What if we refused to be bound by the things that we all “know” to be true? What if we allowed God to be God ALL the time, rather than simply when we’ve got no better options?
I was installed as the Associate Pastor of the Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York on November 11th, 1990. It was an incredibly stressful day for all kinds of reasons. For starters, that was a time and place where the church was deeply divided. The church was arguing about human sexuality, about politics, about the upcoming war in the Middle East, and more. That Presbytery had a very politically charged environment. As I organized worship, I was told by the officers at the Presbytery that while it was “my service” to plan, I had to follow the accepted format for worship and make sure that the people who led the service reflected the diversity of the presbytery – meaning that I had to make sure that the officers who led worship included blacks, whites, men, women, lay, clergy, young, and senior members. And, if I wanted, I could have family members. I worked long and hard to fill the slots with the people I knew – a white male senior clergy, a black female elder, a liberal old man, a conservative young woman…
To make it worse, it was only a few months after we’d buried my mother. For the previous fifteen years, she’d made it her business to let me (and anyone else) know that it sure would make her happy if her oldest boy was a preacher. Now I finally had the gig, and she wasn’t there to see it. Her mother was there, her brother sang – I want to tell you it was not only a politically charged day, it was an emotional minefield. And then, on November 11th, as we began worship, the snow started to fall. And then the thunder and lightning came. I’ve never seen such a violent thunderstorm accompanied by snow, not rain. It would be an understatement for me to say that I simply wanted the service to end so I could get out of there. I had no great expectations for that day.
A week later, I got a call from a professor at the local university. He wondered if he could come by and talk. Turns out he had come to the installation service out of curiosity. He was not a Christian. He’d never been to such a service before. But he said that when my sister – a young, white, female layperson – read from John 13 – because every service of installation was to have a reading from one of the Gospels – that something happened to him. He described God speaking to his heart. He would tell you that his life was changed because he heard the Word of God in the middle of that service – a service that I was hoping would end as soon as possible – a service that allowed him to hear and respond to God’s call on his life. As a result of that reading on that day, he began walking down a path that changed his job, his focus in life, and his relationships.
Simon Peter lived through a similar experience. He was minding his own business when a word from Jesus changed his reality. After listening to the sermon and then responding to the strange call to drop his newly-mended and folded nets into the water, he did more than bring in the catch of his life. He realized that it wasn’t just fish that he was looking for. And that word changed his world.
This morning, we revisit the prophet Jonah. When we saw him last, he’d been dumped unceremoniously on the beach. He lay blinking in the sunshine, smelling like fish intestines, humbled, and newly-focused on obedience. The Word of God comes to him a second time, and the message is unchanged: Arise and go to Nineveh. And here, unlike in chapter 1, Jonah obeys.
He arrives in this vast metropolis and begins to preach…sort of. If you can call a 5-word sentence fragment a sermon, well, then you could say that he preached. Seldom has there been a less-enthusiastic preacher. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it.
And not only is his message abbreviated, but his delivery is equally half-hearted. We are told that Nineveh is so big it would take a person three days to walk across it; yet Jonah only goes in a third of the way. He did what he was told, I guess. Just as I ticked down the items on my punch list while planning the installation service, Jonah was able to say, “Well, I was told to arise, and come to Nineveh, and to preach. And I did. Done.”
But what happens? The Ninevites hear the Word of God. And they respond! Note verse 5: it doesn’t say that they believed Jonah. No, they “believed God.” The residents of this evil city, the people we love to hate, the ones who we can’t wait to see stew in their own juices…they do what Jonah would not: they hear and accept the Word of the Lord.
Did you hear what the pagan king said? “Who knows? Maybe God will spare us, and we will not perish!” We haven’t heard that kind of wild hope since the pagan ship’s captain urged his sailors to pray. If you’re keeping score, the current status is this: unbelieving outside leaders of pagan communities: 2; so-called believing prophets of YHWH: 0.
The whole city fasted and prayed and repented, and we see that Nineveh, rather than being overturned, is turned around. God sees the way that they respond to his word, and does not destroy this town. Jonah, the man who carried the Word of the Lord, must be the happiest man alive, right? Well, more about that next week. This chapter is not about Jonah. It’s about the power of God’s Word to change a person or to change a people.
Do you know that, church? Do you know that the power of God can change hearts and minds? Do you believe that God can reach into the most dismal places and bring forth change and hope? I don’t do this very often, but can I have an “Amen”? Do you believe that?
I’m not so sure that when push comes to shove we really do.
My sense is that most of us go through life trusting in God and God’s power when it makes sense to do so. We believe God has our back, all right, but every day we go out into the world and rely on our own talents, skills, and abilities. After all, we know that “the big guy” is there if we need him, right? The obvious implication of that phrase, of course, is that most of the time, most of us don’t really need God. It’s nice to know that he’s around, of course, but, well, don’t call me, God, I’ll call you.
Mark Twain once commented that there are some people who have “the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” It’s not that we don’t believe in God – it’s just that we think that most of the time he’s unnecessary.
Yet today’s scriptures reveal fishermen and Ninevites who have no claim to competency, ability, or favored status yet who are somehow able to hear the Word of the Lord – and in that hearing, their worlds are rearranged.
You can search the scriptures for a long time, and I don’t know that we’d be able to find a prophet more removed from God’s purposes than Jonah writhing in the belly of that great fish; or a community more alienated from God’s call than Nineveh on the day that Jonah finally showed up, or an apostle with a greater sense of God’s claim on his life than Simon Peter.
Each of these heard the Word of the Lord at a time when they realized that they had no one but God. God came to them in the midst of the worst…and spoke them into a place where they could never have imagined themselves.
Today, I’d like to invite you to ask God – that same God – to speak to you. Not to the plans you’ve already made, or the abilities you’ve carefully nurtured, or to the resources you’ve got at your disposal. Don’t ask God for a little “pick-me-up” or a boost or an encouragement.
Instead, call out to the One who commands whales, who changes hearts, who speaks and calls creation from nothingness.
Ask God, if you dare, into your emptiness and brokenness. Ask God to strip away the places in your life where you are simply satisfying the requirements and nothing more. Ask God for what you need, not what you want or what you like.
So what are you saying, Pastor Dave? That if we ask God into those places, that the world will change?
Hey, it could happen. So far as I can tell, that’s about the only times it has happened. God bless you. Amen.