Here are some reflections/thoughts in a sermon I preached at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Canton, Michigan. The texts were Jonah 3:1-5,10 and Mark 1:14-20. Sometimes I wish I could get it right or say it better the first time…
I haven’t seen a link for “Which Biblical prophet are you?” on Facebook, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised when it shows up. Each day I encounter an invitation to play a game that tries to guess a part of my personality or a vocation in a past life. Many times I ignore them but occasionally I play along. I never share the results because its just too weird.
If, however I ran across a Biblical prophet game, I think I’d be matched with the prophet Jonah. Jonah and I are alike; in fact Jonah is like most of the people I know. Jonah wants things on his terms. He is quick to judge others. He is afraid.
The story of Jonah is one of my favorites and while often told as a children’s tale, it is a very grown up kind of story. I think we choose to dress it up as a children’s story because we are afraid and/or unwilling to let it speak to us because it cuts too deeply.
The book of Jonah contains three important truths: You cannot escape the call of God; You cannot escape the presence of God; You cannot escape the love of God.
As Jonah’s story unfolds, we see each of these truths played out in the life of Jonah, the lives of the sailors, and the lives of the Ninevites. It is God who makes a difference in the lives of each.
Jonah hears God’s call to go to Nineveh. Apparently Nineveh was one of the last places Jonah had any intention of going. Nineveh represents the dark and dangerous place. Nineveh was not a city of refuge or safety for Jonah. It was a place of insecurity – a place where enemies abound and friends were no where in sight. A call to Nineveh was a threat to the comfort Jonah had grown up with.
So Jonah (and those like Jonah), when faced with the choice of discomfort or trying to avoid the job all together, runs away.
If the storm and fish illustrate the ancient world’s proof of Jonah’s unfaithfulness, we should also view them as evidence of God’s presence and love, too. Had God not cared about Jonah, the story would have ended with Chapter 1 and God would be portrayed as an unrelenting authoritarian deity whose message to us would be to “do what God says or die.”
Despite his disobedience, Jonah is saved from death. The love God shows to Jonah will foreshadow the rest of the story.
When Jonah arrives in Nineveh, he is a changed prophet (or is he?) He travels one-third of the way into the city announcing that in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. It was a sermon that only Jonah’s mother would say was good. Despite its blunt and negative purpose and function statement, his words received a response that every preacher in every age would love to see happen: an entire city repents. In just a short time and by traveling only a short distance Jonah’s word has made a difference in the lives of the people of Nineveh. Now the truth of the matter is that God is the author of that difference. Jonah is but the messenger and it is the power of God at work through the messenger that Nineveh repents.
Jonah (and Israel) needed to hear and experience the story of Nineveh. They had become too judgmental of their neighbors.
I’m convinced that the call of God comes to us as a “time to make a difference” moment. Frederich Buechner’s definition of call as “the place God called you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” acknowledges the mutual benefit of a person’s call. We benefit in that time and if we are fortunate what we leave behind benefits those who come after us.
I saw the movie Selma last week and recommend that you see it if you are able. The movie tells the story of the march of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
As Dr. King prepared to lead a group of African Americans on this march, he shared his intention with President Johnson who responded that it was “fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery.” The words were intended to discourage the marchers.
Fifty miles would be a long distance for a rag-tag group of marchers to make through rural Alabama. Fifty miles in the month of March could be bone-chillingly cold and wet. Fifty miles through the rural South opened marchers up to the possibility of danger and attacks from prejudiced and bigoted whites. A fifty mile march might not be approved of by those African Americans who were just trying to “keep their heads low” and not make any more trouble for themselves.
In fact, fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery would seem insignificant when compared to the vast distance between the coasts of this country. Fifty miles across Alabama would be less noticeable that ten miles across Washington DC or New York City.
But the march from Selma to Montgomery, as insignificant or dangerous as it may seem, had a significant impact on the history of our nation. The result of this short march was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I wish that I could share with you that a Nineveh-type of response was achieved by that march. You and I know that we are far from achieving the dream that Dr. King and others espoused. Much more work is yet to be done.
When Jesus called the first disciples, he was proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was near…not that the Kingdom of God had been achieved. He called those disciples from places of comfort to places of insecurity and at times even fear. He called his disciples with the knowledge and invitation that they could make a difference in their own time and by doing so, to make a difference for generations to come.
God calls men and women today to make a difference as we continue to work as partners, as disciples, as ambassadors, as builders of this Kingdom. You and I will not complete the work of the Kingdom of God but will, in our own way and in whatever time God has allowed, continue the work that God has begun.
And in doing so, may your gladness and the world’s hunger be met.