This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.
Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.
Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.
Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.
So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?
We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.
Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.
I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.
In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.
We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?
It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.
It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.
Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.
The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”
Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.
Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.
When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.
So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.
My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.
Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.
What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.
[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]