The Heavenly Call

Text: Mark 1:14-20
Date: Epiphany III + Conversion of St. Paul + 1/25/15

Interesting studies at this year’s Theological Symposia at our Fort Wayne, Indiana seminary! We heard presentations thinking about “culture,” and specifically the culture we find ourselves in today. Things change! So we gather here today to hear how the Gospel of Jesus Christ (“the same yesterday, today and forever,” Heb 13:8) and our call to follow Him and to testify or witness to Him to the world that is now around us is, on the one hand, the same as it always was, and yet how that call and following and testimony and witness and the world has changed and is changing.

Check it out. Jonah was called to preach repentance in Nineveh. Though that city was notorious for their sin and apostasy their repentance and positive response to Jonah’s preaching was a surprise to him. It may be a surprise that repentance still happens even in a day when few, it seems, will even stop to listen to The Heavenly Call.

In today’s Gospel we, with the Lord, see Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, “for they were fishermen.” Jesus simply says to them, “Follow me,” and they left their nets…and did. So also with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They, too, were called and they too dropped everything—everything! Including Dad!—and followed Jesus.

As a sort of sub-theme in this Epiphany season we have been talking about heaven; how the heavens have been opened to all by the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. The heavens opened dramatically at His baptism in the Jordan River. Then we rejoiced as at the calling of Nathanael we learned that, because of the salvation brought to us by Jesus, the heavens stand and remain open, God’s grace available always to all—to all who hear The Heavenly Call of the gospel as Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Today is also the minor festival of the Conversion of St. Paul, another dramatic demonstration of the heavens opened even to a former persecutor of the Church. We learn from Acts chapter 9, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way,” that is, the Christian Church, “men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” But on his way, “suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” St. Luke tells us, “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” Blinded by the whole thing they led Saul by the hand into Damascus. “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Finally, God sent a man by the name of Ananias to lay his hands on Saul so that he would receive his sight “and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” One of my favorite little books entitled “Bull at a New Gate: an irreverent guide to churchology, from a book by a shorter name)”[1] concludes this story saying, “Most people nowadays avoid the road to Damascus.”

Most people, in fact all people avoid any encounter, anything to do with God. That is because of our fallen, sinful condition inherited from our ancestors all the way back to Adam and Eve. Theologians describe the spiritual condition of all sinners as “total depravity.” I happen to like the word “pagan.” We are all pagans, people who have little or no religion and certainly not the one, true, saving faith. In our day we are realizing that the Church’s main witness is not as much to people who have never heard of the Church but to people who have heard or seen a little, have developed their own opinions based on that and who are, therefore, the more difficult to reach—more difficult, like the city of Nineveh or the Hebrew of Hebrews, Saul! (Philippians 3:5). “Most people nowadays avoid the road to Damascus.”

Still the heavenly call goes out to all, as the hymn writer Martin Franzmann poetically put it, “To men who like or like it not.” But then he ends saying, “The Word that shall endure and stand When flow’rs and men shall be forgot” (LSB 586). How many people deny the fact that they will not always live, that they will die, “be forgot”? And then how many people deny or ignore the threat that there is and will be, as many call it, an “afterlife,” a day of judgment and a resurrection to an eternal destiny? Yes, all people will be raised from the dead on the last day, as the scripture says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27), and as the former persecutor Saul wrote now as the Spirit-inspired Paul, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10). Of course he does not mean that there is some sort of heavenly ledger reporting good or bad works or behavior, giving people the false impression that your hope is only that “the good” will outweigh “the evil.” “The good” is, as Jesus says today, “repent and believe in the gospel.” This struggle of faith, or lack of faith, is done “in the body” and reflected in our works, whether good or evil.

The judgment will be in view of the marvelous grace and gift of God in sending His Son to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Savior, that by faith in Him, that is, in His body crucified and blood shed on the cross, a person truly repents and believes in this gospel, this Good News. Therefore whoever hears and believes will be saved. Whoever does not hear or rejects and disbelieves what he has heard will be condemned. Gathered on the left side of the judgment throne of Christ, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” for “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:41, 46). But please notice the gospel, the good news even in this dire warning, namely, that the eternal fire was never prepared for human beings in the first place, only “for the devil and his angels.” Why? “For God so loved the world,” the whole world and everyone in it, “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

In Christ the heavens have been opened and remain open to all who repent and believe the gospel. This Heavenly Call was for Jonah, for the people of Nineveh, for Simon and Andrew, James and John, for Saul, and it is for you. “Follow Me.”

[1] Vic Jameson and Don C. Westfall, ©1965 Fortress Press, Philadelphia