Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
What does it take to get our attention these days? A crisis? Some sort of disaster? Maybe something as simple as a name change for your favorite brand? Or maybe you're a fairly even tempered sort who reacts proportionally to all situations. You're calm in a crisis, controlled, and clear-minded. But think about it. What isn't a crisis? Global warming! A New Ice Age! Bird Flu! Terrorists! Record Unemployment! The End of America! Sex Scandals! Genocide! The Collapse of Europe! Just about anything that happens these days (no matter how minor) is presented to us as a crisis of earth-shattering proportions, a disaster on par with the worst punishments visited on sinners in the Old Testament. Digging through the hysterical rhetoric of a hyperventilating media can be exhausting work. If you're like me, you've come to the conclusion that “Wolf” has been cried once too often, and that it is far better to throw in with the providence of God and let human events unfold as they will, knowing that Love Himself has already won the victory for us. Squeals of panic from politicians, activists, and media talking-heads take on a whole new insignificance when placed along side the Word of God and His promise of loving-care. None of this, however, should close our ears to the His call for our repentance. Though He will not destroy us for our disobedience, He will leave us to face the consequences of failing to heed fair warning. “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. . .”
So, what does it take to get your attention these days? The people of Nineveh hear Jonah announce in their streets, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!" Just forty days. And everything you know and love will be gone. Does that get your attention? Apparently, it gets the Ninevehites' attention b/c they repent and their city is spared. What's odd about this brief episode from the Book of Jonah is that the prophet sent by God to warn the Ninevehites never actually offers them a deal. You know the deal. . .repent or burn. Jonah simply goes around the streets yelling that the city will be destroyed in forty days. No conditions. No hedged bets against destruction. Just a straightforward warning. Why no conditions? Well, we might speculate that Jonah wanted the city destroyed. Or perhaps the Lord's punishment for his earlier reluctance to serve left him feeling a little petulant. Regardless, the threat of destruction is enough to send a city-wide wave of repentance through the population. Having secured the Ninevehites' attention without offering them a deal, Jonah secures the city for the Lord.
So, what does it take to secure your attention? Writing to the Corinthians, Paul announces, “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. . .For the world in its present form is passing away.” Does knowing that your time will one day run out secure your attention? Paul's warning to the Corinthians is hardly profound. The world in its present form is always passing away. Time is always running out. Anyone with a watch and somewhere to be knows this. What might not be so obvious at first glance is that for time to run out, for the world in its present form to pass away, there must be a point somewhen in the future toward which we are moving in time. In other words, Paul is telling the Corinthians that time and this present world have an end and that end is swiftly coming to bear. Is this an attention-grabber? Hardly. We're told everyday that the end is near. It's either the ice caps melting or the scarcity of clean air or some new genetically modified plague that's coming to wipe us all out. . .any moment now! Just a few more minutes. . .one or two more hours. . .I mean, um, in a year or two. Maybe. Naw, telling us that time is short is nothing new, not scary enough to open our ears to news we do not want to hear.
So, for the last time, what will open your ears to hear what you really need to hear? How about this: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel!” A time of fulfillment. Not the end of time, or the destruction of your city, but the fulfillment of God's promise to bring His kingdom to us. You are now living in that period of human history that will witness the keeping of a divine promise. Turn from disobedience toward righteousness and believe that the Lord wills that all sinners come to Him for His mercy. Notice the absence of a threat, the absence of a deal. Notice also that Jesus doesn't warn us or nag at us. He simply announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand and then he invites us to turn from our sin and believe that we are forgiven. We don't have to fast to be saved or put on sackcloth or wail our sins in the streets. All we need to do is turn from sin and believe that the Father loves us enough to announce the coming of His kingdom by sending His only Son to live and die as one of us. He fulfills His promise in the body and blood of Christ. The urgent choice we have to make is btw receiving him as Lord, or living with the consequences of sin.
Jesus calls all of us to believe his gospel. Not a gospel of loss, of grief and mourning; not of threat or bargain, or dust and fumes; nor the gospel of city-wide apocalypse or righteous war. His is a gospel of everlasting goodness and eternal life, permanent mercy and all-pervading grace; a gospel of ceaseless vitality and living strength. And it is our gospel! Our story! Our work in the world and, if we will take it up, our dare and our charge—to be with Christ in here and to be Christ out there. He says to Simon and Andrew, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Follow after me and my gospel, and I will turn you into men who cast your nets to harvest the lives of men and women who long to give themselves to God. Simon and Andrew abandon all they know and follow Christ. James and John leave their father in his boat and follow Christ. And all of are made into the men that Jesus promises. How did he get their attention? Threats of impending apocalypse? No. Promises of damnation if they refuse? No. He simply tells them the truth. And that truth rings in their ears louder than family, friends, career, hobbies, or even the lure of this world's impermanent joys.
OK. I lied. I'm going to ask one more time: what does it take to get your attention? Sirens? Flashing lights? Threats of immediate death? How about an invitation from Christ himself to become an heir to his heavenly kingdom? To be a member of his Body with an eternal purpose? If so, here's the Good News: you are so invited. All you need to do to become a fisher of men is accept the invitation.
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