Every once in awhile the question is asked, “What is our most precious commodity.” It’s one of those questions for which there may be no right or wrong answer, and each of us might give different answers at different times, depending perhaps on our experiences of the moment. But invariably on the list of answers is, “Time.” Time decidedly is among our most precious commodities, and there are few of us who don’t wish for more of it.
When I was younger and people greeted each other with the inevitable, “How are you,” the unvaried answer was “Fine,” whether we actually felt fine or not. But today the response is as likely to be, “Busy.” We get that response from young people who fill their lives with activities, middle aged people who are hotly pursuing their careers, and even from retired people who have far more control over their schedules. It’s almost as though it would be embarrassing not to say, “I’m busy.” I have a dear friend who, after years of answering, “Busy,” now ups the ante by always responding, “Buried.” And, knowing him, I suspect he’ll continue to use that response until he is in fact buried.
You may have noticed that all four of our Scripture readings today have to do with time. Each one has a slightly different focus, but all four have an undercurrent of the need to make time for repentance. Jonah’s story is obvious. He was commissioned as God’s prophet to go to Nineveh to preach judgment, because God had decided to destroy the city for its wickedness. No doubt you know the story: instead of obeying his commission, Jonah tried to flee from God on a cargo ship sailing the Mediterranean. And you all know how that turned out.
At the very least the story is supposed to teach each of us two lessons: First, when God calls, we must follow, or the consequences may be unpleasant or even dire. We may seem to get away with running from God for a bit; but, as Jonah discovered, God is still on His throne. Second, the best time for repentance is right away. When the Ninevites repented, God heard them and, in His infinite mercy, He relented and spared them.
That’s what the psalmist is saying: “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.” “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” That’s the part Jonah missed: “Trust in Him at all times.” Jonah’s failure to do so had its consequences. But our God is a God of second chances, even of third and fourth chances according to His unfailing lovingkindness. “Trust in Him at all times.” It’s not just a good formula for better living, it’s an indispensable one.
Next we have Paul writing once again to the believers at Corinth. He tells them that “the time has been shortened,” and that every priority we have needs to be evaluated through the lens of a world that’s passing away. Even our most intimate relationships and our enjoyment of the good things this world has to offer, including our legendary American acquisitiveness, all need to be re-examined in the light of shortened time and a passing world. It’s far too easy for every one of us to become preoccupied if not actually obsessed with the things that fill up our time and make us “busy” or “buried” rather than obedient.
Then there’s Jesus. We rightly hold up Jesus as the absolute paragon of selfless love, the Messiah Who came to speak words of comfort, including the inspiring and reassuring words in our liturgy that follow the Prayer of Confession, words that are even called “The Comfortable Words.” They begin with, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
But today in our Gospel reading we encounter two other things about Jesus: He’s the One Who calls us to repentance, and He’s the One Who calls us to follow Him and become fishers of men. There’s something absolute about these sides of Jesus: they’re just as concrete as the loving side, yet rather more demanding. Jesus never calls us to do something half-way, to be somewhat repentant or to somewhat follow Him. He asks us to pick up our cross and follow Him.
Jesus also addresses the theme of today’s Scriptures: “time.” He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Notice that it’s a two-stage process and that the order of these two stages is inviolable. Repentance must precede belief. Repentance acknowledges our need for a Savior, a Messiah, a Kinsman-Redeemer Who can do something about our human condition as described today by the psalmist: “Men of low degree are only vanity and men of rank are a lie; in the balance scales they go up; they are together lighter than breath.”
That’s intentionally a comprehensive assessment of all humankind. For those who find the concepts of original sin and personal sin distasteful, the psalmist opts for different categories: the vanity of those of low degree and the lying ways of those who have scrambled their way to the higher ranks. It matters not in the least where we would place ourselves on that continuum; the point is that at both ends and therefore in the middle where most of us would put ourselves, there’s a serious need to acknowledge our flaws and to seek a remedy. And step one is always the same: an accurate self-assessment in the spiritual realm calls for repentance. Then belief follows.
In what or in Whom should we believe? In the world in which we live, the one that Paul says is “passing away,” it’s popular to hope that any path of faith is as good as any other. That’s an interesting and gracious perspective, but it definitely is not a Biblical one. The Creator God of the Old Testament is the One of Whom the psalmist wrote, “Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God; lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, for You recompense a man according to his work.”
And this same Creator God is the Redeemer God of the New Testament Who sent His Son to be the object of our faith. It was Jesus Who said, “No one comes to the Father but through Me.” There is but one God, and He’s a God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of His glory. He’s a God Whose lovingkindness is on all who fear Him throughout all generations. He’s a God Who saves His people by His own strong arm, even at the cost of the death of His only Son Jesus Christ on the Cross.
Each of us may find Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God in our own way and in our own time. Some are born into a family where this faith is so strongly held that we almost unconsciously appropriate it as our own. Others have a life-changing conversion experience that remains a reference point for their entrance into the household of faith. But for every one of us, the discoveries continue, the comings of Christ into our lives are multiform, sometimes frequent and sometimes only sporadic.
For some of us, the fullness of God’s grace seems to come all at once and we feel led through life, every step of the way; for others, the comings are progressive and our spiritual journey goes one step at a time. Sometimes we offer fierce resistance. Other times we feel ready to receive Him and embrace Him, particularly in times of deepest need. Some of us respond at once, as did those early disciples who immediately left their fishing nets, while others of us are slow to respond to the call of Christ.
No matter in what category we find ourselves, He stands ever ready, patiently desiring that we should come to repentance and to faith in Him as the Light, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Way to the Father, the One Who came to be the Savior of the world. He stands here this morning, with outstretched arms, saying in every possible way, “Come, follow Me.” “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Is this the day for you to bend to His persistent call? Perhaps you’ve done that before, yet you find yourself needing a refreshed experience, a deepened reality, and a renewed awareness of what it means to embrace Him as Savior and Lord, to follow Him more faithfully and consistently, to hear and obey His voice. If that’s you, renew your faith today and recover what you once knew but may have been neglecting for some time.
Perhaps you’ve heard this message again and again but always have postponed making the decision to follow Jesus, to respond to His call. He’s here, and He’s waiting for you. He’s longing for you, as a parent longs for the return of a prodigal son or daughter. If you come to Him today, He’ll prepare a feast for you. Jesus said that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke15:7). That’s how important you are to God, to Jesus and to the hosts of heaven who surround God’s throne. Just come. Just receive the Son of God. Yield to His call and be held in His arms of love. It’s never too late. Remember: “We have today.” Make this day yours to become His.
I’ve asked Gayle to sing a song that was written some years ago at the request of Billy Graham. It expresses today’s message beautifully, and extends the invitation to you to declare your faith in Jesus and your commitment to follow Him. If God puts it on your heart this morning to come forward for a brief word of prayer, I will stand here to welcome you, while He stands here to receive you.
Listen to the words of this song and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Do whatever He tells you to do. But remember the words of Jesus that “the kingdom of God is at hand” and of Paul that “the time has been shortened.” Don’t delay, whether you’re making your first profession of faith or you’re coming home to Him after wandering too long on your own. He’s calling you, and your response must be to let Him in: to say, “Jesus, I come to You.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen