. Please help me.” And I guarantee you that God will not leave that prayer unanswered.
The Path of Following Jesus – the Way of Joy
There are other hard things Jesus calls us to – the disciples were called to leave their families and their whole way of life. And Jesus outright told us that we are called to take up our crosses and follow him. The way of following Jesus is not always the easy path. But he also doesn’t just set us the task of following him and then charge ahead, expecting us to follow behind. He is there beside us every step of the way, encouraging, supporting, lending a hand over a rough bit, fighting off the wild beasts in our way with his rod and his staff, and even picking us up and carrying us if we just can’t make it. He is there for us, and with us.
And friends, this is the path to joy. We were made to be walking on this path in the company with Jesus. And it is only in growing in relationship with him that we grow into the fullness of joy and love that God intends for us. The journey of following Jesus is such an exciting one. Yes, he leads us through dark valleys sometimes. But he is with us in them, and he doesn’t abandon us there, but leads us through them to the peaceful meadows on the other side, beside quiet waters, and sometimes, to breathtaking vistas! And finally, right to our home nestled by the very heart of God.
What Does Following Jesus Look Like Today?
So suppose you have heard all of this and you agree with me but don’t know where to go next in this journey. Here are some practical ideas. Consider attending the Alpha Spirit day this coming Saturday, and praying for and being open to hearing God speaking to you. You would be very welcome. Or think about taking up a spiritual discipline for Lent to grow your relationship with Jesus – choose to read one chapter of the Bible per day, or start a prayer journal in which you are fully honest with God about your thoughts. He can handle honesty, and no one else needs to read it! Reading your Bible and being in conversation with God are two of the best ways to deepen your relationship with him.
Maybe following Jesus for you means taking the first step of forgiveness towards someone you have been holding a grudge against. Maybe it means asking Beth or I to take you out for coffee to explore any of these ideas further. We would be delighted.
Will you come and follow him if he but calls your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Friends, God is calling your name, and is hoping very much that you will say yes to him.
My little niece Violet – that singing, dancing niece – is too young to have walked through some of the dark valleys that can come with following Jesus closely. But she is not too young to know that Jesus is our one and only path to joy, now and forever.
Heavenly Father, you are constantly calling each of us into a deeper relationship with you. Lord, we are often afraid of what that means. Help us. Calm our fears. Plant in each of us a desire to know you better. And lead us into the joy that this world cannot give, the joy that comes from being in an intimate, loving relationship with you. In your Son’s holy Name we pray, Amen.