Defining Moments

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

I give thanks today for how God has blessed this church these past 40 years. I also give thanks to God for you and your faithful witness in behalf of the Good News of the Gospel. In addition to celebrating your 40th Anniversary as a church, I ask you to make this a time to rededicate yourselves to serving Christ’s mission in the world. These are anxious times in which we live. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed; people, systems and nations are in desperate need of transformation. My sermon today is offered to help you discern where and how God’s is calling you now as you move into another decade of ministry.

Throughout the Bible God caused defining moments in order to prepare leadership to begin new chapters in salvation history. When any person is confronted with this sort of event, it is usually the time when one’s deepest values come in conflict with life situations. These circumstances give each of us the opportunity to choose a path. Over the years the cumulative effects of these decisions form character. There is no doubt that we are each the sum total of our personal decisions.
There are choices that challenge us in a deeper way by asking us to choose between two or more ideals in which we deeply believe. Character is formed in these situations because we commit ourselves to irreversible courses of action that shape us personally and professionally. These defining moments uncover things in us that have been hidden, and we discover things about ourselves and reveal them to others. It is in these times that we discover whether we will live up to our personal ideals or only talk about them. Here we discover something in a very painful way — we discover who we really are.

This has happened to all of God’s leaders. For example, Abraham had his defining moment when he heard the voice of God calling him from the security of Ur to the insecurity of the life of a nomad. Can you imagine the conversations that took place in that home and the explanations to the extended family? Abraham obviously spoke very forcefully and convincingly to those who would make this journey with him. Through his decision God began his work of salvation.

We see how Joseph, best-loved son of his father but hated by his older brothers, was sold into slavery. He was brought into Potiphar’s household as a servant and soon proved so trustworthy that he was put in charge of his entire house. Only a short time passed until Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tempted Joseph to have an affair with her. This was his defining moment. When he refused her, she falsely accused Joseph and he was sent to prison. His decision planted the seeds that produced the exodus.
What about Moses, who faced his defining moment before the burning bush? He very reluctantly gave up the security and obscurity of a shepherd’s life to face Pharaoh, and to herd a bunch of grumbling slaves to freedom with Pharaoh’s armies in hot pursuit. The defining moment of Moses led to the birth of a new nation.
Of course, Jesus is the ultimate example of facing life’s defining moments. After his baptism, he was taken into the wilderness and for forty days and nights struggled with his mission. The author of his defining moment was the devil himself. Only after Jesus faced Satan and made his choice clear did the devil leave him. This was the defining moment that began the ministry of Jesus and changed the world forever.

Jesus had a way of producing defining moments for the disciples as he called each of them to follow him. The first ones to face this were Simon and his brother Andrew, whom Jesus called as they were fishing along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Farther along the lake Jesus found the sons of Zebedee, James and John, mending nets in their boat. He called them and they immediately left their boat and their father and followed him. The defining moments and the responses of these disciples, as well as the others, have had an impact on history that continues to this day.

Modern history has taken turns that seem improbable due to the response of individuals to their defining moments. During the month of February, our children in the public schools in this country recognize the historical contributions made by African Americans that helped shape this country. Here is an example of one of those defining moments.

We will never forget the day or the event when Rosa Parks, an African-American domestic worker, refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man. This event occurred on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Mrs. Parks, prior to her arrest on this occasion, had observed the quiet strength of her mother and grandmother. She had tried unsuccessfully to register to vote and had experienced public humiliation when bus drivers insisted that blacks pay at the front, then enter by the back door to sit in the back of the bus. In fact, sometimes the drivers would take the fare, then shut the door and drive off, leaving Rosa or other blacks standing there. This continuing mistreatment, not only of her, but also of the black race in countless ways, culminated in producing the defining moment for Rosa Parks. After this incident, a 382-day bus boycott eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s buses. Rosa Parks is known as “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” but she has said that she would like for people to know that her faith in God, her religious convictions, and her church helped give her the strength to meet her defining moments with courage, which in turn ignited the national civil rights movement and changed the social fabric of America.

Now we come to look at the Old Testament reading this morning. The story of Jonah shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that God chooses to use reluctant people to do his work. Jonah definitely did not volunteer to go to witness to the people of Nineveh. The story has several unusual twists and turns and the bottom line seems to be that if at first you don’t respond correctly to your defining moment, you’ll meet it again and again!

Jonah had successfully lived under the radar of public recognition all of his life, and he liked it that way. He was satisfied with a small vision and little responsibility, virtually no pressure. There is safety in smallness of vision and narrowness of mind and heart, and he had found it. Then God interrupted this narrow routine and presented to Jonah a series of defining moments that challenged him to leave his comfort zone. Actually, that is an understatement of how Jonah felt about the whole situation. However, these challenges revealed much about Jonah and about God, as well. All of Jonah’s presuppositions concerning life were challenged by his call from God. He was stretched between two value systems. He never expected to have his comfort area and his narrow lifestyle interrupted by God’s demand that he catch the vision of a larger world.

Jonah was basically working with rural people and he sincerely believed that God had always been partial to rural people. The entire Hebrew Bible reflects this belief. Life began in a rural setting (the Garden of Eden), and cities were cesspools of evil (Sodom and Gomorrah). Had not all the prophets spoken against the cities and then retreated to the countryside for rest and spiritual reflection? Not only was Nineveh urban, but also it was not even in Israel. It was the greatest of the capitals of the Assyrian Empire located on the left bank of the Tigris River in northeastern Mesopotamia (known today as Iraq). Jonah thought God was a tribal deity, limited to Israel. How could God possibly be concerned about the Assyrians? Why should God or Jonah care about them?

Jonah’s God was too small, his vision was too limited, and his heart was too cold and hard to get involved in this situation. So he did the only thing he knew to do — he ran away! He assumed that if he could get out of God’s territory, he would escape the claims of God and avoid this defining moment. His method of doing this was to take the next boat to Tarshish, considered at the borders of the ancient world. You know the story. In his absolute defiance, his determined disobedience to the command of God, Jonah ran to the nearest boat dock (Joppa) and bought a ticket to the farthest place it would sail. The interesting thing is that Jonah was found sleeping through a raging storm that frightened even seasoned sailors. When confronted by the captain, Jonah told them that the Lord was punishing him for his disobedience and for them to throw him overboard, and the storm would subside. However, the heathen sailors had more compassion for Jonah than he had shown for the Ninevites and continued to try to row the boat to safety. Finally, they did throw him overboard, and immediately the sea calmed. They were so fearful of the Lord that they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. Perhaps this was their defining moment!

So this is how Jonah found himself in the stomach of the great fish for three days and three nights. The Lord dealt with Jonah and finally commanded the fish to throw Jonah up on dry land. We don’t know how much time elapsed before the Lord gave Jonah instructions once again to go and preach to the Ninevites. He told Jonah what to say as he preached, and to Jonah’s surprise and dismay, the people of Nineveh believed, called a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. The king, when he heard of this, arose from his throne, threw off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. How could Jonah ever have imagined this turn of events? The king even issued a proclamation that called on all his people to fast, put on sackcloth, and call on God earnestly, that each might turn from his wicked and violent ways. When God saw their deeds, he relented concerning the calamity which he had declared he would bring upon them, and he did not do it. This king took his duties seriously and heard the word of the Lord. He met his defining moment with amazing haste and solidarity. Everyone repented except Jonah. He was disgusted and irate with God for being gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness. What a pitiful man Jonah turned out to be — whining at God because he blessed his preaching, allowing him to be the vessel that delivered the message of God’s displeasure with the people of Nineveh and, therefore, the instrument of their revival and survival. He was so upset that he begged God to let him die. If there had been a comedy network in the day of Jonah, some comedian could have had a wonderful time with this story, pretending to be Jonah. I’ll leave it to your imagination to complete that scene.

This story makes it clear that God is always eager to save a heathen people and that in the heart of the heathen there is always the possibility of response and repentance to God’s message (v. 5). Jonah did not have that spirit. But it is clear that God does. He accomplishes his purposes even when we fail the defining-moment test.

Now we come to the time when we must decide what this means to us today. It is time to look at our lives and think about how God would grade us on our response to personal defining moments. Remember that King David, with all his wonderful qualities, failed one particular defining moment when he lusted after Bathsheba (and acted upon that lust). There was no turning back after the deed was done. There is no escape from logical consequences.

What about your personal life? What about your family life, your business life? Defining moments are sometimes as insignificant as signing your name to a half-truth, or spreading unfound gossip or calling home to say you were detained at the office when you were really somewhere else. You can provide your own scenario from your daily activities. Like Jonah, we often try to run away from our defining moments, but these times have a way of becoming like the television reruns — we see them over and over, and it is not always a pretty scene.

Churches also have defining moments. There is probably not a pastor around who has not witnessed or been a part of a church which just completely failed the defining moment test. Individual churches have decisions to make concerning issues that are soul-wrenching. For example, during the time that Rosa Parks faced her defining moment, there were churches in Alabama that also had to face this issue. History shows that any pastor of a downtown church in any city in Alabama who preached racial inclusiveness faced persecution from his congregation and each was systematically replaced over a short period of time. These churches failed the test — they completely ignored the Biblical admonition to love one another; that there is no difference in God’s eyes of Jew or Greek, black or white, male or female.
Since the birth of the early church as recorded in Paul’s letters through the present time, the church is at its best when it escapes the captivity of its culture, and strips down to the basic task of loving, serving, and sharing the mystery of God’s presence with hurting people.

We need to understand, especially at this Epiphany season, that it is the season to proclaim the glad tidings of God to all those who need to hear. People are hurting in so many ways. People are called upon to carry enormous burdens, and they desperately need help. They need to experience the touch of God as expressed through the church and through individuals. We must proclaim the “Good News” to all people by all means possible. We must be willing to reach out to offer a healing touch not only to people who are dying of a physical illness, but also to those whose souls are in jeopardy. We do not need to be judge and jury, ready to condemn people. What the world needs more than anything is the loving, compassionate, and prophetic witness of the Gospel that can only come through the love of Christ dwelling in each of us.

Imagine that Church of Peace is facing one of these defining moments. What do you think the outcome will be? Will your church pass or fail?

Now think about yourself and your own personal defining moments. What will your “report card” reveal? Will you pass or fail?

The call of God is not easy. The call of God may call us away from how we are presently living, like Jesus’s calling of those first disciples as we heard read the passage from Mark. Sometimes, we just want to get through our lives, just to survive, just to make it a little better for the next generation. The defining moment is how we respond to God’s call to live unto the fullness of God’s love, and that is to transform the world. Not just make it a little better and to lead happy lives for ourselves, but to transform the world so that all may know God’s love, that justice would prevail, and therefore God’s shalom may come to all.
And now to each of you, both as individuals and as a church listen to the words of Jesus calling us to our defining moment, saying, “Come, follow me.”

Preached at Church of Peace, January 25, 2015
The Reverend Linda L.Culbertson

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