Epiphany 3 – Year B
Sermon Preached on January 22, 2006
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church
Elk Grove Village, Illinois

What would it take for you to drop everything and do something or go somewhere different? For many of us the answer is “winning the lottery!” For me, it is completing seminary and my training --- I’ve told many of you, when I’m done, “I’m going to Disney World” – that’s right, I will drop everything and fly to Orlando for a few, fun-filled days with Mickey Mouse, Eeyore, Jiminy Cricket --- oh, yes, and Andrea! But let’s face it. I’m not leaving right now. I’m not really dropping everything. I’m going to go once my seminars at Seabury are finished, once I’ve finished my internship here at St. Nicholas. Andrea will continue her work at Abbott Labs until it is time for us to pack up and go. And, what’s more, we’ll be back. A trip to Disney World is likely not to be a life-changing event. Winning the lottery . . . well, maybe that’s another matter (but should it be?)!

Can you even imagine being Simon or Andrew, James or John and being asked by Jesus to follow Him? Immediately he called them – and they left! Just like that! And believe me, they had other compelling options. These were not poor fishermen. No, we are told that they were in their own boats using their own nets working with their own hired men. These were business men who participated in THE major industry in Galilee – fishing. They were doing fine economically. And yet, when Jesus called them, they left their boats, their nets, their families, their hired men – and they followed Jesus. Just like that. Jesus must have been awe-fully compelling – so compelling that no preparation and no getting used to the idea was needed. Awe-fully compelling.

What compels us? Money is certainly a candidate here - Social status or popularity perhaps - Being the best – at work, on the baseball team, at school. All of these things compel us today. But wait just a minute. To compel means to force or to require. Are any of us truly forced to seek popularity? Sure, social pressures - peer pressures - both are rampant in our society; but surely we could say no – couldn’t we? Are we as a society as addicted to the pursuit of fortune, fame, and being number one as many individuals are addicted to alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, and/or caffeine? It is as though society says, “follow me” and, immediately we leave behind the one true God and chase after these false gods – or, perhaps more accurately, these demons.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah was warning the Israelites about in the first half of the 6th century before Christ. Jeremiah saw his people walking away from the God who had called them. To use the language of Bernhard Anderson, an Old Testament scholar (and former professor of mine), the Israelites were diseased – the outward manifestation of their illness was putting their trust in institutions, rather than God and ignoring the social bond of their covenant with God. 1 This social bond required walking in truth, in justice, and in uprightness. The Israelites had a disease of the heart and had confused their loyalty to the religious institutions with their loyalty to God. Perhaps they had even successfully fooled themselves into believing that they were doing the right thing – following the letter of the law, the Torah. But, while this may be true; it is certainly true that God was not fooled. Anderson writes that “the inner integrity that is based on a true relationship to God and neighbors in the covenant” was fractured.2

I would suggest that when we choose to follow money and popularity – to the exclusion of all else – we too are being untrue to God. We are suffering from the same disease of the heart that the ancient Israelites – our ancestors in the faith – fell victim to. We are following after idols and we have turned our back on God. As Christians, we are called to turn our backs to the idols we have created around us and to return to the Lord.

The prophet Jeremiah used the word “return” a lot. We heard it three times in this morning’s short reading - “Return, O faithless children,” “return, O Israel, says the LORD,” and “return to me.” The Hebrew word used for “return” is shûb. The word shûb has two meanings. In the first place, it means “to come back” – like our word “return.” But, it also means to “deliberately turn away from one thing and turn toward another thing.” It is a journey word, a word of conscious choice and movement that, in the context of Jeremiah, implies a “sustained, long term resolve to act differently.”3 Jeremiah tells the Israelites – turn away from your perversion, your faithlessness, your delusions, and your shameful things and turn back to the only true Lord who is the LORD of truth, of justice, and of uprightness. For this meaning of the word shûb we might just as easily use the word “repent” – and, in fact, that is the word that is used in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Often when we think of the word repent, we associate it with guilt or shame; and, indeed, the Israelites experienced this as well. Jeremiah says, “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God . . . and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.” But this is not the final word – nor is it, I think, the only word we are called to hear today.

When Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, he says “follow me” - two words spoken with enough authority to compel these four to drop everything to become Christ’s disciples. In today’s gospel, Jesus issues that same invitation to you and to me: turn to Jesus. Turn away from the false gods of material possession and popularity. Turn away from whatever your false gods eagerly convince you to do. Turn away from these false gods and make a deliberate, long term commitment to turn toward Jesus’ call to discipleship. This is the repentance we are called to today. Once we have turned our lives toward God, we can begin to discern the new vision God has for us. And it is our commitment to, our belief in, this new vision of God’s Kingdom that truly compels us to act in accordance with the truth-telling and justice-making mission of God in the world.

1 Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986), p. 170.
2 Ibid.
3 Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 170.


Debra said…
The following are some of the comments about my sermon provided by members of my lay committee at St. Nick's:
- A parishioner expressed the concern that the list of social temptations (e.g., money, fame, being first) was tired - "heard it all before" - nothing fresh or new.

- What was it that made Jesus so compelling? What would it take to drop everything to follow Jesus? A parishioner indicated they would have liked me to pursue that line of thinking a bit more.

On that last point, I also wish I had at least returned to that question toward the end. Perhaps I have two sermons going on: (1) what would it take for us to drop everything - i.e., the compelling theme; and (2) what does it mean to repent and believe - i.e., the shub theme.