Crash Helmets and Signal Flares

A sermon based on Matthew 4:12-33 preached on January 26, 2014.

Sermon audio

I had a ministry mentor in Allentown, Pennsylvania who I met during a summer-long youth ministry internship.

We were teaching the youth that summer different ways of praying in our weekly bible study class, and we were introducing them to “Lectio Divina” or holy listening, where you focus on a word in the bible passage you’re reading and let it prayerfully tumble through your mind for a while, letting God’s voice teach you something through that word.

This mentor of mine told me if the voice you’re hearing in your head or in your heart doesn’t surprise you, upend you, stretch you, or even possibly offend you, there’s a good chance that the voice you’re hearing isn’t God’s—it’s your own. 

I liked those words. Those words startled me. They caught me by surprise and they confronted me. Listening for God’s voice can be a dangerous vocation. Paying attention to what God is telling us, and going where God is taking us can knock us off our center. Listening for God’s voice, even through prayer, can rearrange our lives and toss us in new directions. And when we follow God’s leadings, God can take us places we never would have expected to go.

φ

Fishing is a fine vocation. It is now and was even more back in the time of Jesus. There was a lot of money in it actually. James and John, Simon and Andrew were in a solid career. It was hard work—mending nets, lifting loads of fish onto their boats with nothing but their own strength. Long hours—days spent out on the Sea of Galilee hoping for bigger catches wherever they dropped their nets.

They were out at sea all year round. Almost everyday. They probably knew nothing else. Being a fisherman was a calling. It was its own culture really. It still is. Each of them, you can imagine, had logged thousands of hours on a boat. Dragging nets, hoisting sails. Covered in fish grime for days. You’ve got to love the life or else you’d go crazy.

What made them leave the only life they knew? What was it about Jesus that made these 4 fishermen drop their nets and follow?

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Annie Dillard prayed with her eyes open. She refused to shut them. She wanted to see signs—she was always looking for God to show up in front of her, and she didn’t want to miss it. Annie went into the woods looking for God—like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But she also went to church. Annie Dillard believed in a big God who could only be comprehended in small ways no matter how much she paid attention. She worshipped on Sunday mornings at a white-frame Congregational Church on Lummi Island in Puget Sound.

Annie called going to church every Sunday “an expedition to the Pole”. Going to church, she thought, was supposed to be an adventure—something we need to prepare ourselves for. When we dare to encounter God together in a place like church, wild things that can happen. Annie Dillard would say that coming to church is no small thing. It’s gusty.

We dare to come into God’s presence—to be a part of the Mystery—to ask for the God of the cosmos to join us where we are. That thought floored her. She thought it should floor all of us.

Annie Dillard didn’t know why women in her day wore straw hats to church. She thought that was madness. In order to get us through worship, Annie thought we should all wear crash helmets to church.  

She thought that Ushers, should issue life preservers and signal flares—they should strap us down to our pews.

That’s how dangerous and awesome a thing we do when we dare ask the God of the entire cosmos to come among us. Annie Dillard doubted that we know what we’re asking for when we request God’s presence.

Annie said that we should really know what we’re saying when we declare ourselves followers of Jesus. Do you really want to go on that journey? Do we really know what that means? Do we realize what a large and crazy journey we’re asking to be a part of?

Put on your crash helmets! We’re in for a bumpy ride! God is taking us somewhere. Are we ready for surprises?

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I’m not sure what happened along the shoreline as Jesus called out to Simon and his brother Andrew or later to James and John. Matthew says nothing at all about any negotiations between any of them and Jesus. All Matthew says is that Jesus said “follow” and they followed. That was it. There were no agreements made. No details that Jesus shared. No questions about how Jesus planned to care for their needs, or feed them.

There’s this billboard in Huntington for the U.S. Marines that comes to mind. It says, “we don’t accept applications, only commitments”. How true was that here also as Jesus called these first four disciples. There were no questions from Simon or Andrew, James or John. No “What’s in it for me?”. No cost/benefit analysis of leaving their life behind and following him. No saying goodbye to family. No suitcases packed.

 Right away, they left their nets and followed him.

What radical obedience!

God can do amazing things with us if we’re ready to drop our nets and go wherever he takes us.

Are we ready to follow?

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I just used a bad word. Did you hear it? Obedience. Part of being a disciple is obeying Jesus.

“Obey” is a 4-letter word. We bristle at the sound of it, don’t we? The world “obey” reminds me of submission and unwise wedding vows. Wives submitting to husbands. I cringe at weddings like that. “Obey” speaks of servitude and haven’t we all had enough of servitude? We’re free, autonomous people who like to live our lives for ourselves, thank you very much. 

We’re all allergic to obligation. We don’t take orders even when they’re given to us appreciatively. So even the idea of obeying Jesus is a pill too big for us Western Christians to swallow. But discipleship is about obeying Jesus. And I’m going to use another uncomfortable word: as disciples, we’re being asked to surrender ourselves to a new way.

As disciples of Jesus we are asked to obey and surrender. To follow where he leads us. To listen for his voice and let it shape us in his image. Christian discipleship conforms us to the ways of Christ, to the life of Christ.

And just like these first disciples who abandon their lives to follow along, we too are being asked by Jesus to leave our life behind—to go out into the world with a new purpose, to join in on something that is much larger than our individual needs and to hand over our very lives to serving God through serving others. Is their anything more risky? And in our world where individualism is king, is their anything more counter-cultural?

We are called to obey Jesus’ calling on our lives just like Simon and Andrew, James and John. This is the massive claim that Jesus expects of us as his disciples. To follow and obey. Are we ready to drop it all and go wherever he leads us?

This is the radical, adventurous call of discipleship. This is where we put all of our trust in God’s hands and follow. This is where we need our crash helmets and our signal flares! God is taking us somewhere.

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Have you ever noticed that not once throughout the Gospels does Jesus ask us to worship him? Not once did Jesus ask us to worship him. Instead, Jesus wants us to follow. Hundreds of times Jesus invites us to follow him.

So much time can be spent worshipping without following. We can sing songs and pray prayers all our lives and completely ignore Christ’s call to take steps forward and follow him. We can get stuck in one place for all our lives if we understand the entirety of our obligation to God is to be people who only practice piety. It’s far easier to be passive worshippers than it is to risk being active and engaged disciples of Jesus. We Christians can spend our entire lives unaware that all this time Jesus has been calling us to follow. Jesus doesn’t want our worship. He never has. Jesus wants us our loyalty.

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This year we here at Kuhn Memorial celebrate 100 years of being church. It’s a time to look back at our history. To discover where we came from and how we got here. This year will be an exciting one filled with memories and reminders of how God has led us along the way. We’ll learn about ourselves by reminiscing and celebrating all the many ways we have been led by God over these last 100 years. We will have plenty of time to give thanks to God for God’s faithful ways as we roam the halls of our past together.

Celebrating our past is fine, but this year is also a time for us to be receptive to the ways that God is calling us forward to be a people shaped by the unexpected journey that comes with following the call of Jesus into our future.

Simon and Andrew, James and John had no way of knowing about the wild ride ahead of them. When they each said Yes to following Jesus, there was no telling where they would be headed. They threw their nets down and threw caution to the wind and without a question, without a doubt, or a hesitation, they followed Jesus.

We here at Kuhn Memorial should be informed by our past and grateful for it. But we should equip ourselves for a future full of surprises. As his disciples, Jesus will lead us in ways we may never choose for ourselves. Jesus meets us where we are but he leads us forward into spaces we have no idea about.

Let’s put on our crash helmets, grab our signal flares, and strap ourselves in. Jesus is asking us to follow. Let’s see where he takes us. It might be a wild ride. Are you willing to drop everything and obey?

Amen.

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