Proclaim and Respond
Bishop Will Willimon tells this story, in the 60s a prominent preacher visited his church. Like revival preacher he kit the topic of his sermon hard and strong, almost a little stronger than the congregation was use to. He preached about God’s kingdom. He told them that God was looking for folks to come forward and be part of God’s new order that was full of love, justice and respect for all God’s children. Once again this was the 60s and he grew up in the south, and the preacher was asking them to love EVERYONE. At the end of his sermon he did an altar call. “He called upon the congregation to get up and come forward, to kneel at the altar rail and give their lives to this new world, to dedicate themselves to live their lives without racial prejudice, to flaunt the world’s standards of goodness and give ourselves totally to God’s standards of goodness, to work for and to witness to racial justice in the South.” Music started to be played and the preacher moved to stand beside the prayer rail. Nobody came forward.
Think though, for those of you who went to church in the 60s here in Thomasville, how would have you responded? How would you have responded if that same sermon was what I was going to preach? Really, raise your hands because I have two directions in this sermon and if no one is going to respond I’m not going to waste my time.
Here in the gospel of Mark things happen very quickly. The author of this gospel has a favorite phrase, and immediately. It is said 42 times in the gospel. Now some translations use different words like the translation I read today which stated the phrase as Right Now. This makes the Gospel of Mark seems fast past, blunt and very important. If Mark was a text message it would be in all CAPS. Here alone the phrase is used twice. But the bluntness of Mark’s Gospel also comes through in these seven verses and it is found in Jesus’ first sermon. Hear that sermon again, “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’”
Sure it is short but there is a lot to learn from this sermon and it could help both you, as the congregation, and me, as the preacher, to take a moment to look at it closely. My preaching professor at Duke said he did not care how many points were made in a sermon just as long as there was at least one. This three sentence sermon is broken up into two parts. We have the proclamation which is the first two sentences and then the response which is the last sentence. Jesus proclaims, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom!” The response is demanded next, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” This means there are actions that needed to be taken. We, the listener, have homework to do. We have to change our hearts and lives or as another translation puts it, we have to repent. Not only that but we have to trust in the good news, which was Jesus proclaimed.
I try to remind you each week that you all are involved in the sermon. At the end of the sermon I always say, “And all God’s people said…” and then we say together, “Amen.” I want you to say Amen because you are involved. You are listening. I hope that you feeling God’s Word becoming alive in your hearts and pulling you to do something. By being alert and listening you are taking part of the sharing in the Word of God. I will be the first to admit that what we do here every week is very odd these days. There is really no place outside of school where you sit down and listen to another human being talk for 20-30 minutes. If you are not in school where else does this happen? Sure you can get together with other people and have a conversation and in some congregations it sounds like a conversation as the audience adds their thoughts to the sermon with “Amens,” “come on now,” and the always encouraging “Lord, help him.” But let’s admit the most excited we get in this church is when there is good music and we feel compelled to clap and even then we feel weird. But even in silence a congregation needs to be actively listening to do their part in the proclamation of the Word of God.
But when worship is over, when 12:01 hits and you have already shaken the minister’s hand the sermon is still going on because now you are called to live it out. In the response to the Word of God we are called to do things. Jesus called people to change their hearts and lives and trust in the good news! But what is the good news? We often think of the good news as a Snuggie. Something we can curl up with and get all warm and toasty but then leave on the couch while we are off in the real world. But the good news is not merely the words proclaimed in the service but also the response. As Bishop Willimon said, “The good news is not only announced; it’s got to be enacted. Good news is not simply said, it’s done. Though it’s grammatically awkward to say it, we are meant to go, do good news.
That is what Christ demands when he preached. He demanded a reaction, a response, repentance, a turning around. We can see this in how the first disciples acted when Jesus called them. Once again in Mark’s style this seems like a really weird story but there Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilee and comes across Simon and Andrew. He looks at them fishing and then says, “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Mark states “and immediately” or “Right away, they left their nets and followed him.” Then the same thing happens with some other fisherman James and John who were Zebedee’s sons. Jesus called and people reacted. There was something preached and there was a response.
It would have been hard to leave the nets behind. It would have been very difficult to look at your father and say, “see you later pop, I’m off to follow this stranger who came along and asked me to follow him.” Who would let their son walk away from the family business without even putting up a little bit of a fight. The way these verses are phrased is seems like the first disciples were simply zombies. Jesus calls out and then they immediately stop what they were doing and follow.
Here is the misconception about the disciples though. Yes it is hard to believe that they simply followed but we also imply, probably in our own heads, that they had it all together as they left to. This is the hard part to understand about the response. They didn’t. All they knew was that a guy, a rabbi, Jesus asked them to follow him and they went. They made a decision to follow but then they had to live into it for a life time.
As a youth who was a little bit of a Jesus Freak, I participated in about every Church activity I could find. I was even invited to come attend some of my high school friend’s activities as well. There was one girl who was in my Bible class in High School, (yes my very public, inner city, High School did have a Bible class) who invited me to a play her church was having. I went and little did I know that I was being invited to a Judgment House. These are very popular and I noticed there is a church here in town doing one too. But they are especially popular around Halloween. Anyway, the main point in these ‘plays’ is to scare the hell out of you. The one I went to went like this, a main character was taken through different skits that showed great sins being committed and then those people being taken to hell. Then there is one or two of ‘good people’ who die and go to heaven. Then that main character, after seeing all this chooses that he would rather go to heaven and accept Christ. Then a minister comes out and asks if anyone else would like to come forward and accept Christ.
I asked my friend if they always had this type of altar call at every service and she said yes. This church and many like it are really focused on the decision part of the response to the good news. They really want you to make that commitment and are willing to do whatever it takes to make you choose the right path. Yet that is not where the journey of discipleship stops, it continues for a lifetime. Simon, later known as Peter, dropped his net and followed Christ that fateful day by the sea. On his journey he had moments when he was praised by God and then others when he was called Satan or disowned Jesus in fear of his own safety. His path was rocky but in the end he became the Rock the church was built on.
There are other churches that concentrate too much on the nurturing the long-standing commitment and never offer up opportunities for people to make a decision. I confess that in my 220 plus sermons here at Trinity I have never really done what we traditionally think of as an altar call. I did one at the Revival I preached this fall, and no one came down. John Wesley concentrated a lot of his ministry on the pursuit of holiness, or the nurturing of the body of believers. When I was in college there was a lot of talk about seeker churches that brought new people into the faith but that always left a bad taste in my mouth because it seemed to only provide a shallow pool for people to wade in. What did it offer the person who has been a Christian all his life and is looking for ways to deepen his walk?
Here is what I know. God’s call is risky. Just look at what happens to John in the beginning. It states that he is arrested and then later on we learn that he is beheaded. All the disciples end up in trouble and having a hard path to follow. When Jesus calls into souls and asks us to follow him, we don’t get all the answers first, we are simply asked to follow. No matter what time you live in that is a hard pill to swallow. But even though the path is hard, the task is daunting, and to truly follow Christ means willing to follow him to the cross, the good news is God is always with us. We never do it alone.
Maybe you are at a time in your relationship with God that you don’t really know where you and God stand. Maybe you don’t know what you believe or what you are willing to let go of to become a follower of Christ. Maybe you believe in him but somehow you have made it to this point of your life and you never really made a commitment to follow him. Maybe you have followed him your whole life but recently with your friends getting sick, and life getting hard doubt and frustration has seeped in. Maybe you know that God is calling you to do something but you keep coming up with excuses yet God keeps knocking.
What ever your ‘maybe situation’ is I am going to propose a moment in our service to respond. The prayer rail is open and Mary Lauren is going to start to play some music quietly. I invite you to drop your nets, stop what you are doing and respond to the good news being proclaimed by our Lord and Savior today. “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” If you are willing, come forward and kneel before the Lord. If you desire prayer, simply hold out your hand and I will come and pray for whatever you need., whether it is for strength or acceptance, or if it is for guidance or forgiveness. But God calls us all to respond in our journey. We are to respond by agreeing to follow.
If you are willing, the prayer rail is open, and all are welcomed.
And all God’s people said…Amen.