January 23, 2000
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
[ Read the
texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
[One of the ways I've introduced this theme is to have a phone and a tape player at the pulpit hidden from sight. When the prayer before the sermon is finished, I push the "play" button and the sound of the phone ringing (which is recorded prior to the service) begins. Then...]
"Hello?" (Pause for other end to answer)
"You're kidding! It can't be!" (Hold phone to your chest as though to keep the person on the other end from hearing and whisper to the congregation...) "It's God!"
Now wouldn't it be something if God actually did call. Our scripture readings for today are about the call of God.
I don't know how it is at your house, but I find one of the most irritating sentences in the English language to be, "The Phone's ringing!"
This infuriating announcement usually comes from someone in your household who prefers that you attend to the task of answering the phone. I've actually had the experience of hearing three voices call out at once, "The phone's ringing!"
The idea is that people do not want to waste their energy if the call is not for them and there are even times when they don't want to answer calls that are for them.
Well... continuing on with this little "fun with the phone" routine... Have you ever answered the phone and then said to your mom or dad or son or daughter or husband or wife, "It's for you." Then the reply comes, "Who is it?"
Amazing how many people simply want to avoid responsibility for their calls!
All of this goes to the central message of today's scripture readings which can be expressed in these short statements:
It is interesting and instructive to take a look at how the call of God comes to the people in our Old Testament and Gospel readings today. It is even more interesting to see how this call is handled.
CALLS YOU DON'T WANT TO GET
You know how some phone calls are calls you would rather not get? The phone rings and you just know it is your aging Aunt who wants to come over and check her mailbox for the third time today. Or maybe you've had the experience of being "between jobs" and both the car payment and the mortgage are a few days late. You screen your calls with an answering machine -- or if you are really fortunate -- you have caller ID!
Our reading from Jonah is <please forgive> a whale of a story -- about someone who actually hung up on God! Have you ever had someone hang up on you? It doesn't feel very good and you likely experience a bit of anger. Who in the world would wan tot hang up on God and make God angry?
Just before the portion of scripture we have in our Jonah reading for today, God had called Jonah to take a strong message of, "Straighten out or else..." to the people of a city named Nineveh. Now Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the ancient Assyrian Empire and there was never any love lost between the Assyrians and the Jews. As far as he was concerned, the people of Nineveh were just a bunch of pagans who deserved all the fire and brimstone God could heap upon their heads.
Our reading from Jonah today begins with the words, "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time..." Do you remember what happened the first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah? God called Jonah to go to pagan Nineveh with the message that God was weary of the wickedness of the city and was going to destroy it.
Jonah hung up on God! He literally ran away from God's call and you know the rest of the story. God pursued Jonah until Jonah was ready to listen. There's an important lesson here. Obvious -- but important. When God calls, we are wise to answer!
Jonah took the word of the Lord to Nineveh and didn't pull any punches. He walks the length and breadth of Nineveh and cries out, "Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!"
No wonder Jonah ran from God the first time! Can you imagine being a Jewish prophet in Assyria, shouting to the people that they were going to be destroyed? The picture calls to mind a picture that was indelibly imprinted on our minds a few years ago when a young Chinese man stood defiantly in front of a tank as students demanded freedom.
Was it that Jonah feared for his life that he ran from God?
CALLS YOU DO WANT TO GET
Not at all. His fear was that the people of Nineveh would answer God's call and that God would spare them. And what happened? Exactly -- they turned to God and were spared.
Jonah was so disheartened from the whole experience he ran away again and went out into the desert and pout. He asked God to take his life. His complaint to God is another one of those gems in scripture. "That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." [Jonah 4:2]
Jonah doesn't want God to be like this. Well, that's not it exactly. Jonah wants God to be gracious and merciful and loving -- to him and the people he cares about! He does not want God to love the Ninevites. He wants the people to Nineveh, those terrible, pagan enemies of Israel to get it in the neck!
I must confess that there are times when I feel for old Jonah. I am so very happy that God is merciful and gracious to me and to my wife and daughter. I am eternally blessed that the Lord has undying love for my friends and family. But -- there are some folks who come to mind now and then that I wonder about. There might even be one or two I can't figure out what God could love about them. And then I am reminded of a central principle of our faith. A principle that prevents us from taking the fate of others into our own hands. A barrier to deciding that we know who should live and who should die.
If God does not love everybody, then there can be no love for anybody. If God is not gracious toward all, there can be grace for none.
The call that comes to you and me from the Lord is a call to receive mercy, love and grace. It is a call we want to answer. Sometimes we might not want to hear God's call because we are ashamed or feel that we have let God down.
Returning home from a trip a few weeks ago, I found my young daughter not quite so happy to see me as usual. Normally she would come running into my arms and try to keep from asking too quickly the question that was bursting inside her little chest. always came, "Did you bring me anything?" Within a few moments her mom prompted her to tell me about something she had done. Without her mom's permission, she had turned on my computer and was going to "help me" with my work. I am now missing several files I had worked on for some time. She had been told, many times, not to touch my computer unless I was with her.
Now she was reluctant to see me -- even after an absence. There was a bit of discussion about obeying the rules and why we do that. BUT... my steadfast love for her is more than she realizes and my grace way more than sufficient to cover the misdeed.
It is like that with God. The love and grace of God are large enough to overwhelm the barriers when we hear the call and receive the message.
CALLS WE WANT TO PASS ON
The gospel reading for today is the very familiar story of Jesus' call to Simon (Peter) and Andrew, James and John. Jesus calls them to join him and take the call of God to others. In the language of the fisherman, he calls them to "fish for people." The call continues to this day. We are to take the message of God's steadfast love and grace to others.
It's like a phone call you get that is one of great news. Your daughter won the tennis match. Your father's biopsy was benign. You got the job.
What do you do? You pass it on, of course.
When there is good news to pass on, we are energized to reach out. How different it is when it's bad news, isn't it? I can remember having to call my brothers and sister to tell them my father was terminally ill. It was as though the phone was suddenly too heavy to pick up and I wished there was someone else who could make the call.
But with this news about the love and grace of God is so wonderful and so compelling that we want to get to the business of sharing it. When Jesus came to call Simon and Andrew, they didn't even wait until the five o'clock whistle. Listen:
"And immediately they left their nets...
Connections in the Texts
The calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John in the gospel of mark contrasts with the call of Jonah. The four fishermen follow immediately, while Jonah rebels and follows only reluctantly and only after God has chased him down. Interestingly, Jonah knows exactly what God wants to do through his ministry and turns away from it. The fishermen, on the other hand, haven't a clue as to what their lives are about to become. Yet, they are ready to follow Jesus.
We might wonder at first glance, just what Paul's comments in 1 Cor 7 have to do with this theme of being called of God -- but a closer glance tells us simply that Paul is urging the Corinthians to live their lives in light of God's ultimate call and final claim on our lives. He is not advocating neglect of families, but rather spelling out in stark terms what is ultimate in our lives. Not family, not possessions and not worldly responsibilities are to have priority over God's claim on our lives. The Psalmist reinforces this with "God alone is my rock and my salvation..." he admonished, "...if riches increase, do not set your heart on them."
Together the texts speak of God's claim on our lives and our responsibility to answer when God calls. The One who has claimed us in baptism also calls us. We are urged to live our lives in light of God's claim and call.
Though Mark is the shortest of the gospels, it uses the word "immediately" more than any of the others. Mark does not begin with Jesus' birth and has no stories of his younger life. After a brief introduction of 14 verses, Mark tells us that John the Baptist was arrested and jumps into the ministry of Christ. By the end of 20 verses in the first chapter, Jesus has called four of his disciples.
The lives of the disciples will be intimately involved with the task of bringing the "good news of God" to the world. Everything else -- family, work and creature comforts will now take a back seat to the primary focus of their lives. God's kingdom is at hand and it is time to repent and believe the news.
Mark, along with the other texts will raise the question for us. "What is the most important thing in my life?" When we have adequately reflected on and answered that question we will have to examine just what place God's claim and call have on my life.
One place to center in on Mark is to see exactly what was going on in the disciple's lives when the call of God came to them. Peter and Andrew were actively fishing. James and John were mending their nets. It was work time for both of them. James and John were with their father and men who had been hired to help with the family business. The fact that all four leave their work and "immediately" follow underscores the urgency of the good news of God that it is time to "repent and believe the good news."
The call of God is not just to the clergy -- but comes to anyone at any time. In fact, Jesus went directly to the common, ordinary folk of his time to find recruits for the work of the kingdom. It would likely not be different today. The text asks each of us, "What is God calling me to do?" What a wonderful thing it would be if we could press home the challenge of Mark in a way that would keep this question on the hearts of our folk during this week.
The whole Jonah story calls to mind the words of Psalm 139 - especially verse 7: "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" Jonah is more about the providence of God than it is about Jonah or a great fish. It is also about the plan of God. God intends to reach human kind through human ministry. Amazingly, this truth comes out over and over again - in the Old Testament as well as in the new.
Could God have brought about the conversion of Nineveh apart from Jonah's cooperation? Absolutely! Does God need Jonah? Absolutely! From the beginning of scripture when God gave into Adam's keeping the care of creation, the divine plan is for a partnership between Creator and we who are the creation of God. God does not need us in any inherent sense to be God, but has chosen to need us to be the kind of God revealed in scripture. A God of compassion, understanding -- and a God of absolute sovereignty.
When Jonah tries to have it his way, he gets swallowed up by a great fish. When you and I try to have it our way, we get swallowed up by great fish of our own making. Yet, there is something very comforting about the very beginning of this lesson from Jonah. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time." You have heard the phrase that the God we worship is the God of the second chance. Most stories of the great calls in scripture -- from Abraham to Moses to Isaiah to the fishermen James and John -- tell about those who showed up for duty upon receiving their call. But, thank goodness for Jonah who ran away from God only to encounter God at the place he thought was the farthest distance from God.
Paul wrote to encourage his flock in Corinth to live with their vision firmly planted on the Lord because the appointed time has grown short." In a linear or horizontal sense, the time has continued to march on. The time from Paul to a chronological end has turned out not to be short at all. Yet, his injunction is as relevant today as it was then. Of course the time has grown short!
How many people do you know who have arrived at their "golden years" will tell you the time has been dragging since their high school prom? Exactly. "Time flies."
Indeed the time has grown short and it is eminently true that, "the present form of this world is passing away." One of the most powerful examples of this came to me years ago when I visited one of our influential members in the church and a chairman of the board in a large company in Chicago had me come to his home for lunch one day. His house, his car, his holdings in the company and his trips around the world were the envy of the church. But no one knew he ate a couple of crackers and a glass of milk for lunch. "I can't eat anything solid anymore, he said, "I've got stomach cancer, it's spread and I've probably got a year to live."
Re-read the text from 1 Corinthians and it will make perfect sense for a man like that!
A Call To Worship
Leader: Let us join our hearts
together to hear the word of the Lord.
Confession of Sin
O Lord of all, we confess that we are too often indifferent to your will. We would rather do what we want to do instead of what you would have us do. In those times when it would be good to lift up your name, we are silent. When the time comes to stand for you, our courage fails and we are still.
O give us courage and the strength of your Spirit to change. Make us able to follow our Lord Jesus Christ that we might inherit the kingdom you have promised to your people. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Leader: Hear this good news, O People of God, and
let your hearts rejoice.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
We offer our praise and thanks to you today O Lord of life, for you are our strength and the solid ground on which we stand. You have caused us to set our hopes and place our dreams in your care and brought us to this glorious day.
There is no God but you, O Lord and no love like yours is known on the earth. From the glory of your kingdom you have called to us to join in the everlasting communion of saints. Even though our hearts stray far from you, your shepherding love brings us back home.
You have given us purpose in our living and meaning to our days through the call of Jesus Christ. You have given to each of us the high and holy task of bringing your good news to all people.
We thank you Lord and we lift up our voices to praise your Holy Name. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
The gifts we bring are but the tokens of our commitment to you Lord Jesus Christ. You have called us to follow you and we dedicate our gifts, our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our souls to the work of your kingdom. Amen.