Jesus vs. Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber has 16.7 million followers on Twitter. He has tweeted almost 13,000 times. I, on the other hand, have tweeted 1800 times, and my followers number in the dozens, at just shy of 200. It’s game on, Bieber! Twitter is, of course, just one of the multitude of social networking tools that has taken over the world of communication in the last few years. From a service that started just five years ago, it now numbers users that rival the population of the U.S. It is being credited with the overthrow of dictators in Egypt and Libya and with populist movements in places as far flung as Syria and the United States. If you can edit your thoughts down to 140 characters or fewer (that’s about 25-30 words), then Twitter might be the tool for you.

Like all technology, it’s a double-edged sword. The short length of messages seems to play into and contribute to the sound byte culture which plagues us so – and if we had forgotten that, another round of elections is here to remind us that content most certainly isn’t king. Critics attack Twitter for feeding into our unhealthy narcissism, where people feel compelled to share what they’re having for dinner and why they think “Two and a Half Men” is better with Ashton Kutcher.

And yet, at the same time, it has given people who have long been disenfranchised access to information. We need look no further than the Arab Spring for evidence of that. And for truly breaking news there is no better source than Twitter. While Fox and CNN try to fill the void of the 24-hour news cycle with vapid information and pointless commentary, if you really want to know what is going on at the moment, Twitter gives you instant access to eyewitness accounts.

What strikes me as curious about Twitter, alongside everything else, is the language choice of “follow”. Unlike Facebook, where you “friend” someone, in Twitter, you “follow” them. And they can also “follow” you – which sounds a bit like everyone is just going in circles. And that is one of the dangers of our technological boom. We are self-selecting for the information and relationships that agree with what we already think we know to be true. We are less and less likely to seek out friendships and websites and news channels that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works. We are feeding our own self-righteousness, and becoming more and more siloed from folks who aren’t like us.

And that’s where the Scripture texts today come into focus. We first heard the dramatic tale of Jonah, skipping over the introduction where Jonah tries to run away from God, gets caught in a storm, then thrown overboard, eaten by a giant fish, and spit back up onto dry ground. Now God is telling him, yet again, “Go to Nineveh and tell them to get straight.” And they do. The people of Nineveh fast and pray. And God relents from the promised destruction.

For Jonah, following God meant doing something he didn’t want to do. Nineveh was a big, bad city, and the last thing he wanted to do was to go there and tell everyone how big and bad they were, like Pee Wee Herman trying to use the phone in a biker bar.

For the people of Nineveh, following God meant doing a 180, spinning on their heels, putting a stop to their ways and starting off on a new path. For the people of God, following breaks us out of our silos and can often bring us into uncharted territory.

No one knew this fact better than the disciples. Today, we heard the familiar story of the four who simply dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Simon and Andrew were drawn by the promise of catching people in their nets instead of fish…the same with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

We’ve talked before about this story and the weight of the decision these disciples made. Bethsaida, their home town, meant “the place of fishing.” There’s little doubt that this was work that had been handed down for a multitude of generations. This was a great deal more than a simple career change; to follow Jesus was to turn their backs on everything they had known. Fishing was practically in their DNA. And while Jesus promised they would still fish, it would be unlike anything they had experienced before.

To become a disciple means quite simply to become a student, a pupil. But there’s one key difference: the student can eventually become the teacher. The disciple remains a disciple. And for the disciples, following Jesus meant heading off into the unknown.

What about us? What does it mean to be followers of Jesus?

Like Jonah, are we being asked to do things that we don’t want to do? Are there places in our lives where we know that the faithful thing to do isn’t always the easy thing to do? It’s never as easy as saying that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. God expects much of us in terms of our own wisdom and discernment as we think and pray through choices in our lives. And yet, we all know of moments where we know what we ought to do, and that this obligation may have a cost that we’re not quite willing to pay. Is that where you are right now, facing a decision that may take you somewhere you’re not sure you want to go?

Or do you find yourself more in line with the people of Nineveh? Is God asking you to turn away from choices you have made which have been, time and time again, the wrong choices? The churchy word for that is repentance, which means turning to face God and owning up to mistakes. If so, then the invitation today is to take the opportunity to start over. It’s still January, and though the calendar is an admittedly arbitrary tool, it may just be the tool you need to make that 180 and begin afresh. The road may feel uncharted, but the truth is that God goes before you every step of the way.

Or is it the story of fishermen which resonates with you today? Is there something nudging you, calling you to a bold new adventure in faith? Is it a change in careers or a leadership role here at OPC? Is it downsizing your lifestyle to make more room for the things that you know are of ultimate importance?

Maybe none of this strikes a chord with you today. Maybe you’ve already heard this message before loud and clear, and so the text today is meant as an encouragement to stay the course.

In any case, to follow Jesus is to break down the walls of our silos. We are brought into relationships with those who are unlike us. Jesus is not the ultimate “yes man”. There is, always, a word of challenge at work. In our afflictions, we will be comforted; and in our comforts, we will be afflicted.

And to follow Jesus puts us very much in the here and now. We care about this world because it is God’s world. We are invested in our community because, in Christ, God’s own self became deeply invested in a world of material, fleshy reality. To be followers of the incarnate God is to be, ourselves, the incarnate body of Christ, the hands and feet of the one who calls us to drop our nets, follow, and fish in a whole new way.