Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God's Call: Are You Serious?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Mark 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5, 10:

I like Jonah.  I like Jonah a lot, because Jonah is a lot like me, and I suspect that Jonah is a lot like some of you as well.  We really have two different call stories in the passages we heard this morning.  The first is the call story of the first disciples.  Jesus has heard that John the Baptist has just been arrested, which is the event which kicks off his ministry, and so he goes to Galilee and proclaims first a call for repentance, and then the reason, because the kingdom of God has come near.  And immediately, those are Mark’s words, a word he uses a lot in his gospel, Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee and calls Peter and James and John and Simon to come and follow him, and they get up and go.  They leave their nets and their boats and their family behind, and they follow Jesus, immediately.  And then there is Jonah.

The passage we heard from Jonah is actually already in the middle of the story, that is why it says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  Now many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story of Jonah, if for nothing else then being Jonah and the whale, although there is actually no whale in the story.  It’s a whale of a story, but there is no whale in the story.  But I want to remind us all of the Jonah story so that we can know what’s going on in the passage we heard and also to then compare and contrast it against the call story found in Mark.

Jonah is a prophet, and his story is found in the Hebrew Scriptures amongst the prophets, but the book is very different than other prophetic writings, because it isn’t a series of prophetic statements.  Instead it is a narrative about Jonah and his dealings with God, much more like what we are used to seeing in the Genesis stories, or in some of the later histories, like the stories found in kings or Samuel.  But Jonah is living in Israel when God calls him and tells him to go “at once” to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness.  Now the city of Nineveh is said to be a great city, and a very large city, that it would take 3 days to walk across, which means that it’s about 60 miles in diameter.  Nineveh is also not a Jewish city as it’s located in modern day Iraq and is known as the city of Mosul.

But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh.  Later he will tell God that he didn’t want to go because he knew that God was “gracious… and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  And so Jonah said that he knew if he went to Nineveh and told them that if they didn’t repent that God would destroy them, that God wouldn’t actually destroy them and he would come off looking like a fool.  And so instead of going to do what God told him to do, instead Jonah fled.  We are told that he went to the port town of Joppa and set sail for Tarshish.  Now one of the problems is that we don’t really know where Tarshish is located.  This is a place that is mentioned several different times in scripture, but there is not definitive record of it in the ancient world.  Some have speculated that it is the city of Tarsus, where Paul is from, some say it is the city of Carthage, in Greece, others an island in the Mediterranean and some that it was located in modern day Spain, and it’s also entirely possible that it simply was used as a term that said it was very far away, sort of how we use the term Timbuktu today.

But regardless, Jonah sets out on a boat, but the boat was beset by a huge storm, and the sailors become convinced that God is against them and they cast lots to figure out who God is mad at, and the lot falls on Jonah.  He tells them what he has done, and as you might imagine the crew is quite upset about this and they are afraid that they will all be destroyed, and so Jonah tells them to throw him overboard to save themselves, and that’s what they do, and then Jonah is famously swallowed by a giant fish, not a whale, and he stays in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, that is the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about in reference to his death and resurrection.

Jonah, then stuck in this fish and not really sure what to do, decides as a last resort to pray to God out of his distress and God talks to the fish and the fish vomits Jonah up onto dry land, and that’s where we find him at the beginning of the passage we heard and God calls to him a second time and tells him to go to Nineveh and proclaim a time of repentance, and that’s what Jonah does.  Imagine him there, walking through the city, covered in fish guts and slime, crying out, or I always imagine Jonah sort of doing the bare minimum and sort of just mouthing the words, “40 days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  But then something miraculous happens; Jonah’s plea works, and the people repent, and not just the people, but the government as well.  Last week we talked about their being both individual and social or corporate sin, and we see that here, and the repentance is made for all of those things here, and so God relents from his punishment and forgives Nineveh for their transgressions, exactly what Jonah had been afraid of and the reason he didn’t want to go in the first place.

Now Jonah is not the only person in scripture who is sort of reluctant to answer God’s call.  The prophet Jeremiah says that he is too young, Isaiah is concerned that he is a man of unclean lips, and even Moses gives a long series of excuses of why he can’t do what God is asking him to do, including simply saying to God, “why don’t you send someone who actually wants to do this.”  None of them answer the way that the four disciples answer today, and so which is the proper model for us to follow when we are called by God?  Are we supposed to “immediately” go as demonstrated by disciples?  After all that is certainly the model that’s demonstrated time and time again in the gospels, even starting with Jesus’ birth.

At Christmas I said what separated the shepherds from others who probably heard the announcement of Jesus’ birth was the fact that they showed up.  Just like the Andrew, Simon, James and John, the heard the call, the dropped what they were doing and they went, “immediately.”  And they are not the only ones.  When the other disciples are called, they follow.  When Jesus calls another man to follow he says, “Let me bury my father first,” and what is Jesus’ response?  Let the dead bury the dead.  And we’re not talking about a long-term commitment here because by Jewish law the dead have to be buried on the same day they die, so he’s not asking for a long delay, what he’s actually saying is give me the rest of today and I’ll catch up tomorrow.  But Jesus seems to be saying that’s too long, that’s not the level of commitment that we are supposed to give, that we are supposed to go immediately.  Can we do that? Can we live into that?  There are certainly some people, like James, John, Simon and Andrew who day absolutely, let’s go, and perhaps that even matches how some of your respond.

And then there are people like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Moses want to take their time, who want more information, and possibly give all the reasons why we couldn’t possibly do that.  Maybe that’s like you; it’s certainly like me.  I received my call to ministry in the summer of 1995, and my response was “surely you can’t be serious?”  And God said “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”  I wasn’t actually attending a church at the time I received my call, and it was another three years as I thought about it and studied and read before I was ready to go talk to a minister about what it would mean to try and become a minister.  For those unaware, Jesus’ ministry lasted three years.  So that means if I had been on the shore that day when Jesus called and then took the same amount of time that Jesus would have been crucified and resurrected by the time I finally said yes.  No wonder there was a sense of urgency to his message.  But the question is, is that the only way, is that the way it has to be?

And the answer I think is yes and no.  For some people, those who need to go, go, go, those who don’t want to think about all the details, who say “let’s just go and we’ll figure it out as we go,” then there is a call for you, and there is lots of strength in just being able to do that.  That is the example of Simon, James, John and Andrew, of just dropping your nets and following the call of Jesus, of doing it “immediately” and trusting that God will make it all work out in the end.  Without people like that, without people willing to drop their nets and go, there wouldn’t have been disciples and honestly not a lot of things would get done in the church, let alone in the world.  If you are not like this person, you certainly know someone like it, and there is something fun and exciting and energetic that they bring to everything.

But then there are those who need to go a little slower, who want to study all the options, who want to ask lots of questions, who want to put the brakes on things, not because they don’t want to do something, or anything, but because they want to make sure that we make the right decision and have all the pieces in place before we do anything, and want to make sure that everyone is on board and has been given the opportunity to have their say.  People like this drive those who want to go, go, go absolutely nuts.  But without these people, those people who push the agenda would be in trouble because things would have a tendency to fall apart, and without those who push and go, those who sit back would be hard pressed to get anything done.  We are all dependent upon each other, and God understands that and calls us to do and to be different things.

It’s not that one group is better than any other, they are just different, and both can be successful.  The disciples jumped up and immediately went, and they were successful at some things and not successful at other things, but they did what God needed.  And the same is true with those who were a little slower.  Let’s forget Moses’ successes and just look at Jonah.  Even though he was hesitant to do what God called him to do, he was enormously successful because he got Nineveh to repent, and to do something else.  His slowness didn’t hinder doing what God wanted any more than the disciples fastness hindered or helped them do what God wanted.  What was most important was not the time it took to answer, but the fact that they answered.

Ultimately Jonah did what God asked of him, just like the disciples, just like everyone who is called, because it turns out that God knows who we are and what we are capable of, long before we even know ourselves.
  But here is the other thing we have to know, and that is that we cannot sit back and wait for God to do things, because God uses us to accomplish God’s goals in the world.  Faithfulness is not really about what we think or believe; instead it’s about what we do and what we are willing to do.  It’s about saying “Here I am Lord,” whether that takes 30 seconds or 30 years.

All of us are called by God.  I know that some among us are probably being called into the ordained ministry, and if you think you might be hearing that voice, I would love to speak with you to help you explore that possibility, but in reality all of us are called into ministry, because all of us are ministers and all of us are needed in order to do the work of the church, and all of us need to be working together building on each other’s strengths to be the best church we can be.  At the beginning of the year we welcomed new people into positions of leadership in the church, and thanked others who were taking a time of sabbatical, and in a few moments we are going to have them be recognized and pray with them.  But let us never forget that the work of the church, the responsibility of answering the call, the obligation to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, is not up to me and it’s not up to our leaders, at least not alone, it’s up to all of us, because all of us have been called by God.  Jesus has said to each of us, “Come follow me,” and it’s up to each of us to answer in our own time and in our own way, but all of us have to answer and all of us have to act, because, as Augustine is reported to have said, without God we cannot, but without us God will not.

No comments:

Post a Comment