A sermon preached on January 28, 2009 entitled “Timing”, based upon Jonah 3;1 – 5, 10 and Mark 1:14 – 20.
There are a whole bunch of questions that might come up for us in relation to the story of Jonah — for instance, how was it possible for Jonah to be swallowed by a big fish and remain there alive for three full days? But the question that interests me about Jonah is this one: how is it that a sermon preached so unenthusiastically by one who so clearly didn’t have his hear in it — how could such a sermon be so phenomenally successful — perhaps the most successful sermon of all time, in so far as we hear that everyone in from the king down in the huge city of Ninevah repented as a result of hear it?
I think it is obvious that the reaction brought about by the sermon didn’t have much to do with Jonah — that it was simply a matter of his being in the right place at the right time — that all the heavy lifting had already been done by God, working behind the scenes in the hearts of people, so that all that was required from Jonah was the least bit of obedience — to show up and proclaim the message.
It wasn’t about Jonah.
Similar sorts of questions arise for me in relation to the Gospel lesson. Mark recounts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is in his early thirties; fairly old in those days. Why hasn’t he gotten on with it before now?
Again, the answer would seem to be a matter of timing — God’s timing. The time is right now, whereas it wasn’t right before. The holy spirit has been working behind the scenes in various ways to make the time right. This probably included Jesus’ personal readiness in the depths of his heart to undertake this ministry, but it also involved the readiness of the world to receive it, including, but not limited to the preparatory work of John the Baptist.
The time now is right in a way it wouldn’t have been before, and part of the giftedness of Jesus is his ability to read the times — to be able to recognize, as he says, that “the time is fulfilled.”
And then there are the questions that arise in relation to the four fishermen who suddenly respond to the call by Jesus to follow him. Our tendency in hearing this story is to stand in awe of Simon and Andrew and James and John — how could they, in a moment of time, leave everything in obedience to Jesus? What great faith they must have had!
As in the case with Jonah, I think we misunderstand this story if we think it’s all about the disciples. There was something about that moment that had been prepared for in more ways that we could possibly know that made it possible, indeed, relatively easy for those four ordinary fisherman to respond to the call.
A couple of other Gospel stories come to mind that lead me to reflect on “timing.” In the story Jesus told of the prodigal son, why can’t the son understand at the beginning of the story the depth of the love that his father has for him? At the end of the story he will get it, but it seems simply beyond him to perceive it at the beginning of the story. Again, it is a matter of the timing. And it is interesting that the father, a man of wisdom born in part presumably of age, seems to recognize this intuitively. At the start of the story he doesn’t waste his breath trying to argue his son out of leaving. He seems to know that at this moment in time it simply won’t work. But he also seems to trust that his son will one day return; that there will come a time when his son will come to recognize that which he couldn’t see before, as is represented in the story by the fact that the father keeps watch for his son’s return every day.
Another story: a rich young man comes running up to Jesus. Clearly God has been working in this man’s heart, and it is showing up in the form of restlessness. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus. He’s been following the commandments, but still his is not at peace in his soul. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says, “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.” The man goes away sorrowfully, unable to do what Jesus prescribes for him. The interesting thing here is that Jesus doesn’t run after the man trying to persuade him. Jesus recognizes that the time is not yet right for the rich young man to give up his great attachment to his wealth. Eventually, it will be. But not now.
What are we to make of these stories? Three things come to me.
First, if we understanding what these stories are saying about God’s timing, it can remove a heavy burden from our shoulders. Everything doesn’t depend on us. Have a little trust. God is working behind the scenes in ways we can only begin to imagine, making something possible in the future that is not possible now. Just because a problem can’t be fixed in the present time doesn’t mean it won’t be possible to fix it in a future moment. Have a little faith. Don’t despair.
Secondly, a big part of life is simply showing up. Do your job. Keep chopping wood, even when you don’t feel especially inspired. There will be times when, by virtue of simply showing up, you will be surprised to find that the time is ripe, and surprisingly wonderful things happen because you were there.
Thirdly, learn to discern the times, and act accordingly. If the present moment is not the right time for something to happen that we want to happen, if we start to press harder and harder in an attempt to try and force the thing to happen, we will probably just end up making things worse. On the other hand, if we keep our hearts open and pay attention, we may notice that subtle changes have taken place that make something possible now that wasn’t possible before, and the time is ripe now for action on our part.
What we’re talking about here applies to a variety of settings in life. Child rearing, for instance. We can expend an incredible amount of energy trying to curtail certain behaviors in our children, or trying to get them to master certain skills, and for a long period of time it can be so frustrating, and we may be tempted to conclude that our children, and ourselves as parents, are hopeless. But then one day when we aren’t even trying to bring about progress, we may discover that our child has moved beyond those troublesome behaviors and mastered the longed for skills.
We may find ourselves stuck in an important relationship — a marriage, say, and we are tempted to use a battering ram to bring about a break through. But the battering ram just might make things worse. There tend to be rhythms to relationships — times of intimacy, followed by times of distance. Sometimes what is needed is faith — to trust that the time of intimacy will return and that it is necessary to have some distance at the present time.
Some of us have lost jobs in the midst of the recession. We may send out a thousand resumes looking for a new job, and nothing seems to come of it. And then one day we’re having a cup of coffee with a friend, and they happen to mention they know someone who might need someone with your particular skill set, and suddenly the right job falls into your lap.
We have witnessed the mystery of God’s timing in regard to major societal, political problems. In the late 20th century, most people were astonished when the Berlin Wall came down. What seemed intractable suddenly gave away with relative ease. The same was the case with apartheid in South Africa.
I came across a whimsical little story about one man’s personal healing. He was diagnosed with a painful ulcer. His doctors offered treatments that either gave him no relief or made him uncomfortable. He decided, literally, to sleep on it. He had a favorite cat that began, every night, to curl up on his stomach. She would wiggle underneath the blankets as he slept, and remain on his stomach all night long. She would periodically get out, stretch, take some fresh air, and crawl back in. Within two weeks the man’s ulcer was completely healed. (recorded in Sabbath, by Wayne Muller.) An old hymn that I never particular appreciated began to make sense to me this week as I thought about what it means to take seriously the concept of God’s timing. I end with he words of the chorus:
Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.