Sermon for Jan. 27, 2019 -- “NOTHING FISHY GOING ON AROUND HERE”


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 1-27-2019 Pardeeville

(Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:16-20)


       A little girl, a fourth grader, was talking to her teacher about whales.  She had just learned about the story of Jonah in Sunday school.  The teacher told her it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a person because a whale’s throat was so narrow.  The little girl insisted that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.  The teacher told her again that a whale cannot swallow a person…that it’s impossible.  The little girl said, “When I get to heaven, I’ll ask Jonah.”  The teacher asked, “What if Jonah didn’t go to heaven?”  And the girl, flashing a knowing smile at her teacher replied, “Then you can ask him!”

       The entire story of Jonah can be read in only a few minutes.  And you don’t have to read very much of it to know that Jonah refused to do what God called him to do the first time around.  This is similar to a lot of Old Testament call stories.  Moses threw every excuse in the book at God.  He was trying to avoid going back to Egypt.  Seems he didn’t want to ask Pharaoh for the release of the Israelite people from slavery.  Read the call stories of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others and you’ll find a common thread of reluctance to accept God’s call.

       Jonah took matters one step further though.  He not only refused to do what God asked, he took off in the opposite direction.  Nineveh was east so Jonah went west, toward Spain.  God had called Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people living there that God was going to destroy their city in forty days.  We don’t know much about what sort of life Jonah lived.  It doesn’t sound like he was a rabbi or a teacher.  Jonah’s original answer to God’s call is, “Nineveh?  Nineveh?  You want me to go to the capital of Assyria? (Our bitter enemy by the way, the country that has treated us so badly over the years.)  You want me to go there and to try to persuade them to change the way they live?  First of all, that’s preposterous!  You’re asking me, in effect, to save them from your vengeance, right?  I don’t want to do that.  Why would I want to do that?”

       To say the least, Jonah is not at all happy with the assignment he has received from God.  If God’s plan is to punish those in Nineveh and God is relying on Jonah to save the day…well, that’s just not going to happen!  Jonah couldn’t care less what happens to the people of Nineveh and, by running away, he figures the fate of the people of Nineveh is sealed.  They are going down!

       If we learn anything from the experience of Jonah it’s that running from God is perhaps the most pointless thing we can try to do.  The ship that Jonah boards for Spain becomes tossed about in a storm.  In order to save the others, Jonah actually convinces them to toss him overboard.  Along comes a large fish and swallows him up, small throat or not.  Now you might think that being swallowed by a fish is a sign of God’s punishment.  On the contrary, in Jonah’s case it is a sign of God’s grace because, storm or no storm, if Jonah had remained in the water after being thrown overboard, he would not have survived!  And that would be sad because he probably would have lost the chance to have a book in the Bible named after him!

       The great fish is indeed a godsend.  Jonah has a few days inside the fish to think about things and, while he’s doing all that, he realizes that God has spared his life.  He realizes God’s mercy and the power of God’s forgiveness.  Remember too that when Jonah is spit out of the fish onto land, he’s not in Nineveh.  He’s right back where he started.  And that’s where we pick up the story this morning.  Jonah receives the same message from God a second time.  “Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent…or else!”  This time you better believe that Jonah goes.  He has learned his lesson.  He preaches the world’s shortest sermon to the people there.  He wanders through the streets of the city saying,” Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed.”  And you know what?  It works!  Everyone in Nineveh, from the king himself down to the man in the street repents.  They all wear sackcloth and ashes.  And God’s mind is changed.  The calamity scheduled for the capital city of Assyria never happens.  As you can imagine, having resisted the idea of going to Nineveh in the first place, and considering Assyria to be the enemy, this divine U-turn bothers Jonah to no end.  His opinion of the people in Nineveh hasn’t changed.  He still couldn’t care less about them.  Jonah is nothing short of frustrated that God would change the plan and spare these people.  It was fine for God to be merciful to Jonah.  But when God acts the same way toward Jonah’s sworn enemies…well that’s a different story completely!

       Speaking of things that were different…our Gospel passage also relates a call story.  Jesus is walking along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.  He spots fishermen Peter and Andrew and asks them to follow him.  The next group he comes upon includes James and John.  They’re sitting in their fishing boat repairing their nets.  Jesus also asks these men to come and follow him.

       In asking these four men to come with him, Jesus knows he’s asking a lot of them.  Jesus is asking them to leave their livelihood, their job, the way they put food on the table.  It’s the only work they have known their whole lives.  Jesus is asking them to leave their families and embark on a journey of unknown consequences.  There is so much they don’t know about what it means to follow Jesus.  Mostly they haven’t got a clue.  Yet their reaction is to leave everything behind and follow.  They leave their family.  They leave their livelihood.  They leave everything familiar and go with Jesus on what will turn out to be the experience of a lifetime.

       So this morning we have two different call stories…two different paths to ministry.  Jonah ran away from God the first time but ultimately did what God asked him to do.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John literally dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus into ministry.

       Which response is the right one?  I sure hope it’s both because we respond to the things that God calls us to do in both ways.  There are those times when we are off and running the moment we understand where God is calling us to go.  We eagerly pursue a ministry to others.  Then there are other times when we misunderstand the call…when we are not willing to respond…or when we don’t feel we’re capable of doing what God is asking us to do.  Again, we have such stories in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Isiah said he was a person of unclean lips.  Jeremiah said he was too young.  It’s only human nature to feel inadequate sometimes when it’s God doing the calling.  The important thing is that we ultimately respond.  And how wonderful it is that God is willing to wait for us, to give us the time we need to decide!

       Our saving grace is that God has two qualities that don’t often show up together.  God is both persistent in calling us and patient with us as we form our response.  That’s because God knows us better than anyone.  God knows our capabilities.  God knows what gifts and talents we have been given.  God just happened to create us.  So God realizes that occasionally we might be slightly timid in our response.

       Just as we are called to be a community of faith as we gather here, we are that same community of faith as we go out to serve others and bring them the good news of God’s love.  Making a difference in the lives of others involves changing lives.  Last Sunday, we had the opportunity to remind ourselves of the ways we have responded to God’s call and the lives that this church has changed.  We call this opportunity “the annual congregational meeting”.  The occasion of our annual meeting is a chance for us to celebrate what we have accomplished as God’s people.  Celebrate, not brag, because the glory we seek as we minister to others is always God’s glory.  We are called to this work from our regular ordinary lives…in much the same way four fisherman were.  We don’t always get to choose where a call is going to lead us.  We may rebel, we may ignore, we may think it over but God continues to lay those plans before us.  And, as we respond to our calls, we are continually reminded that God knows us best.  The things we are able to accomplish with God’s help are nothing short of amazing.  Lives are changed forever…both the lives of those to whom we minister and our own lives.    

       When Jesus placed the opportunity to accompany him in front of four fishermen, they left immediately.  They had no prior experience.  They weren’t at all sure what they were getting themselves into.  But Jesus told them, “You can do this!”  That’s the work that we are called to do today.  We are called to follow Jesus into ministry and to bring good news to others.  It begins when we understand where God is calling us to go, both as individuals and as a community of faith.  The message we bring with us is radically different than Jonah’s.  Our message is not one of God’s judgment.  Our message is one of God’s love and forgiveness.  And, as we go out into our community, as we make a difference in the lives of those around us with God’s help, we too had better be prepared for the experience of a lifetime.  Thanks be to God!