- January 21, 2018
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for January 21, 2018 (Epiphany 3, Year B)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Jonah 3; Psalm 62:6-14; Mark 1:14-20
Title: Get Up and Go!
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:1).
My sisters and brothers in the Lord: where has God called you to go? What has God called you to do?
Oh, I wish we had the time this morning to read through the entire story of Jonah all together. It’s quite small. Only four brief chapters. But it’s got a big message, and a vital one.
First, let us be clear that this is not an historical book. This book was never intended to explain history. It is, in many ways, a book of ancient Hebrew comedy. The book of Jonah is a parody of what a Hebrew prophet is supposed to be like. And as with most parodies, it uses irony and humor to make a powerful point.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah and called him to bring a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh. This was the capital city of the kingdom of Assyria, a mighty empire who rose and crushed the kingdom of Israel in 722 Before Christ.
In that year, the Ninevites demolished Israel. Today, the ruins of Nineveh are in the Iraqi city of Mosul, on the east banks of the Tigris River.
God calls to Jonah, and what does he do? He runs away! Now, you have to understand that in this book, Jonah is the bad guy!
Think about that for a minute. In the Bible, the prophet of the Lord is always the good guy, right? Moses against Pharaoh. Joshua against the Canaanites. David against the Philistines. Elijah against corrupt King Ahab and Jezebel.
But not here! In this story, Jonah is presented as the bad guy of the story, the one who consistently does the wrong thing while all the pagan gentiles around him do the right thing!
God calls Jonah to go east to Nineveh and Jonah boards a ship going west! As far west as he can possibly go!
So God sends a mighty storm to stop the progress of that ship across the Mediterranean. When the pagan sailors discover that Jonah is a prophet running from God, they pray to the Lord and ask for help! These sailors do not know what else to do, as the storm rages on and grows more intense.
But they know that Jonah is to blame. They do not want to hurt him, but they are out of ideas, and so they throw Jonah overboard. And, immediately, the storm subsides. The sailors are amazed and they give praise to the God of Israel!
Here is the amazing part! Even in his rebellion, Jonah is a successful prophet. Even though he disobeys God, God is honored by all those around him!
You know what happens next. Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish and stays there for 3 days and 3 nights. Finally, after giving praise to God, Jonah is vomited out onto dry land and the Lord calls to Jonah again.
THIS is where we pick up the story today. For a second time, God calls to Jonah to go to Nineveh and call them to repent. Jonah does not want to do this. But, given what happened the last time he ran away, perhaps he figured out that fighting against God is a losing proposition!
So Jonah gets a second chance. This time he obeys God’s call – reluctantly, of course. Jonah is the reluctant prophet. He does not want to deliver the message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, because Jonah does not want God to have mercy on those people!
What Jonah wants is to see the people of Nineveh punished! He wants to see them suffer the same thing that his people in the land of Israel have suffered at the hands of these Ninevites! They are the enemy of his people! They are the cause of much pain and suffering in his hometown, in his home country.
But, surprise, surprise! The people receive the message and they repent. And by order of the king, they are to wear sackcloth and fast – even the animals!
Now, I can just imagine a bunch of people making little sackcloth suits for all their chickens and dogs and goats and cows, and making them put them on.
But how do you force them to fast? How do you keep cows and horses and dogs and goats from drinking out of rivers and streams and marshes? And how do you make them all pray and ask for forgiveness?
Who knows!? It’s a crazy little story, but somehow it all works out. Once again, God works through Jonah, even though the prophet doesn’t like it!
Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is angry, frustrated, resentful, wanting to punish his enemies, and disappointed. But God is shown to be merciful, forgiving, ready to be reconciled even with those who were the notorious enemies of God, and in spite of the reluctance of the prophet.
How many of us are like Jonah? Reluctant and resistant. Or are we ready to answer the call of God? Even when it means facing our enemies, or doing what is uncomfortable, and challenging ourselves?
There are times when some of us do indeed make the choice to follow a difficult path. I’m not talking about making a trip to climb Mt. Everest or attempting to swim across the English Channel. I am talking about people who take up a challenge to do the work of God, and to make a positive difference in the world.
Friday night I returned from a 12 day course at the Naval Station in Newport that is designed for Direct Commissioned Officers like myself. These are people who are well educated and accomplished in their civilian careers and who have volunteered to walk a challenging path in order to give back to our country.
There were 41 people in our group, and I thought for sure that I would be one of the oldest, but it was not even close! There was a doctor in the course who is now 62 years of age. 62! He is one of the top 5 trauma anesthesiologists in the country. He’s at the top of his game. He’s done everything that he wanted to do in his career. And now he has joined the Navy to be deployed to some war-torn place where his trauma skills can be of service to his country.
But to do this, he had to wake up at 4 AM every morning with the rest of us, make his bed in a military manner and go through room inspections, march back and forth to the chow hall, undergo uniform inspections and pop quizzes on crucial Navy knowledge, be yelled at by senior chiefs who are experts at chewing people out, pass a swim test by jumping off a tall platform, learn how to tie his shoes in the correct Nay way, and lots of other challenging stuff.
There are people like this doctor who welcome challenges, not for selfish ends but as a way to give back. Brave people who answer the call and go.
Where else do we see this readiness to answer God’s call? Of course, in Simon and Andrew, James and John.
Jesus begins his own prophetic work by proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.”
Into a world of human cruelty and anger, where people sought vengeance for the violence perpetrated by the Roman oppressors, Jesus enters with a message of hope: God is merciful, forgiving and ready to be reconciled with all people, if only we will repent and change our ways.
Like Simon and Andrew and James and John, we too are called to fish for people. Not reluctantly like Jonah, but with joy for the privilege of working together with God for the reconciliation of humanity. My friends, could there possibly be anything more worthy of our time and our efforts and our treasures and our prayers?
Each one of us is on a different path, and God’s call to each is unique. But it is there – make no mistake about it. YOU are here right now because YOU have been called by the Lord to go and fish for people!
If you resist that call, God can still work through you – just like in the story of Jonah. But then you will miss out on the joy of working together with God to do good.
So where has God called you to go? What has God called you to do?
Are you ready to respond gladly and willingly to participate in God’s work of reconciliation? May it be so. Amen.