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Posts Tagged ‘nineveh’

Jonah

This morning we begin a new worship series as we explore the subject of “calling”. And as we do so, we are going to be looking at a number of Biblical characters and their call from God. Many of their stories hold elements of the supernatural, phenomena that we tend to relegate to the dustbin of mythology and legend. Even so, I am sure that you will find your own sense of call connecting with at least one of these figures, if not more.

This whole subject of “calling” is an odd one, isn’t it? It makes me think of those spy movies with the comically large phone on the President’s desk, usually bright red with no numbers on it, just a blinking light that lets you know when we’re at DefCon 1. Absurd. Then again, think about the language we use to talk about our work. It’s our “vocation” – literally, our “calling”. Or it’s our “profession” – literally, our public witness of faith. But let’s not get too carried away: “job” comes from the word “gob” – so our jobs are just lumps of stuff.

And yet, I think we’ll be surprised when we look at these lessons from Scripture. Very few of those who were called by God responded positively. Think of Moses, confronted with the burning bush: “Surely you must have me confused with someone else! Can’t you send my brother? Why would the Israelites even believe me? I stutter!”

Or Sarah, laughing at the idea that God would make pregnancy possible in her 90’s – and I would say that laughing is probably the most positive response you could expect from her.

In other words, most of those who are called by God don’t take the miraculous at face value. First, they don’t believe it. Second, when it becomes unavoidable, they look at it as a job, a lumpy gob of purpose that they just had to carry around with them. I’m not sure times have changed all that much, frankly. We tend not to believe that God has any kind of special role for us; and even when we do recognize that God wants to be at work in our lives, we work really hard to make it clear that it will only happen on our terms, not God’s.

Speaking of Jonah, what a story! It ends up being a kind of satire of the prophetic calling. Many of the details are familiar: God calls Jonah to preach not to God’s own people, but to Nineveh. Nineveh is the modern-day Iraqi city of Mosul. Now think about the geography at work here: Jonah’s trip from Israel to Nineveh would take him East: over-land. Jonah responds to this clarion call by hopping on a boat: that is, heading in the opposite direction. West.

Then comes the storm, where his shipmates learn that this is their shared punishment because Jonah ran away. He finally convinces them to throw him overboard, probably hoping that it would all be over soon. But instead of drowning, Jonah is swallowed up by a large fish that God sent to save his life. He is spit out onto land. And when God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, he probably remembers how long it took to get the fish smell out and obeys.

His message certainly makes this seem like a suicide mission: a Hebrew prophet walking for three days across this massive city where he is an outsider, a foreigner, telling everyone that Nineveh has a little over a month left before it will be destroyed. And, much to his surprise, the whole town reacts faithfully – more faithfully than Jonah’s own people ever have to the words of prophets – and they fast and repent.

God relents, and Jonah is…furious? I love his rant against God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and mercifully, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” You might as well add “it’s not fair!” at the end. Jonah sulks off to pout at the end of town.

Then God finishes off the story with a little object lesson, sending shade to keep Jonah cool, and then destroying that shade. And Jonah, who just told God that he was ready to die, is now mad about the bush being destroyed. “Jonah,” God says, “if you’re upset about this bush dying, imagine how I would feel about all of Nineveh being destroyed?” And, somewhat fittingly, the story ends with that question mark hanging in the air.

There is so much in this story to unpack, but it’s not really feasible to leave any part of it out, is it? Jonah is painted so broadly in such a short period of time that we feel like we know him well. Could that be because we see so much of Jonah in ourselves?

Let me ask it this way: have you ever known what it is that you’re supposed to do and done the exact opposite? I don’t mean in a “my boss wants me to do something but I don’t want to do it” kind of way, but a “I know what the right thing to do in this situation is, and I’m just going to push that ethical decision-making over into this brain compartment for the time being” kind of way? It’s that “cheating on the diet” type of cognitive dissonance, but writ large. You know you’re supposed to head off on that arduous overland journey, but instead you set out for sea in the other direction. There’s often a “just this once” kind of thinking that can cloud our judgment. We know what we ought to do, and we’ll be sure to do that next time, but this time, we’re gonna just let ourselves off the hook. After all, Tarshish is pretty nice this time of year, isn’t it?

Or have you ever done what you’re supposed to do begrudgingly? Again, we’re talking about one of those “right thing to do” types of situations. You’ll do it, but only after a sarcastic “fine!” comes out of your mouth as you mutter about how unfair life is. It’s like a larger version of the “doing the dishes” chore that is annoying and time-consuming, but you know at least know that it gets you out of having to shop and cook. In other words, we may go to Nineveh, and we may say the words that God wants us to say, but we’re only doing so because we were told to do it. Our hearts aren’t in it, and we actually kind of hope that it fails. But the alternative – seasickness and a ride in a fish’s stomach – isn’t much of an alternative at all.

Or have you ever felt disappointed by God? Have you ever tried to re-write Genesis, working to make God in your own image, rather than the other way around? Has God ever failed to act the way you want God to act? Or has God interceded in a way that you wish God had just minded God’s own business?

Let’s be clear about this: there are things for which we blame God that are not of God’s doing whatsoever. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about big stuff, world-altering things like grace. If we’re honest, we’re pretty sure that forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t nearly as much fun as grudges and punishment. Mercy may be what God wants, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree. And that’s where the satire kicks in nicely: we end up practically yelling at God for being too nice. Not only do we want our tribe to win; we want all the other tribes to lose, and lose big.

So, let’s re-cap: we are like Jonah when we run away from what we are supposed to do, when we merely go through the motions of doing what we’re supposed to do, or when we want God to act the same petty way that we would. Did I miss anyone?

And yet, here’s what’s amazing: God calls Jonah anyway! God didn’t give up after the unscheduled cruise, or after Mr. Grumpy Pants went off to pout. Despite all evidence to the contrary, God still thought that Jonah had potential. God was sure that Jonah could still grow and learn and change. Could it be, possibly, that God thinks just as highly of you?

Where is it that God is calling you? Is your Nineveh far away, or is it, perhaps, closer than you’re willing to admit?

Amen.

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Justin Bieber has 16.7 million followers on Twitter. He has tweeted almost 13,000 times. I, on the other hand, have tweeted 1800 times, and my followers number in the dozens, at just shy of 200. It’s game on, Bieber!

Twitter is, of course, just one of the multitude of social networking tools that has taken over the world of communication in the last few years. From a service that started just five years ago, it now numbers users that rival the population of the U.S. It is being credited with the overthrow of dictators in Egypt and Libya and with populist movements in places as far flung as Syria and the United States. If you can edit your thoughts down to 140 characters or fewer (that’s about 25-30 words), then Twitter might be the tool for you.

Like all technology, it’s a double-edged sword. The short length of messages seems to play into and contribute to the sound byte culture which plagues us so – and if we had forgotten that, another round of elections is here to remind us that content most certainly isn’t king. Critics attack Twitter for feeding into our unhealthy narcissism, where people feel compelled to share what they’re having for dinner and why they think “Two and a Half Men” is better with Ashton Kutcher.

And yet, at the same time, it has given people who have long been disenfranchised access to information. We need look no further than the Arab Spring for evidence of that. And for truly breaking news there is no better source than Twitter. While Fox and CNN try to fill the void of the 24-hour news cycle with vapid information and pointless commentary, if you really want to know what is going on at the moment, Twitter gives you instant access to eyewitness accounts.

What strikes me as curious about Twitter, alongside everything else, is the language choice of “follow”. Unlike Facebook, where you “friend” someone, in Twitter, you “follow” them. And they can also “follow” you – which sounds a bit like everyone is just going in circles. And that is one of the dangers of our technological boom. We are self-selecting for the information and relationships that agree with what we already think we know to be true. We are less and less likely to seek out friendships and websites and news channels that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works. We are feeding our own self-righteousness, and becoming more and more siloed from folks who aren’t like us.

And that’s where the Scripture texts today come into focus. We first heard the dramatic tale of Jonah, skipping over the introduction where Jonah tries to run away from God, gets caught in a storm, then thrown overboard, eaten by a giant fish, and spit back up onto dry ground. Now God is telling him, yet again, “Go to Nineveh and tell them to get straight.” And they do. The people of Nineveh fast and pray. And God relents from the promised destruction.

For Jonah, following God meant doing something he didn’t want to do. Nineveh was a big, bad city, and the last thing he wanted to do was to go there and tell everyone how big and bad they were, like Pee Wee Herman trying to use the phone in a biker bar.

For the people of Nineveh, following God meant doing a 180, spinning on their heels, putting a stop to their ways and starting off on a new path. For the people of God, following breaks us out of our silos and can often bring us into uncharted territory.

No one knew this fact better than the disciples. Today, we heard the familiar story of the four who simply dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Simon and Andrew were drawn by the promise of catching people in their nets instead of fish…the same with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

We’ve talked before about this story and the weight of the decision these disciples made. Bethsaida, their home town, meant “the place of fishing.” There’s little doubt that this was work that had been handed down for a multitude of generations. This was a great deal more than a simple career change; to follow Jesus was to turn their backs on everything they had known. Fishing was practically in their DNA. And while Jesus promised they would still fish, it would be unlike anything they had experienced before.

To become a disciple means quite simply to become a student, a pupil. But there’s one key difference: the student can eventually become the teacher. The disciple remains a disciple. And for the disciples, following Jesus meant heading off into the unknown.

What about us? What does it mean to be followers of Jesus?

Like Jonah, are we being asked to do things that we don’t want to do? Are there places in our lives where we know that the faithful thing to do isn’t always the easy thing to do? It’s never as easy as saying that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. God expects much of us in terms of our own wisdom and discernment as we think and pray through choices in our lives. And yet, we all know of moments where we know what we ought to do, and that this obligation may have a cost that we’re not quite willing to pay. Is that where you are right now, facing a decision that may take you somewhere you’re not sure you want to go?

Or do you find yourself more in line with the people of Nineveh? Is God asking you to turn away from choices you have made which have been, time and time again, the wrong choices? The churchy word for that is repentance, which means turning to face God and owning up to mistakes. If so, then the invitation today is to take the opportunity to start over. It’s still January, and though the calendar is an admittedly arbitrary tool, it may just be the tool you need to make that 180 and begin afresh. The road may feel uncharted, but the truth is that God goes before you every step of the way.

Or is it the story of fishermen which resonates with you today? Is there something nudging you, calling you to a bold new adventure in faith? Is it a change in careers or a leadership role here at OPC? Is it downsizing your lifestyle to make more room for the things that you know are of ultimate importance?

Maybe none of this strikes a chord with you today. Maybe you’ve already heard this message before loud and clear, and so the text today is meant as an encouragement to stay the course.

In any case, to follow Jesus is to break down the walls of our silos. We are brought into relationships with those who are unlike us. Jesus is not the ultimate “yes man”. There is, always, a word of challenge at work. In our afflictions, we will be comforted; and in our comforts, we will be afflicted.

And to follow Jesus puts us very much in the here and now. We care about this world because it is God’s world. We are invested in our community because, in Christ, God’s own self became deeply invested in a world of material, fleshy reality. To be followers of the incarnate God is to be, ourselves, the incarnate body of Christ, the hands and feet of the one who calls us to drop our nets, follow, and fish in a whole new way.

Amen.

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