While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Today’s lessons give us examples of calls to people to minister. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John who drop everything to follow him: a familiar story.
In Jonah we see the prophet called to go to Nineveh and we are shown the result: the king and capital city of an evil empire brought to repentance. How inspiring is that?!
If we left it there, it could be a simple lesson: when God calls, drop everything and follow and you may be rewarded with great results. But it’s not that simple and that would be a naïve and misleading message.
What is Jonah best remembered for? Spending three days in the belly of a whale. And why did that happen? Because God had called him to go to Nineveh once before and Jonah boarded a boat going in the opposite direction. God sent a storm to the Mediterranean and the boat was at risk. There was Jonah, sleeping while the storm raged (sound familiar?) and after some hurried investigation and discussion, Jonah was thrown overboard to save the ship, which worked: the storm ceased immediately.
God sent the whale to swallow Jonah to save him from drowning; not as punishment, but as rescue. It was only after this failed attempt to flee from God’s call, after the trauma of being thrown overboard to drown, after the ordeal of spending three days inside a fish, that Jonah was finally ready to obey God’s call.
Jonah was a favourite prophet amongst early Christian writers. They saw in his experience a parallel to Jesus; with the three days in the belly of the whale looking like the three days between the crucifixion and resurrection; like an experience of death.
They knew that the parallels weren’t perfect. Jesus wasn’t reluctant: he never tried to flee from God, so the gospel writers demonstrated how Jesus was superior to Jonah. When he was awakened in a boat in a storm by panicked sailors, Jesus didn’t need to be thrown overboard to calm the waves; He simply stood up and commanded them to be still. Although at another level, the parallel holds because Jesus would, like Jonah, become a sacrifice; given over to death to save everyone else; given over to spend three days in the belly of the beast before being seen alive again.
In Jonah’s story, he is pursued by God; Jonah isn’t allowed to wiggle out of his call. The reading today shows the dramatic result of his preaching but it doesn’t show how much Jonah hated what he was doing.
Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. They would become responsible for the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel when they emerged as the Assyrian Empire.
If you read into the 4th chapter of Jonah the first thing you see is the prophet sulking and complaining because he knew that the people would repent; he knew that God would be merciful and fail to destroy them. And Jonah really wanted them destroyed – they were the enemy, after all and the conclusion of the book of Jonah is a lesson in the mercy of God and the love of God for all people – not only the chosen people of the Hebrews and not only the righteous people who behave well.
The early Christian writers saw in Jonah an imperfect Jesus; someone called to a similar mission: to reach out with God’s love to rejected and hostile people; even to experience 3 days of death to achieve God’s goal.
This parallel gives us some things to think about: for one, the work of Jesus wasn’t new. God has wanted to reach out to others for a very long time. Jonah gives us an example of God’s mercy bubbling over, much farther than God’s people can tolerate. That’s why Jonah rejected his call at first, why God had to pursue Jonah to actually answer the call.
Jonah’s prejudice against the people of Nineveh probably worked to God’s advantage: the prophet’s hatred of the people would have been palpable; Jonah’s desire for the threats of destruction to come true would have made him that much more persuasive.
So once again, like Eli last week, we see God working through a flawed, prejudiced, totally inappropriate representative to achieve something good.
There should be something comforting in that; to know that when really bad people become leaders, God can work around their own agendas and plots to make good happen, sometimes using their own flaws to advantage.
I mean, why not? If Machiavelli can sort this stuff out, is God going to be less subtle, less adaptable, less insightful?
For those who like things to be plain, straightforward and honourable, it can be a challenge to accept that God might work this way. For those who try to hold onto an image of God that is full of absolutes, that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, the idea that God might need to be adaptable is jarring.
For those who take the utterances of God to be carved in stone it is hard to know what to believe when God says “Nineveh will be destroyed” and then it isn’t, because the mind of God has changed
or as scripture sometimes puts it, because God has repented.
I have no doubt that part of Jonah’s sulk is because his own words didn’t come true; not just because his enemies were spared but because he could be seen as a fool instead of a prophet. His ego was hurt.
Answering the call of God is risky. Jonah, and Simon, and Andrew, and James, and John all were led into situations they hadn’t prepared for. They were faced with unfamiliar people and challenges; they had to deal with new ideas and they had to adapt their old thinking. When God called them, part of that call was a challenge: to change, to be transformed, to participate in building a new world.
We are called, just like those people were and right now, this world we live in is upside down. The challenges of our call are particularly clear these days. We would love things to go back to normal as quickly as possible, but we know that can’t happen.
We can try, like Jonah, to hide from God’s call but that didn’t work for him and it won’t work for us because where can we go that God isn’t already there? And it may be that, like Jonah, it will take a time of real hardship, a time where we feel like our lives are over, a time that feels like death before we are ready to answer God’s call.
But God is patient. God is adaptable. God still wants us to reach out to others in love and mercy, to make connections with strangers and hostile people, to love our enemies, to change our prejudices and presumptions and to discover what God is doing in the world instead of wishing it would all go back to the way it used to be.
God is calling us out of our comfort zones. If necessary, God will pursue us out of our comfort zones. God is calling us to be adaptable
and even if we’re not very good at it, even if we actively resist it, like Jonah, God can still work through us to make a difference.
While that’s good to know, demanding that God work despite our resistance is not really enough, and we know it.
How much more can be achieved if we are willing participants? If we embrace our call?
We won’t know until we try.