by John Jewell
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
[One of the ways I've introduced this theme is to have a phone and a tape player at the pulpit hidden from sight. When the prayer before the sermon is finished, I push the "play" button and the sound of the phone ringing (which is recorded prior to the service) begins. Then...]
"Hello?" (Pause for other end to answer)
"You're kidding! It can't be!" (Hold phone to your chest as though to keep the person on the other end from hearing and whisper to the congregation...) "It's God!"
Now wouldn't it be something if God actually did call. Our scripture readings for today are about the call of God.
I don't know how it is at your house, but I find one of the most irritating sentences in the English language to be, "The Phone's ringing!"
This infuriating announcement usually comes from someone in your household who prefers that you attend to the task of answering the phone. I've actually had the experience of hearing three voices call out at once, "The phone's ringing!"
The idea is that people do not want to waste their energy if the call is not for them and there are even times when they don't want to answer calls that are for them.
Well... continuing on with this little "fun with the phone" routine... Have you ever answered the phone and then said to your mom or dad or son or daughter or husband or wife, "It's for you." Then the reply comes, "Who is it?"
Amazing how many people simply want to avoid responsibility for their calls!
All of this goes to the central message of today's scripture readings which can be expressed in these short statements:
"The phone is ringing!"
"The call is for you!"
"It is God who is calling!"
"This is that call that changes our lives!"
It is interesting and instructive to take a look at how the call of God comes to the people in our Old Testament and Gospel readings today. It is even more interesting to see how this call is handled.
CALLS YOU DON'T WANT TO GET
You know how some phone calls are calls you would rather not get? The phone rings and you just know it is your aging Aunt who wants to come over and check her mailbox for the third time today. Or maybe you've had the experience of being "between jobs" and both the car payment and the mortgage are a few days late. You screen your calls with an answering machine -- or if you are really fortunate -- you have caller ID!
Our reading from Jonah is <please forgive> a whale of a story -- about someone who actually hung up on God! Have you ever had someone hang up on you? It doesn't feel very good and you likely experience a bit of anger. Who in the world would wan tot hang up on God and make God angry?
Just before the portion of scripture we have in our Jonah reading for today, God had called Jonah to take a strong message of, "Straighten out or else..." to the people of a city named Nineveh. Now Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the ancient Assyrian Empire and there was never any love lost between the Assyrians and the Jews. As far as he was concerned, the people of Nineveh were just a bunch of pagans who deserved all the fire and brimstone God could heap upon their heads.
Our reading from Jonah today begins with the words, "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time..." Do you remember what happened the first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah? God called Jonah to go to pagan Nineveh with the message that God was weary of the wickedness of the city and was going to destroy it.
Jonah hung up on God! He literally ran away from God's call and you know the rest of the story. God pursued Jonah until Jonah was ready to listen. There's an important lesson here. Obvious -- but important. When God calls, we are wise to answer!
Jonah took the word of the Lord to Nineveh and didn't pull any punches. He walks the length and breadth of Nineveh and cries out, "Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!"
No wonder Jonah ran from God the first time! Can you imagine being a Jewish prophet in Assyria, shouting to the people that they were going to be destroyed? The picture calls to mind a picture that was indelibly imprinted on our minds a few years ago when a young Chinese man stood defiantly in front of a tank as students demanded freedom.
Was it that Jonah feared for his life that he ran from God?
CALLS YOU DO WANT TO GET
Not at all. His fear was that the people of Nineveh would answer God's call and that God would spare them. And what happened? Exactly -- they turned to God and were spared.
Jonah was so disheartened from the whole experience he ran away again and went out into the desert and pout. He asked God to take his life. His complaint to God is another one of those gems in scripture. "That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." [Jonah 4:2]
Jonah doesn't want God to be like this. Well, that's not it exactly. Jonah wants God to be gracious and merciful and loving -- to him and the people he cares about! He does not want God to love the Ninevites. He wants the people to Nineveh, those terrible, pagan enemies of Israel to get it in the neck!
I must confess that there are times when I feel for old Jonah. I am so very happy that God is merciful and gracious to me and to my wife and daughter. I am eternally blessed that the Lord has undying love for my friends and family. But -- there are some folks who come to mind now and then that I wonder about. There might even be one or two I can't figure out what God could love about them. And then I am reminded of a central principle of our faith. A principle that prevents us from taking the fate of others into our own hands. A barrier to deciding that we know who should live and who should die.
If God does not love everybody, then there can be no love for anybody. If God is not gracious toward all, there can be grace for none.
The call that comes to you and me from the Lord is a call to receive mercy, love and grace. It is a call we want to answer. Sometimes we might not want to hear God's call because we are ashamed or feel that we have let God down.
Returning home from a trip a few weeks ago, I found my young daughter not quite so happy to see me as usual. Normally she would come running into my arms and try to keep from asking too quickly the question that was bursting inside her little chest. Always came, "Did you bring me anything?" Within a few moments her mom prompted her to tell me about something she had done. Without her mom's permission, she had turned on my computer and was going to "help me" with my work. I am now missing several files I had worked on for some time. She had been told, many times, not to touch my computer unless I was with her.
Now she was reluctant to see me -- even after an absence. There was a bit of discussion about obeying the rules and why we do that. BUT... my steadfast love for her is more than she realizes and my grace way more than sufficient to cover the misdeed.
It is like that with God. The love and grace of God are large enough to overwhelm the barriers when we hear the call and receive the message.
Discussion and Reflection on the Texts
The whole Jonah story calls to mind the words of Psalm 139 - especially verse 7: "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" Jonah is more about the providence of God than it is about Jonah or a great fish. It is also about the plan of God. God intends to reach human kind through human ministry. Amazingly, this truth comes out over and over again - in the Old Testament as well as in the new.
Could God have brought about the conversion of Nineveh apart from Jonah's cooperation? Absolutely! Does God need Jonah? Absolutely! From the beginning of scripture when God gave into Adam's keeping the care of creation, the divine plan is for a partnership between Creator and we who are the creation of God. God does not need us in any inherent sense to be God, but has chosen to need us to be the kind of God revealed in scripture. A God of compassion, understanding -- and a God of absolute sovereignty.
When Jonah tries to have it his way, he gets swallowed up by a great fish. When you and I try to have it our way, we get swallowed up by great fish of our own making. Yet, there is something very comforting about the very beginning of this lesson from Jonah. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time." You have heard the phrase that the God we worship is the God of the second chance. Most stories of the great calls in scripture -- from Abraham to Moses to Isaiah to the fishermen James and John -- tell about those who showed up for duty upon receiving their call. But, thank goodness for Jonah who ran away from God only to encounter God at the place he thought was the farthest distance from God.
The God of the Second Chance
by Dr. Haddon Robinson
Angry and yet forgiving: Thoughts of Nineveh Lent
by Rev. Fr. K. K. John
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent
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