Saturday, January 21, 2012
The Power of Now: Sunday 3.A
A few years back a parishioner gave me a copy of a New Age bestseller called The Power of Now. It seemed an odd thing to hand your pastor, and odder still when my head started to swim with the author's convoluted ideas.
So I asked the parishioner what he had in mind by giving me the book. "Oh," he said, "Someone gave it to me, and I sure didn't want to read it."
But there was one good thing about the book: the title. In four words it sums up an important message from today's scriptures.
Jonah was a slow learner; he found out the power of "now" after trying to avoid the will of God. The first sentence of today's first reading has been badly edited in the Lectionary. We read "The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, 'get up, go to Nineveh," but that's not exactly how chapter three begins.
In the Bible, it says "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…" In between the first time and the second time, Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord in an effort to avoid his mission. And we all know what happened next: he is shipwrecked, and swallowed by a whale.
He learned the power of now the hard way, so when God commands him a second time, he gets a move on.
St. Paul was a much faster learner, and when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, he's all about "now," spending his energies tirelessly, making up for lost time with missionary zeal. He literally lives like there's no tomorrow—because he's not sure about tomorrow. Like many in the early Church, Paul expects the return of Lord at any time.
Almost two thousand years have gone by since Jesus ascended to the Father, so we tend to be less convinced than Paul was that time is short. We may even think he was simply wrong in his lively expectation of the Second Coming.
But of course Paul was not wrong. Jesus himself tells us that he is "coming at an unexpected hour" (Mt 24:44) and says his followers "do not belong to the world" (Jn 17:14-16). And all of us past fifty know from experience that time is short—that even if the Lord does not return in our lifetime, we will return to him sooner than we might like.
The teaching of Jesus is mostly about "now" and much less about "then" or "when." Even though he promises an eternal reward, he is always reminding us that the Kingdom is at hand. Time is short because time is fulfilled: Jesus has already begun his reign.
The Lord uses simple imperatives to convey the timeliness and urgency of his message: "repent" and "believe." He doesn't tell us to begin a lengthy process of self-discovery so we can slowly mature into Christians. Repent and believe—you can almost hear him add: now.
There's a tale told by Professor Barclay that I have used in many sermons, because it makes such a practical point about these important truths. It's the story of a job interview in Hell. Three devils applied for a vacant position as tempters on earth.
Satan asked the first candidate what he would do to ruin souls. He replies that he would convince them there is no Heaven. Satan sneers that people naturally know there must be something to reward earthly virtue, something beyond their horizons. "They'll never fall for that," he says, and sends the unsuccessful applicant on his way.
The next devil comes in, and Satan asks the same question. Very confidently, the eager devil says "I would convince them that there's no such place as Hell." Satan erupts with laughter. "What a useless strategy! The human sense of justice will see through that in a minute. Get out of my office."
Finally, the last candidate begins his interview. When Satan asks what he would do to capture souls, the third devil says "I would convince them that there's lots and lots of time."
Satan smiled. "You've got the job."
Even Satan knows the power of now—and the ruinous power of "later." Time has grown short, and later all too often means "never."
At the 9 and 11 Masses today, we are blessed to meet the men and women who have decided that now is the time—either to be baptized or to enter in to full communion with the Catholic Church. They declare their intention so we'll know we should support and pray for them. But they also remind us that our time is short, and that our moment is now.
Do we need to make a more radical commitment to our faith? That's a wordy way of asking "do we need to repent"? Do we need to believe more fully in the good news?"
Friday night I spoke to two or three hundred people at the fiftieth Life in the Spirit seminar held in this diocese; to my surprise, the organizer told me I had spoken at the first seminar as well, nineteen years ago. Most of the people there are baptized, confirmed and practicing. They came out on a stormy night because they know the Kingdom has come near, and they feel a need to experience its fruits more fully.
One of the reasons why evangelical Protestant churches are so strong is that they invite adult Christians to make a decision for Christ now. Needless to say, a one-time "yes" to God is no substitute for perseverance over the years. But nor is unfocussed Christian living a substitute for a personal act of faith here and now.
In many Protestant evangelical churches, at this point in the sermon the preacher would invite people to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus. Those who wished to would stand before the altar as a symbol of their decision, which is why the invitation is referred to as an "altar call"—even in churches without altars.
An "altar call" is not part of our tradition. We sometimes say that coming forward to receive Communion is the perfect altar call.
But maybe Catholic preachers should be less shy about inviting people to renew their commitment to Jesus right here and now. It's easy to agree with a homily that says we should do something in the future; it's a greater challenge to decide whether to do something now.
So today I'm inviting you to bow your heads and experience the power of now—the power of a renewed commitment to Christ. I'm going to read you part of the commitment prayer that is used in the Life in the Spirit seminars. Make it your own as I pray it; if you wish, repeat each phrase in your heart.
Lord Jesus Christ, I surrender to you today with all my heart and soul. From now on, I want to belong to you totally and completely. I want to be freed in every way from the power and rule of Satan.
Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God, that you died on the cross to free from my sins and that you rose again to bring me new life. I receive you as my Lord and Saviour. I ask you to help me turn away from all wrong doing and I ask your forgiveness for all the sins I have committed.
Lord, I give my life to you. I open wide the doors of my heart and I ask you to fill me with your presence.