Sermon for Sunday, January 25th, 2015 || Epiphany 3, Year B || Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 6-14; 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Presumably, the wise liturgical scholars and ecumenical representatives who devised the Lectionary, from which our appointed lessons this morning came, were looking for readings that would reflect what it means to “readily respond to the call of God,” as our opening Collect put it. That’s important, because as we learned last week, God calls every single one of us, every day, and in myriad ways.
The problem is that despite the impression left by the isolated selection from Jonah we read this morning, the star of our first reading didn’t readily respond to God’s call. Not even a little bit. In fact, Jonah was defiant, not compliant, when God called.
So let’s back up a bit, and think of the story of Jonah as a play in four acts.
Act 1: God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the Ninevites of God’s displeasure. But Jonah doesn’t want to go. Jonah hates the Ninevites. Nineveh is the very heart of the Evil Assyrian Empire, and the Ninevites are notorious for their cruelty and brutality, especially to the Hebrew people. Jonah has no desire to risk his life by going anywhere near Ninevah, muchless to warn the Ninevites of anything. Nor does he have any desire to see them change their ways and become recipients of God’s mercy and forgiveness. So God calls, and instead of responding faithfully, Jonah flees from God by hopping a slow boat to Tarshish. In other words, by going in exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh, hoping to hide out from God. So much for readily responding to God’s call!
Not surprisingly, God is none too pleased with this act of defiance. So, as the story has it, God sends a storm of such magnitude that all aboard ship fear for their lives. Jonah confesses his culpability to the crew, tells them to throw him overboard to save themselves, and when they do the seas are immediately stilled. God then sends a large fish—often portrayed as a whale—to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah remains in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Close curtain.
Act 2: A now totally desperate Jonah suddenly becomes faithful. (Funny how that happens, right?) From the belly of the beast Jonah prays to God with all of his heart for deliverance. And God, in God’s mercy, forgives Jonah. God tells the fish to spew Jonah out on dry land. End of Act 2.
Act 3: Today’s reading. God gives Jonah a second chance, and this time Jonah complies and dutifully, if reluctantly, goes to Nineveh, proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And rather than torturing and killing Jonah, the people of Nineveh actually repent of their sin, amend their ways, and God in God’s mercy, forgives them.
Act 4: Jonah is furious! He prays to God that he might die rather than live in a world in which the hated Ninevites are forgiven. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place!” he tells God, “I know that you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
So Jonah goes off to pout, and God appoints a bush to grow next to him to shade him from the sun. But when the bush dies the next day, and Jonah feels faint from the heat, again he says to God, “It’s better for me to die than to live!”
This time God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And when Jonah says, “Yes, angry enough to die!” God says, “Really? That’s very interesting, because you didn’t work for the bush, and you didn’t make it grow, and it came into being in one night and died in one night. So then, should I not be concerned about Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, plus many animals too?”
Draw curtain, end of story.
Now, fast forward with me to our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning. It’s a very different story. Jesus calls first Peter and Andrew, then James and John, and in each case they simply drop everything, ready to follow they know not where.
So what we really have when we put these two stories side by side are two radically different responses to God’s call: one of compliance and one of defiance. Granted, both Jonah’s initial response to God’s call, and the responses of the first disciples, are so extreme that they’re almost funny: God’s call comes, and with no questions asked, no goodbyes said…no thoughtful discernment, or prayerful reflection–whether compliant or defiant– each of our characters just drops everything, gets up and goes, exit stage right…or, in the case of Jonah, stage wrong.
But there’s nothing especially comical about responding to God’s call, especially with defiance. Jonah learned the hard way that when it comes to responding to God’s call, you can run but you can’t hide. Still, even when he acquiesces and finally complies with God’s call to warn the Ninevites, Jonah is unfaithful.
Jonah is so attached to his hatred of the Ninevites, that he can’t let it go. He can’t stand the idea of them changing, because then he, too, would need to change. Jonah can’t stand the idea of God extending God’s mercy and forgiveness to the Ninevites, because then he, too, would need to extend to them mercy and forgiveness. The very same man whose life depended on God giving him a second chance is bitter and resentful when God extends the same kindness to others.
In fact, as insane as it may seem to us, Jonah would rather see the Ninevites continue in their evil ways, torturing and slaughtering untold numbers of innocent people, than see them reformed and reconciled, and have to forgive them.
And when they are, indeed, repentant and reconciled, Jonah is so upset he wants to die. “O Lord,” he cries, “please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Better for me to die than to have to let go of my anger and my bitterness and my resentment!
Jonah, you see, is still defiant. Defiant and enslaved, to the bitterness that binds him and blinds him, and breaks God’s heart. Jonah complied with God’s call to go to Nineveh, but he’s defying God’s call to be a bearer of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He’s defying God’s call to be a bearer of God’s healing and reconciliation. And he’s defying God’s call to surrender his will to God’s will.
Sadly, there’s at least a little bit—if not a lot of Jonah—in each of us. Some of you may remember when Frank Wade was here a few years ago and preached on Jonah. He left us all wondering what our Ninevehs were—those things we know God wants us to do that we really don’t want to do—and what our Tarshishes were—those things we do to avoid it.
This time around, I’m wondering who our Ninevites are—because we’ve all got them. That one person, or group of people, to whom we refuse to extend God’s mercy and forgiveness, much less our own. And I invite you to join me in praying, like Jonah from the belly of the fish, for God’s deliverance. Deliverance from hard-heartedness that we may be free from all anger, bitterness and resentment; deliverance from past hurts, that we may forgive others mercifully and generously, as we are forgiven; an free, as we prayed in our opening Collect, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation. Amen.