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Angry enough to die

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Angry enough to die” (Jonah 4)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
November 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

One mad prophet
The book of Jonah has just about the most delightful ending of any book in the Bible: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 12 myriads1 of people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Thousands of clueless people and also many animals, end of story.

Well, Jonah is just hot, piping, steaming, boiling mad by the end of the story. You wouldn’t think he’d be so angry – after all, he just earned himself the legacy of being the most successful missionary in history. He went into Nineveh, the great city of all kinds of evil and violence, the humongous den of iniquity, and he got every single person to repent of their evil ways – and not only the people, but even the animals repented, sitting in sack cloth and fasting and crying and mooing and meowing and barking out to God. For most missionaries, they’d be the hit of every mission festival, going around back home and telling everyone of how the great and evil city repented.

Bot not Jonah. No, not Jonah. Jonah’s mad. What’s he do? He preaches his little five-word less-than-bare-minimum sermon and high tails it out of the city. Old Jonah goes out, sets up a tent, and waits for the earthquakes and the fires and the famines and the locusts and all manner of evil to come upon this horrible city. But it doesn’t happen; instead, the whole city repents, and God decides not to destroy the city after all.

It’s kinda like God walked up to Jonah and said to him, “Um, hey Jonah, change of plans here. You probably noticed how all the Ninevites repented back there. Yeah, I don’t think I’ll destroy the city after all.”

And oh, Jonah doesn’t want to hear it. I mean, they deserved to die, these evil Ninevites. How many people had they murdered in their own selfish ambition. How many false gods had they worshiped, while mocking Jonah’s God? How many cultures had they destroyed and enslaved. These were Ninevites, and they deserved to die. Jonah doesn’t want them to live. He never wanted them to repent. No wonder his little sermon didn’t mention anything about God, didn’t even tell them they could repent and be spared. Just “yet 40 days, Nineveh destroyed.” “Forty days and you’re toast.” Jonah never wanted them to repent, and now he’s just plain hopping mad.

A lecture for God
And he’s got a piece his mind to give to God about the whole thing. He’s got a lesson for God, a little rebuke for the Lord, who made the heaven, the sea, and the dry land. He’s ready to let God have it, and this here, this is the key to the whole story if you listen carefully. It explains the whole thing. And if you’re telling the story, you have to relish the irony; otherwise, whoever wrote Jonah would be so very disappointed. Maybe something like this:

“O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was sill my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and eager not to send the evil you had planned (and they deserved!).”

Ugh, God is just so. . . so. . . kind and loving, oooh, and forgiving, it makes Jonah so angry, and then he gets all melodramatic about the whole thing, “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Of course, you could say that Jonah’s been dead a long time by now, spiritually at least.2 So anyway, God tries to say to him, “Jonah, why should you be so angry?” “Oh, just let me die,” says Jonah, and his little temper tantrum continues.

Jonah kind of sounds like those vineyard workers from the gospel reading this morning. You know, the ones who got there first and worked all day, but still received the same exact extravagant payment as the folks who arrived at the last hour, and boy, were they ever hopping, boiled, fuming mad about that. We love when undeserved blessings come our way, but when they come someone else’s way, suddenly we get all resentful, especially when the other person is living the wrong way, believing the wrong things, has the wrong look, wrong parents, wrong culture, wrong way of life, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and they end up with the blessings. Sometimes those of us who are in religion get those ideas in our head. Hey, we know who’s in and who’s out, who’s going to be left behind and who’s going on, and we want our reward! Jesus once said that God sends the rain and the sun on the good and the evil alike, but we’d sure like most of it for ourselves.

Only me, please!
A while back, I heard a story about a boy who wanted to go to the circus.3 And he was standing there, in front of the ticket taker, peering in, seeing all the excitement and wishing he could be there. And the ticket taker says to the boy, “Hey, kid, aren’t you going in?”

“I don’t have any money,” the boy says and starts to walk away. And the ticket taker all of a sudden says, “Hey, kid, come back tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll let you in free!”

Wow! How about that! The boy couldn’t pay attention worth anything in school the next day, just staring at the clock as the minutes passed by so slowly and it seemed he’d never get to go. Well, finally, the bell rings and school lets out, and he runs off to the circus. And he’s standing there, just waiting and waiting, and all of a sudden, the ticket taker says, “Okay, kids, you all can go on in.” And the boy looked around, and there must have been dozens.

He turns and starts waling away, and the ticket taker sees him and says, “Hey, kid, aren’t you coming? You can go in free, like I said.” And the boy replies, “I don’t think I want to.”

Why is it that it’s so much more fun when we’re the only ones, and why is that feeling dulled a little when we hear someone say, “Hey, everyone”? Are we really that insecure that we need others to be left out so that we can feel included?

I suppose we’re kind of like that sometimes, and but I don’t think that’s really our problem. I’m not so sure that was even really Jonah’s problem – wanting to feel special about himself and his religion and his place with God. Sure, we all like to feel special about our faith, and there’s some pleasure in knowing when we’re right and they’re wrong. And yeah, we’d like to see those who’ve labored all their life get a bigger reward than those deathbed converters. But how big of a deal is that to us?

A bush to die for
And I don’t know, I don’t think that’s what’s really going on with Jonah. He’s not all mad because he’d worked hard to follow God his whole life, and all of a sudden, these Ninevites repent and they’re on equal footing to him without going through all the hard work. Sure, maybe there’s a little bit of that. There probably is, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

There’s kind of a divine humor running around in this story. God could have saved Jonah any other way, but instead sends a nasty, smelly fish. Jonah preaches a five-word sermon that leaves out some important stuff, but God’s power still lets loose, and the whole city repents, and even the animals repent. And it’s kind of like God’s teasing Jonah, and saying, “Hey look, Jonah, all these people and creatures repented, and guess what, even I repented (that’s what the story says) – even I changed my mind. What about you?”

Maybe it’s God’s way of telling Jonah he shouldn’t be taking himself so, so seriously. Well, God keeps teasing Jonah. Jonah sits sulking in his pitiful little tent he’s made, hoping for that earthquake or fire or invading army, and God appoints a little bush to grow up over his head and give him a little more relief from the hot, Middle-Eastern sun, and Jonah really likes this very much – maybe as much as he did not like what happened in Nineveh, but his happiness is not long for this world.4 The next day, God sends a worm to attack the bush and even stirs a sultry east wind, and Jonah is all mad and starts talking about wanting to die all over again.

And you know what God does next? Well, you remember how God before had said to Jonah, “Jonah, do you do well to be so angry?” So God teases Jonah by sending the bush and then taking it away, and then comes back with the very same question, “Jonah, do you do well to be so angry?” As if Jonah would be less angry now.

Now it’s kind of a trick question, and Jonah probably knows it. He’s known what God’s been up to all along so far. If he says no, then he’s admitting that he really shouldn’t be all mad about all this, and that what happens to the Ninevites or even the bush is up to God and not him, and that the job of running the world has already been filled and he’s not it. And if he says yes, he should be angry, then God can swoop in and compare the bush to the fate of a whole city so Jonah can catch a little glimpse of his own pettiness. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

But what can Jonah say? It’s like when you realize that your parents have been right all along but you’ve already invested so much in your own position that it’s too late, so you just dig yourself in even deeper. “Oh yes,” says Jonah, “angry enough to die.” Dying over a bush. That’s what it’s all come down to.

A tale of two theologies5
You know what I think is really Jonah’s problem here? It’s not that he’s got the wrong theology. I don’t even know if the real problem deep down is his lack of obedience and compassion. I think Jonah’s problem isn’t that his theology is wrong, but that’s he’s got two theologies. Now most of us have more than one theology – more than one way for understanding faith and understanding God. And that’s good thing, because faith can’t really be as neatly packaged as we’d often like it to be, and God can’t be tied down to one understand so easily. I figure we all have multiple theologies in some sense. Jonah had two – at least two big ones.

On the one hand, Jonah had the theology that said, “Of all the nations of the world, Israel, I have chosen you as my special possession” (Ex. 19:5, paraphr.). The theology that said, “We are Abraham’s children” (John 8:39, paraphr.). That’s the theology that knows who’s in and who’s out, who’s for God and who’s against God, who’s under grace and who’s under judgment.

“There was a God of we and a God of they, and we know the difference.”6 Preach a message like that, and you’d get a standing ovation. Nothing gets more applause than playing on the hatred and prejudice of people. Nothing gets your political base fired up more than saying the other folks are wrong. Somehow I got on the email lists for various political parties, and these emails don’t ever really have much information about the party that’s sending them. They just spew hatred against the folks on the other side.

What’s the point in taking a stand if you don’t take a stand over against someone else? Jonah knew who the enemy was, and he didn’t go soft on the Assyrians. The most favored nation, that’s Jonah’s faith.

But Jonah also has another faith, another theology. “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord God of heaven who created the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). God of all creation – not just Israel, but all creation. “Through you I will bless all nations” (Gen 12:3). Jonah knows this theology too. He even tells God about it. “Didn’t I tell you? This is why I didn’t want to come in the first place! I knew you’d love them and forgive them. You’re so full of mercy and grace.” Jesus once said, “God is kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked” (Luke 6:35).

Jonah knew this too, but he wanted to preach the other. Preach this, and people say, “Yeah, fine, okay, meh.” Preach the other and people say, “Get ‘em; that’s right! Right on!”

I wonder, maybe Jonah’s mad because he’s got these two theologies going at the same time. Maybe it’s even worse because he knows they’re both right in their own way, but he prefers the one over the other. He wants to preach the most favored nation message, but then the other part keeps bleeding through (pentimento), and it makes him mad.

Jonah’s struggles in 2011?
I suppose that we’re sometimes like that. I guess all of us have our select group of folks in “religion” that we like to hang out with, and more or less ignore or demonize or belittle the folks who aren’t in our group and maybe we get a little angry that we have to get along with them – even within a congregation this happens. And when it does, I think we need to hear God asking us, “are you right to be so angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9).

But even then, I don’t know if that’s so much our problem. We might think it’s so-and-so’s problem down the pew, and in our minds we might imagine certain people to be just so closed-minded and arrogant and fearful and maybe even just downright Jonah-style hateful and bigoted, but when we get to really know each other, I think so often we’re surprised at the warmth and love that we find, even from folks who aren’t in our little group of like-minded folks. God can’t be pinned down.

I mean, seriously, is there any person here who would desire that someone – anyone would not experience salvation? Do any of us want to keep another person from repenting? Surely, I hope, no one here today thinks that God loves only folks like us. We believe that God loves the whole world (John 3:16), right, and we all want the whole world to experience that grace and mercy and steadfast love that Jonah just couldn’t stand. Who here would turn away someone who’s seeking Jesus?

Sure, sometimes, it frustrates us a little when we see God’s care and providence for the folks we don’t really like. Sometimes we wish the just would get a larger share of the rain than the unjust. Sure, it’s frustrating when. . . And when we do, I think we need to hear God saying to us, “Are you right to be so angry? Should I not be concerned for all these folks who don’t know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:9, 11).

But I don’t really think that’s actually our problem. I don’t think we want to prevent anyone from repenting and following Jesus. I think our problem is kind of related, but much different. And we get into trouble when we assume this is our problem. The two theologies that we have are similar, but different.

Our two theologies
Maybe one of our theologies is even the same as Jonah’s. The one that says God is God of all creation; that God loves the whole world; that God desires all people to come and enjoy the light and enjoy the life in God’s presence. But the other one’s different. I don’t think we’re interested in excluding anyone – we want everyone to come and experience God’s mercy.

See, I think our other theology is that we want to be faithful disciples. We want to live Godly lives and we want to think carefully about God and study the Scriptures and figure things out. And we work really hard at that, don’t we? We know that there’s a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:13); we know that there’s a wheat and a tare (Mt. 13:24-30); where know that there are sheep and there are goats (Mt. 25:31-46), and we want to be a part of the kingdom of light, and we want to be a part of the harvest of wheat, and we want to be numbered among the sheep.

And they’re both good theologies, good approaches to faith, right? But when one starts bleeding through the other, it gets tough. It gets frustrating. How can you be welcoming and distinctive at the same time? Won’t it all just get muddied down in some sort of boring, saltless, lifeless mush (cf. Mt. 5:13; 7:6), or won’t we just get so caught up in our dogmatism that even we can’t get to Jesus? Won’t we just either accommodate to the culture around us or be so judgmental and dogmatic and rigid that no one can be a part of us?

Often times, we’ll lean toward one theology or another, sometimes depending on the day of the week. One day, we may go and complain to a friend about that person who is just so judgmental and narrow-minded and set-in-their-ways and self-righteous. And maybe we’ll quote a few verses from Matthew 7 (1-5?) or Isaiah 2 (1-4?) or something.

And another day, we may go and complain to another friend who agrees with us about that person who just doesn’t care about what Scripture says, or what tradition says, or who’s just blending in with the culture around us. And maybe we’ll quote a few verses from Matthew 5 (13-16?) or Romans 1 (18-32?) or something.

I know, because there have been times in my life when such thoughts have entered my mind, and God’s said to me, “Do you do well to think such thoughts?” And I’ve had to change my thinking.

I met a pastor from out of state this past week. She grew up in a small, old, rural congregation like ours but now pastors at a much larger congregation in the city. And she was telling me about her congregation, how all these people come – homeless folks and addicts and folks with criminal records and tattoos (*gasp*) and single parents and just all sorts of folks. And she told me that what she loves about her congregation is that everybody’s welcome, and everybody is expected to change and grow.

She said the difference from the congregation she grew up in, the small, old, rural congregation, was that in her home congregation and very churched community, people were always putting on masks and putting up facades of being alright, of being the model Christian, of having everything together and figured out. And that’s not welcoming, and that’s not honest, and that doesn’t allow for growth. How can a new person come if they have to start out being perfect? How can we grow if we think we’re already perfect? How can we help each other grow without being judgmental if we’re supposed to have it all figured out?

What on earth would we do with those twelve myriads of Ninevites who all of a sudden repented, not knowing much about God, having a horrible, horrible past, hardly knowing their right hand from their left, but they’ve got this sudden interest and longing for God and they want to be a part of the people of God. What would we ever do? How would they be a part of us? How could we welcome them without muddying everything down and also without being so dogmatic that they get turned off from God?

Followers of Jesus
I don’t have the answers for Grace Hill church in rural Kansas. I wish I did, but I don’t. All I have is a pocket full of 2000-year-old stories about Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Savior, Christ, and Lord. You know who was in Jesus’ little band of followers? There was a terrorist. There was an extortionist. There was a traitor. There were folks who just kept getting it wrong time after time. There were prostitutes and others of questionable background. They were learning along the way. Jesus kept on inviting people to come and follow him, and he kept on inviting them to change also, to repent and follow him, and they loved him for it! Jesus went out to preach, and he preached a message that had some content to it, and people just loved him for it. The flocked to him. He could even tell people they were wrong, and they’d love him! Some of them would. But not everyone.

We often like to think that if Jesus were to make another fleshly visit to the world, he’d like to spend all his time hanging out with all of us folks in religion. And he’d spend some time with us, and it would be great. But most of the time, don’t you think he’d be with the folks who are lost and broken and hurting and clueless and suffering and violent and despicably sinful. And wouldn’t they just love him. And they’d be changing their lives and following him. Fact is, Jesus is still on earth, only now we call it the Holy Spirit.

After God told Jonah he was wrong, and Jonah wanted to die, God said to Jonah, “You are concerned about a bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night a perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 12 myriads of people who don’t know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

And the story stops there. It doesn’t end. The ending is great, but it’s not really an ending. The story just stops. We don’t know what Jonah does, and we have to be the ones to finish it. How will we follow Jesus as salt and light? How will we welcome sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and people who don’t have the whole of Scripture memorized, and how will we grow together? How will we be transformed by Jesus together? I wish I knew.

But maybe there’s a place to start in what Jonah said about God that bothered him so much – that God is gracious and merciful and compassionate and abounding in steadfast love.

You know, there were three ways that the Hebrews understood God’s love.7 One was the merciful, forgiving love. Another was the compassionate love. The word is the same that’s used for a womb –a nurturing love. The third is a steadfast love – a love that just refuses to let you go. That’s the love that’s in these stories I have in my pocket, these 2000-year-old stories about Jesus. There’s that love that forgives. There’s that love that nurtures. There’s that love that just holds on and won’t let you go and finally ends up changing you.

Jonah had a calling from God to go and proclaim the word of God to the Ninevites. We have a calling as well. Jesus says, “Come and follow me.” “Believe in me” (John 14:1). “Be my messengers to the ends of the earth, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19-20, paraphr.). May we go and say yes to God, say yes to Jesus, say yes to God’s love and see, just see where it will take us. Thanks be to God for this love that does not let us go.

Notes:
1 Most translations use 120,000, or “12 ten thousands.” I think the author has in mind “an incredible number of people,” so “12 myriads” is a better option here.
2 Eugene Lowry, “One Whale of a Chance” (www.fcfumc.net/sermons/docs/7-19-09-OneWhale.pdf), 6.
3 Told in Fred Craddock, “Two Faiths in One Heart,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, 50.
4 Paraphrased from Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine.
5 This section adapted from Craddock’s take on Jonah.
6 Craddock, 56.
7 Lowry, 6.

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Who am I that I should hinder God?

December 15th, 2011 No comments

“Who am I that I should hinder God?” (Jonah 3)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 30, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Off to Nineveh. . . Finally
So, the great old fish spit Jonah up on dry land once again, and Jonah had a choice to make. There he was once again on dry land, covered with so much fish slime that I would think the stench alone would never allow him to forget what it was like. The story says the fish vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. If I were Jonah in all that nastiness and queasiness from three days in a fish, I think I’d be doing the same thing the fish just did.

So there’s slimy, queasy, stinky Jonah once again on dry land, blinded by light after being in darkness for three days and three nights. He’s sitting there, trying to catch his breath and his wits and his stomach. And then there was a word, a voice: “Jonah.” And Jonah, Jonah’s just thinking, “Oh, no, oh no, not again. Please not again.” But the voice says, “Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh.”

“Oh, no, not the Nineveh thing again.” Now Nineveh, you may recall, that was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And the Assyrians were not known for being kindhearted people. In fact, they brutally destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel some seven centuries before Jesus’ time. And I mean, wiped them out, and scattered them. Not known for their compassion, these Assyrians, these Ninevites. If you were a Israelite, you’d have to say it with a sneer, “Ninevites.” Kind of like how you’ll hear Democrats say “Republicans” or Republicans say “Democrats” this year, except these folks were actually at war with each other. You’d have to say it with one of those awful slurs that we make up for our enemies during wartime. Think of going to Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany or Sadaam’s Iraq, or to Iran or preaching to the Taliban. “Ninevites.” Not a safe or enjoyable place for an Israelite. Not Nineveh, not again. “Oh yes, Jonah, get up, pack your bags and go to Nineveh.”

Well what would you do? Go back to the stinky old fish? Not me, I’d chance it with Nineveh, however unpleasant and dangerous that might be. Off to Nineveh Jonah finally goes, but he’s not happy about it; oh no, he’s not happy about it.

A bare-minimum prophet
Most prophets would relish the opportunity. Go into the belly of the beast and give ’em a little what-for. Win one for the folks back home. Just let ’em have it. Prophets were good at those sorts of things. They were good at announcing salvation, too, but when it came to a good old-fashioned verbal lashing, no one was quite so eloquent as the prophets. Danger of going into the heart of the enemy empire to tell them off aside, this assignment is right up a prophet’s alley. But not Jonah. He’s been against the idea all along, but by now he’s figured out he doesn’t have too much choice in the matter. Just a little bit.

So Jonah goes up to Nineveh, a city a little under 200 miles north of modern Baghdad, on the Tigris River. And if you haven’t figured out by now, everything in Jonah is big. Huge storm, huge fish, huge city. Nineveh is humungous – three days to get across. Sixty miles or so, depending on how ambitious you are. Let me give you a little context here. When we were in the Old City of Jerusalem, we could easily get across the city in under an hour. Three days for Nineveh. And there were myriads and myriads of people living there. Too many to count.

So here comes Jonah, one belligerent prophet, one reluctant drop in a very large ocean, and he starts walking through the city, and he makes it about a day in or so, and he’s ready just to get the whole thing over with. Now we know how it goes. He preaches the shortest sermon in history and what seems to be the largest, most evil city ever converts, right?

Now I don’t know how it happened. Apparently whoever wrote Jonah thought it would be best if we’d use our imaginations for this, because it doesn’t really say. How would you tell it? Do you suppose that Jonah marched into the middle of that great city, and he set up a big old tent, and got out the hay bails for seats and got himself a nice stage with a great big pulpit, and maybe he invited everyone he could find, especially the most important folks in town, and he got up behind that pulpit, and he raised his fist up in the air and got all wound up to really let ’em have it, and he starts bellowing, “Forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!” But before he can get another word out, the whole city repents right there on the spot, and Jonah doesn’t even get to finish his sermon.

I think you could tell it that way, and that would be true to the story. But I think you could also tell it a different way. See Jonah, he’s a smart guy. He knows what God’s up to (we’ll find that out next week), and he wants no part in Nineveh repenting, and he certainly wants no part in God saving his nation’s worst enemy! What if Jonah walks into town, finds the most deserted alleyway around, goes there, and starts preaching just as softly and half-heartedly as he can. “Aha! Fine, God, I’ll go preach in Nineveh, but you never said I had to try all that hard or get anyone to listen.” God won’t win that easily!

And it’s interesting what he says and what he doesn’t say. His job may be to get the town to repent, but he doesn’t say anything about God or sin or anything. Just “Forty days and you’re toast.” That’s it. Takes about eight words or so in most English translations. In Hebrew, it’s only five: “yet forty days Nineveh destroyed.” End of sermon. And stubborn, smelly, belligerent, do-the-bare-minimum-to-say-you-did-it Jonah is finally done. It’s over. He’s done what God asked, and he’s even found the loophole.

Everyone repents, except. . .
But then, to his great horror, if not to his great surprise (surely he saw this coming), the whole city repents. Think of how many speeches Billy Graham made. Think of all of the apostle Paul’s preaching and writing. Think of all the preaching and teaching in the history of the church. But stubborn, reluctant, uncooperative, do-the-bare-minimum Jonah showed ’em all up. He walks in with this sneaky little plan he’s concocted, thinking he’s found a loophole, he preaches a five-word sermon. Doesn’t mention sin. Doesn’t even mention God, and everyone repents and turns from their evil ways. Everyone. Myriads and myriads of people. 100%. Over one hundred percent. Not only do the people repent, but even the animals are dressed in sack cloth and cry out to God.

Imagine dogs and cats and cattle and sheep all dressed in sack cloth and ashes and fasting and crying out to God. The evil Ninevites repent; their animals repent; and guess what, the text says literally, even God repents (and we have to laugh a little as we say that): “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God repented of the calamity that he said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it!”

But not Jonah; no, not Jonah. Stubborn, bitter, bare-minimum Jonah, awarded the trophy for the most successful missionary of all time, and boy did it make him mad, but that’s for next time. Myriads of the most evil, despicable people on earth repent, in spite of Jonah’s every effort or lack thereof. God was simply not to be hindered. God was not to be hindered.

Who was I that I should hinder God?1
The New Testament tells some stories of a man like Jonah. Actually, they sometimes call him “son of Jonah” (Mt. 16:17). Such nicknames were interesting back then. On the one hand, it could mean his father was also named Jonah. It was probably a common name. On the other hand, it could also mean that he was like Jonah. Jesus called James and John the sons of thunder, though their dad’s name was Zebedee. They must have had a pretty tempestuous personality! Well, from time to time, Jesus calls the famous disciple, Simon Peter, “Simon son of Jonah.”

You remember the story we heard a little bit ago about Simon Peter, about Simon son of Jonah, about how Simon son of Jonah was in Joppa (same place where that first Jonah went to flee), and this Simon son of Jonah had a vision. And there were all sorts of unclean, unkosher things on that sheet, and Simon son of Jonah heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” He said, “No way, I don’t eat that kind of stuff.” “Get up and eat it.” “I don’t think so. . .” “I’m telling you it’s clean. That means it’s clean!”2 Three times this happens!

And reluctantly, maybe with a touch of the belligerence that first Jonah had, Simon son of Jonah leaves Joppa and sets off for Caesarea, and goes to the house of a Roman military man. And this Roman military man, he had the very same rank as those who crucified Jesus. This Roman military man named Cornelius, he was a part of the foreign forces occupying the land of Israel, not so very different from the Assyrian Empire of Jonah’s day. And there, there of all places, the Holy Spirit showed up.

And Peter – Simon son of Jonah – said, “Can anyone here hinder baptizing these people, for they have the Spirit. Can anyone hinder” No one spoke up. Who could hinder it? So they baptized these Roman military folks in Caesarea. Now Peter, Simon son of Jonah, was “called on the carpet.”3 He had to go back to Jerusalem and do a little explaining of what he did. Actually, the worst thing wasn’t that he baptized them, but that he ate with them. Anyway, Simon son of Jonah told them what had happened, and said to them, “and who was I that I could hinder God?” No one could hinder. And the leaders were silenced, and then praised God that God had given even to the Romans the repentance that leads to life!

Paul once talked about a time when Peter, when Simon son of Jonah came to Antioch, and they were having a fellowship meal, and Jews and Gentiles were eating together because they were all trying to follow Jesus together, and it was kind of nice. So Peter was there eating with everyone. But then all of a sudden, some folks showed up from Jerusalem, and what did Peter do? He grabbed his sweet roll and his cup of coffee and went and formed a different table with them. This was the guy who had said that the good news was for everyone, everywhere (Acts 2), but when it came right down to it, he just couldn’t quite do it.

Can anyone hinder? Gospel writers love that word, “hinder.” You remember how there was an exorcist who wasn’t part of Jesus’ inner circle, but was casting out demons in Jesus name? And the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him, because he isn’t in our group.” Jesus said, “Don’t hinder him. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. Don’t do that” (Mt 9:38-40).

Who can hinder? There was a time when there were some mothers who were bringing their children to Jesus. Apparently all the kids were getting to be a disturbance for the important kingdom teaching that was going on, and the disciples said to them, “Stop that, quiet down, get these children out of here.” Jesus saw it and said, “Let the children come to me, and don’t hinder them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). Can anyone hinder?

Philip once met an Ethiopian eunuch and started speaking to him about Jesus, and the eunuch stopped and said, Here’s water; who can hinder me from being baptized? And I’ll bet something in Philip was saying, “Hinder? You bet I can hinder! All my friends can hinder. I mean, you’re an Ethiopian and a eunuch. You bet I can hinder!” Can anyone hinder me from being baptized? But no one said a word, and he was baptized (Acts 8:26-38).

Generic or dogmatic?
Can anyone hinder the repentance that leads to life? Can anyone hinder the gospel? Can anyone hinder God when God has in mind to call someone to turn around and embrace a new life of healing and hope? Jonah tried, you bet, but he couldn’t. Peter and the twelve tried several times, but they finally couldn’t. The folks at Jerusalem tried, but they couldn’t. Who can hinder God? Who can hinder God’s mercy that leads people to a new place?

How do you do that? How can you embrace the evil enemies (the Assyrians and the Romans) and the same time the children and the outsiders and the eunuchs? How can you embrace all these folks who are seeking God? Some of us think we do, but we don’t. Some of us try to do it by becoming generic, not inclusive, but generic. Just start using a lot of words that don’t really mean much of anything and nobody will get offended, or really grow either. So we get generic and lump everyone together in something called “humanity,” and we dumb it down and rob God’s mercy of its life-giving, transformative bite that invites people to new life. But there’s no generic person. “People live in particular places with names and loves and hates and pains and joys and expectations.”4

When God wanted to tell all creation of his great and steadfast love, he didn’t just write it in big letters across the sky. No, God sent Jesus, in a particular place, at a particular time, who spoke a particular language and preached a particular message. Following Jesus isn’t generic. It’s challenging and can’t happen without us yielding to being changed people by the Holy Spirit and living a new life for Christ.

Who can hinder God? On the other hand, look at all the religiosity we’ve worked up around Jesus. Look at all the doctrine and dogma and big old hard-to-pronounce words we’ve tethered to Jesus! Sometimes we make it so hard and confusing that even we can’t make it to Jesus. How many hoops are there to jump through before you can meet Jesus finally? Who can hinder God?

No one can, but sometimes it feels like we’re trapped between being generic, on the one hand, and being dogmatic on the other.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning about all that sort of thing like hermeneutics and atonement and christology and soteriology and ecclesiology and christocentrism and all sorts of other ics, ologies and isms. And I think it’s helpful and fascinating and it makes me a better follower of Jesus, but none of that is Jesus. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day knew about all the right -ologies, but they couldn’t follow Jesus any better than Jonah could follow God. Jonah probably would have been frustrated with Jesus too – spending too much time with the wrong people. We aren’t saved by our doctrines or dogmas or creeds or isms or ologies. We’re saved by Jesus. Having all the right beliefs, that isn’t the way to God. Jesus is. Knowing all the right stuff doesn’t lead us to God. Jesus does.

Jesus our Hope
I read a book not too long ago by another missionary to Assyria, modern-day Iraq.5 These missionaries attracted the curiosity of the hotel staff there. They wanted to know about these odd foreigners who weren’t carrying weapons, just books. You see, these missionaries had lots of little booklets with them – Arabic translations of the gospel of Luke. Not tracts or dogmas or even any of Paul’s letters, just the stories of Jesus, and the earthiest ones at that, the ones from Luke’s gospel.

Anyway, the concierge got really curious and just couldn’t help it anymore and he had to ask these folks what they were doing. Are you with the American army? “No,” they said. “We followed Jesus to Basra, so we are trying to find out what he is doing here.”

The concierge’s breath caught in his mouth. “Isa?” he said, using one of the Arabic names for Jesus. “Jesus is in Basra?”

“We think so,” they said, “and he wants us to help out in any way we can.”

The manager gasped a made a quick phone call and came out to them and said, “Stay right here.”

Within a few seconds, three of the hotel staff were there. For a bit, they thought the staff were going to ask them to leave. But then, one of the men rushed forward and began vigorously shaking their hands. “You know about Isa?” he asked. “Yes,” they said, “we followed him here.” His eyes lit up, and his hands shot to his face.

He told the men of how his father had a cassette tape with recordings of the stories of Isa, the miracles and teachings of Isa, the people he talked to, and how he lived; how every night, for ten years, his father would play the tape for the family, until the tape no longer worked. “I love those stories,” he said, “and I miss them.

“Well,” they began to say, “we. . .” But he cut them off. “I have heard, from my father and the old men of the city, they say that there are books, sacred books, ancient books that tell the stories of Isa, as they happened, by the friends of Isa. Is this true?”

“Yes,” they said, “and actually, we’ve been giving them away all day.”

The man almost fainted. But they had already given out all their copies. They would just open the box, and people would flock to get those stories. But they managed to find one more, and gave it to him, and he held it reverently, lifted it to hs forehead, and closed his eyes, and gave it a kiss and slowly looked at the print. Within minutes, his father was there too, and the son asked him, “Are these the stories, the ones of Isa?” His father looked at it as tears came to his eyes. “Yes,” he said, yes, “these are the stories.”

Give me Jesus!
It turns out Isa was there in Basra, in Iraq, in the land of the ancient Assyrians. Who could hinder God? The man and his father and their friends, they didn’t find hope and joy in doctrines or dogmas; nor in some generic humanity, but simply in Jesus. He is our hope and our light.

Jonah obviously isn’t a how-to manual for preachers and missionaries and prophets. More like a “how not-to.” But ironically, maybe there’s something to the specific simplicity of Jonah’s five-word sermon, however half-hearted it was. It’s not generic; nor saddled with weighty religiosity.

Jesus once said to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How will you know the way to the Father? I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6,9 paraphr.). Who can hinder God? You can have all this world; simply give me Jesus.

Give us Jesus. Give one another Jesus. Give our enemies Jesus. Give the folks we just don’t understand Jesus. Who are we to hinder God? Give me Jesus!

Notes
1 The connection here comes from Fred Craddock, “Who Am I to Hinder God,” in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock.
2 Paraphrased from the telling in Craddock, 57.
3 Craddock, 57.
4 Craddock, 59-60.
5 The following comes from Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus, 132-136.

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How do we sing in the belly of the fish?

December 15th, 2011 No comments

“How do we sing in the belly of the fish?” (Jonah 2)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
October 23, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Perhaps when Jonah hit the icy waves of the Mediterranean, he assumed that his disobedience would be the end of him. Perhaps he was convinced that the God whom he had sought to abandon, would finally abandon him and leave him to his watery fate. The waters were closing in over him, seaweed was wrapped around his head, pulling him down, down into the depths by the foot of the mountains; the deep was consuming him.1 Perhaps in what he assumed would be his last thoughts, he contemplated how he had brought this fate upon himself, how his own disobedience led to this watery demise. And then came the shadow from below, rising from the deep, and perhaps he believed that Leviathan itself had come to devour him, and to drag him down to the Land of the Dead. And the beast opened its mouth, and Jonah found himself inside, safe, whole, unscathed; tossed from the belly of the boat into the belly of the beast.

For you see, even though Jonah had tried to flee from the presence of God, tried to abandon the calling that God had given to him, God had not given up on Jonah. Despite Jonah’s blatant disobedience, God refused to abandon him, and leave him to the fate where his disobedience had led. God was still pursuing Jonah. God was still seeking to save this man. For ours is a God who brings deliverance; ours is a God who saves.

Perhaps this is what Jonah thought about as he lay in the belly of the fish for three full days and three full nights: how God brought salvation to him through the great fish despite his great disobedience. Or perhaps he thought about God’s calling him to preach to Nineveh, and how all of this could have been avoided had he simply listened in the first place (even though he really did despise those who had terrorized and scattered his people). Or perhaps he simply spent those three days wondering to himself, “What am I going to say to God after I tried to run away? How can I begin to talk with God again?”

Well, after three days, the words come. And Jonah begins to speak again with God from the belly of the fish in the form of a song of thanksgiving that rivals those of King David. He could not pray from the belly of the sinking boat, even at the urging of the sailors who begged him to join them in prayer, but after three days, Jonah has found his voice again.

And he begins his prayer as so many of the psalms begin: “I called … and you heard.” “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and God answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”2 Jonah knows that God will hear him. Even though he tried to run away from God’s presence, he knows that even in the belly of the great fish in the depths of the sea that he will be heard. Even when he compares his predicament to being in Sheol, the Land of the Dead, the Pit, the Abyss, even here he is convinced that God will hear him.

For surely there is nowhere that we can find ourselves where we will be outside of God’s care; we will never be outside the realm where God will hear us. Even when we assume that we were long ago abandoned to the consequences of our actions, God is still there. And even in the midst of our own disobedience, God is still present, and God is still listening.

But it is interesting that Jonah never once admits to his disobedience in this prayer. There is no call to repentance after abandoning his calling, nor does Jonah beg forgiveness for running away. In fact, he doesn’t even give the real reason for why he’s in the belly of the fish to begin with. Even though he finds himself in the depths of the sea after the sailors threw him into the waves at his own urging, he blames this on God. “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.”3

You did this to me, God. It is as if he accepts no responsibility for the predicament he finds himself in, even though this is not the way that things would have turned out had he listened to God in the first place. Perhaps Jonah spent his three days and three nights trying to convince himself that his situation was not his fault, as we often seek to blame others when we find ourselves trapped by the consequences of our own actions. “If only he were a nicer person, then I would be nice to him and wouldn’t have to spread false rumors about him behind his back.” “If only she had listened to me, then I wouldn’t have had to cheat on her.” “If only the world weren’t such a depressing and cruel place, then I wouldn’t have to use alcohol as a means to escape reality.”

And sometimes, we too, like Jonah, place the blame on God. “God, if only you had made your will for me clearer, then I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place!”

After all, don’t we tweak the truth a bit to feel better about who we are and the situations we find ourselves in? Or don’t we wallow in self pity because we convince ourselves that it was someone else’s doing that got us to where we are? And certainly there are situations we find ourselves in that were caused by someone else’s actions such as oppression, class or institutional structures, or abuse. But there are also times when our own actions have led us to where we are, and when this happens it is much easier to blame someone else than to accept the consequences of our own actions. Besides, there are some things that we’ve done that we don’t even wish to admit to ourselves, let alone to God. Perhaps Jonah was simply acting out of this habit of human nature, as we all do from time to time, and did not wish to take the blame for his own actions, or admit to himself that it was his actions that led him to the belly of the fish in the first place.

Then Jonah goes on to say, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”4 The temple was where many of God’s people believed that God’s presence dwelt most fully on earth. And in the midst of the deep, Jonah worries that he has been driven from God’s sight and that he may never again gaze upon God’s holy sanctuary, or come face to face with God’s presence. This is fascinating coming from someone who three days earlier had done everything in his power to escape God’s gaze and to avoid the holy temple at all costs, lest he risk running into God.5 For Jonah had been stubborn and did everything he could to get out of doing the will of God, yet he still had faith enough to pray at this point in his life. He still knew, in his helpless state, who was the only One who could bring deliverance. It is as though the threat of the crashing waves and the swallowing by the great fish6 have reminded him of the One in whom he placed his trust, for he does long to be in God’s presence again, and to gaze upon God’s holy temple once more. For as it is for anyone, it is often when we feel the most helpless that we remember who it is we truly depend on.

Then we get to the very heart of Jonah’s prayer, the very reason why he cried out to God to begin with: “The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bar closed upon me forever, yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”7 Jonah’s entire prayer is one of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. This is no prayer of petition for God to rescue him from his plight, as many might have done in similar circumstances, nor is it a prayer of lament due to the situation he finds himself in. this is the prayer of one who is assured of God’s saving power. Jonah is confident that God sent the fish as a means to save him from the surrounding waters, just as he is confident that God will once again lift him out of the depths of the sea. Though perhaps he is not willing to admit that it was his own doing that led him there, he is not so haughty to believe that there is anything that he can do to get himself out of the situation. He knows that he is completely dependent on God and that it is ultimately God who will rescue him. And he is equally assured that even though the holy temple, where he believes God’s presence resides, is far away, he is still confident that God hears his prayer from the belly of the fish.

The next line of the prayer is intriguing: “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.”8 Now Jonah has not worshiped any other gods, unless one count his own selfish pride and willfulness to not follow God. But who is the one who has forsaken his true loyalty? Perhaps he is reminding God of why he did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place, yet we will hear next Sunday how the Ninevites respond to God. And surely he’s not referring to the sailors who shared the boat with him, as they each forsook their own deity and worshiped Jonah’s God, and prayed to Jonah’s God, and offered sacrifices and vows to Jonah’s God. Or perhaps Jonah was trying to remind himself where his true loyalty lay; after all, the words of our prayers do change us. Perhaps he felt to a certain extent that he did forsake his true loyalty, that he did put the “false gods” of his own pride and stubbornness and fear before the One who could now bring deliverance.9 And that in the midst of God’s salvation through the waters, he was once again affirming and proclaiming where his true loyalty lay.

And in his loyalty, he promises to fulfill the vows he made: “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord.10 And we will see in the next chapter, that he will fulfill his vow and go to Nineveh, despite all of his protests. He will finally do what God asked him to do. For Jonah knows first hand that it is God who delivers, even though this very deliverance that he praises here in the belly of the fish will make him so angry when it is directed at someone else that he will wish he would die. But for now, this entire chapter, beginning, middle, and end, testifies to God’s saving deliverance. At the beginning, after saving the sailors from the crashing of the waves and the sinking ship, God provides a fish to save Jonah from his watery fate. Jonah’s entire prayer is filled with the assurance that God not only hears him, but that God has saved him and that God will save him. And after Jonah’s prayer, the fish itself provides the AMEN by vomiting him onto the dry land, testifying mightily to God’s saving power as the One who has brought Jonah safely through the waters.11

For even though Jonah tried to run away from God, he was never once outside the realm of God’s care. He said so himself to the sailors, that the God of heaven “made [both] the sea and the dry land.”12 Though he found himself in the abyss of the waters, God was still present there. When he once again landed on the shore, he was still within the reach of God’s care. And even when Jonah found himself in what appeared to be the dire circumstances of residing in the belly of the fish, this was the means of God’s saving grace, the vessel of God’s deliverance.

May we be given the voice to sing even within seemingly dire circumstances. May we recognize God’s presence with us even when God seems far away. May we remember that God does not abandon us, even in our disobedience. May we proclaim that deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Jonah found his voice even in the depths of the sea when he recognized the power of God’s saving presence in his own life. What will our song be when we find ourselves cast down? How will we sing in the belly of the fish?

Notes:
1 Imagery taken from Jonah 2:5-6a.
2 Jonah 2:2 (NRSV).
3 Jonah 2:3 (NRSV).
4 Jonah 2:4 (NRSV).
5 F.A. Spina, The Faith of the outsider: exclusion and inclusion in the biblical story.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament.
7 Jonah 2:5-7 (NRSV), emphasis added.
8 Jonah 2:8 (NRSV).
9 Ideas from Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament.
10 Jonah 2:9 (NRSV), emphasis added.
11 Idea from Spina, The Faith of the outsider.
12 Jonah 1:9.

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Runaway Prophet

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Runaway Prophet” (Jonah 1)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 16, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Intro. to Jonah
I’m going to be reading a part of the story of Jonah in just a second. We’re going to be telling and hearing the story of Jonah the next four Sundays. And this is a different sort of book. Jonah is included among the books of the prophets in the Old Testament. There are quite a few books of the prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Hosea and Amos, and many more. Jonah is a prophet-book too, but it’s different from all the rest.

Usually the prophets will cry out long oracles, long poems that begin something like, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isa. 2:2). Or another will say, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” (Jer. 22:13). The prophets are filled with stuff like that – long poems – oracles of God about judgment or warning or salvation or deliverance. But not Jonah. Jonah is a narrative, a story.1

You know, today, when we want to discuss some important matter of faith, we call together a conference and have some experts come with PowerPoint slides and handouts to lay out their interpretation of the Bible and their theology. And people will come to the mike and line out their arguments and debate it and maybe write a resolution and probably amend it, and then we’ll pass it by 51% and no one will be too happy, but we’ll all be tired and go home and forget about it. Not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, often times, you’d tell a story. Maybe you’d tell the story of the Exodus, or of the creation or of Abraham, or maybe you’d tell a story that fills in some of the missing details. You remember what Jesus did when someone asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” He told a story about a wounded man and a good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Or when the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners, that drew out three stories, including the famous parable of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15) Or when he wanted to teach about the kingdom, he had a whole slew of stories/parables (too many to cite!).

The gospels themselves are a story we love to tell, as the song goes, about Jesus and his love and his life and his death and his resurrection. Some folks say the Bible is even like one long story about God’s love and saving purposes throughout history and beyond. You learn from stories by telling them, by allowing them to impact your life, by pondering them, by imagining yourself in them, by experiencing the way they move. Jonah is a story. Listen to the first part of the story.

[Read Jonah 1]

Runaway Missionary
Jonah went down to the hold of the ship, lay down, and fell fast asleep when the storm hit. The wind was picking up and a storm was rising, and the boat was thinking it might just break apart, and the sailors were terrified, and there was Jonah, lying down in the hold, trying to escape it all.

Now this might sound a lot like the story of Jesus asleep in the boat with the disciples, but it’s much different. Jesus would calm the storm with the word of his command. Jonah caused the storm because he refused the word of the Lord. Different story. Much, much different.

Jonah was a runaway missionary, a runaway prophet. Now there’s not much of any place to run on a boat, not much of anyway to get away from reality, except to escape it by ignoring it and falling asleep. Jonah was sleeping right through the raging storm.

Now, say what you will about old Jonah, but he was a smart guy. He knew exactly why the storm was picking up. You bet he knew it was all because of him. And he knew why. And he knew what to do about it. But he didn’t want to deal with it any more than he wanted to deal with God’s instructions for him, and he fell asleep, hoping just to forget all about that wretched day. Maybe he’d wake up and it would be better. It wouldn’t have happened. But when the skipper finally found him to wake him up with a few choice words, it was still that same wretched day. . .

Not that the day had started out all that bad. A nice day in Samaria, in Israel. A little chat with God, as usual. “Jonah!” “Yes, Lord?” “Jonah, I have another mission for you!” “Okay, Lord.” “Jonah, this time I want you to go to a foreign country and preach a solemn message.” “Sure thing, Lord. No problem. Where am I going?” “Nineveh.”2

And well, Jonah didn’t say another word. Next thing Jonah did, he took out his map. He found Samaria, where he was living. He found Nineveh, and he hot-footed it off to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. No way was he going to Nineveh. Horrible people in Nineveh. Nasty, violent, awful people in Nineveh. The folks who wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel nasty. Who’d want to go there?

Jonah ran down to the port called Joppa, got himself a ticket for Tarshish, and set sail on the Mediterranean, which means, I think, “No way, Lord. No way am I going to Nineveh. They’re the ones who besiege and terrorize and kill and scatter our people. No way am I going to Nineveh. Find someone else.” Off to Tarshish, off to Spain Jonah went, away from the presence of the Lord.

Now, that’s an odd thing to say, “away from the presence of the Lord.” How can anyone flee the presence of the Lord? It’s kind of like the Psalm from our call to worship today. Where can I flee from your presence, O Lord? It turns out Jonah wasn’t just narrow-minded about the Ninevites; he was also narrow-minded about God.3

Now, I don’t think he really believed that he could escape God’s presence. Jonah was smart. He was a theologian. He knew better. He knew who God is. He just wished God was smaller – too small for Nineveh, too small to find him. Oh yes, he knew better. Most always, we know better; we just don’t do it, and Jonah set sail for Tarshish.

No sooner did the port drop off the horizon, than a huge storm kicked up. A huge storm. The sailors were scared out of their wits, because they’d never seen a storm like this before, and it just kicked up out of nowhere. The sailors, they started praying like they’d never prayed before, each to his own deity.

Meanwhile, Jonah went down to the hold of the ship and fell fast asleep. Now how about that? It’s the pagan folks who are praying, while the holy Israelite is sleeping through faith! Jonah’s the one with all the right theology, but they’re the ones who pray first, and then get to work. Can you imagine that? They’re the ones who are at least trying to practice religion, while Jonah sleeps.

Gandhi in the Boat
Unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to imagine. Gandhi was a famous leader of the struggle for independence and justice in India, using peaceful means. Gandhi studied and put into practice the teachings of Jesus in this movement in which he found himself to be a leader, but he never became a “Christian.” From time to time, people – especially missionaries – would ask him about this. They’d say, “We see you studying the Bible and following the teachings of Christ, yet you don’t want to become a Christian. Why do you reject Christ?”

And Gandhi would reply, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ. . . If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today,” he said.

One day in Gandhi’s younger years, you see, he was thinking of becoming a “Christian” because he was moved by the story of Jesus, and he decided to go to church on Sunday. He happened to be in South Africa, and he went to a church there, and he was met at the door, and one of the members asked him, “Where do you think you’re going?” And Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.” And the elder hissed at him, “There’s no room for [your kind] in this church. Get out of here.”

Gandhi, you see, didn’t have the right color of skin to worship there, and he was never again interested in the church or becoming Christian. The church knew the teachings of Jesus. They knew the gospels. No doubt. How sadly ironic that Gandhi, a non-“Christian,” who didn’t know terribly much about “Christian” faith, was the one who was interested in following Christ’s teachings, while the “Christians” we folding their arms and shutting their doors.

Sailors Respond to Yahweh
Jonah was the Hebrew. He was the one who knew all about God, but he left the pagan sailors to do the praying. He left them to deal with his God. They held a lottery to see who was responsible, and guess who won! They wake Jonah up and urge him to pray to his God, but there’s no way Jonah’s talking to God again. No way.

“Who are you anyway?” The sailors ask urgently. “What is your religion? Where are you from?”

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah says. “I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” See? Jonah knows. He knows he can’t run from God – God is God of heaven and the sea and the dry land. He knows. But no way is he going to pray.

“Fine, then, what do we have to do to get the sea to quiet down?” “Cast me overboard.”

Well, with most folks, that would have been it. He would have splashing at sea in no time, but not these sailors. These sailors don’t know anything about Jonah, except that the storm’s his fault, but they still don’t want to abandon him at sea. These sailors are different. They don’t want to compromise their morals. They start rowing for land, but the storm just gets mightier and mightier. Worse and worse.

And you know who prays to God now? Not Jonah, but the sailors. Granted it’s a “Lord, forgive us for what we are about to do” sort of prayer, but it’s a prayer. How about that? A bunch of pagan sailors, who hardly know a thing about God, start praying to God, while the prophet of the one true God just sits there. So, they finally cast this runaway prophet to the waves, and the storm stops, and they start to worship God.

I don’t want to believe it! A Hebrew prophet cast to the waves for not acknowledging God or responding to God’s call, while a bunch of theologically ignorant sailors are worshiping the one true God.

Sure, they don’t know much of anything about God. They don’t know about Abraham and Sarah, or Jacob’s family, or the Exodus, or the kings or prophets, or the Law or how to worship. But these religiously ignorant sailors, they’re the ones who actually respond to God – the whole time, while Jonah just sits there, while the storm rages, while Jonah more or less sleeps in the belly of the ship.

Jonah sleeps through faith
And you know what Jonah’s problem is? You know why he’s asleep in the hold of the boat? You know why he’s running from God and finally cast overboard? Well, it isn’t because he’s got the wrong theology – no way. His theology is as good, Hebrew, orthodox as it gets.

That man, that prophet Jonah, he had all the right answers about God. Why I bet he could quote just about anything from the Scriptures by memory. I bet he could could have been a star on the theological lecture circuit, with brilliant articles published in Christianity Today and The Journal of Theological Studies.

No, theology wasn’t his problem. He had all the right answers about God. That wasn’t his problem. His problem was that all he had was the right answers. You know one of the reasons why he fled (and this is a spoiler alert)? It’s because he knew, he knew that God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. And he wanted no part of that for those wicked, awful, violent Ninevites. He knew all that, and that’s why he fled and got caught in the storm. He knew.

Jonah knew that God created the heavens and the earth and the sea — he had that right, but he still tried to flee God and ignore God’s will. He knew that it was the one true God who had authority over the seas, but he wasn’t about to pray. No sir, he’d rather go overboard than talk to God, not after what happened the last time he’d talked to God.

But even then, even then, he knew if he’d be off the boat, the storm would relent and everyone would be saved. He knew that too. He was right.

Now he could have walked right off that boat, and it would have been done. But he wouldn’t even do that himself. He knew, but he wouldn’t do anything about it. The sailors, the foreigners, the pagans with their mistaken understandings of deity had to do it — they had to cast him overboard, and they did it.

Jonah knew. He knew. Jonah had all the right theology, all the right answers, even to calm the storm. The prophet Jonah, unlike so many of us, even had the added advantage of knowing precisely what God’s will was for him. Some of us go a lifetime trying to figure out the specifics of God’s calling for us; not Jonah. He knew exactly what God wanted him to do. He knew.

Jonah had the knowledge, all the right theology. That wasn’t his problem. His problem was that’s all he had. He didn’t have the faith to go with it. He didn’t have the faithful obedience to follow through. He didn’t put what was up here – all that knowledge – into action.

Is knowledge all we have?
If you look at our office at home, you’ll see book after book after book lined up along the bookshelf — troves of knowledge and theological insight and doctrinal arguments and ethics commentary and biblical commentary and pastoral theology and worship theology on those bookshelves.

And boy, do we love our books. Some people have a weakness for cars or electronics or food; we have a weakness for books, and now you can get ’em on your computer, which makes it even worse. But guess what, those books and all the knowledge, they aren’t worth a thing if I’m not following Jesus in life.

Why, that’s just as tragically ridiculous as trying to run away from God! Hiding behind knowledge, that’s like sleeping through life! That’s like sleeping through faith! Jonah, the great theologian, sleeping through faith in the boat.

You know who were the folks who were widely considered to be the best theologians in the 1800s and 1900s? You know where you’d go learn theology, and people would say, “Ah, now that, that is a fine place to study.” You’d go to Goettingen. You’d go to Muenster. You’d go to Bonn or Tuebingen or Berlin. You’d go to Germany.

German theologians produced troves and troves of brilliant theological insight that continues to be a great gift to the world.

But the great and ironic tragedy is that, with a few very important and heroic exceptions, the church had entered Jonah’s deep and indifferent sleep during the great storm of the 1930s and 1940s, during the Holocaust. The church, I believe, in its heart of hearts, knew the will of God, but fled from it. Knowledge wasn’t the problem.

There was plenty of knowledge, but that’s all there was. Where was the costly discipleship (to paraphrase one German theologian who did have more than just knowledge)?

And it’s not just German churches in the ’30s and ’40s. History is tragically full of Jonahs, who have all the right knowledge, but that’s all they have. How many “good Christian people” have taken up arms and killed other “good Christian people”?

How many Sunday School-attending, Bible-quoting Christians have forced natives off their land and enslaved other races? Worship attendance isn’t the problem. Studying the Bible isn’t the problem. That isn’t the problem. They have all that, but it seems that’s all they have.

This isn’t a new story. Jesus was familiar with it too, and he warned all of us would-be Jonahs who hide behind the right words and the right theology, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Lots of people have the right words. It’s easy to learn to say, “Lord, Lord.” It’s not really that difficult to get a handle on theology. Jonah had all the right words but that’s all he had. He wasn’t about to do do the will of God. He knew God’s will, and he was fleeing from it.

He tried escaping by running. He tried escaping by sailing. He tried escaping by sleeping. He even tried escaping by being cast overboard!

It’s almost as if Jonah would rather die than follow God! He’d rather be in the deep, cold sea than anywhere near Nineveh, where God wanted him!

Now, you know, I doubt if Jonah really thought he’d die, just like I think he knew that he couldn’t escape God. Jonah was a good theologian. He knew that, and I think he knew that God wouldn’t let him off the hook even if he were cast into the sea. No way as God through with Jonah yet. Jonah had a job to do, and you better believe God was gonna see to it that it was done.

Now, this is one of those stories that reminds us of God’s sense of humor. You know, God could have appointed a raft to come by, or at least a life preserver. Instead, God appointed a great fish. Now you could translate that “ordained.” I like that. God ordained a great fish to swallow Jonah up, and that’s where we’ll leave him until next Sunday.

Knowing and following Jesus
What about us this Sunday, though? We live in a time when Christians are better-educated than any other period in history, with the possible exception of those who knew Jesus personally. We have the scriptures, and unlike most Christians throughout history, most of us own at least one personal copy of the Bible, and most of us can read it and study it for ourselves.

We have tremendous knowledge, and we’ve learned so much about the Bible that to our Western minds, sometimes it seems like we know more even than the authors themselves knew (and maybe we do)! But how odd is it that more ink has been spilled over theological arguments about whether Jonah is a parable or a historical account or a satire or an allegory, or whatever, instead of focusing our energies on trying to live obedient lives before God; pointing theological/ideological fingers at each other instead of encouraging and helping one another to joyfully say “yes” to God’s call. The same could be said of a whole host of issues. Jonah’s problem wasn’t biblical interpretation. It was saying “yes” to God’s call. It’s just so much easier to debate theology than it is to follow Christ. That’s the problem.

Look, knowledge isn’t the problem. Knowledge is good. Knowledge is important. Sunday School is vital to keeping up our spiritual vitality. We need to be constant learners and seekers. We need knowledge. But if that’s all we have, then we’re going to find ourselves lost at sea. Maybe that’s a little bit of what James meant when he wrote to the early church, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

Jonah had the knowledge. He knew all about God. He even knew exactly what God wanted him to do, but his faith was dead. He was sleeping right through it. Most of us are kind of like the sailors. We don’t have the benefit of that special knowledge of exactly where to go and what to do. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning and hear God say to us, “Okay, today I want you to go to such and such a place and say such and such a thing.” It would be nice if that would happen, but it doesn’t all that often.

But friends, we have something Jonah didn’t have. We have the words of Jesus. We have his call, “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17, etc.). We have his commission. We have the sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain and the parables and the stories of Jesus. Jonah had a commission from God. We have a commission from Jesus. It might not be as specific as Jonah’s, but we have our standing calling, as it were.

There are lots of commissions in the gospels. “Love one another” (John 15:12, etc.). “Heal the sick. Proclaim the kingdom” (Luke 9:2, etc.). “Take up your cross” (Mark 8:34, etc.). A whole lot of instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. We have a commission, a calling. We have what God wants us to do not just today, but every day.

We heard another part of that commission this morning already: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:29-20).

We’re supposed to be making followers – not just expert theologians, but followers. We’re not just supposed to learn about God, but learn to obey our Lord’s command. That’s what we’re supposed to learn and to teach.

As we grow in knowledge, may we learn and teach others to respond to and to obey the word of the Lord, who says to each of us, “Come and follow me.” Let’s follow joyfully along. It’ll be worth the effort. I guarantee it. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1 See Eugene Lowry, “One Whale of a Chance” (www.fcfumc.net/sermons/docs/7-19-09-OneWhale.pdf), 1.
2 Paraphrased from the telling in Lowry, 4.
3 Lowry, 4.

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