“Urgency and Waiting”

Epiphany 3

January 25, 2015


Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20; Psalm 62:5-12


          Urgent. We know that word. It refers to something that demands our immediate attention and action.

          One experience where people of our time experience urgency is when there is a deadline to be met. Maybe there is a school assignment that is due by a certain date, and if it’s late the teacher either refuses to accept the assignment or lowers the grade. Maybe it is a work-related deadline for a project or to meet certain government reporting or tax-filing deadlines. Or maybe we need to be on time for an appointment or end up missing it. Deadlines bring with them a sense of urgency—especially when we have procrastinated and we find ourselves rushing and/or working deep into the night to get the job done on time! We may experience a frantic feeling, as demonstrated by the White Rabbit in Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland who runs around frantically saying, “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, good-by! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!” Have you ever felt that way? I will admit I was starting to feel a little bit like this on Friday as I struggled to finish writing this sermon!

          Another venue where we may experience urgency is in the world of sports. Most of us will recognize this scenario. It is getting near the end of the game, and the team we play on or the team we root for is behind by just a few points. In that circumstance, we feel a sense of urgency, wanting our team to score enough points to win the game (or at least tie it and send it into overtime) before it is too late.

          “Urgent” is a word people often treat with skepticism. Many times it appears on the front of envelopes containing junk mail that is trying to tell us that we must act now to buy a certain thing before it is too late. If we even bother to open the envelope, we are likely to conclude that not only are the contents not urgent, they’re not worth our further attention.

          We may also be familiar with a frequently used maxim that is reported to have been one of the favorites of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” This saying, too, suggests that urgency may be vastly overrated.

          Yet today we have Scripture lessons in which urgency plays a key role:

  • We have Jonah going to Nineveh under divine orders and announcing, “Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites were given a deadline, and they took it seriously. They immediately responded by putting on mourning clothes, turning away from their evil, and begging God for mercy.
  • We have Jesus beginning his earthly ministry by entering Galilee and declaring, “Now is the time! God’s kingdom is arriving! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” We know Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John must have found this message urgent. Jesus called them to follow him, and immediately they left behind their fishing boats, their nets, and their families to begin following Jesus.
  • Urgency is also behind that strange passage we read from 1 Corinthians this morning, where Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that they should no longer act as if anything in the world matters to them, including marriage, life’s troubles and joys, and possessions. What was behind this advice that strikes most people in our day as bizarre? Paul’s conviction that “the time has drawn short…this world in its present form is passing away.” Paul believed that was going to happen very soon, and that being ready for this was too urgent to be trifling away one’s time with other matters.

Yet in the midst of all these Scriptures focused on urgency, the lectionary for today also includes today’s psalm, which begins with the words, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” Waiting is not an activity involving urgency. Waiting is an act of patience, allowing God’s purposes to unfold in God’s good time. Unlike urgency, waiting does not demand immediate action.

For me, the question is: What is urgent enough and important enough to demand my immediate attention?

The Scripture from Jonah suggests to me that the threat of impending catastrophe is urgent. In our day, that kind of threat is often coupled with the issue of climate change. The growing scientific consensus is that planet earth as a whole is getting warmer, and that a major contributor to this is greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels such as petroleum products and coal. The results of this change include melting polar ice caps, rising ocean levels, changing precipitation patterns, and increasing severity of storms. We are told that these changes will especially impact agriculture, wildlife, people living along coastlines, and poor people (who have fewer resources to help them recover from disasters). We are told that we only have a few decades to reduce greenhouse gases to keep things from getting much worse than they already are. Yet most people don’t seem to treat this issue with much urgency. Some dispute the science—although it is notable that many who do this represent the industries that produce fossil fuels and thus stand to lose the most by people turning to alternative energy sources. Some of us—and I am among those—are hesitant to change our lifestyles or our ways of doing our work to less fossil fuel-dependent methods. In some cases good alternatives are not available, at least at an affordable price.

Is climate change something I should be more urgent about? Probably. Looks like some self-examination on my part is in order.

Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians was based on his belief that the Lord’s return was imminent. Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Paul wrote these words nearly 2000 years ago, and the Lord’s return to earth still has not happened. It seems to me his urgency is misplaced. But he does remind us of what is most important. It is easy to get so wrapped up in the things of the world that we forget about God, or at least put God on the back burner. God needs to come first, and as our psalm reminds us, we need to wait for his guidance and leading as we live in this world. We need to pay appropriate attention to our relationships, our life situations, and our economic situations, because they cannot be ignored as long as we live within this world, and how we deal with those situations needs to come from our life in God.

And what about the disciples’ urgency to respond to Jesus’ call to follow him? Jesus preached that God’s time had arrived, the realm of God was near, and that people needed to repent of their sin and turn to God. In Jesus, God’s realm has arrived. It is present with us even now. Every time is God’s time, including the present. We are invited to turn to God in every present moment. While we wait for the fulfillment of God’s purposes until the time is right, there is no need to wait to give our lives to God. God wants our lives and our commitment now and in every moment. Jesus does not wait until we are good enough, does not wait until we achieve a certain level of holiness or perfection. The four disciples Jesus called from their fishing boats were rough-and-tumble commercial fishermen, people used to hard work and uncertain results, people who could probably cuss a blue streak with no difficulty. Indeed, Simon Peter would later say that he was a sinful man who did not deserve to be in Jesus’ presence. Yet God worked in the lives of these individuals and the others whom Jesus called to follow him. Jesus used these imperfect people to build his church. And he still does.

Jesus calls us, too, with all our sins and imperfections, to follow him. He calls us now. He calls us all the time, even as we wait on him to help make us into the people he wants us to be. He calls us to build his church, to share God’s love and justice, to invite people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are invited to this task, not because we are better than others, but because we are loved. Let us faithfully follow him.


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