Sermon for June 25th, 2017
1 And the word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time: 2 ‘Arise’, he said, ‘go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to them as I told you to’. 3 And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare: three days it took to cross it. 4 And Jonah went on into the city, making a day’s journey. He preached in these words: ‘Only forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed’. 5 And the people of Nineveh believed the word of God; they proclaimed a fast and clothed themselves in sackcloth, from the greatest to the least among them.
6 Word of this reached the ears of the king of Nineveh, who rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat down in ashes. 7 Then it was heralded in Nineveh, and by decree of the king and his chiefs it was proclaimed: ‘Men and beasts, herds and flocks, shall not taste anything, nor shall they eat, nor shall they drink water. 8 All shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall call upon God with all their might; let everyone renounce his evil behaviour and the wicked things he has done. 9 Who knows if God will not relent and change his purpose, if he will not renounce his burning wrath, so that we do not perish?’
10 God saw their efforts to renounce their evil behavior. And God relented: he did not inflict on them the disaster which he had threatened.
Jonah: From the Belly of Nineveh
The word of God came to Jonah a second time. I know how that feels. Those words bring back a flood of memories for me.
The first time I knew that God was calling me to be a pastor was in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1999, about a year after I graduated from college. I was 800 miles away from my hometown of El Paso...and yet somehow I managed to run into an old family friend--the Rev. Don Forsman, who had been my grandparents' pastor here at Trinity-First United Methodist Church. He was retired. I was 24 and hadn't seen him since I was about 12, in El Paso, but there in Deepest Darkest Oklahoma he recognized me. We chatted for awhile, he asked how my grandmother was doing since my grandfather had passed away. And then toward the end of our conversation, he said, "I think God is calling you to vocational ministry as a pastor."
What do you say to that? In my head, I said, "No way." I used to make fun of theology majors in college. But there was something in me that knew he was, in fact, speaking for God. Still, in the months that followed, I rationalized my way around it. I'm going to be a teacher. That's kind of like a pastor, right? You can't exactly preach in a public school, but I'll be an example to my students of Christian character and values. My students will be my flock. That counts, right God? I'm not sure I waited very long for an answer that time.
The second time I knew that God was calling me to be a pastor was in Dallas, in 2001. Amy and I were married; I had been teaching high school for a year, and that summer I began working toward a master's degree in Education at the University of Dallas. As I sat through all of these mind-opening, paradigm-shifint classes on educational theory and practice, I should have been thinking about my freshmen, that I would be returning to teach in the fall. But instead, with every new thing I learned, I kept thinking, "Why doesn't the church do this? This would work great in a Bible Study! I wonder if you could do that in a worship service?"
Uh oh. Yes, God. I know...I remember. But I really like being a high school teacher. My students need me! Can't it wait just a little longer? Once again, I don't think I really waited for the answer to that question.
I'm a little bit slower than Jonah.
The THIRD time I knew that God was calling me to be a pastor was in 2006, in Frisco, Texas. Grady was 2, Abby was on the horizon, and Philip Lotspeich, the pastor of Faithbridge Presbyterian Church where we were members, said, "I think God is calling you to be a pastor." Ummm, yeah, I've heard that one before. And then people in the congregation started telling me, and then I went to a conference in Florida and everyone there told me, and finally my mother said, "I could have told you that a long, long time ago."
Still, I waited another two years to wrap up loose ends, THEN packed our stuff in a moving van and dragged Amy and the kids halfway across the country to Princeton, NJ where I (finally) enrolled in seminary, almost ten years after that first time I knew what I was supposed to do.
You'd think that I had finally learned to listen to what God was saying, right? Four years later and graduation is approaching...
"God? I think you need me to be a church planting pastor. I want to start a brand new, cutting-edge, trendy kind of church, from scratch, somewhere in a fast-growing suburb, maybe in a bar or a coffee shop. That'll work, right? No?
Ok, ok, fine. Here's what we'll do. How about a little, tiny rural church with like 20 congregation members and lots of time to read and study...somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, in a remote town or village? God, speaking with a voice that sounded a whole lot like Amy's voice, said "No."
You know what, God? I'm going to listen to where you tell me to go. Just please, please, don't send me to one of those big, traditional downtown churches that are like, over a hundred years old, still trying to get back to their glory days in the 1950s and haven't moved any of the furniture since then! Because if you send me somewhere like that, they're not going to like what I have to say, they're not going to listen, they'll get angry, everything's just going to fall to pieces, and it's going to be a disaster, God. Trust me...I know.
And God said, "That sounds like an excellent idea--I'm so glad you thought of it."
I may be exaggerating just a wee bit. In all fairness, while I did have some misgivings about serving in "that kind of church," Amy and I were overjoyed at the chance to come back to El Paso, to do ministry among people we love, in a very familiar place we have always considered home.
For Jonah, however, that wasn't the case. The great city of Nineveh was the opposite of his home in every sense. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the people of Nineveh were at war with the people of Israel, and eventually they completely defeated Northern Israel, destroying most of its cities and carting away its sons and daughters into slavery in the Assyrian Empire. All this happened after the time period described in our story...but it's very likely that the person writing the story of Jonah, centuries later, was well aware of that disastrous history. It's also likely that some of Jonah's bitterness toward the people of Nineveh was shared by the story's author.
So Jonah finally gets up and goes to Nineveh. I mentioned that I'm a little slower than Jonah--I'm also not nearly as effective. I have been preaching in this church for five years now (seven if you count my sermons here as a seminary intern). That's approximately 418,000 words I have preached and 1,041 just today. I think we've made a lot of progress, we've all learned a thing or two (including me!) but we still have quite a ways to go. There are many, many people in the city of El Paso we have yet to reach.
Jonah arrives in Nineveh, preaches a sermon just nine words long (that's in English; in the original Hebrew, it's only five words long!) doesn't even mention Yahweh or God anywhere in his message; he just says 40 days and you're all toast! In other words, he's the proverbial crazy man on the street corner saying "The end of the world is coming!" The kind of person that people in big, powerful cities tend to just ignore.
And the entire city, the largest city in the world at that time, believes him. They put on mourning clothes, begin to fast, even forsaking water--everyone from the king right down to the lowliest animals. I would not want to be the farmer tasked with dressing a hungry, fasting, bull or the billy goat in mourning clothes.
Everyone fasted, everyone repented, everyone called out to God for forgiveness. And God forgave them, deciding not to destroy Nineveh after all.
So what do we do with this story? What do we make of Jonah's reluctance, Nineveh's repentance, and God's forgiveness?
One common approach is to take it all literally. This really happened. Every last one of the Ninevites and all their livestock repented of their evil ways, because Jonah preached a five word sermon that never even mentioned God. Obviously that's not my favorite approach. I think the literal approach is so common in many churches because it offers a sort of hope, albeit an unrealistic one. If this really happened in Nineveh, it could happen in El Paso. Let's go get our "end-of-the-world" signs, our megaphones, and find our street corner. Or maybe we just really want to see little chihuahuas dressed in cute mourning clothes.
Another way to approach this story (one I like much better) is as an early attempt to try to understand why bad things (and good things) happen in the world. The bad thing that happened was the complete destruction of Northern Israel in 722 BC, by the people of Nineveh. The survivors of this catastrophe wondered why God would allow this to happen to his people, the people he promised to protect? And especially, they wondered why God would give victory to a bunch of depraved, evil foreigners who worshipped other gods?
One explanation could be that maybe the people of Israel themselves had done something to displease God, to make God angry, so that this was an appropriate (if devastating) punishment. That is the explanation given in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Others, rather than blaming themselves, blamed the obvious culprits--the wicked people of Nineveh. They did this of their own choosing, but God would soon punish them for it. There are entire books of the Bible dedicated to detailed prophecies about how Nineveh was going to get what was coming to it.
And so they waited. And waited. But it never happened. And people began to wonder why all over again. They story of Jonah may have been written as an explanation for why Nineveh was still around. Maybe God was giving them a second chance. Maybe they had done what the people of Israel were unwilling to do--repent! And the only way that God could possibly have forgiven them is if someone from Israel (who knew Yahweh) had warned them, and only if every single last one of them had earnestly repented. That would explain it.
Another explanation is that there are two competing voices, ideas or threads that weave throughout the Old Testament: One says "Foreigners are bad. Stay away from them, don't marry them, don't adopt their practices, it's much better to just kill them than to be corrupted by them." That message comes out powerfully in the Books of Joshua, Judges, Amos, and Nehemiah.
Competing against that voice is another stream of thought, found in parts of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Ruth. That voice says to treat the foreigner among you as your own, to love them as you love yourself, because you were once foreigners. Jonah can be seen as part of this tradition, and as a public response to the book of Nehemiah, which some think was written around the same time.
Nehemiah was building walls to keep foreigners out of Jerusalem, while Jonah was transgressing the walls of Nineveh to carry God's love and mercy to Israel's enemies. If we read Jonah this way, it holds a powerful message for Christians in America today.
One more way to approach this story, possibly my favorite: A metaphorical approach. There is a beautiful symmetry to chapters 2 and 3. When Jonah listens to his own voice, his own desires, he finds himself in the belly of a whale. This is not entirely a bad thing. Ultimately, in the belly of the whale he finds his own salvation and a renewed sense of purpose and identity. That, and he doesn't drown.
But when Jonah listens to God's voice, and follows God's desires, he finds himself in the belly of Nineveh (a much, much bigger fish). And this time, in the Belly of Nineveh, it is the people around Jonah who find salvation and a renewed sense of purpose and identity. When Jonah is in the belly of the whale, he encounters God. But when he is in the belly of Nineveh, following God's call, everyone encounters God.
I believe that God loves each one of you enough to let you follow the desires of your heart. And when following those desires gets you thrown overboard, I believe God loves you enough to send a big fish to rescue you. I believe God even loves you enough to let you thrive and prosper while following your own desires. I loved being a high school teacher; I was good at it, I could have been happy doing that for a lifetime. But God's plans for me were a lot bigger than my plans for myself.
God wants so much more than just your health and happiness, or the health and happiness of those in your inner circle. God wants you to play an active part in bringing about a better world for everyone, for all creation in every place and time.
In the Bible, whenever we see God calling people, it's almost always out of a place of relative isolation and contentedness, out of their "comfort zone" and into engagement with the wider world, into advocacy, encouragement, and love for neighbors, for foreigners, and those in need.
And it's not just preachers and prophets that God calls to serve: It's fishermen, farmers, tax collectors, accountants, construction workers, artists, lawyers, doctors, scholars, homemakers, and merchants. It's men, women, children, senior citizens, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, and everything in between.
I believe that God calls everyone to some greater purpose. You can run from that call; you can put it off. I did, for ten years, all while doing some very good, very fulfilling things. You can rationalize what you're doing, or convince yourself that you're answering God's call in your own way.
But God is patient; God is persistent. And the one who calls you is the one who created you. The one who created you is the one who knows you, better than you know yourself. The one who knows you is the one who loves you. And the one who loves you... is the same one who loves, knows, and has created the ones he is calling you to serve.
Listen to that call. Trust that call. And be ready to change the world.