Small Steps on a Large Journey

3 Epiphany B, Mark 1:14-20

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed.

“What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?”

The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear.

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We can smile at her predicament.  But wait.  What is that massive, overwhelming pile of worry that blocks your path?  What is that giant load of doubt that paralyzes you?  What is that task too great to even contemplate?

If you think about those questions, then you are ready.  You are ready to stand next to Jesus’ first disciples.  You are ready to hear the Master’s voice.  You can begin to see the large journey of small steps.  For that is what it means to be a Jesus follower.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus announces that God is on the move.  The Kingdom of God is at hand!  And Jesus is the one to make it happen.  So he recruits followers.  They are the foundation of God’s renewed people.  They are the evidence that things are changing.  They will cast God’s nets to rescue a world drowning in sin, death and evil.

Notice the invitation.  “Follow me!”  Jesus invites them to take the first small step on a large journey—just the first step, nothing more.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

In college I spent time as a dedicated atheist.  The result was days of drunkenness, disorder and despair.  I considered putting an end to such a miserable, pointless existence.

At that moment God spoke three words to me.  “There is more.”  I listened and took a small step.  Then one day, God spoke three more words to me.  “Go to seminary.”  Again I listened and took a small step.  I had no vision or command or destiny beyond that one step.  At that moment, one small step was a huge effort.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So the first question is this.  What is your next small step?  It likely doesn’t involve seminary, although for a few of you that may be a waystation on the journey.  More likely, the call is to much smaller steps.

Who is the person who needs to hear my apology?  What is the regret that needs repair?  Which habit must I change?  Which service may I offer?  What risk should I embrace?  What dream shall I trust?

What is the next small step on your larger journey?

Timing is important in such questions.  Sometimes the next step means waiting.  The first disciples were the latest in a long line of waiters.  God’s people had looked for the right Messiah for centuries.  Pretenders and posers had come and gone.  Some people had stopped looking, stopped hoping.  Expecting turned into emptiness.

 Then Jesus appeared.  “Follow me!” he said.  The waiting was over.  Waiting is preparation for acting.  When the time is right, disciples take the next small step.  Hesitation can derail the journey.  Failure of nerve can foil the plan.

So here is the second question.  What are we waiting for?  If we are waiting, then we must be preparing for the next small step.  It can be hard to wait, but sometimes it’s necessary. As I write, for example, my beautiful spouse is painting our kitchen cabinets. They are so beautiful. But it takes time for drying between coats, sanding, touching up, and re-hanging. She can see the end in her mind, but Reality is taking its own sweet time.

What are you waiting for? Sometimes the best counsel is, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” At other times, the best counsel is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Discerning the time is one of the most important things we can do. So waiting always requires patient and humble prayer. There are moments when God’s reality takes its own sweet time.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out alone.  He says, “Follow me.”  Where we are going matters less than who is going with us.

The one who goes with us is the Master of the journey.  He has been to the cross and back.  He has entered the tomb and burst free from death.  He took the worst evil could offer.  He exhausted sin and death, and sent Satan packing.

That’s our travel guide.  He goes ahead of us to clear the way and guide our steps.

At our best, we listen for his large words to shape our small steps.  So here is the third question.  Will Jesus guide your small steps on the large journey?  That’s why prayer and patience, worship and study, matter so much.  How can you take the trip if you won’t read the map?  Jesus shows us the next small step—if we take the time to listen.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Of course, direction matters.  Most people are lost—but they’re making really good time.  Life works best when we walk toward God’s goals.

That’s what we take from that biblical comedy called Jonah.  Jonah runs in the wrong direction.  And his life becomes a shipwreck.  So it is for us.

God’s direction is always away from selfishness and toward service.  God’s direction is always toward compassion and away from hatred.  God’s direction is always toward love and away from fear.

The more we focus our energy and efforts on the needs of others, the better this church business gets.  There are those moments of almost effortless service.  There are those moments when we seem to get it right.  Those are the moments when we are moving in God’s direction.  That’s what it really means to be blessed.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So here is the final question today.  Where is God trying to bless you as you follow Jesus?  Where is God trying to bless us as we follow Jesus?  The Holy Spirit calls us in our baptism to seek the answers to those questions.  That’s where the blessing is.

One of my favorite prayers is a from the ELW service for times of travel.  Let’s close with that prayer.

O God, our beginning and our end, you kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, you led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star you led the magi to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide us when we travel. Make our ways safe and our homecomings joyful, and bring us at last to our heavenly home, where you dwell in glory with our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

God Loves People I Hate–Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

3 Epiphany B 2021: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

Five little words – that’s all it took.

Five Hebrew words. English is not quite that efficient. We need eight words to accomplish the same task. “Forty days more,” Jonah declares, “and Nineveh will be overthrown.” No silly stories. No strained analogies. No tired metaphors. No happy talk. Not even any attractive alliteration. The verdict has been rendered. The clock is ticking. Jonah is done.

The message is a direct declaration of doom. It contains no prescription for remedial action. It offers no hope of reprieve. The verb is in the passive voice. It specifies no actor. It is the bureaucrat-speak that fills our political discourse. “Mistakes were made.” “Shots were fired.” The message is designed to fail. 

It has precisely the opposite effect.

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Jonah seems unaware that the Lord likes a good joke. The word for “overthrown” can refer to destruction and demise. It more often refers to change, alteration, or even transformation! This verb, writes Philip Cary “can also—unfortunately for Jonah—mean conversion and being turned into something new.”

Who is fooling whom at this point? Does Jonah already know the LORD’s intention to spare Nineveh? Jonah later protests that he did know about this in advance. So, Cary suggests, it may be that Jonah manipulates the LORD’s message to have the most lethal implications and the least chance of success. Or is it that the LORD gives this bit of sermonic double entendre to the unsuspecting prophet who then feels used and cheated?

Or…do we witness both things at once, as Cary suggests. “There is room to wonder whether, in the very content of the message,” Cary writes, “Jonah was trying to pull a fast one on the LORD—and whether what actually happened was that the LORD pulled a fast one on Jonah.” The “old switcheroo” is a staple of comedy in all times and places. Is that what we witness in God’s word through Jonah to Nineveh?

Five little words – “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” It is the most effective sermon in history, as well as the shortest.

Not only do the hated Ninevites – and their pets and livestock – grieve and repent their sins. More than that, they trust the LORD to have mercy. “Who knows?” the great king wonders and hopes, “God may relent and change [God’s]mind; [God] may turn from [God’s] fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Friends, that’s faith – trusting God for good in life and in death. Jonah is the patron saint of pious pagans, no matter how much Jonah hates the results.

Faith makes these pious pagans God’s friends. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,” we read, “God changed [God’s] mind about the calamity that [God] had said [God] would bring upon them; and [God] did not do it.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

If Jonah’s five little words are challenging, my five little words feel disastrous. God loves the insulting insurrectionist and the unrepentant white supremacist. God loves the arrogant authoritarian and the sniveling sycophant. God loves the ignorant thug promoting toxic masculinity and the self-deluding conspiracy monger. God loves the privileged, the powerful, and the well-positioned, even as they move heaven and earth to defend their domains.

Dear Lord, that pisses me off to no end. I’m with Jonah on this one. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” he protests in chapter four. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew,” he laments, “that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Isn’t this exactly what I told you would happen, Lord? I knew you’d go soft in the heart and soft in the head. I knew you’d fall all over your merciful self the second those stinking Ninevites made the first mention of remorse. Didn’t I tell you?

And now, I suppose, you expect me to love them too. Well, guess again, bucko!

I’m ready to charter a boat for wherever Tarshish is – if it’s a place where God hates the people I hate. I’m ready to live in Tarshish –where I’m always righteous and right, where those damn fools will get what’s coming to them. Buy me a ticket, pack my bags, renew my passport – I’m ready to go!

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Jonah’s quarrel is with God’s character, and so is mine. Jonah knows that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Lord, what is wrong with you? Why don’t you have higher standards? Why do you love the people I hate?

Perhaps like Jonah, I’d rather die than live in such a place of perversion. God understands that, and God agrees.

If I am to live in the land where God is in charge, my hate must die. My self-righteousness must die. My longing to punish must die. My self-absorption, self-justification, and self-idolatry must die.

If it’s all the same to you, Lord, I’d rather sleep in the hold of my escaping ship and let the world around me go to hell in a handbasket – or in whatever other container might be appropriate.

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,” we read in Mark 1, “and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Turn around. Get a new mind and heart. Let go of my smug certainty and let God be God. Let go of my hate and let God be love.


Five little words – God loves people I hate.

I want to be clear. This lets no one off the hook. God’s love changes people. First and foremost, it changes me.

God’s love also changes the wicked Ninevites, at least in the Jonah’s story. This is not acceptance, acquiescence, or apathy. This love is the fire that requires repentance and burns away impurities. This is the love that embraces us as we are but cares too much to leave us that way. This is the love that tears down to build up, that breaks down to break open, that kills to make alive.

I am dragged into this kicking and screaming. Conversion is first of all the work of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving Flame of faith. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him,” writes Martin Luther. “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with [the Spirit’s] gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.”

The Holy Spirit brings a decisive break with the past. Think about the calling of those first disciples. It is worth examining the break that happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. In the ancient world, all social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” N. T. Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is.” The first disciples are presented as models and examples for us, and the picture is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Again, I want to be clear. The same Holy Spirit that calls me to let go of my hate calls others to do the same. No one is let off the hook.

God loves people who want to protect their privilege at the price of real justice. God’s love in Christ will kill that white male supremacy and make them alive – if they wish.

God loves those who treasure their treasure above their neighbors and do everything possible to protect it. God’s love in Christ will kill that greed and make them alive – if they wish.

God loves those who use fear and fanaticism, lies and lewdness, grievance and grandiosity to perpetuate their power. God will kill that spirit of deceit and make them alive – if they wish.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Real repentance is resurrection – new life beyond all that would keep us dead and buried. The result is trust in the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. If I trust in that God who comes to us in Christ (and I do), then repenting my hate and embracing resurrection is the path to new life every day.

The Book of Jonah is the only book in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures that ends with a question mark. It does so, because in the case of Jonah, the issue hangs in the balance. Will Jonah’s hate be overthrown? We are left to ponder.

So, this message ends with a question mark as well. God loves the people I hate. Today, will I allow myself to be changed?

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021, Mark 1:14-20

Keep in mind the situation of the first listeners to Mark’s story. They were, perhaps, candidates for Christian baptism who had finished their instruction in the faith. Now, they were at the worship service where they would leave behind their former lives and follow Jesus. One of the first parts of the story they hear is this call to the disciples to leave everything behind and walk into the unknown future.

Before we jump to the call of the first disciples as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel reading, we need to stop at verses fourteen and fifteen. John was not “arrested,” as the NRSV translates it. John was “handed over.” If you hear a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own arrest and execution, then you have well-tuned scriptural ears. “Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being ‘handed over’ raises the specter of Jesus’ death,” Stephen Hultgren writes in his commentary. “For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning,” he notes, “under the shadow of the cross.”

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“Notice how Jesus picks the moment to act,” N. T. Wright suggests. “As long as John was announcing the kingdom, down by the Jordan, Jesus could bide his time. But when John is put into prison, he knows it’s time to act” (Wright, Kindle Location 359). Mark constructs the narrative in this way. He will come back to John’s handing over later in the gospel. For now, the chain of events is enough.

John proclaimed the Coming One. Jesus proclaims that the appointed time has been and is being fulfilled. The reign of God has come near and is now at hand. The proper response is twofold: repent and believe in the good news. It doesn’t take long to get from these words back to our first lesson and the response of the Ninevites. The Greek grammar in this verse lends itself well to a “now and not yet” understanding of the coming reign of God.

“It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology),” Steven Hultgren writes. “It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.”

Wright suggests that the content of this repentance has a clear historical reality for Jesus’ first listeners. Wright says that Jesus’ call to repentance meant two things: “turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war,” and “calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God.” (Kindle Location 368-369). If this is the case (and I believe it is), then repentance is more than a sense of personal sorrow and regret and a promise to do better. It is a reorienting of one’s life around a new set of loyalties, agendas, and priorities – God’s loyalties, agendas, and priorities.

One could wonder aloud what sorts of repentance are being called forth from us today? I suspect we are called to repent the unholy alliance between white supremacy and American Protestant (not just Evangelical) Christianity that has determined power dynamics on this continent since Columbus arrived. I suspect we are called to repent the worship of neoliberal economic theories which make the “invisible hand” of the market more of a god than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect we are called to repent the sexism, genderism and heterosexism which make a particular kind of maleness into godness. Mary Daly was correct, after all, that if God is male then male is also god. There’s more to consider, but this is a start.

We Lutherans have something to contribute to the conversation at this point. Readers can’t help but wonder at the “immediate” response of the disciples to this call. Commentators speculate endlessly on the psychology and politics and personalities of the disciples that made this possible.

Theologically, we Lutherans would point to the gracious and life-changing power of the Word of the Gospel. “Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard,” Paul Berge writes in his commentary. “But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even ‘immediately’ as pure gift.”

Berge points to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article in Luther’s Small Catechism to explicate this. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.” Just as the Hebrew prophets found the calling power of the Word irresistible, so do the disciples. Jonah may have been able to flee the first time, but the call of God will not be denied.

Hultgren suggests that the pivot to the call of the disciples “illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like.” It is worth examining what sort of break with past and parents happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. “Apart from pilgrimage, both geographical mobility and the consequent break with one’s social network (family, patrons, friends, neighbors) were considered abnormal behavior,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “and would have been much more traumatic in antiquity than simply leaving behind one’s job and tools.” (page 179). All social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is” (Kindle Location 348). If the first disciples are presented as models and examples for that imagined baptismal candidate (and for us), the picture presented is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

There is some disagreement about the economic situation which the first disciples were leaving behind. Larry Hurtado suggests, “the impression one gets here is that these four men were partners of small (or perhaps large!) businesses. They were in all likelihood ‘middle class’ economically, for the Zebedee brothers, at least, had employees in their family business (1:20)” (page 25).

Malina and Rohrbaugh disagree with Hurtado regarding the economic situation of the first disciples. “Mark, however, specifies that they left their father with the hired hands (1:20). This does not necessarily imply that these families were better off than most,” they suggest. “The tax farmers often hired day laborers to work with contract fishermen.” (page 180). So, the extra help may have been hired by their bosses rather than by their own company. This seems the more likely scenario.

While interesting, these economic details don’t impact the radical break from family and village that Jesus calls forth. Wright suggests that this part of the story connects us with the larger scriptural story of leaving family behind in response to God’s call. “The way Mark tells the story sends echoes ringing back through the scriptures, the larger narrative of God’s people,” Wright notes. “‘Leave your country and your father’s house’, said God to Abraham, ‘and go the land I will show you.’ Abraham, like Peter and the others, did what he was told, and went where he was sent. Mark is hinting to his readers that the old family business of the people of God is being left behind. God wants a new poetry to be written,” Wright concludes, “and is calling a new people to write it.” (Kindle Location 351)

“Jesus was now calling them to trust the good news that their God was doing something new. To get in on the act, they had to cut loose from other ties and trust him and his message,” Wright continues. “That wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now. But it’s what Peter, Andrew, James and John did, and it’s what all Christians are called to do today, tomorrow, and on into God’s future” (Kindle Location 374).

Last week we listened in as Nathanael was invited to come and see and thus to relinquish his prejudices and presumptions, his hollow hatred of the other. This week, we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words regarding discipleship – that when God calls a person, God bids that one to come and die.” That may be the literal case for some Jesus followers. It is certainly the liturgical and sociological case for all Jesus followers. Walking toward Jesus means walking away from our dependence and reliance on any other way to find meaning and purpose in our existence.

That is the real significance of our baptism. We return now to that baptismal candidate, hearing this story in its fullness as a preparation for the plunge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans in chapter six of his letter. It is, of course a rhetorical question. They know because Paul told them.

Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To walk in newness of life does not mean keeping all the old life as well. It means entering into the Resurrection here and now and living in that reality. Living in that reality means, among other things, extending the invitation to others who might be interested in dying and rising in Christ.

What is revealed in repentance? Repentance reveals the killing power of life without God. And it reveals a new path of faith, hope, and love for those willing to entertain the possibility.

References and Resources

A Time for Burning (Full Documentary).

A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey.

Berge, Paul.

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition).

Hultgren, Arland.

Hultgren, Stephen.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources.

Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).