Weekly Preaching: January 24, 2021

January 20th, 2021

I'll preach on Mark, the call, the boat, the water — that scene which I think is the greatest single miracle (maybe) in the Bible... All the lections remind me of something in Wendy Farley's riveting, thoughtful new book, Beguiled by Beauty. Exploring contemplative dispositions we are wise to cultivate, she includes "adventure," and right after "wonder." We learn how to be awed by the world, people, little moments — and then we work on "a spirit of adventure rather than security." American life is all about safety, and we wish God would keep us tucked in securely. To grow, to get closer to God, try some adventurous things. Could be baking a souffle when you're a zero in the kitchen, or meeting a stranger from the other side of town, attempting pole-vaulting (kidding) or trying something really risky as a Christian or as a church. Might fail, might be laughable. But "the spirit of adventure allows us to encounter difficulty and uncertainty as part of the journey." I'll poke around with this in my sermon, and maybe in my life this week to acclimate myself to being more adventurous.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 is a lectionary groaner. Maybe pointing this out, and teasing out why, would make a great sermon! Some people fret over the historicity of Jonah in the fish. The more unlikely item in this story, historically, is that a guy walked for days to Nineveh, the massive capital of the evil Assyrian empire, preached a short, threatening sermon, and the entire population converted. Living in a fish for three days would be a piece of cake compared to that. No mention of this in the fastidious Assyrian annals. The moon god and cohort continued to be worshipped there, and the Assyrians never let up from their ferocious, bloodthirsty foreign policy — including against Israel. 

It's made up, a parable of sorts, and only makes sense as the foil for chapter 4. Jonah, having run in the opposite direction when God first asked him to go to Nineveh, has just achieved the single greatest preaching result in history? “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (4:1). He pouts, and grouses about the shrub that grew up to give him shade. Small-minded, he resents a small injustice that makes him uncomfortable, when he didn’t create the shrub to begin with — and then why begrudge God doing good to masses of people?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 has never been cross-stitched or printed on a poster. You could come up with a lot of cheesy stuff if you asked What if this were your last day or week? People would go for their favorite wine, or drive to some scenic spot, gathering with loved ones maybe. Paul touches on those institutions and situations in which we find our security, our sense of belonging: your spouse, mourning loved ones, buying stuff. How would we live as if we had none of these? A loosened sense of attachment? Recalling it’s all temporary? I doubt it’s a negative so much as a positive, transcendent attachment to God — reminding me of Oscar Romero’s words: “I don’t want to be an anti-, against anybody. I simply want to be a builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.” So it’s not being against something so much as for something else — of immense urgency. 

Notice the Greek: the “form” that is passing away is schema, which rightly sounds like “scheme,” which has a sneaky connotation, doesn’t it? These things can trip us up. And notice also how we typically want a both/and instead of an either/or. Jesus, we may recall, didn’t marry, and didn’t have business dealings or possessions! So Paul could be urging us to be like him. And, Jesus issued similar, disorienting warnings about not burying your dead or turning sons against fathers. Hard, stark choices are involved in this gospel life. 

Mark 1:14-20. Day 1 of Jesus’ ministry, as he strides out of the wilderness after 40 harrowing days. As if issuing fair warning to any who would dig into this story, Mark mentions that “John was arrested.” Dangerous business. The forces of evil are already getting organized. The Greek for “arrested” is paradidomi, which usually in the Gospels means “handed over.” Jesus too will be handed over, acted upon, arrested and killed. With that foreshadowing, Mark explains how Jesus arrived at the same destiny as John.

Jesus arrives at the shore of Galilee, picturesque even today. His message intrigues: it’s all about “time.” Not chronos, as in clock time passing, but kairos, as in “it’s time,” a pregnant moment, the turning point. In his lovely book, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, Gerhard Lohfink elucidates the way the urgency of time, the now! is what defines Jesus more than titles or identities. He showed up and named that God’s dreams and their dreams — it’s now, it’s dawning, it has dawned, can you notice it? Urgency: you have to decide now, not tomorrow, not next year. We think the miracles are Jesus’ healings or stilling the storm. Maybe a bigger one is he walks right up to guys at work who’ve never heard of him, and after the briefest exchange, they drop everything, livelihood and family, and traipse off after him to…. Well, they don’t have the slightest idea where they’re going, what they’ll be doing or how it will all come down. Jesus must have been beautiful, or compelling in some unfathomable way.

My favorite Jesus movie, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, depicts Jesus walking briskly, talking over his shoulder to disciples and onlookers breathlessly trying to keep up. That's about right.

And how unusual! From the thousands of stories we have of rabbis in those days, not one of them asked students to follow. How did old Zebedee manage his boats the next day? What did he say to Mrs. Zebedee when he got home? The preacher can and must underline the radical nature of the impact Jesus had on people. He didn’t say Hey, nice boats, I’ll come visit you again next week! The pearl of great price had materialized, and they dropped everything to follow. Find something to illustrate this, maybe like Will Hunting abandoning his new job and old friends and driving across the country for Skylar. But you might just trust the story as it is. Jesus said “Follow me.” And shock of all shocks, and yet Grace of all Grace, they did. 

It could be a time to tell your call story, if you can clarify “call” isn’t into ministry but into a life of following Jesus. My story involves this story. After years of zero church interest, some friends dragged me to their church. I started going — kind of in a back row kind of way. Some invited me to a small group. I laughed, not being that kind of guy. But then I had a dream one night. Jesus (how did I recognize him?) was by the sea, and he said to me, “Follow me.” I woke up, and thought I might try that Bible study. When I got there, my discomfort ratcheted up exponentially when the leader sat down and said This evening, let’s explore Mark 1:17, when Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ That wasn’t a call to ministry for me — yet. It was a call to get serious about following.

Speaking of dreams: when preaching this text, I’ve told about a dream the novelist Reynolds Price reported. After being diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his spinal cord, he dreamed of Galilee. Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Price answered him, “That’s not exactly what I am worried about.” I don’t have any takeaway from this story, but dang, it’s so good.

Clearly, this story helps us see that Christianity isn’t about being nice, or goodness or judging other people. It’s getting in motion, dropping some stuff, off on a new path. And it’s real world stuff. There are some vivid details in the story that remind us of this: the verb, “casting their nets” is amphiballontas, which means throwing around, circular tossing, whirling something heavy. Archaeologists found a boat under the mud in the Sea of Galilee dating to the time of Jesus. If it only had S.S. Simon Peter carved into the prow! I like to show my folks images from classic art. Caravaggio’s stunning “The Call of St. Matthew” shows Jesus with a raised arm and slightly cocked finger, clearly echoing Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of God creating Adam. Notice the posture and seeming hesitancy of the disciples, a bit of a Who me? look about them. And this: evidently Caravaggio, when painting this, went out into the street and rounded up the first guys he found loitering around, sat them down in his studio and painting them as the disciples. And there they are! Our people, you and me included, might just find ourselves caught up in the picture of Jesus’ now.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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