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Sermon - January 24 2021
“To the Ends of the Earth”
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
January 24, 2021
They sound like questions you would see on Facebook: If God invited you to do something great, something mighty, tremendous, fabulous, even, would you do it? How about if God invited you to do a small thing, something seemingly insignificant to you yet meaningful to someone else? Would you do it?
Ordinarily I focus on a solitary text for my sermons. I rarely choose two texts and then attempt to weave them together. It frequently ends up being too long and nobody want that. However, the Old Testament Lesson and the Gospel Lesson for today form an intriguing pair. They share some things in common; yet they diverge at crucial points as well. So here goes.
The two questions which I posed a moment ago are a case in point of the differences. God asking Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh, which had brought great harm to Israel and was extraordinarily wicked is a case of being asked to do something mighty. On the other hand, Jesus simply asks four fishermen to “Follow me”. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
Even non-church going folks are familiar with the story of “Jonah and the Whale.” In the story, a prophet named Jonah receives direction from the Lord, to go to a city called Nineveh and preach to the people there, to call them to account for their sinful behavior. But instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah runs away – he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction.
It turns out escaping God’s call is not so easy, and, as the story goes, Jonah ends up swallowed by a big fish. Basically, he experiences a divine time out, and, amazingly enough, it works. After three days, Jonah repents and prays, and the fish vomits him up on dry land.
This time, Jonah does what God says. He stomps his way across Nineveh preaching the shortest sermon ever, and what is really shocking is that it is one of the most effective sermons ever! The people of Nineveh repent – they turn away from their sinful ways. God has mercy on them and decides not to destroy the city after all. All’s well that ends well, right?
Except, that’s not the end of the story.
Meanwhile, in Galilee…..
Galilee. Not a big city like Jerusalem or nearby Sepphoris or far-off Rome. Nope, little old Galilee. Today it would be like expecting to see the drama unfold in New York City or Los Angeles only to have the story zero in on some place called Blackduck, Minnesota. It’s a nice place but . . . it’s not what we were expecting.
It reminds me of a scene from the classic movie The Philadelphia Story in which Katherine Hepburn plays the haughty East Coast sophisticate Tracy Lord. At one point she meets an earnest young woman who tells Tracy that she is from Minnesota. With a dismissive, if not vaguely bored, tone in her voice Tracy says to the woman, “Ah, yes, Minnesota. How nice. That’s west of here somewhere, isn’t it?” In other words, “You’re from nowhere, aren’t you, dear?” Or at least nowhere that counts.
That’s the reaction Galilee might have garnered from the sophisticates of Jesus’ day. It is not the kind of “happening place” where one would expect a great drama to unfold.
Jesus calls to his side four simple fishermen. Smelling of fish creosote and looking every bit like the working-class folks that they were, Simon, Andrew, James, and John hitch their wagons to Jesus’ non-descript program and begin to follow him. Jesus does not tell them where they are going. Beyond some cryptic promise to become “people fishers,” he also does not tell these four the specifics of what they might expect to happen next. He certainly does not promise them riches or rewards or anything tangible whatsoever. They follow but their doing so hardly is the stuff of great promise or wonder.
This is this typical fashion in which Mark tells the story of Jesus. It is a stripped-down version compared to the other three Gospels. Matthew has a mysterious star in the East and the Magi who follow it. Luke gives us layer upon layer of drama surrounding the birth and later appearances of Jesus. John brings us to the rim of the galaxies and the beginning of all things with that all-creating Word of God who was with God in the beginning.
But not Mark. Mark allows Jesus merely to appear from out of nowhere, emerging humbly from the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to be baptized by John. And then at the very moment when we do expect the curtain to rise on the drama to come, we end up in Galilee even as Jesus starts to cobble together a set of followers that can be described only random and rag-tag.
Jonah dropped the ball in his initial response to God’s call. But God is persistent and tells Jonah to get on over to Nineveh pronto. As so Jonah, with as little enthusiasm and effort as possible does what he is told.
Nineveh was a terrible place, the capital city of Assyria, a nation that symbolized overwhelming and ruthless power of empire. Israel had been a victim of Assyria’s brutality when they were conquered and deported out of the Promised Land, stripped, shaven, some pulled along with fishhooks in jaws. Nineveh had made life hell for God’s chosen people.
Now here is Jonah marching into the cursed capital city of cruelty with a message from God: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That’s just 5 words in Hebrew. Nineveh responds with complete and universal repentance and belief in God. How could that have happened? Which God did they believe? Jonah never even mentions God in his message. And he never calls them to repentance.
The God of Israel simply over-rode Jonah’s blunt message of doom and moved the Ninevites to repent and believe. The God who sent the storm and the fish could also send his Spirit to move even these damnable pagans to change their hearts and their ways.
After Jonah preached his abbreviated sermon, he found the nearest vantage point and sat down in eager anticipation of the fire and brimstone. The fourth chapter of Jonah describes the scene: “Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”
Jonah was a Hebrew, one of God’s chosen people. God chose Jonah to be a prophet, presumably it was because Jonah had shown himself to be faithful, earnest in his desire to follow God’s ways. But Jonah’s faithfulness has its limits, and Jonah discovers what those limits are when God tells him to go to the city of Nineveh and tell the people there of God’s love and mercy. Jonah doesn’t want to go.
The people of Nineveh were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, so it’s no wonder Jonah balked when God told him to go and preach to them about God’s love and mercy – for, as Jonah knows, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing… and Jonah isn’t so sure he wants to see Nineveh on the receiving end of God’s grace.
Jonah sulked and we can imagine his thoughts: God’s mercy spoils everything.
A friend told me about the time his daughter ran into the living room
and gave him a great big hug. He could see in the mirror on the wall that while she was hugging him, she was sticking out her tongue at her brother. The dad didn’t know what to do or say, but the mom saw this whole scene, too.
Mom said, “Take your arms down from around your father’s neck. He loves your brother as much as he loves you. You cannot love your father and stick your tongue out at your brother at the same time.”
Could it be that this is what God saw Jonah doing?
Jonah assumed that because “those people aren’t my people; they can’t be God’s people.” And he was wrong. And he should have known better, given how he had ended his prayer from the belly of the fish with these words, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That is the message of the Old Testament and the New.
What’s more, Jonah should have known how extensive God’s mercy was, given how God had dealt with Jonah’s resistance to God’s call and his flight from God’s presence. That response should have landed him, not just at the far edge of the world, but in a place of God’s eternal absence. Instead, God pursued him, provided for his rescue, reinstated his calling, dealt with his unholy anger in deep patience, and stayed with the prophet even he wallowed in God-criticizing depression. Even though we never hear a word about Jonah’s repentance, God stuck with him in mercy and compassion. Working in opposition to God’s love, compassion and mercy is a bit like fighting against the current.
When Amy lived in Colorado, a friend convinced her to participate in a sprint triathlon. For months they trained together for the race, and when the day came, Amy felt prepared.
Swimming was her strongest event, and she got out of the water feeling good. She hopped on her bike and headed out. The bike ride was not very interesting, seven and a half miles out the highway in one direction and then back; but when Amy got onto the road, she could not believe how good she felt, not just strong, but fast. Clearly, all the training had paid off.
Before she knew it, it was time to turn around and come back.
Only then did Amy realize that what she thought was hard work and natural ability was in fact a strong wind that had been at her back, and was now fighting her mightily in the other direction.
What happens to Jonah at the end of his book, when the plant giving him shade withers and he feels the effects of the sun and hot wind,
is a perfect example of someone fighting against the current of God’s mercy and grace.
Jonah is convinced that the Ninevites should never be on the receiving end of God’s mercy and he is equally convinced that he deserves whatever blessings God offers him. He is caught in this cycle of judgment and condemnation, struggling to extend to his enemies the same grace God has offered to him.
It is a pattern of judgment in which we all get caught: we judge ourselves worthy or unworthy in spite of evidence to the contrary. We judge others too, by their appearance, their achievements or lack thereof, failing to see the many, many factors that contribute to their success or failure.
We become trapped in a cycle of judgment, unable to extend compassion, empathy, or love. Compassion comes when we set aside judgment and focus on what we have in common: our God-given identity as beloved children, who have discovered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we are beloved not because of who we are or what we have done, but simply because we belong to God and God chooses love.
God chooses to love, even Jonah, in his petulant anger, even the religious authorities with their unjust accusations that assault Jesus and the disciples throughout their ministry, even the Ninevites who persistently violated God’s ways. God chooses to love even us, even when our ignorance and our rush to judgment prevents us from showing love and compassion to those who need it most.
And it is God’s love, love most fully revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God decided to put God’s own self in our human experience, it is in that love that the soul finds its worth. It is not our actions or our piety that confers worth or value, it is the fact that God created us, God calls us God’s own, God loves us no matter what, enough to be with us as one of us, without judgment or condition.
In a letter to Dorothy Day, the Catholic priest, Thomas Merton wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
God is calling us to Nineveh, to that place and that people we cannot imagine are worthy of God’s love or our time. God calls us to love others with the kind of love that does not stop to ask whether they are deserving of it. We can run from that call or outright refuse it but imagine what might happen if we dared to accept it.
Preached by Rev. Rich Hinkle
Scotch Presbyterian Church
January 24, 2021