Plymouth United Church of Christ

(Listen to the sermon while reading.)

Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 3, January 22, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20

Jonahís story teaches us that if we do what God wants us to do, we will be successful. It will always end in success if we do what God calls us to do. If we are abiding by Godís will. And it teaches us that if we donít do what God wants us to do, whatever we think is better isnít necessarily good, isnít necessarily going to pan out. And it also teaches us that if we donít do what God wants us to do, God will keep nudging us, calling us, and at some point weíre going to have to obey anyway. We cannot hide and get away with not doing it. Jonahís story also tells us that God might very well call us to leave our comfort zone to go do something, maybe that we donít want to do or that seems odd or strange or different, but that if weíre willing to go there, great things will happen. Maybe not the things we wanted to happen, maybe not the things that we would have chosen to happen, but it will be the things that God wants to happen and those are always better. Better than anything we could have thought of.

Many lessons in Jonahís story. I feel kind of sorry for him in some ways. Heís just kind of doing his thing, and then this poor sap gets sent on a mission. ďGo to Ninevah,Ē said God, ďthat great city. Go there and tell them to repent.Ē ďNo! No,Ē says Jonah. ďIf I go to Ninevah and tell them to repent, I know that they will. And then you, God, because you are merciful, you will stupidly not kill them. You will spare them. Youíll let them live as though nothing has happened. No, youíre tricking me. Iím not going to go.Ē Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the country to the north of Israel, they shared a border. Assyria was in conquest mode, and was soon to take over israel. They were Enemy Number One. They deserved to die. And so Jonah, for whom patriotism was more important than being faithful, runs away. Heads off to Spain, to Tarshish, likely somewhere in the Iberian peninsula. For Israel at that time, thatís a pretty long way away. He goes there to get away from God, to escape his calling. Of course, God is in Spain just as much as God is in Israel or anywhere else. And Jonah eventually ends up right back where he started and soon finds himself moping his way up to Ninevah muttering under his breath. Like when you were a teenager and finally realized that yes, you are going to take out the trash, and yes, it is going to happen right now, and no, I donít care how you feel about it because getting it done is more important whatever it was that you thought needed to be done right now. He does what he was told to do. Even though he did it unwillingly. And the worst thing possible in Jonahís eyes happensóit works! He preaches to the people and they listen. Godís will is done. Ninevah repents. And they are all stupidly spared. And so Jonah goes off and sulks and pouts in the hot sun on a hillside and looks down on this city of Ninevah and miserably watches as Ninevah is not destroyed by fire and brimstone. Angrily watches as the people are not smote by lightning. Kicks at the dirt as the country of Assyria is not sucked into oblivion by an earthquake or sent to a firey demise by meteor strike or plague of locusts. Not even so much as an ash borer or Asian carp comes to Ninevah.

When you do what God wants you to do, it works. Thatís the beauty as well as the danger. Itís the promise and the offer you canít refuse. Every Sunday here, we pray as part of the Lordís Prayer, ďThy will be done.Ē Think about that. Thatís a dangerous thing to pray for. They will be done. Not my will, God, but yours and only yours. We will be talking about the Lordís Prayer on Wednesday nights during Lent for our soup and scripture discussions. But this section, ďthy will be doneĒ, thatís a prayer that takes a lot of faith to say if you really think about it. Your will be done, O God. Even if I find it uncomfortable. Even if it seems strange. Even completely different from what I think it ought to be. Your will be done, and Iíll follow. Thatís what that prayer is saying.

And what is Godís will? It starts and ends with love, justice, freedom, grace, redemption. A lot of these words that we toss around in the church. But those arenít particularly specific although they are helpful and necessary! When it comes to specific things, they can be judged through those lenses. If we think Godís will is to do such-and-such, whatever it is, we can ask, ďHow do we know if that is really for sure Godís will?Ē. We can look at it and ask if it is a just thing, a loving thing, will it bring grace, will it bring redemptionóand if not, then itís not Godís will. If it is one or more of those, then it is a pretty good bet thatís what God would have us do. And ought to be considered.

That answer can very much be different for different people. Godís will for me is not the same as it for you. Godís will for Plymouth is not the same as for another church. It will share many common things: love, grace, redemption, preaching the Good News. But how we do it may come out differently. Much like those disciples that Jesus called to follow him. These disciples along the shoreline that Jesus called to in the Gospel lesson today. And as each of his disciples had their own way and particular talents and particular personalities. Jesus didnít call them to conformity to be exactly alike, but did call them on the same mission: to preach the Good News and bring Godís love. And so also with us as individuals, and this particular fellowship we call Plymouth Church, here in Eau Claire. We have our particular talents and personalities and our calling. Our personality here is not the same as First Congregational downtown. Or as Westminster Cathedral. Or as they might be with a group of Nigerians worshiping under a tent under the hot sun. Not the same as a church that is maybe just a few families worshiping in their basement so they can hide from the local authorities because being Christian is illegal in the place that they are. Godís will can be different for all of us, but still in the same trajectory of love, grace, and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And so, what is Godís will for Plymouth? I think that is a good question for this year. Itís a good question for all time, but something to really think about this year. And we will explore that and pray about it. When I was on vacation, I ended up not going anywhere. I stayed home and took the time to rest, think, read, and refresh myself. As I had time to think, I had time to think about this stuff, and I realized that one thing we donít do enough of, or at least I donít do enough of the Prayers of the People, is to pray for our ministry here. We have not prayed much for the ministry of Plymouth. For our leadership and what we are doing. Maybe you are doing it more privately, but I donít do it much in the Prayers of the People. Iím going to focus on that more. And I was thinking more in terms of me leading us in prayer. But then a couple days ago, I was talking to Darrick, who comes from a good prayer tradition, one that really knows how, and he said, ďPastor, Iíve been thinking we ought to have time for people to gather specifically to pray for the ministry of this church.Ē People coming together to pray just for the ministry of this church. I think thatís a really good idea. So look for that coming up.

And then yesterday, Darrick, Kay, George and I went to a workshop yesterday at our Conference center about what a vital and thriving church looks like. What are the characteristics of a church that is vibrant and alive and doing good ministry. And this is the start of a six month that we are going to go through. We are meeting about once a month with a trained leader to talk about this process, called The Five Practices of a Fruitful Congregation. Weíll be looking for what is Godís will for us in the five practices. They are kind of abstract, nothing specific, how they get carried out is up to the churches: Radical hospitality, Passionate worship, Intentional faith development, Risk-taking mission and service, and Extravagant generosity. Youíll hear more about these as we go through the process.

And none of this is to change who we are or become something that we arenít. That would be fake and thatís not a good way to worship or be the church. But, we will look at how to more fully be who we already are, who God calls us to be. To be more in tune with Godís will for this congregation in this setting of Eau Claire. We are a church that likes our traditional hymns, but also enjoys exploring new hymns that are good. We are not a rock band kind of church. And we donít have to be. Our strength here is that we know one another. We know each otherís name. We know our children, the children know the retired people. We know we are, we pray for one another, we care for one anotherówe donít want to lose that. Thatís what attracts people here. Thatís part of who we are. There is much here that works really well, and it works well because it is in tune with Godís will for this congregation and for who we are. Weíre in a really good place to build on that some more. There might be some discomfort, as Jonah felt, and as the disciples felt. We might ask you to clap during a hymn, to beat along with your hands, move your body. Who knows? Hold hands at some point and pray. Or pray out loud. Might ask you to wear your name tags. Take cookies who are guests that day. And some of it might not work, and we wonít do it again, but some will and make us stronger and more vibrant as the community that we are. And weíll talk about some others at our Annual Meeting next week, and we will talk about what our group is learning through these sessions.

So let us consider, ďWhat is Godís will for this congregation?Ē Certainly to love our neighbors, to love God, to show grace, to bring redemption as best we can, to preach the Good News. But how? How do we want to do it. What is Godís will for how we live that out. And much is being done really well. We do a good job at many, many things here. But as with anything, probably always more things we could do or ways to do them better. More efficiently, with more result, or whatever. So pray about this question. What is Godís will for Plymouth? Pray for your church, pray for its leadership, the Executive Council, the Commissions, Christian Ed, Worship, Stewardship, Women of Plymouth.

If we do what God wants us to do, we will be successful and we will thrive. It always works. God always gives whatever talents, skills, and resources are needed to do what God wants to have done. And so pray for your church and pray for its leadership, pray for its members.

And let us begin that process now with some prayer. Let us be in a spirit of prayer: God of love and God of Good News, we take a moment for more selfish prayer today to pray for this congregation of Plymouth. For all these people that you have called together to be your disciples, your apostles, and the bearers of your Good News. We pray to you in confidence that you have a plan for us. Help us to discern your will and to discern your plan. And we pray to you because we have so much here to offer the people in our community and the people of the world. We have so much here to offer, so we pray that you send us your people to experience your love and grace. Send us those around us who need to know of the Good News of your love that they may become part of this fellowship and may come to know you. Send your Spirit on our leaders to seek faithfulness to your will, courage to follow wherever it leads, and to have the trust that you will ensure the success of whatever you call your people to do and to be. Amen.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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