Sermon January 24, 2021
Have you ever felt as if God was trying to get your attention? It doesn’t usually happen when you are looking for a specific thing but rather when you have an unexpected experience more than once. I felt that happen to me this week. I have mentioned before that a group of us were studying a book called Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. It contains a series of over 40 reflections based on scripture and the words to hymns, all of which were written by Charles Wesley. This past Tuesday our group discussed a hymn that begins with the words “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”. I was drawn to those words, “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown”. What was Wesley trying to say to us? Our group shared some interesting views. After we were done with our meeting, I put it aside.
Then, on Wednesday, Gary Quamme sent the music for today’s bulletin. I was a little surprised to see that he chose an offertory anthem called Come O Thou Traveler Unknown. Yes, it is the hymn with the same words I had just read the day before. An unusual hymn presented to me on successive days. I don’t believe much in coincidences, so I feel that God is speaking to me.
Charles Wesley was the younger brother of John Wesley who started the Methodist Church. Charles was an Anglican priest and supported his brother but remained a priest in the Anglican Church. Charles was a prolific writer of hymn lyrics. He may have written as many as 8500 hymns, quite a few of which are found in our hymnal. Some of my favorites are Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
I wasn’t familiar with the tune Come O Thou Traveler Unknown. It is not often sung in our church. It was originally published under the name Wrestling Jacob based on a passage in Genesis Chapter 32. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau. He went off by himself for the night. Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown being. In the morning, Jacob said to this being, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” It was a sign that Jacob realized he had been wrestling with an angel or God. The being responded, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Jacob named that place Peniel which means Face of God. It was the place he had experienced God.
Wesley’s writing reminds us of Jacob’s struggle with God and reflects on his own spiritual struggles. We know a little about Wesley’s struggles. He had gone to the colony of Georgia to convert the natives to Christianity. But he only lasted a few months as he was rejected by the colonial leaders, the regular people and the natives as well. He returned to England despondent and spiritually lost. He wrote about his own misery and his sadness about his sins. Later, Wesley struggled with the death of his son and wondered how God would let his own child die. He asks who is this God that he struggled with? In this hymn, Wesley comes to understand that God is Love. God died for him and God is all merciful. The name of this unknown traveler he struggled with is love. God had called Charles Wesley and Wesley finally heard the call and responded.
Isaac Watts, known as the father of the English hymn declared that this one Wesley hymn was worth all the religious verse he had ever written. I have printed the words to this hymn for you so that you can experience the struggle and joyous acceptance of God’s call in this hymn. You might also read chapter 32 of Genesis and reflect on what that passage means to you and me.
Today, we have the chance to think about our own spiritual struggle and our own call from God. Have you questioned your spiritual life or asked God where are you in my life? Scripture has many examples for us.
In the reading from Jonah, we hear about how Jonah went to Nineveh to warn the people to repent and return to the Lord. The people heard God’s call, they repented so God decided not to punish them. Jonah was a prophet who tried to avoid God’s call to him. He tried to run away but God would not let him avoid this call he had to go to Nineveh.
In the psalm for today, we are reminded that God is our source for everything good. I like the verse that says, “Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge”. Let us trust that the call we receive from God is the place where we will find peace and comfort and strength.
In the gospel we hear Mark’s version about Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. As Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee, he called first Andrew and Simon. Then soon after, he called James and John. In today’s reading, it sounds so easy. All four of these disciples dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus.
I have always wondered if their acceptance of Jesus’ call was that straightforward. I wonder if they had already learned about Jesus before he called them that day. I wonder if they had struggled with leaving their families to do God’s work. We learned later that Peter was married and I wonder how Peter was able to juggle discipleship and marriage. I wonder if they thought accepting the invitation from Jesus would help them to be more successful or famous. Did they really understand how hard it would be and did they understand how much they would lose in this endeavor?
All this wondering causes me to realize that I am putting my own spin on things, looking at this call through my own filter. And I realize that when God calls us we may not hear that call because of our own preconceived ideas. What then might we do to seek God with an open heart and follow the call Jesus has given to us?
The first suggestion I have is that we must listen. Many of us get caught up in the things of the world and we don’t even take the time to sit quietly and listen. It took a long time in my life before I listened to God’s call for me to become a priest. I often ask myself why I didn’t hear that earlier in my life. Was I too concerned about my career or my hobbies?
I have decided it does not good to go back I can only look forward and try my best to listen now. Listening can be difficult because we often turn to God when we need something. God may speak to us more clearly when we don’t need anything but rather when want to hear what God needs from us. Mark Batterson is a pastor and author who suggested that “God often speaks loudest when we're quietest.” Perhaps finding some quiet time will help us.
My second thought is that we must be careful not to prejudge a call that we receive. Humans are really good at coming up with all the reasons why a plan will not work or why a call we have received cannot be accomplished. We usually identify our excuses before the call has even been clearly identified.
That brings me to my third suggestion which is to find a way to trust. It is just as we heard in the Psalm for today. When we trust in God, God will take care of us. God is our source of strength. God will help us through the struggles.
Finally, I think we should respond to God’s call and take some action. It is easy to act like Jonah and run away or even to simply go on with our life as if nothing had happened. It probably won’t work because God will still be there.
Before Jesus called his disciples, Mark wrote that Jesus was proclaiming the good news. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Perhaps our time has come. Our time to listen and respond may be now.
We live in interesting times. The pandemic has created a new norm and people are suffering. I know people who are angry or frustrated. They choose not to listen to what those who disagree with them are saying. Maybe, just maybe, God is calling us to some new ministry, a ministry for our times. Maybe our time is now. I said last week that I believe in the power of prayer. Let us pray that we may hear God’s call for us and respond. Amen.
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