Old Testament Lesson: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1: 14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I have been told in the past that every now and then a good sermon should begin with a joke. Not often are we told many jokes from the Scriptures, but the story of Jonah arguably has been defended to be a joke that is told with many great lessons throughout. I mean, it certainly sets itself up to be quite a humorous Jewish joke. Our reading of it today actually places us in the middle of the joke, and so I want for us to catch a glimpse rather of the whole scene. So as the joke begins God comes and speaks to the pious Jewish man, one who knows God well, and God sets Jonah out on an incredibly ridiculous and impossible assignment. God tells Jonah he thinks it would be a good idea for Jonah to travel to Nineveh, an Assyrian city about 550 miles as the crow flies from the coastal city of Joppa. So what does Jonah do, he instead of going towards the destination God has called him to, jumps ship and tries to flee in the opposite direction, as if he could run away from the presence of the God who created all that was, is, and will be. Well, Jonah’s decision to get on a ship to head to Tarshish you could say ends him up into some deep sea. The winds began to pick up, the crew of seamen find themselves in the middle of disaster and each of them pray to their own gods, and nothing seems to suffice. This joke goes even further to say the men begin dump their stuff out into the sea to lose some weight on their ship. To no prevail, there they are out in the sea, with no supplies, and yet still a mighty storm picks up even more. And finally, they cast lots to find out who could have caused this horrible event of this storm, and the lots fell on Jonah. They begin pestering Jonah with questions and finally they come to the realization that Jonah’s God, the God of the Hebrews who had made the heavens, the seas, and dry land is punishing Jonah for trying to escape his God. And so they ask what they might do to be able to appease this God, and Jonah suggests throwing him overboard. And when they do, the seas calmed and the storm went away, and the seamen, the gentiles convert and come to know God inadvertently to Jonah’s attempt to run away from God. So, Jonah finds himself not dead in the bottom of the sea, although it may seem Jonah would have wished this compared to going to Nineveh, Jonah finds himself in the belly of a fish. The joke becomes a little bit more humorous as you could imagine, a man who is running away from God, a man who does not desire to do God’s will, finds himself in, well you could say a sticky spot, he begins then, at this point to call out for God’s help. He is as far away, in the chaos of sea and belly of fish, from God and it is at this point in the story Jonah finally wants to talk to God. This prayer of Jonah’s does not seem though to be the prayer at least one that I would not be lifting up. This prayer shifts from pleading to God to blaming God for the situation Jonah is in. And Yahweh, God of the Heavens has the large fish vomit Jonah up onto dry land. This is where our reading of Jonah picks up. So Jonah, is delivered from the whale, phew! Jonah is certainly glad to be alive after that. And God comes back in, and says, “knock knock, Jonah, are you there….Yeah I am glad you are alive, but I kind of wanted to ask you something….how about going to Nineveh and proclaim to them this message now? Jonah, I suppose you could say with little option gets up and grudgingly goes to Nineveh. Now Nineveh is not a city that one could say is pleasant to a Jew. Rather, Nineveh was a city that was full of gentiles and considered very evil. So Jonah goes and does what God wants him to, he goes and tells the people of Nineveh and cries out a message, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and that’s it. No, but if you….no you could prevent this by…no hope at all just simply, 40 days and Nineveh will be nothing, nata, no longer in existence. And from this one line proclamation, this one sentence message that neither mentions hope or even God of the Jews, the evil gentiles and their King begins to fast and takes off all royal garments and wears sackcloth. Neither human being or animal was to drink water or eat food, and both man and beast wore sackcloth. And God to Jonah’s dismay changes his mind. After all Jonah had gone through, after all the turmoil and running away, the sea, the fish, the hike across a three days walk, Jonah is astounded by God’s decision to repent from the foretold disaster. Jonah is ticked off to no end you could say. He finally did what God wanted him to do, he recklessly evangelized the unreachable and evil people of Nineveh, a people who Jonah had a misplaced hatred for, and God instead breathing down fire from above, responded with Grace and Mercy. Jonah who knew God in a very personal way responded to God’s calling by running away and who laments God’s actions of salvation by taking a well known praise of God, “ I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” and turns it into a complaint against God.
You know this is often the way it may seem with those to whom we talk to about God and his love. I believe at times it may be harder to evangelize someone who has grown up in the church, than it is to someone who has never heard the name of Jesus in their life. These Ninevites had never known the God of the Jews, and at the drop of a one sentence proclamation immediately respond to God’s calling on their lives, while the one who grew up knowing personally the character of God slowly and very reluctantly came to the calling on his life. Jonah did not want to go to the people of Nineveh because they were different than him, they were gentiles, and they did not think the same way he did, they did not talk the same he did. Jonah did not want to evangelize those who are different than him. This story reminds me of a story I heard this past week about a church in New Orleans. About a week before hurricane Katrina hit, this Church had a meeting of the Trustees. And in this meeting they were trying to decide who could use their building and who could not. They argued and argued over this point and finally it was getting late and they had no decision and so they did what most Methodist churches are best at, they decided to table it. One week later, Hurricane Katrina hit and the water began to rise. The entire first floor slowly but surely was being filled up. And there was a class meeting that day in a Sunday School room of some sorts in the upper level of the church. On that day, they opened their windows and began seeing people drift by. And these people in the Sunday school room began pulling in anyone and everyone they could. On that day they pulled in people of different races, people who spoke different languages, people of different beliefs and lifestyles, anyone that drifted by they were trying to pull into the church. A couple years later, on the day that they reopened the new church building, the Trustees declared that there was no longer any argument of who could come into that church building for all people were welcomed.
In our Gospel lesson today, we have a similar story about Jesus’ call on a couple of fishermen’s lives. Jesus, one day on a stroll around the shore of the Galilee sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea and Jesus calls out to them, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What an interesting statement for Jesus to make. Yet another one line invitation, a one lime sermon, and yet again the people who do not know Jesus, who do not know God responds courageously by leaving their parents, their careers, their hometown. Jesus’ call on theses fishermen’s lives was so very open, limitless, and without any promises, and yet they responded to God’s calling. As we look closely at Jesus’ calling, it’s an interesting request if you think about it. In the sea there are many fish. And when you fish with a net, like they did in the first century, you did not catch any particular fish. Rather, you caught anything that your net could capture. Our fishermen today will tell you that depending upon the bait you use or where you go, you can try to catch certain type of fish. But these men, Simon and Andrew, also later James and John were simply dragging a net across the bottom of the sea trying to pick up any type of fish that would swim into their nets. This example of evangelizing is a great example given to us by Jesus. God does not care the age, the sex, the race, the sins that individuals have committed, God desires for us to proclaim the message of Grace and Love to each and every person. I remember when I was a teenager I had a lot of friends who well you could say were into the drug scene. I hung out with this crowd on Friday nights, but on Sundays would find myself in church worshipping with a different set of friends. Those two groups of friends I never dreamed of bringing together. I suppose I felt that I would be wasting my breath if I were to bring God into the mix on Friday nights. Well 6 years later, two of my closest friends on Friday nights were baptized into a church. The next time I saw them after their baptism I went with a very sick feeling in my stomach. I felt on one side overjoyed about the transformation that happened in their life, but on the other side very convicted that I stood there all throughout high school with the Truth and never said a word. That night I visited them, I graciously welcomed them into the church family, but I also apologized and confessed to them my guilt of being timid with the Gospel. I suppose another way of saying what I am trying to say was said by one of your own yesterday at our Healthy Congregations class. Sheri Sterling said it this way, “We’re not called to clean the fish tank, but we are called to fill it.” There are many people in and around us each and every day who do not know the love and grace of God. At times it may seem awfully scary to go to them to share the gospel news, to call upon them and say I have good news to tell you, and it’s about how God loves you and how I love God and you. Let me share with you what my relationship with God is like. Or perhaps the conversation may go like this, “would you like to come and join me for dinner with some friends”, who just happen to be from Red Valley UMC. And for us to remember most importantly that God does not care the size, color, or sins of the fish, but God has created all of them, and loves them all the same and calls us to recklessly evangelize and tell them the good news by our words and actions.
I want to close our message today with the urgency Paul instructs the Church in Corinth to go about evangelizing. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Go, and without fear tell of the good news, for the time of God’s Kingdom is present, and yet comes fully unknowingly soon.