Rev. Wilson’s Sermons

Seriously God!  You Want Me To Do What?

Jonah 3:10-4:11

24 September 2017

Jonah is one of my favorite stories.  But then, what’s not to like?  You’ve got a strange prophet, a storm, a boat, a big fish, a worm, the burning sun, and a big-sin city.  It almost sounds like the list of ingredients at a writing workshop.  All you have to do is write a great short story—which is what we have.

This strange prophet is not at all shy about speaking his mind to God.  That is, after behaving like a teenager who has been given a task that he has absolutely no intention of carrying out.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn them that God was pretty darn angry with them for their wicked wanton ways.  So Jonah sets out for the coast to get on a ship.  Except he boards one going to Tarshish which is in the total opposite direction of Nineveh.

God sees what Jonah has done and sets a storm in the path of the ship Jonah is on.  By the sounds of it, the storm may have been just below Hurricane Irma in strength.  Realizing who was really to blame for this horrendous storm, the ship’s crew throw Jonah overboard.  Lo and behold, the storm ceases instantly!

All is not lost for our intrepid prophet, for God provides a large fish to swallow Jonah up.  Jonah makes good use of those three days and nights in the belly of the big fish.  He discovers that God has had his best interests at the forefront all along.  He utters prayers of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance and vows to follow through on the mission God has placed before him.  The big fish spits Jonah on the beach.  When God again instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah goes.  No further questions asked.

However, I imagine that Jonah fulfilled his mission with some relish.  In my mind’s eye, I see Jonah trudging through this city bellowing, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Perhaps his enthusiasm for the job could be pegged to self-righteousness.  Again in my mind’s eye, I see Jonah being judgmental much like those folks who heckled Hester Prynne when she had to stand in the public square wearing a scarlet A because she had borne a child out of wedlock in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.  You see, that was the level of sin that was commonplace in Nineveh.  The citizens of that city broke most, if not all, of God’s commandments.  Jonah was upright in the way he followed God’s laws.  Once in Nineveh, he was ready to see the people there face the full force of God’s vengeance.

But he saw that his preaching was effective!  From the king on down, repentance was widespread.  The king covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes—both symbols of repentance in the Old Testament.  Then he sent out a decree to all those who dwelled in the city:  “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.  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.”

And so, God showed them grace and mercy.  God spared the city from destruction.  This made Jonah hopping mad!    He was all set for destruction, knowing that it was deserved!  Again that self-righteousness pops up.  God asks Jonah if his anger is righteous.  In reply, Jonah runs away again.  He is convinced that he is right and that God is wrong to show grace and mercy.

But God’s grace and mercy follow Jonah.  God will not give up on him!  The Ninevehvites were transformed, but Jonah refuses.  God provided shade in the form of a bush to bring Jonah comfort while he was pouting much like a small child who did not get his way would.  The next day, the bush is destroyed by a worm.  Jonah is angry again.  God again challenges him, asking him why he is angry about one small bush when he was so eager to see the an entire city and all its inhabitants that God had created destroyed.

Jonah cannot reconcile himself to this entire mission on which God sent him.  He believes he knows better than God what is righteous and what is beyond redemption and therefore is in need of destruction.  God reminds him that is just not the case.  These are decisions for God to make, not for Jonah.  Jonah’s responsibility, if you will, is to listen for God’s voice and do what God requires of him.

That same message is true for us today.  We are about to embark on the second of the three goals we set for ourselves last spring.  The first goal is well in hand now.  We have written new bylaws that reflect who we are as a congregation.  The group that drafted them has worked diligently through the summer on them.  We will have one more opportunity to discuss these new bylaws before we vote on them on October 1st after worship today.  Work on policies that will fill in the details on how the church operates are being drafted.  These policies will be made available to the congregation when they are compiled.

And so it is now time to begin work on the second goal.  You will remember that goal is to discern who are our neighbors and what can we do to reach out to them.  We will need between six and ten people willing to work on this.  As part of this group’s work, members will be asked to be a part of my doctoral research.  This will entail members spending about ten minutes a day as many days as you are able in conversation with God.

Why do that?  It is how we listen for how God is calling us to reach out to our neighbor.  God spoke to Jonah, saying go to Nineveh for I have a message I want you to deliver to the people there.  God is still speaking today.  We need to listen carefully to what God is saying.  We do this by being in conversation with God.

We may be faced with the same challenges Jonah was.  We may decide that we know better than God what we can do and with whom we should be doing it.  However, if that is the path we take, we should expect that God will pursue us, continuing to try to transform us.

The simple truth is we do not think like God.  However, if we are in conversation with God, we may begin to see the world through the lens of grace and mercy much like God does.  We may begin to care about the things, the people, that God does.  We may find that we are transformed by what God is calling us to do and be.

I am excited about this second goal we will begin working on very very soon—in October.  I suspect that God will challenge and stretch us so that we will grow.  We’ll grow in faith, in confidence that comes with the conviction that we are doing what God has called us to do.  I invite you to consider becoming part of this group by speaking with me or with our moderator Steve Kearley.  This work will flow naturally to our third goal, which is to discern if we are meeting the needs of our congregation.