3 Epiphany: The Grace of God

May this be in the name of the one Holy and living God:  Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.

Good morning. 

This morning’s collect says: “Lord, Give us grace to answer your call and to proclaim your word and promise so that the whole world may know you and understand your gift of salvation.

We are asking for God’s grace in this collect, but guess what?  We already have it.  We are given it freely and undeservedly. We would be relatively hopeless as a human race without the Grace of God.  And yet we are prone to either ignore, forget or reject that loving grace so often.

So here is the deal regarding grace as stated by the remarkable theologian Frederick Buechner:

“The grace of God means something like:  Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid. I am with you.  Nothing can separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.”

The grace of God is given to us freely and it is also given to everyone we love, everyone we don’t love and everyone we think has no place in the loving fellowship of God. 

So, what are we to do with this gift of grace? 

We can hoard it, keep it for ourselves and smugly call ourselves Christians because we believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

We can act like being Christians is an exclusive club that only admits those who know the secret handshake.

We can fearfully exclude people who aren’t “like us” or who have lead lives that don’t meet our strict expectations, have offended or betrayed us or are strangers in our midst. 

Well, guess what:  that is NOT what our lessons today tell us.  Today’s scripture says we must follow God’s call to reach out to the whole world with the Good News.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet we hear from in today’s first lesson, resisted God’s call to preach repentance to the Assyrians in the great capitol city of Nineveh.  The Assyrians were brutal enemies of the Hebrews. Jonah may have been afraid to go to Nineveh, but he was also just plain stubborn and did not want God to have anything to do with these “godless” Assyrians.  After all, Jonah’s people were the “chosen” of God.  Jonah no doubt hoped God would destroy Nineveh and all its people. 

One of the reasons I love Jonah is that he is another of the human characters found in the rich variety of scripture.  He is no heroic follower of God.  He resists and resists and resists God’s call, runs away, and tries his utmost to avoid the voice of God.

He doesn’t think much of a God who wants to be in conversation with evil people who have oppressed God’s chosen ones.

Finally, Jonah does go to Nineveh and arrives in the middle of this vast city and proclaims the message prophesying that God has given the Ninevites just 40 days to turn from their evil ways or else God will destroy them.

The Ninevites listened to Jonah, repented and were saved. 

Mission accomplished! 

But wait, there is more:

Jonah, angry and humiliated, just wants to die rather than accept God’s mercy and love for the Ninevites.  God must teach Jonah that it is not up to a human to decide who will receive God’s mercy and who deserves the grace of God.    

The Bible does not tell us what happened to Jonah after this.

The tale of Jonah is not a piece of history but of religious fiction.  It is said to constitute the first real missionary document in religious literature. The unknown prophet who wrote it had grasped something of the wideness of God’s mercy. He realized that the love of God is broader than the measure of our minds.

It was probably written in the third century before Christ.  It is a prophetic message in the form of a story.  The Jews at this time were for the most part intensely narrow-minded and self-centered, but there was an element who thought their God was God of the Universe and lover of all mankind.  This is the view of God embodied in the Old Testament Book of Jonah.

As a story of God’s call and the human response of one person to that call, the story of Jonah captivates me. 

We can run, but we cannot hide from God, who knows everything about us and wants us for his own despite all our insecurities, failings, and weaknesses. 

I felt God’s touch very early in my life as a baptized Christian who had very little religious training in a home where saying grace before dinner and prayers before bed were about the only things that my parents specifically taught me about relationship with God.  I was blessed to be raised by parents with very strong ethics and moral character and my own search for relationship with the Holy had its roots there.

When have you felt God’s touch?  When have you felt called by God?

Because you are here this morning, you have been nudged by God and perhaps the story of Jonah captivates you too.

Have you wanted to run the other way when you felt called to do something that benefited someone or something bigger than you?

Have you been nudged and struggled with your sense of “should I step outside of myself?”

Perhaps you have reacted like Jonah and rejected people who were not, in your estimation, worthy of God’s love. 

God calls us ALL and loves us ALL and wants us ALL.

We have been following the story of Jesus since the nativity on Christmas, through his presentation at the Temple and the story of his cousin John who had been called by God to be the messenger and prepare the world for the Messiah who had been promised.

We have heard that Jesus went into the desert after his own baptism and spent forty days wrestling with temptation and being ministered to by angels.

And today, Jesus has returned to Galilee to find that John has been arrested and taken away. 

He is now to begin his ministry and he needs helpers, so he calls others to be beside him as he goes about his work.

The fishermen in today’s Gospel were minding their own business on the shores and in the water of the Sea of Galilee when they were called to follow Jesus.  And they were inexplicably compelled to join Jesus.

We have heard repeated calls to do God’s work in both the Old and New Testaments.  Today’s stories tell us of God calling the ancient and reluctant prophet Jonah to be a missionary to the Ninevites, the New Testament stories of Jesus’s cousin John being called to offer baptism for the remission of sins and to be the messenger to make the way for Jesus’s arrival and then John baptizing Jesus as Jesus himself is being named by God as his chosen one, and then Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him and preach the Good News. 

What are you being called to do?  How are you resisting?  How are you responding?  Who do you want to tell the Good News to? 

As we said in the Collect:  Give us grace to answer your call and to proclaim your word and promise so that the whole world may know you and understand your gift of salvation.

Frederick Buechner reminded us also that the grace of God is that we are given this life to live not by accident, but because the world would not be the same without each and every one of us.  God asks us not to be afraid, because He is with us and will never leave us and that he created the universe just for us ---- all of us, rich, poor, humble, arrogant, Jew, gentile, believer, agnostic and atheist. 

He called us.  He is not giving up on us.  Are we reluctant, afraid, bewildered or willing to follow him and share his word and promise by living into our own baptismal vows to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” and “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter who that neighbor may be, and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Join me, if you will by responding: “I will, with God’s help.”