Readings: Jonah 3 v 1-5,10, Mark 1 v 14-20
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
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.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10When 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 he did not do it.
On Friday, I was working with some colleagues, putting together worship material for the season after Easter.
The material we produce Spill the Beans, we’ve been using for the past wee while here at Castlehill.
It’s a lectionary based material – that means we stick to the texts prescribed for churches every week.
Even though we’re working with the prescribed texts, we still have to decide which of the texts – the Old Testament, the Epistle or the Gospel we’ll focus on for any given week.
The season after Easter takes us, in the Old Testament readings, into the stories of King David, so we thought that would give us a good focus for the season.
The problem is that, though there were many great moments of triumph in David’s reign, there was also much violence and blood shed and less glorious moments.
However, having decided to go with the Old Testament for the season, we decided to stick with it. It’s important that we don’t simply produce our own version of favourite texts that we’re happy to preach.
And even more important to wrestle with those texts we don’t especially like or with which we struggle.
But, as those of you who were involved in the Bible Reading project last year will be well aware of, the Old Testament is very hard to stomach at times.
And it’s even harder to see how reading what are often bizarre stories can have any relevance to our life of faith today.
There are also stories in the Old Testament that we tend to remember, perhaps from Sunday School days, that become so much a part of our lore that we often forget or overlook their context – stories like that of David and Goliath (just one of the stories we were working on yestrday) – or, of today’s character, Jonah.
Most of us will recall, in different measures, that Jonah was the character who ran from God, ended up on a boat that got caught in a storm and, at his own request was thrown overboard.
He was swallowed by a whale, puked up and slunk back to do God’s bidding.
While other books of the prophets in the Old Testament spell out the ills of God’s people in exile and often pass damning indictments on the way that folk are living, Jonah is different.
As far as the people of Nineveh are concerned, they apparently play a minor role in this story which is more about the struggle that Jonah has in responding God’s call.
We read that Jonah, after taking his roundabout route to get there, via the belly of a whale, proclaims judgment on Nineveh, the people take note and decide to change their ways – that’s the nub of Nineveh’s involvement in Jonah’s story.
The people of Nineveh are convicted, they change their ways, and they are saved from their predicted awful fate.
That’s a whole other story,
And THAT’s what takes up the bulk of this book.
We read of Jonah’s initial body swerving of God’s call – making a run for it.
Then we read of him coming to his senses and heading to Nineveh as God had asked, proclaiming God’s message to the people.
But, after the miraculous turnaround of the people, Jonah again has a problem with God.
Jonah is MAD at God for taking pity on the people particularly this people.
There are circumstances in which we can imagine God’s forgiveness to be entirely appropriate – such as the times God forgives us – it’s acceptable that God should overlook our minor misdemeanours.
Nineveh, city of the Assyrians who are the bloodiest people of whom we read in the Old Testament.
These people are beyond the pale.
And yet, God issues them with a warning, sees their repentance and lovingly forgives them.
THAT is incomprehensible.
A God who acts with such unpredictability is not one that we can EVER fathom.
But it is a God in whom we can hope.
A God who is able to overcome violence, a God who can break into the hopeless patterns that we see in our world and turn things around.
Not by condemnation.
But by mercy.
No wonder Jonah was confused by such a God.
No wonder he refused to respond to the call of that God.
We’ve probably all, at some point, on hearing this story, thought Jonah foolish.
We’ve thought him foolish for trying to run away from God.
And then we’ve thought him foolish for getting angry with God for showing forgiveness.
And yet, Jonah’s actions are ones that we eschew often.
We are often diverted and take all sorts of circuitous routes to avoid the call of God.
And we often question God’s wisdom in meting out forgiveness in what seems to us a much too merciful fashion.
Anne Lamott said: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do”
Our gospel today, also encourages us to consider our response to God.
In typical Mark fashion, the call of the disciples is reported with urgency and immediacy.
When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John, they immediately leave everything and follow him.
Can we begin to imagine such a response?
Can we conceive of any situation that would result in us changing direction as drastically as the disciples did?
And if not, then HOW is the gospel message going to be communicated to today’s world?
What would it take to experience such conviction on our part, what would it take to change our lives as dramatically as were the lives of the people of Nineveh or those first disciples changed?
As we gather here week by week, is there anything that really gets to us.
Is there anything that would compel us to follow God’s call to live out the gospel in everyday life?
God IS merciful.
God is also demanding.
The demand on us is to hear God’s call for our lives, to follow Christ and to share the good news wherever God calls us to serve.
“Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you fish for people.”