(This sermon was preached on the day that we ordained and installed elders and deacons to be servant leaders of our congregation)
The word of God came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh.” This is take two for the prophet Jonah. The first time God spoke, he ran in the opposite direction. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want this call. He didn’t want this mission. We don’t know exactly why. Probably he thinks that Nineveh is a sh-hole of a nation. These are bad people. Really bad people. They take what isn’t theirs and they kill to get it. Maybe Jonah fears that if he announces God’s judgment he will die by their swords. Or maybe he wants to see them wiped out. Maybe he doesn’t want them to have a chance to repent and live a different way. But none of what Jonah thinks or feels really matters. And none of what he does to escape God’s call gets him out of the net. After a near death experience in the belly of a whale, Jonah is back on dry land, and the word of God comes to him a second time.
This time he goes. And in a really crabby mood he preaches the shortest sermon ever
preached, and gets the greatest positive response of all times. Jonah’s words go viral. By the time news of Jonah’s sermon reaches the King and he puts out a decree that everyone immediately turn from their evil and violent ways, all the people in this vast metropolis have already done it. Sometimes the people in power are the last ones to finally get it. So, the government in Nineveh shuts downs for some genuine soul-searching and real change.
When God sees that they have all repented, God changes God’s mind about them. God doesn’t wait to see if they really mean it. Doesn’t wait to see if they do the hard work of approving a new federal budget with less military spending and more funds for healthcare and education. Doesn’t wait to see if they change their policies on immigration. Doesn’t wait for any proof at all. God just believes them.
And, as this story unfolds, Jonah is not amused. He thinks God a fool. He thinks God is too gracious, too slow to anger, too abounding in steadfast love, too ready to give people a second, third, fourth chance to change. Jonah likes all these things about God when they apply to him, but not when they apply to these people from this sh-hole nation called Nineveh. But it doesn’t matter what Jonah thinks or does, because, whether he likes it or not, this prophet is not in charge of God. And whether he likes it or not, he is an instrument of God’s fierce grace. When he finally says “yes” to God’s call, he creates the occasion for God to rejoice over the Ninevites who have chosen another way to live.
In another place, at another time, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee and preached another quite short sermon: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in this good news.” Then immediately, Jesus calls four fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him. And immediately, they leave their nets, their boats, their business, their economic security, their father, and they follow this Jewish rabbi named Jesus. This is their repentance. This is their turning. This is the moment, they choose to let go of the ways of the empire they live in and choose to live into the ways of God’s kingdom.
The big question in Bible study this week was, “why did they follow so immediately.” Jonah runs when God calls, and lots of other prophets also resist the call. But these guys, just everyday ordinary people, stinking of fish, tangled in their nets, with families and commitments, these guys say “yes.” What do they know about or experience with Jesus? Maybe they were there when Jesus was baptized and the heavens opened and a voice said: “You are my Son, my beloved.” Or maybe they had heard John the Baptist preach about the one who was coming in power and would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Or maybe Jesus’s presence was so full of love, so full of gentle power, so compelling that they couldn’t resist following him. Or maybe there was a much longer conversation that took place between Jesus and these guys that isn’t recorded in Mark’s gospel. Or maybe they think they are just going with Jesus for a minute, maybe for the day or a week. Or maybe this is the moment they have all been waiting for, the time of God’s saving intervention in history, and they can envision no other choice but to follow Jesus wherever he takes them.
Surely they know that John has been jailed for announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, suggesting some kind of political revolution, but now Jesus comes doing the same and invites them to be his followers, disciples, students in the new school of God’s commonwealth. And despite the risks, they leave their old lives behind, and together follow him.
What Mark is saying is, you don’t know ‘til you go. You don’t know ‘til you follow. You find out who Jesus is and what God’s kingdom means by just saying “yes” and being on the way. It turns out, it isn’t so easy. Watching Jesus touch and heal the sick is a wonder, but they aren’t able to do it themselves. Seeing Jesus cast out demonic forces is fantastic, but they can’t seem to get the hang of it. Some of Jesus’ parables just leave them scratching their heads and feeling stupid. Hearing Jesus argue with the religious leaders about all the suffocating laws and chiding them for exploiting the poor is pretty cool, but hearing the death threats against Jesus scares them. They love his love, they love his fearlessness, they love his unwavering trust in God’s plans and purposes. They love the idea of being citizens of another kingdom where love and peace and justice flourish. But they don’t like the tensions and the conflicts, and they certainly don’t want the cross. As disciples and students of this rabbi they wonder, often, what they have signed up for, and whether the deadline has passed to drop this course before they get a failing grade or are thrown out of the Jesus school.
I am so thankful for the very real picture that the Scriptures show us of God’s prophets and Jesus’ disciples. If we did not see their fears, their flaws, their betrayals, their struggle to understand and live into the grace-filled ways of God, then I think none of us would be here. If they were all saintly and amazing and full of trust and overflowing with love all the time, then I think none of us would be here. We would disqualify ourselves before even trying to follow this rabbi named Jesus and live as citizens of God’s commonwealth.
What these stories show us is that choosing to follow God’s way in the midst of so many other ways to live is a daily choosing. We never graduate from the new school of God’s kingdom and nobody gets thrown out. We are always on the way. In your daily labors, in your families, with your friends, in the ways you spend your money, your time, your energy, in your political and personal life, you are choosing, I am choosing, we are choosing how to live. With every decision we make, in every encounter we have, we are choosing how to live.
God gathers us and gives us the Spirit of Christ and gives each other to be companions on this way. And God calls ministers, elders, and deacons to shepherd and guide and lead us. Although we hold these offices, we are first and always disciples of Jesus, on the way and following. Struggling and learning. But we have made promises to God and to you to make sure you know how much you are loved by God, and to keep opening the way for all of us to grow in our love of God, and ourselves, and our neighbors, and to be stretched in our serving. Together we are on the way, living into God’s “yes” to us, and to the world that God loves with dying and rising love.