The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh…. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10 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 God did not do it.
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 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. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed Jesus.
This morning, on the day that we acknowledge, ordain, and install those who have been called to serve as elders and deacons, we get two call stories from scripture that invite us to think about our own lives and this God who calls human beings to share in God’s labors. When the prophet Jonah is called to go to Ninevah, first he says “no,” then he says “yes.” I don’t think he’s thrilled that God saves his life and calls him again. I don’t think he says “yes” enthusiastically. I’m pretty sure that going to Nineveh on a mission is not on Jonah’s bucket list. For Jonah, it is first a “no” and then it’s a “yes,” and then, when God changes God’s mind and spares the Ninevites, it’s “no” again. Jonah is done.
For the fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John, there is an immediate “yes” when Jesus says, “follow me.” There’s no, “let me think about it.” There’s no, “tell me what it will mean to go with you.” Maybe they think Jesus just wants to show them something quick a minute. First they say “yes,” and later, when things go disastrously wrong and Jesus is arrested and the threat of public execution hangs in the air, these disciples say “no, we’re not going there with you Jesus.” But later, when they experience Jesus alive again, they say, “yes.”
What both of these stories tell us, and another hundred gazillion stories about what other people have experienced over the ages, is that God is the one who persists, perseveres, doesn’t give up, doesn’t say “uncle,” doesn’t walk away—God is the one who calls again and again and again and again. And we human beings, we are the ones who sometimes say “yes” with clarity and enthusiasm or with unclarity and a scared whisper, and we are the ones who sometimes say “no.” Period. End of discussion. Like Jonah we may try to ignore, hide, outrun, or outmanuever God. Or maybe our “no” isn’t absolute, but more like a “not right now.”
You know how sometimes your computer wants to run updates right when you are in the middle of something and, thank God, there’s this little icon button that says “remind me later.” I’ve discovered that you can hit that little button again and again and again, and the computer will keep asking about updates and will provide the “remind me later” option. Sometimes, in response to God’s call, we just hit that button in a perpetual repeat, waiting for the time when it will be more convenient and better fit our own schedules and lives.
And here’s the thing. God will hang in there with us in our “yesses” and our “nos.” God will stay with us even when we have given a quite unequivocal “no” and God will use our “nos” to do something good, something other than God had first set out to do. God is flexible. Inventive. God zigs and zags with our zigs and zags. God shows up and stays. God saves us from our own stubborn desires and weaves grace from the tangled webs of our resistance.
Jonah’s unequivocal “no” and his sleepy, depressed, trip on the ship in the opposite direction than God intends, ends up being an opportunity for some unsuspecting Gentile sailors to have a first-hand experience with the one Jonah calls the God of the Hebrews. Jonah forces these guys to throw him overboard, even though they don’t want to, and when they do, the storm stops. Then these Gentiles perceive that Jonah’s God has saved their lives. They sense that this God is not tribal, that this foreign God has heard their prayers and cares for them. And it turns out, God cares about the Gentile Ninevites too. And it turns out that this is exactly why Jonah resisted God’s call in the first place—he knew that God would be gracious to folk Jonah thought didn’t deserve grace and forgiveness.
There are so many paintings and drawings of Jonah in the belly of the whale that make it look like he is in the womb. He is in this safe enclosure, sometimes in a fetal position, sometimes kneeling with hands uplifted in prayer. Jonah is gestating and he is about to emerge from that womb when the whale vomits him up on the shore. His is not a gentle or pretty re-birth. Jonah’s story is archetypal. It is the story of every single person.
We all come out from our mother’s wombs. We outgrow this physical space in which God knits us up. Ready or not, we emerge from this safe enclosure into God’s wondrous wide world and begin the life-long process of learning, and growing, and wrestling with ourselves and our neighbors and with God. God’s call to us is always an invitation to come out of the enclosures we are in. To grow beyond our attitudes, our certainties, our self-interest, and the ways we think about ourselves, and God, and our neighbors—even our enemies.
And God’s call isn’t always some huge thing that requires to give up everything at once. More often, it is something small. Something that begins with a single step in a new direction. Like putting food in the outdoor public refrigerator and there coming into relationship with people who are desperate for food. Or like agreeing to play the handbells and being reminded that we don’t learn anything new without making mistakes. Or like becoming part of a church community and growing in empathy for the brokenness of another and choosing to forgive when we are hurt by them. Or like saying “yes” to becoming an elder and growing in the grace of listening to someone who disagrees with you.
Over our lifetimes we are always in process of being re-birthed, of outgrowing our enclosures, of letting our minds and hearts and desires be expanded by the mind and heart and desires of God. Who in response to our “nos” zigs and zags and weaves grace out of our tangled webs, and keeps on calling, and encloses us in God’s life-giving grace and love. This is the womb in which we are utterly safe and secure. This is the womb that we cannot outgrow. This is the womb within which God gives us the grace to say “yes” to God’s world-redeeming love and labor. And with baby steps we go with God to discover more fully how to walk in love.