July 22, 2018 You Don’t Have to Be God
If there’s one story from my childhood Sunday school classes that never failed to attract my attention, it was the old story of Jonah. I was mesmerized every time I heard that God could produce a fish begin enough to swallow a man (and you better believe I thought about that story every time I dipped my feet into the ocean). But as I’ve grown older, I think I appreciate this story even more. Not because of what it says about Jonah, but what it proclaims about God. Now, today’s text begins with chapter 3, which is sort of an odd place to start when you’re reading a book. But for Jonah, and maybe for us, it’s the perfect place to start…because this is his new beginning. Would you read with me…
Ever since God spoke to Jonah the first time, Jonah has been on the run. And I’m sure that could describe many of us. God called him to go to Nineveh, a city known for its wickedness and evil, a city no good person in his or her right mind would ever go. Nineveh was the last place a Hebrew like Jonah wanted to spend his days. So he ran. He went down to a place called Joppa, hoping to flee this crazy request from God, hoping to escape to a new reality, one that he could control and manipulate. But we also know that Jonah was hoping to flee from God. He is the picture of disobedience. He wants to carve out his niche on his own terms, spend his days where he wants to, live the way he’s always envisioned. So when told to do one thing by God, he puts on the rebellious hat and does another. And we know how the story goes. He gets on a ship, the storms whip up and Jonah and the lives of his traveling companions are put at risk. Even so, we read these powerful and hope-filled words: The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
If we have in our minds that God only calls and uses certain types of people with certain characteristics that we would deem worthy of holy callings, then Jonah presents us with a holy conundrum. If God requires obedience, then we must recognize Jonah’s initial disobedience. If God requires faithfulness, then we must come to grips with Jonah’s lack of faithfulness. And if God requires a heart to be as passionate as His, then we really have a problem. Because Jonah might be passionate, but whatever he is passionate about, it is certainly not Nineveh. God may have a heart for those people, but Jonah does not. Yet, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. And this is really the heart of the story.
No matter how far Jonah strays from God, he’s not out of the realm of God’s good grasp. Regardless of how Jonah has spent the first part of this story, God just keeps on writing new chapters. And no matter how far Jonah runs, God keeps chasing, waiting for that moment to offer a new opportunity. This “second time” word God gives to Jonah is good news for all those who believe we’ve strayed too far. If Jonah were talking to us, he would sit us down and say, “you better think again.” Because over and over again, the Bible shows us examples of people who are called by God to do something, yet none of these people fit into the box labeled “Perfect.” And many times, God uses people in spite of their obvious flaws, shortcomings and weaknesses. There was Abraham, who was seemingly too old; Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho; and David, who couldn’t hold a candle to the giant Goliath. And now we have Jonah, the disobedient prophet, who doesn’t want to go where God wants him to go. Yet, the word of the Lord comes again.
When this word comes, God tells Jonah to share a message. But the message to be proclaimed will not be Jonah’s message; it will be the message God gives to Jonah. There is no one in this service who does not know the danger of speaking the wrong word, or even the right word at the wrong time. The word we are each called to proclaim is not our word; it is God’s. As soon as we blur these lines and mistakenly believe that this word is our word, we run the risk of proclaiming a message that God does not intend. Every responsible preacher knows that it is not the preacher’s job to somehow “work up a message.” It is the preacher’s job to show up Monday morning with the expectation that God will give a message throughout the week.
Much of our faith can be boiled down to three simple words: “Just show up.” But simply showing up is not natural for most of us. Most of us would rather plan out our steps so that we can avoid obstacles and distractions. Jonah had no idea how Nineveh would respond to God’s message. He had now way of knowing whether or not they would accept him, pay attention to him or take his life. But Jonah wasn’t called to figure any of this out. He was just told to go.
One of the struggles we have is the assumption that somehow we are called to take Jesus into the world. And there are a lot of stressed-out Christians in the world who buy in to this belief. That’s a burden no human can shoulder and a mission we simply cannot fulfill. We don’t take Jesus into the world. We don’t take Jesus anywhere. He’s already there. Before we have the conversation, before we enter in to the tense meeting room, before we go to the mission field, we can breathe a huge sigh of relief- Jesus is already there! And the same is true in Nineveh. Long before Jonah arrives on the scene, God has already been at work. Jonah isn’t asked to take God to Nineveh or figure out how to reach the people; he’s simply told to show up and meet God in this foreign land.
At long last, Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh. After all the running away, he finally enters the city he desperately tried to avoid and begins to preach: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” It’s a sermon that leaves a lot to be desired. There’s not a lot of hope in his message, no option of choosing another way or going a different direction. Jonah simply proclaims the message God gives him: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” And it was all he needed to say because Nineveh was ready to hear. From the common citizen to the King, this wicked city called Nineveh, was ready to believe God. Jonah’s sermon isn’t much, but it gets the job done. The King declares a royal proclamation of fasting, of crying out to God and of ceasing from violence. The hope is that God might take notice, that he might have compassion on them and that he will not do what he had set out to do. And that’s exactly what happens. God sees the changed ways of Nineveh, hears their cries, and shows them mercy.
That’s really what the story of Jonah is all about. It’s about mercy and second chances to those who really don’t deserve. It’s about God doing whatever it takes to call back a wayward prophet or a wicked city. In the final six verses, Jonah quietly fades from the picture. That’s because in this story, Jonah is, as Mother Teresa described herself, “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” This story, as well as yours, is all about God. It is God who calls Jonah and says, “Get up.” It is God who sends Jonah and says, “Go.” It is God who gives Jonah a message to preach and doesn’t make Jonah rely on his own creative abilities. It is God who sees in Nineveh a people worthy a second chance; and it is God who hears their cries and offers them mercy. It is God and not Jonah.
What is it about Jonah that makes him the ideal candidate to go to Nineveh? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. For various reasons, Jonah looks nothing like the person God would send to turn the hearts of a dying city, but this just might be the point. Only God would have the muster to stick with a disobedient prophet. Only God would have the courage to send a Hebrew into foreign land. And only God could have the type of unrelenting compassion on a people so prone to wickedness. And ultimately this is why Nineveh believes. Though the sound echoing through the air is the voice of Jonah, it is God whom the Ninevehites hear.
The success of every ministry, every calling and every life can be answered with one question: Was God made known? Or as John the Baptist once implied, “Did you decrease so that Christ could be increased?” This is, of course, why Jesus sends us out into the world- not to be Christ, but to make room so that Christ may increase.
To complete the work God calls you to do, you don’t have to be God. And this is a good thing, because I don’t think any of us would make a very good God. And as Jonah proves, you don’t even have to be very proficient at following God to successfully complete the mission. You don’t have to turn your office into a platform or your lunch break into a Bible Study or make your neighbor into your evangelism guinea pig. You don’t have to do any of that. You just have to show up, meet God there and believe that in you, through you and maybe at times even in spite of you, God will fulfill His mission of revealing the tremendous depths of his love to the world. Amen.