“God’s Call, God’s Yes”
January 23, 2011
The month of January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Janus is usually shown as having two faces, one that looks forward and one that looks backward. In this month that calls out the little bit of pagan in each of us, we reflect on the past year and look ahead to 2011. Today we do this by joining in the January ritual of many congregations as we hold our annual meeting after worship. We will read the reports of past activities and—it is hoped—we will approve the budget that will support our future mission and ministry.
The prophets whom we read in the Hebrew Scriptures did not predict the future. It is said that they did not foretell the future; they told forth the word of God. At the beginning of the book of Isaiah, the prophet specifically denounces those who practice divinization—who seek to determine what the future will be by consulting the ghosts, the familiar spirits, the gods.
This is the point: the future is uncertain. The future is unknown to us. Perhaps you would join with the contemporary process theologians in saying that the future is unknown even to God. Try to find it, try to get some certainty about the next year—of the next day or the next hour—and you will find yourself in darkness, thick darkness.
Didn’t we just listen this morning as Isaiah announced that those who walked in darkness have seen a great light; that joy has increased; that the burden of the yoke and the rod of the oppressor have been broken?
None of these events had happened at the time when Isaiah spoke. Not yet.
But they were as certain as the rising of the sun. This, Isaiah is saying, is the direction of time, the movement of history. Theodore Parker, the early Unitarian, said back in 1853: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” And in the more familiar paraphrase of Martin Luther King, we heard again 100 years later: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Sometimes that vision is hard to see. And so we need help. Last year in the wake of a wave of harassment of gays and lesbians that resulted in some well-publicized suicides, Dan Savage began a video project called “It Gets Better” to encourage teenagers and young adults with the good news that in spite of what can be horrendous difficulties, well, it gets better. Life is worth living. Joy increases.
This is a message that we need to hear in times of struggle. It is a message that we need to hear in January. It is a message for all our days.
We can’t know the future. And yet we can say with the prophets’ hope, it gets better. History bends toward justice. The light shines in the darkness.
There is no certainty here.
But there is faith.
In this faith, Matthew finds the word of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Yes, many are still waiting to see the light. Many still sit in shadows.
And yet, even in the darkness we hear good news. God is near to us—as near as a mother to her child, as near as your own breathing.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus announces: “The realm of God has come near.” Uncertain, yet in hope, we speak that same message. We say: “In Jesus Christ, God has entered our world, has known our joys and sorrows, has died the death of all who live—and this is the truly amazing part—in dying Jesus Christ has conquered death for us and all that is alive.”
Jesus was not the end, but the beginning. In his life, death, and in the resurrection from the dead, Jesus was the start of God’s involvement with creation in a new way. In Jesus Christ the light of God is still dawning on this world, showing life in a new light. That is our hope, our faith, even when the night surrounds us. That is the candle we light in the darkness.
There is not certainty, but there is faith.
And out of just such faith Jesus calls those who hear him—you and me and countless other women and men. He calls us first of all to repent. Remember that “repent” does not me “feel sorry about something.” Nor does it mean to act in an especially religious manner—whatever that might be.
Repent means to turn around, to go in the opposite direction.
The call of Jesus is to turn around, to realign ourselves with the arc of history so that we, too, are moving toward justice, moving toward the light, moving in the direction of joy.
“Repent” sound harsh—and maybe that’s because it is a stern word. “Repent” sounds as God’s “No” to the way things are.
Not this way.
But God’s “No” is also God’s “Yes” to something greater. We know how there is always the temptation to remain in place, to hold onto what it known, sure, and familiar even if it is dangerous or deadly. Still God’s “Yes” is sounding clear in your heart even today.
The former dean of Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl, said that repentance was a “radical conversion to God.” This is not conversion to ideas about God or to being religious. If Stendahl’s own life was any indication of what this “conversion” looked like, it would be characterized by a deep intellectual curiosity, a warm sense of humor, a concern for the neighbor and maybe even more a concern for the stranger, that is the one who is unlike us—of a different faith, a different orientation.
We get a clearer picture of this conversion when we watch and listen as Jesus calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew.
“Follow me,” he says. The first word we hear is simply, “Come, draw near. Walk along for a while. Watch what I do.” The call to follow comes to us as we are—harried or at leisure, at the top of our game or still striving. The call to follow comes to us whether we are “religious” or not. As one person put it, Jesus doesn’t call us to “admire him or accept his ideas or even to accept him as our personal savior.”[i] He calls us to follow.
The One who offers this invitation is so compelling that we join with countless other women and men and line up behind him. We follow along as best as we know how. Maybe we even discover new ways of walking along with him.
I guess that’s a major reason why people decide to belong to congregations like this one. We’re willing to put up with all the quirks of everyone else because we want to be with others who have heard the call. In this way, when hearing grows dim, when love is slight, we find support from one another. The Christian life is not a solitary, individual one. A congregation is the place where people build up one another, where people seek good as we seek God. That is the promise of a group like this one. If we seek to live out that promise, together we start to discover what it means to follow in our time.
As we follow, we discover the same thing that the earliest followers did: we are not alone. We are not praying or working or discovering new life on our own.
Yes, our situation today is vastly different from that of the men and women who first heard and responded to the call of Jesus.
But I do find one similarity. People are still hoping for some good news.
We live in a dangerous and uncertain world. We are moving through a time of enormous political and economic and technological change. Our uneasiness and uncertainty grows. The powers that would destroy are still strong. There are places where violence and death reigns. There are places of deep shadows.
And in faith—not in certainty, but in faith—we say that the light of God is still dawning on this world, showing life in a new way. That is our hope even when the night surrounds us.
We know how the story in the Bible ends—“They left and followed.” And for nearly 2000 years women and men have done just that. They have prayed and brought healing. They have told others that the God who created is also the God who loves each creature. They have brought the light of Christ into countless darkened corners.
Those who followed have succeeded marvelously and failed disastrously.
The call is still the same: “Follow me.”
Please remember: when Jesus invites us to do something, it will not be creepy or strange. Or impossible. As Frederick Buechner so famously put it: “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you most need to do and that the world most need to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.[ii]
It is a false understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith that would insist that we behave in our lives as though we were the immediate contemporaries of those whom Jesus first called. We are not called to drop our nets. But in our commitments, in our families, in our employment, in all of life we are summoned simply to follow Jesus.
This morning we gather after worship to look back—to reflect a little on how we followed in the past year. I like to think we did a pretty good job—by the grace of God. And we look ahead—considering the challenges and opportunities that we face in the year ahead.
We don’t know the end of this story. We don’t know where our following might take us in the year ahead.
Follow in living and in dying.
Follow to new resurrected life.
Walk in the light—for that is where you wanted to be all along.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 95.