“Decisions” Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

continually must be made every day, like what you choose to eat for breakfast.
I don’t know how you feel, but sometimes, my head spins with all the possible choices that we have every day. I get so lost in the mix that I don’t even think about intentionally choosing to turn to God every day. This turning to God is something we can do by ourselves, and also, as a congregation. We do this in our congregation by being intentional about what efforts we decide to put our time, money, and energy into.
Making choices as a congregation is what our vision survey is all about. The idea behind the survey is simple. To help the whole congregation to decide how we can best turn to God. It’s a sort of spiritual check-up to see which ministries God is calling us to put our time and energy into.
Please fill out the survey that is inside the bulletin. When you are done, you can fold it and drop it in the collection plate, or if you need some time to think about it, you can drop it in the box outside my office any time.
Our decisions, both as a congregation, and as individual people, have an impact on how we participate in God’s plans for the world. Sometimes, as Presbyterians, we can get hung up thinking that our choices don’t really matter. I mean, God has saved us,
January 25, 2015
Reverend Aaron Gordon
right? If we profess Christ is Lord, and believe that God raised us from the dead, that means we are saved from sin, right? That’s what Paul says in Romans Chapter 10. And if God is truly sovereign over all, what choice do we really have then? God’s will will be done. So everything we do is predestined to happen. In other words, there is nothing we can do that isn’t already fated to happen to us by God, right?
Predestination is a pretty deep concept, but it does not mean that our choices are rigged, or that they have no value. This one word: predestination has been a source of endless headaches for Christians in the Reformed tradition, like us Presbyterians for hundreds of years.
In John Calvin’s great theology book, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Calvin writes this about predestination: “Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous… … Let them [who try to understand] remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he [or she] will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit.”1
In short, be careful trying to understand exactly how God predestines us for salvation, or how God works in general, or you might think yourself into a maze of confusion that could actually hurt your faith in God.
Unfortunately, after this comment, Calvin spends three long chapters trying to work the details of election and predestination out. And I am not sure Calvin completely succeeded. I am hoping that in our generations, this one issue will be less of a problem for us than in the past.
The reason I feel that it is important to discuss this idea of predestination, is to highlight, that even though we can be comforted that God has elected us before the foundation of the world, and predestined us to son-ship through Jesus Christ, as we read in Ephesians chapter 1. Our Choice matters and what we do in response to God’s grace is very, very important. Not only our initial choice to follow Jesus. One error we need to avoid is thinking that the only thing that matters is that we are elected, and once we profess our faith, we are saved no matter what. Another error that needs to be avoided is that we can only know for sure we are predestined if we have good works most of the time.
As Christians, how much we decide to pursue God in our lives (after we put faith in Jesus) is not a salvation issue. God does not judge us on a scale to see if our good outweighs our bad. But our involvement in God’s plans on earth has value! Our decisions have eternal consequences, because we will live forever. What we do in this time we are alive can change the path of exactly how God’s plan unfolds on earth. It
1 Calvin, John, The institutes of the Christian Religion, 2006, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, pp.(922-3)
may not change the conclusion to the story, but it can change the details significantly. There is a whole lot more to living a Christian life than just being saved or not.
Look at the case of Jonah. Jonah one of God’s elected Israelites, decided to run away from God. It did not go so well for him. Who doesn’t love the tale of stubborn old Jonah? Jonah vainly attempted to run away from God, and God’s call on his life.
God told Jonah to go and preach to Ninevah, a city in the Assyrian empire who did not worship the God of Israel. What’s worse, they consistently threatened Israel and Judah because they were an ever expanding empire that was constantly grabbing for land with their military might. When the Northern tribes of Israel were at war with Judah in the south, Judah called for the aid of Assyria, who sacked the capital of Northern Israel, Samaria, killed and exiled many Hebrews there.
So we can understand why Jonah hated Nineveh. But, his decision to flee, only brought him and his travelling companions terror, and trouble. Whereas the people of Nineveh, their decision to repent, caused God to have compassion on them, and relent from the disaster that was about to fall upon Ninevah. Jonah’s and Nineveh’s decisions affect how the story works out. There are endless ways that God could have achieved God’s plan. The idea that God changed God’s mind about Ninevah and that God gave Jonah a second chance, seem to go against some interpretations of Predestination. How can God change God’s mind when God already knows the outcomes? As creatures that exist in a world that has time, day, and night, and ages, I am convinced that we can never fully grasp this idea in life. This is one reason why God can surprise us.
Jonah’s story seems wrong. God punishes Jonah, one of God’s own elected Israelites, and has mercy on the Assyrian city of Nineveh, one of the pagan countries that worshipped false gods. But God’s plan is bigger than Jonah, or any single human can understand.
The decision of the Ninevites to repent, changed the story. Just as Nineveh and Jonah’s choices mattered, so did the choices of the disciples that Jesus called.
After all, when Jesus was proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He asked Simon, Andrew, James, John to follow Him, and they listened. They stopped, left their nets in the water, and their family businesses behind to follow Jesus. Why is the immediate response of the disciples joined with Jesus’ call to repentance?
When I think of repentance, I often think of being sorry for making a mistake. Almost as if repentance is a heartfelt apology. I almost always imagine a guy with a beard wearing a large sign on the side of the road that says “repent! The end is near!” Almost as if to say, you better be sorry or else you will be sorry when the end comes!
But making a decision to repent is not that simple. Both the Hebrew and the Greek concepts are bigger than simply feeling bad and asking for forgiveness. The Hebrew concept of repentance includes an element of being sorry, but also of turning,
or re-orienting one’s self. Sometimes this concept is translated as ‘relent’ or ‘change of mind’ like in our scripture passage from Jonah. The Ninevites made a decision to turn to God from their wicked ways. They decided to repent. Even Jonah, eventually decided to do what God was asking him. This was a decision of repentance as well. The Greek concept translated repent actually means to re-orient your whole being, to turn your life in a completely new direction.
Both of our scripture passages this morning have important messages about turning to God for us.
One message is that turning to God involves not only feeling sorry and stopping things that are not how God wants them to be. Turning to God also involves orienting ourselves, body, mind, and soul to God. It means deciding to get involved in God’s plan. The good news is, because Jesus is present with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can decide to repent anytime.
The second message is that true repentance, ever since Jesus came to earth means that we must follow Jesus. As we see in our second scripture reading, because Jesus Christ revealed Himself to the world, a decision to repent is also a decision to follow Jesus Just like Simon, Andrew, James, and John.
And that is what we are all trying to do. The fact that you are here in worship means that at the very least, you are not hostile to the idea of following Jesus. More likely, you already believe in Jesus and are now trying to figure out what it means to live in this world as a believer in Christ. Deciding to repent, means that we need periodic, if not daily reminders of our desire to turn to God.
The Ninevites decided to mourn and pray and turn to God when Jonah proclaimed the overthrow of the city. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, followed Jesus immediately, leaving family businesses, to follow Jesus.
How are we going to decide to live out our repentance? This is not something we have to do alone. As soon as Jesus announced the time to repent is here, Jesus begins building a community. He calls the disciples, which begins the ever-expanding ministry of reconciliation to all people. The church is the community of reconciled people, the community of disciples making more disciples.
God’s salvation always takes into account a real life people living in a broken world together. So we can and should decide how to live out our lives following Jesus together. This is one of the purposes of the vision survey. If we do what comes naturally to us, we might just keep doing what we were doing before. But we serve a dynamic God who is working in a world that is constantly changing. And so, we need to provide ourselves a periodic reminder to re-pent, or re-orient ourselves to what God is doing around us. This is a reminder to see if we are indeed following Jesus, or is we have slipped back toward our original direction of following our-self. Because even though we are doing good things, those things may or may not be what God is calling us to do right now.
That’s why I say deciding to repent is a decision we make every day. So let us in our common life together, help one another to remember that we desire to do God’s will, and let us help each other to determine exactly what kind of activities this will lead us to do.