Sermons That Work

We All Remember the Story…, Epiphany 3 (B) – 2006

January 22, 2006


We all remember the story about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what we might have forgotten is why. This is the story: God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, a corrupt city, and tell them that if they repent, God will not destroy them. This annoys Jonah, who thinks that the Ninevites deserve whatever they get. So he pouts, and frets, and finally runs away. He takes a ship as far away as he can possibly go, to the ends of the known world. But there is a storm, and in desperation the sailors toss Jonah — who had told them he was fleeing from God — into the sea, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. Jonah prays to the Lord for three days, and at the end of that time the Lord tells the fish to deposit Jonah on dry land.

After all this, God again asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he finally does so, reluctantly at best. The king and the people hear Jonah’s message, and they fast and repent. God saw this, and the scripture tells us he “changed his mind” and did not destroy them. While God is pleased, Jonah is very displeased that God relented, and God rebukes him for his lack of charity.

In contrast, we have the gospel from Mark, the story of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. According to Mark, the men “immediately” left their fishing nets and boats to follow Jesus. And then there is Paul telling the Corinthians that time is growing short, that they should live with the knowledge that “the present form of this world is passing away.” We sometimes interpret Paul as being against “the world,” against marriage and emotions and family ties, but it is really more his sense of urgency that comes through his letters. It’s not that he’s against these things so much as it is this urgency that informs his understanding of discipleship.

This same urgency colors the gospel accounts of Jesus. Mark’s tempo or pace is so much more rapid and less literary, if you will, than the other gospels. He is in a hurry to tell his story, and the oral tradition of Mark’s gospel comes through clearly. There is also that same sense of urgency, of no time to waste — the early church really believed that the end of the world was near. So it would have been unthinkable to Mark that the disciples would have done anything else but respond to Jesus “immediately.”

Being human, it is likely that the apostles really didn’t drop everything that minute to follow Jesus. They probably had to make arrangements for their workers, check in at home, and all the usual things that we have to do before going on a trip. But Mark is telling a story and trying to make a point: this wasn’t just any journey, this was important.

How often do we drop everything and follow when God calls? We tend, rather, to be more like Jonah than James and Andrew in our response to God. We are slow and reluctant, we drag our feet, we are recalcitrant, and we are annoyed when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. We have lots of excuses about why we can’t do it that way, or why we can’t do it now. Often God’s plans for us, God’s interventions in our lives, have very little to do with our own plans, and they are usually inconvenient. It’s not what we had planned, they way we thought things would work out, or what we thought we would do with our lives. Sometimes, like Jonah, we just simply don’t want to do it.

The other interesting thing about Jonah’s story, aside from his reluctance, is how annoyed he was that God was willing to give the people of Nineveh a second chance (or third or fourth). Jonah just wanted God to smite them. He didn’t think they deserved a second chance, didn’t deserve saving. How often do we feel the same way? How often do we think that people with whom we disagree or people who are different from us don’t deserve God’s mercy, don’t deserve saving? Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, female or male, straight or gay, environmentalists or developers, black or white, young or old, Christian or non-Christian — the lists we make are endless in terms of differences, real or perceived, and where we draw the line in the sand. Usually we feel it is only people like us who will be saved, and who are deserving of it.

We may find Jonah amusing, ridiculous, or appalling as he mutters and whines against God’s offer of redemption to the Ninevites, and as he tries to run away from God. But if we let the story touch us, if we plumb the depths of our own hearts, we will find Jonah there within us — that part of us that judges and condemns, that desires revenge rather than justice, vengeance instead of mercy.

Jonah spends three days inside the whale, in the darkness, so he will have time to think, so he will learn a lesson. We, too, spend much time in darkness. The vengeance that we desire, the hurt feelings and grudges and rages that we carry for years weigh us down and eat at us. We are the ones who suffer the most in these situations. It doesn’t hurt the other person–the Ninevites were not hurt by Jonah’s reluctance, only Jonah was — but it damages us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. We are the ones spending time in darkness, we are the ones imprisoned.

Like Jonah, we sit outside the city, angry and hurting, separating ourselves from God and others. But there is a way out. We can choose to let go of our hurts and move on. As in the story of Jonah, God is ready to offer us love and mercy, too. It is that love and mercy that heals us and allows us to move out of the darkness. It doesn’t change the fact that we were hurt, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t right to be angry, but it moves us beyond that into a different place where we can go on.

Maybe that’s what those men saw in Jesus: a way to move beyond the things that were keeping them stuck and in the dark. Maybe they could sense his acceptance, his love, and his mercy toward them. In a society where they lived under Roman rule, where they were the downtrodden ones, perhaps they sensed the freedom he offered them to live in a different way, more wholly and more alive.

Is it possible that our judgment and condemnation of others is really a commentary on how deserving we feel ourselves? If we do not believe that we are deserving of God’s love and mercy, it is easier to deny others as well. If we feel stuck in the dark, downtrodden, not free, not whole, not really alive, we are in desperate need of what God offers us through Jesus Christ. Opening ourselves to that possibility is the only way we will be healed.

How much healing could we bring to ourselves and our broken world if we could accept God’s love and mercy for ourselves and for everyone else, as we have seen it lived out and enfleshed in Jesus? How loving and generous could we be with others if we could learn to be loving and generous to ourselves? In a world torn by division and strife, these could be the most important questions we ask ourselves at the beginning of this new year.

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