PALM SUNDAY Mark 11. 1-11 : A SURPRISING JOURNEY The account is familiar enough to us. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt, having sent two of his disciples to find it and fetch it. The colt has never been ridden before. It is not broken in. Now I know very little about horses, but I know they don’t usually easily take to been ridden. My maternal grandfather had a knack for breaking in horses and was the one other farmers sent for when they were trying to get a young horse used to the strap round their neck and reins and break it in. In Mark’s account (and the gospels all have their distinctive flavour of this account) there seems to be a passionate concern that the colt a young foal of a donkey has never been ridden before. No other person has ever sat upon it. It is as if the colt has been saving itself, or its owners have, for this special divine mission. Only the purest animal will do for the task. Jesus is the first one to ride it. And so, it is surprising and amazing that he does so without it appearing to resist, it does not become a bucking bronco scenario and try to toss him off. He obviously had a way with the animal. He is calming, makes it feel at ease. It rather feels like this is its purpose, to transport Jesus into the city on that festival day. The crowd in a fit of excitement cut down branches and wave them, throw their cloaks on the ground to make a kind of royal road for Jesus to ride along, for they are welcoming their Messiah, the King, the one they are pinning their hopes on. And they shout “Hosanna”. Now hosanna means literally “save us”. I wonder what the crowd meant by that phrase. Probably different things. In our world today we are hoping the measures we have put in place about hand washing, social distancing, wearing face coverings and now the vaccine roll-out or all these things that together are going to save us from the pandemic of coronavirus. Jesus comes to save us but perhaps not in the ways the crowd were expecting, or by the means he endured later in the week. They could not possibly have foreseen the cross and his passion. They think he is coming to set things right, which he does of course, but not in the way they expect, they think he is coming as King to boot out the Romans, make their nation great again. Their minds are full of power, glory, politics, hopes, perhaps even revolution (lets not forget one of his followers was a zealot- Simon the zealot, a member of a revolutionary party or group), the people were hoping for a brighter future, pomp and circumstance, certainly not betrayal, pain, suffering and death. Many a time in history politicians have hailed their programme as something that is going to save the nation. And usually the idea comes a cropper out after a short time, because promises are undeliverable, as something does not go according to plan and another programme has to be created quickly, downgrading the previous extravagant hopes. In the crowd that first Palm Sunday, the folk are pinning their hopes on Jesus. Well, we know Jesus has saved us by his life, death and resurrection. We can confidently put our trust in him for this life and the next. He is the “Saviour of the world” as we proclaimed in the canticle we shared in with its repeated petition “save us and help us”, just like the crowd who cry “hosanna”. The crowd also cry out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” words that have come into the liturgy of the Church at every eucharist in what we call the Sanctus and Benedictus in the middle of the prayer we say over the bread and wine, perhaps reminding us that each time we celebrate Holy Communion we gather for a festival as pilgrims, just as the crowd did that day Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. Whether we always have the same degree of excitement is another matter! In Mark’s version of the incident there is a special focus on the coming kingdom of David. There is a very purposeful looking forward, and expectation, an intentional hopefulness. The crowd are kingdom focused and have an eye to the future. And Jesus does nothing to thwart their perceptions. He goes along with the sentiments, he laps it up. He seems to accept it, but whether he had other thoughts in his mind we do not know. I wonder whether we are always kingdom focused. And whether we always have an eye to the future. We can easily slip into only being concerned about the present, or even nostalgia for the past. In our worship and our life together in the Church we can easily become focused on the here are now or perhaps the past and restrict our thinking around our views, the views of those present and miss the thing that God is seeking to reveal to us about what God has planned around the corner- the new thing or things. Our perceptions can easily be limited by our smallness of vision. We might look around at the folk and miss the great cloud of witnesses with whom we join our prayers and praises. Perhaps part of the surprising journey is to realise the other folk who are also journeying. We do not journey alone. The crowd have a focus on what is coming next. It is not here yet, but it is on its way. Like the train we can hear but not yet see, pulling into the station. As we plan for some of our churches to re-open, we might be guilty of missing something really significant if we just think it is going to be as it was before. We need to realize we are in a different world now, that we are not returning to what was familiar. In stark terms what of all those in your community who have yet to hear the good news of the gospel, what are our plans for evangelising them? How do we share the good news of the gospel with them? And the account ends with a sting in the tail. Jesus goes into the Temple and he looks around, then leaves, as it was already late. He looks around. He takes it all in. He looks and sees, he takes notice- of what we are not told-but we can guess; the people, the systems, the furniture, the smell, the atmosphere, the traders, the animals, the worshippers…In some ways that should be what we have been doing for the last twelve months, looking at our churches and thinking through what has been going on, what God is calling us to do and to be in the future. I am not sure we have done enough looking around yet. We need to be getting on with that
A Truth Speaking Journey. Bible readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14. Matthew 4:4-11.
So far in our lent series of wilderness worship we’ve explored various forms of journey: a Spirit-led journey, Rev Chris led us to contemplate on a journey of ‘simplicity’, taking away the things which can get in the way of our spiritual journey. The President of Conference explored a ‘sorrowful journey’ in the context of rural living, and last week Rev Bruce reflected on a ‘sacrificial journey’ which leads us to this week’s focus of a ‘Truth Speaking Journey.’
So, how would you define what truth is? Well, I suggest that truth is more than the opposite of lies. And speaking the truth is more than simply quoting facts.
Jesus helps us find the answer to that question.
John 14: 6 … Jesus replied to Thomas’s question about the way to the Father by saying: “I am the way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me”
Jesus is the ultimate ‘truth and truth speaker.’
I found 54 verses in the gospels where Jesus specifically introduces what he is about to say as The Truth. Some of these verses might be familiar to you:
“I tell you the truth – if you have faith and do not doubt, you can say to a mountain…move into the sea.”
“Truly, Truly I say to you, I am the door for the sheep.”
“Truly I say, he rejoices more over the one who was lost than the 99…”
“Truly I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs but because you ate the bread I gave you…”
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a child will never enter into it….”
“Truly I say to you – one of you will betray me”
“Very truly I tell you – this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will “deny me three times”
Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”
When Jesus spoke the truth, it wasn’t to win favour. Some of those truths I just read to you are comforting, others you might find very challenging and unsettling – all of those truths are spoken by Jesus with love.
I sometimes find that, if a brother or sister in Christ approaches me with the words – Les, let me speak to you honestly and in Christian Love, I usually get the feeling that I’m going to hear something about myself, a decision or opinion I’ve voiced, an action I’ve taken or perhaps even a hymn that I’ve chosen which is not to their liking and that person usually wants to dress their particular prejudice or annoyance up in flowery language under the guise of love.
That is not Jesus’ approach. Jesus offers us The Truth, His Truth, always with love and he never compromises his Truth. Of course, Jesus is our model for this and for all things. Jesus told the Rich young ruler the truth about himself, that, despite his desire to inherit the Kingdom he preferred his earthly wealth to a place in the eternal kingdom, and we are told: ‘he, (the rich man), was saddened and dismayed’ as he walked away from Jesus. Jesus’ message was hard hitting but spoken in love.
Jesus told the woman at the well the truth regarding everything about her life and she returned to her village and told many “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
Jesus always offers a choice for his listener to make, after he presents his truth
Later in John’s gospel we read that Jesus had a discourse with Pilate about the truth. Ironically it comes in the same chapter which describes the lie that Peter told when he denied the truth of being a friend and disciple of Jesus.
Pilate interrogated Jesus – trying to find the truth of who he was and what he was accused of.
“Then You are a king!” Pilate said. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answered. “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.”
John 18: 38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. And having said this, he went out again to the Jews and told them, “I find no basis for a charge against Him. But it is your custom that I release to you one prisoner at the Passover. So then, do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”…
I get the feeling from visiting that passage time and again that Pilate knew what the truth was and he may have been beginning to realise who The Truth is.
Pilate had an army surrounding him, his own army of soldiers and an army of baying Jews and his wife, and the court by his side yet, at that moment, I feel he was in one of the loneliest places of his life.
Do you ever feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, trying to speak the truth in an alien environment?
Again, our model is Jesus as we read the passage of Jesus being tempted in a wilderness place. Three times he was challenged and each time he called upon words of scripture to boldly speak the truth in a challenging situation. When we can’t find our own words of truth to speak, scripture is there to guide our thoughts and words.
We can also be inspired by Isaiah, and by John the Baptist all those years later, to be: “a voice of one calling: in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
Moses found himself in a lonely place, time and time again. We read of Moses tending sheep on a hillside when he came face to face, or rather ‘face to burning bush’ with God’s voice commissioning him to go and tell some hard truths to Pharaoh. I’m sure Moses would have been able to think of a myriad of very ‘sound’ reasons for him not to do God’s will. He wasn’t the greatest speaker but he was called by God to challenge the most powerful human being in his world – to challenge the injustice of slavery, and forced labour – the injustice of a cruel political dictator ruling over a nation living in captivity. Sadly there are still whole nations today living in similar circumstances.
The Israelites’ time in captivity, their release and 40 years in the wilderness was a defining period for them, and a lasting demonstration of God’s character towards them. We can see that God used the flawed person of Moses to speak out in truth to bring about liberation and deliverance.
In times of crisis the Israelites bring to mind their experience in the desert and use it to remind them of how God might act in their present trouble. God’s action came to fruit through people whom he called to speak the truth.
This was the case when Israel was taken into exile by Babylon in 597 BC. They were taken out of the Promised Land and into captivity, and their Temple was destroyed.
They were distraught. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel tried to remind the people that, even in the desert of exile, they could still rely on the God who had brought them through the wilderness.
God called people then and he calls people now to speak out in truth, to challenge injustice, and bring hope to a world in crisis. God calls upon each of us, the Church, to challenge injustice in our communities, our nation, and the world and bring hope to individuals and to a world in crisis.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the people weren’t simply hungry and thirsty in the desert of exile. They were dead, their bodies had rotted away, and only their bones were left on the dry, dusty desert floor. It’s a rather disgusting image. But verse 11 reflects the extent of Israel’s despair.
A powerful nation reduced to a rotten carcass and a pile of dried bones.
Does that image of exile relate to the despair you sometimes feel about the world around you? About our society, and a church that seems increasingly marginalised and ignored? If it resonates with you at all, then you can take heart from what happens through Ezekiel. I encourage you to read on to the end of the book of Ezekiel of how from the challenges of the truth-speaking prophet and the will of God, the people and their Temple are restored.
There are people in our world who need to be restored today. Prophetic, truth-speaking words need to be spoken, their voices need to be heard, fake news needs to be confronted with the truth.
It can be risky to speak truth to power. If you do so in Hong Kong you may risk imprisonment. If you do so in Myanmar you risk being shot. If you do so in the UK – what’s the worst that can happen?
On this Passion Sunday - What is the Holy Spirit prompting you to say to those in power today? What truth needs to be heard in our churches, our families, our community, our nation and world? What truth will you speak? And will you do it in love?
Prayer. Loving God, through the power of your Holy Spirit, give each of us courage to speak truth where it needs to be heard. Give us the right words to use and the grace and courage to use them. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Lazarus: St John 11 v 20-29 and 32-36: In 1945, only a few years before, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in his Gestapo cell plotting against Hitler. His Letters and Papers from Prison anticipated many of the questionings and dilemmas of the modern Christian. There in that cell he asks: ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today’? or as a character in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar put it: I only want to know Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Johns gospel goes out of its way to tell us who this Jesus Christ is and what he means for us today. So, what does todays powerful story about Lament which focuses on Lazarus, Martha and Mary reveal to us about who Jesus Christ is? 1: Jesus Christ is Contemplative: Mary, Martha and Lazarus were very close to Jesus. Lazarus becomes very ill and he dies. Jesus didn’t come to see them straight away when Lazarus was ill or immediately when he dies, even though he was not far away. Martha says when he finally arrives ‘Jesus If only you had been here’. Jesus has the strength of mind and character not to respond at once and under pressure of what is expected from him. That strength and that alternative direction comes from dwelling deeply in God. Through this passage, as elsewhere in John, we have the sense that Jesus is listening to a deeper story within, the story of God’s purposes. We see the outcome of that deeper story in Jesus’ unexpected actions. We catch a glimpse of the deep relationship between, Father, Son and Spirit, the mutual indwelling which makes that deeper story possible. We see the contemplative Jesus first in his words to Martha and then to Mary. Jesus dwells in the Father and that indwelling is expressed in prayer. For him there is a very real and deep abiding, a resting in the vine, a unique conversation with God. Every action of value and every word of value in a follower of Jesus flows out of that deepening relationship with God in prayer. Every action of value and every word of value in the Church flows from that deepening relationship with God in prayer—our contemplation of Jesus Christ. COVID 19 has made this worse but we are very often an anxious church living in an anxious world. An anxious church finds courage very difficult, because we want to remain with the familiar. An anxious church is likely to be far too busy to be good news to the world. The antidote to anxiety is dwelling deep in God: in contemplation. The many different communities we serve need a contemplative church. The people around us who are like sheep without a shepherd need a church that is willing to take God seriously. We are really no use without a heavenly dimension. We are a poor social club. We are not a society of the preservation of old buildings. Without prayer at the centre of who we are, we can so easily become an empty group of do gooders concerned more for our own survival that for the salvation of the world. Jesus deep relationship with the Father enables him to offer meaning and significance and perspective on the otherwise random events of life. That meaning is vital in order to live reflective lives. In order to be fully human. As a Church we are called to model what it means to be fully human, to live life in fellowship and community with God, to bring the sacred and the holy into ordinary life, to live life in all its fullness. There are many ways to pray: as many ways as there are people. The Church needs them all. Contemplative Jesus: 2: Jesus who is Compassionate Jesus comes to Bethany. Martha comes to meet him first and says to him: If you had been here my brother would not have died’. Hear the words which follow: When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said ‘’Where have you laid him?’ They said ‘’Lord come and see; Jesus began to weep. So, the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’’ (v34-5). This is the only place in the fourth gospel where Jesus reveals his deepest emotions. We love him for it. This weakness and vulnerability, this lament, calls forth a response in John’s readers in every generation. There is compassion here for Mary and Martha in their grief and for Lazarus in his suffering. We love Jesus here for his compassion, his lament, for his grief. In Johns wonderful gospel we are confronted in a way no other gospel does with both Jesus divinity and his humanity—the two are woven together. This story is one of them. Martha confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is bold language. In the very next paragraph, this Son of God, the Messiah, the King, is weeping: moved and deeply shaken in love for his friends. John is saying more than this particular person was like this. John is saying, God is like this. God’s heart breaks and is shaken when we are bereaved, when we suffer, when we lament, particularly in the face of premature death. Vulnerability is an essential part of love and an essential part of God’s love for us. Vulnerability is an essential part of being human, of forming deep relationships. Lament is a natural expression of grief or sorrow which comes about because of our love for someone. We become more like Christ not as we become more powerful and remote but as we become more compassionate and identify with the suffering. The church is at its best is not a community of the sorted and self-sufficient and independent. The church at its best is a community of the vulnerable: those who know their need of God and those who know their need of human connection. They are therefore able to love fully. The story of Lazarus brings us face to face with the Christ of compassion, the tenderness of vulnerability who calls us to walk this way, who shows us, as it were, that this is what it means to live abundantly and fruitfully. The picture we have here is of how the church is to live in the world: the foundation of Gods mission is compassion: feeling with and suffering with others. Weeping with those who weep. Contemplative: Compassionate: 3: Jesus who is Courageous. Throughout this story Jesus demonstrates immense courage. As he does in other parts of the gospels. Here Jesus walks towards difficulty and pain and danger despite his own emotional turmoil, He offers himself to the purpose of God in this story out of love for his friends and obedience to his Father. Jesus walks towards pastoral pain and difficulty in his encounters with Martha and Mary. He stands before the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he holds the power of life and death and calls Lazarus out! What does the word Courageous mean? To be courageous means to be whole hearted. The word courage comes from the Latin word COR meaning heart. To be encouraged is, literally, to have the heart put back in you. In the language of Jeremiah, to be given a new heart. The Church, me and you are called to be Christ like. To be a Christ Like Church means to become a more courageous church: to be whole hearted, to dare greatly together for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the language of the Beatitudes, the church is to be courageous in being hungry and thirsty for justice. We are to be courageous in pursing peace and reconciliation. We are to be courageous, like our Lord, in bearing the cost of our discipleship and the consistent boldness of our witness. And as disciples of Jesus our courage comes from the Word of God. A Lutheran pastor, a Norwegian, was arrested by the gestapo in the Second World War. He was brought to the interrogation room and the Gestapo officer placed his revolver on the table between them and said, ‘This is just to let you know that we are serious!’. The pastor instinctively pulled out his Bible and laid it alongside the revolver. ‘Why did you do that?’ demanded the Officer. The Pastor replied: ‘You laid out your weapon---so did I’. The bottom line is, that God changes lives through the bible. Untold numbers of people have been picked up, turned around and set off on a new and hopeful path through encountering God’s word to them. They have been given the courage which has inspired them to radical service all over the world. They have been given the courage to change the face of society over slavery, education, the Factory Acts because of what they have found in those pages. They have claimed words of courage when there has been nothing else to hang on to. They have been given courage to keep on moving when the Easter experience has seemed so far away. The Bible is a book of encounter and shared experience, it should never be put on a pedestal. It has no need of one. Rather, it is to be befriended as the companion of faith where we find courage, for that journey of faith. In this powerful story of Lament, the answer to ‘Who is Jesus Christ’? Is: He is Contemplative, Compassionate and Courageous. We are called to be Christlike. So, may we follow his example in our lives. Amen
Mark 1.21-39 & 1 Corinthians 8. 1-13 “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Corinthians 8: 1b There was a fairly typical chapel in rural Devon. An aging congregation, who were faithful and committed to chapel life. They did their best to look after the large building. One day the property steward noticed signs of decay at the bottom of one of the pews. After an initial inspection it was confirmed that it had been caused by dry rot. Subsequent investigations revealed the extent of the problem. The dry rot affected a significant part of the floor and pews. The estimated repair bill was £30,000. A Church Council was called, the situation explained, and a way forward sought. This faithful congregation had been prudent, and they had happened to benefit from a number of legacies over the years. The balance in their various accounts was a little over £30,000. Initially the way forward seemed straight forward. They had the money, the repairs could be done, they could even do some redecorating at the same time and finish with a lovely renovated building. There was a sense of pride in their stewardship of resources and knowing they could pass through this difficulty. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Then someone asked whether this was the best use of the money. What would they do with a lovely building but no money to fund mission or outreach? They asked what the vision for a renewed building was? As they talked they began to consider the congregation a few miles down the road. Its building was sound. It was in a better location, a natural hub. They wondered whether they could worship there. Could they serve their village from there as part of a wider presence in the area? They had worked together on various things before, what if they came together and used the £30,000 to enable work with the community? Then they realised it wouldn’t just be £30,000, but more as if they weren’t fixing the building they could sell it. The sense of excitement grew about what might be possible. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” This a true story, as I remember it, from 5 years ago of a church my friend was minister at. They did take the courageous decision not to repair their beloved building, even though they knew they had the money in the bank, as they believed that their community and God’s Church in the area would be better served by not doing something they could have. I share this story because I think it sharpens the focus on one key aspect of both our readings today. The need to act in love for the sake of others. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. His calling is to proclaim the good news that God’s Kingdom has come near (v 14-15). It gets off to a good start. His teaching is authoritative. It astounds those in the synagogue. But it’s not just mere words. His words are performative – they accomplish what they announce – Jesus commands and the spirit obeys, falling silent and coming out of the man. And Jesus embodies the nearness of God’s Kingdom in his being and through his actions. He draws near to Simon’s sick mother-in-law, he touches her and holds her hand, and she is healed. And in hope, expectation, maybe even in faith, the people of Capernaum bring their sick to him. God’s Kingdom is seen amongst them, as Jesus is alongside them, and heals many of them. And news about him starts to spread around the region. Not a bad start. Yet surprisingly the next day, Jesus travels on. We could easily argue that Jesus should have stayed. There is much he could do, much he could capitalise on after this initial success. Yet after his early morning prayers, aware that there are more in the surrounding villages and towns who need to know God’s Kingdom has come close, he leaves. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In his letter to the Corinthians about the food controversy – whether it was right to eat food that had been sold after being sacrificed to false idols – Paul could easily have settled the argument. Paul could just have outlined why it was OK to eat meat. And Paul, being Paul, does do that! But, says Paul, that’s not really the point; who’s right and who’s wrong. What’s more important than being right is love. What good is being right, if the effect of being right will lead to another stumbling in their faith? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Consider the effects on those around you. Will it build others up? How will it affect the vulnerable? Put their needs before your own. For many churches, and in our Circuit, it’s this kind of principle that has guided our response during the latest lockdown. Although we could open our buildings and gather in a restricted way we chose not to. We chose not to as an act of love. To protect those who are vulnerable amongst our congregations. To support those in our NHS and other services who are tired by not adding to their burden. To not add stumbling blocks into the path of those who would wonder why we are gathering to worship when their business is closed or they are struggling to home-school their children. To prevent others from falling, out of love, we accept a different way. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” And this, it seems to me, is a fundamental feature of discipleship. In Christ we have tremendous freedom. In Christ we are set free to discover life as God intended. In Christ we are released from all the sin that binds, that restricts, that seeks to drag us down and torment us, just as Jesus set free the man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit. But we are set free not to walk in our own way, but Christ’s way. The way of the cross. The way, as Paul reminds us, that means Christ gives up his life so that others may live. He dies for us that we might not be destroyed. This is the way, as Les reminded us last week, we are called to follow. A way that seeks in love to build the other up. But if this is fundamental to discipleship – walking the way of love that seeks to build others up – then it’s not just for a season. As we wrestle with what God is calling us as Church to be through the experience of pandemic and as restrictions ease, might this be a foundation? When we return to gathering together in one place not to ask what we want, but to be guided by love for others, and to ask what will build others up? How might this change the nature of our relationships? How might it transform our conversation and discussion at Church Councils, at home, and in the community? In love for those outside Capernaum Jesus leaves those he has taught and healed, and moves on. In love for those whose faith or theological reflection is weaker Paul will not eat meat. In love for God and those in their community the congregation in Devon leave their building behind. What might God, in love for others, be calling us to move on from, to refrain from, or to leave behind? Are we prepared to follow this sacrificial way so that all might know God’s Kingdom has come near?
January 24th 2021
The Word of the Lord came to ………
Call to Worship - Psalm 62: 5-8
Hymn StF 331 King of Kings, Majesty
Prayers: Praise and Confession
Hymn StF 272 Servant King
Reading: Jonah 3: 1-10
Godly Play (story of Jonah video)
Hymn StF 663 I The Lord of Sea and Sky
Reading: Mark 1: 14-20
Hymn StF 662 Have You Heard God’s Voice
Prayers of Intercession
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn StF 415 The Church of God in Every Age
In the book of Jonah and the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark we are told about God calling people into action, it is a call to respond to the love of God.
Many of us took part in a covenant service last week in which we were invited to renew our covenant with God. The liturgy in the covenant service calls us to respond to the love which God has poured out on us. So today, I’d like us to think about our response to God’s love for us as we reflect on these two passages of scripture.
I suggest that our response inevitably has its limitations – limitations that we may wish to reflect upon.
The book of Jonah may be seen as a ‘funny’ story – I don’t want to suggest to you that it is not a true story – it clearly is a story which contains truth. Some see the story as an Old Testament parable, others see it as a factual account of a reluctant prophet trying to hide from God. Jonah is swallowed by a whale and survives 3 days in the belly of that whale before being spewed out on dry land and reluctantly going on to facilitate the salvation of 120,000 sinners. Which is not a bad day’s work for a preacher!
Jonah is a reluctant prophet, but God is able to use him despite his limitations. There is, therefore, hope for us, despite our limitations.
It is often overlooked that the sailors on board the ship bound for Tarshish were heathens – they worshipped false gods, but when Jonah told them about Yahweh, the One True God who made heaven and earth, they were converted and praised God.
The passage leaves us in no doubt that Jonah is a messenger from God. 120,000 inhabitants of the City of Niniveh and all of those sailors were saved because Jonah, albeit reluctantly, brought the Word of the Lord to them.
Why was Jonah reluctant? Well, because the people of Nineveh were enemies of Jonah’s people, they had history – they took Jonah’s people into captivity – they were guilty of genocide against Jonah’s people.
But this lone, fearful, reluctant Prophet, probably smelling of fish gut, lacking in willingness, enthusiasm, grace, forgiveness and courage was used to great effect by God.
So there certainly must be hope for us yet in our endeavours to take the Word of the Lord to our communities.
We don’t know a lot more about Jonah – we’re not told of his history nor of what he did next.
There is reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke – they draw parallels with Jonah spending 3 days in the belly of the whale with the Son of Man spending 3 days in the darkness of the earth, both Gospel writers refer to him as a ‘sign’.
Perhaps Jonah could be a sign to us that, as we respond to the Love of God, with all of our shortcomings and reservations, we too might be used to great effect by God, in spreading the Good News of the Kingdom.
Mark makes no mention of Jonah in his gospel.
In the first 2 verses of our Gospel reading Mark tells us that Jesus began his ministry, after spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness, by proclaiming the Good News.
What is the Good News? Mark tells us it is two-fold:
First: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’ Followed by an invitation to: ‘Repent and Believe’
As Jesus was on the shore of Galilea he met brothers Simon and Andrew working – just a regular days fishing for them – ‘for they were fishermen’ Mark tells us. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” was his simple invitation.
Further along the shore he met brothers James and John – mending nets, so they were also fishermen. Jesus offers the same invitation to follow him.
All 4 men follow, we’re told. Their apparent eagerness to follow Jesus is a huge contrast to Jonah’s reluctance to follow the Word of the Lord.
Notice the word that Mark uses twice in these short verses: Immediately, Jesus called James and John; Immediately Simon and Andrew followed.
Simon and Andrew, Immediately left their nets, their livelihood and family, and James and John left their father Zebedee and all that was familiar and dear to them and followed Jesus into an uncertain future.
We know now what the future held for those 4 men setting out on an adventure with the Son of Man: it involved sacrifice, suffering, ridicule, fear, self-denial confusion and ultimately death as the ‘Christian journey’ for all 4 of these disciples, and their faithfulness to answering that call brought about their execution.
Where’s the Good News in that?
Well, it’s this: death is not the end. Life following Christ on earth led them to life eternal with Christ. Their lives were no longer their own, but Christ’s.
Last week, Rev Chris led us in our online Circuit Covenant Service.
I could name a number of ‘good Methodist’ folk who avoid attending an annual covenant service and, if they do attend wince when the minister says the words; as Rev Chris said them last week:
“Christ has many services to be done, some are easy, some are difficult, some bring honour, others bring reproach, some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, and others are contrary to both”
And they remain silent when asked to respond with the words committing their lives to Christ: “Your will, not mine be done in all things, wherever you may place me” - Which is not too different to the words in our Lord’s prayer: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Words we say frequently – (perhaps we say these words without dwelling on what we are asking?)
The prophet Jonah had a problem with God’s call on his life, but the naïve Simon, Andrew, James and John showed no such reservation at that point in their call. They immediately left security and familiarity and followed.
Later, however, when the cross loomed large they inevitably falter and probably wish a big fished would come and swallow them up, but they saw it through and give their lives in service to the Lord.
What was it that sustained them in their call?
Well, it’s the same things that will sustain you in your call and response. The assurance of God which we heard earlier from the Psalmist: It is God who is our: Hope, rock, salvation, fortress, deliverance, honour, our mighty rock our refuge and strength in times of trouble.
We have all lived through some very dark days over the past 10 months or so.
Yet I look at some of our church folk in this circuit and beyond where, despite not being able to meet and worship together have found their sense of mission increase and who have discerned new ways to bring the Good News of the Kingdom to the communities around them.
- Online worship and prayer meetings.
- Online story telling for young folk
- Delivery gifts
- Setting up and running a food bank despite the challenges of lockdown
- Collecting and delivering prescriptions and shopping
- Reaching out to the lonely and depressed, being a good neighbour in imaginative ways
- Setting up a ‘healing our community project’
- Planning exciting things for a time when we can meet and work together in the service of God, following Jesus’ call on out lives.
Now, perhaps more than ever, people need to hear the Good News of the Kingdom.
Just as the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, and the invitation to Follow Jesus came to Simon, Andrew, James and John, so the Word and the Call comes out to each of us today.
Hear afresh Jesus invitation. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” AMEN.