Sunday, January 25, 2015 | Epiphany
Third Sunday After the EpiphanyYear B
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
There is a great scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indiana is in this giant cavern underground seeking the Holy Grail. He has his father’s notebook of puzzling and vague instructions for getting past all the booby traps and the only instruction for getting across the giant pit in this cavern is a one-liner about a “leap of faith.” He thinks about it for a minute, then just steps off into thin air. And he doesn’t fall! He walks across on a secret hidden bridge and on the other side, he grabs some gravel and tosses it out in front of him, making the path easier to see on the way out. While for those who came through the tunnels after him, the bridge was marked with the gravel, it was genuine faith with which Indiana Jones stepped out onto that invisible bridge. That took faith and guts, both of which Indiana Jones seems to have no shortage of.
And then there are people like Jonah. Oh, Jonah. Jonah never would have gotten through the cave to the treasure in an adventure movie.
Our passage today says that God told Jonah to go give a message to the city of Nineveh and that Jonah obeyed and off he went to Nineveh. But it says here that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. The first time God told Jonah to deliver a message to Nineveh, Jonah had turned around and run the other direction. Nineveh wasn’t highly regarded by most people, and Jonah was solidly on that bandwagon. They were beyond redemption in his eyes, so there didn’t seem to be any point in taking them a message. Some scholars argue that Jonah didn’t go because he didn’t like the Ninevites and figured they deserved the destruction they were surely going to get. Some say that he just assumed that they wouldn’t bother to repent so it was a waste of his time. Either way, Jonah did not want to be God’s messenger in this situation.
In order to warn Jonah back around to deliver the message to Nineveh, God sends a storm to the boat Jonah’s fleeing on. Rather than saying, “ok, God. I’ll deliver your message to them, even though I don’t get it.” Jonah decides to fling himself overboard. He doesn’t want the whole ship crew to die with him, but he’d rather die than deliver this message. What I love about what happens next is that God tells a whale or a giant fish of some sort to go swallow Jonah. Without hesitation, the fish – a better listener than Jonah – does it.
The passage that we come in at today does indeed show Jonah immediately obeying a word from God. . . the second time God tells him to do it and after God sent a storm and a giant, hungry sea creature to get him to do it. Oh, Jonah.
When I get to the part of the story we read this morning, I always picture Jonah sort of sulking through Nineveh for the three days it takes to travel across the vast city. I picture him with the same gait and the same look on his face that I see on my kids when they are told they will lose TV privileges if they don’t clean their rooms after I’ve asked them several times to do so. Maybe next time they don’t clean their rooms, I should toss them overboard to the whales.
Jonah fully expects the people there to not repent, but in a wonderful twist of the story, they do. And God is faithful to rescue them from judgment because they are faithful to hear his Word and turn from the wickedness and injustice and unfaithfulness in which they had been living. The people of Nineveh are shown unexpected grace. In spite of Jonah’s reluctance to deliver the message to them and their past wickedness, something about that message gets to them. They fast, they mourn, they repent. And God is gracious and merciful to them. This is such a surprising outcome to the story, that in the next section of this story, we see Jonah get really really angry with God for saving the Ninevites. So surprising, so undeserved is the grace that God shows the repentant people of Nineveh that Jonah just can’t understand it.
It’s important for us to ask ourselves where Nineveh is. Not literally where it is – it is just ancient ruins somewhere in Iraq today – but where is Nineveh for each of us? Where is Nineveh for us as a church? Where are the Ninevehs in Liberty and in the world at large? Where are the places, who are the people who we have given up hope for? Where is it that we throw up our hands and say, “They’re beyond help. Why bother?” When we’re distant from the pain and the suffering, we want to put up our hands and say, “All I can do is pray.”
Nineveh takes many forms in our lives. For Indiana Jones, it was a vast chasm and a step into thin air, trusting that he wouldn’t fall. For Samuel, it was delivering God’s word to someone he loved very much. For Jonah, it was delivering God’s word to some people he really really REALLY did NOT want to bother with - people who turned out to be beloved by and redeemed by God in the long run.
When I started seminary, I really felt called to be purposeful about building up friendships with the people around me. I’m so moved by the beauty of the relationships that have come from that time and I’m glad that I listened. But there was one person who for some reason, no matter how nice I was, did not like me. To this day, I’m not really sure what it was that got us off to such a rocky start when I was trying so hard to be so nice. Maybe it’s just because we were from such different backgrounds and I was this weirdo trying to be buddies.
After it became painfully obvious that we were just not going to be friends because I was clearly annoying the stuffing out of this person, some friends from Bible Study encouraged me to just let it go. They said, “Forget it. It’s not worth stressing over. Not everyone is going to like you all of the time. It’s fine.” But I just could not. I don’t even know why. Sometimes that’s how you know it’s God calling you into something – when the Holy Spirit just won’t let you let it go. Sometimes, there is a fine line between unhealthy obsession and the calling of the Holy Spirit.
Against the advice of my friends, I sent an email. I apologized. I was genuinely upset that I might have offended my classmate in some terrible way. I simply said, “I’m really sorry if I did or said anything that hurt your feelings or upset you in some way. I didn’t mean to. Sometimes I’m just a little weird and maybe that’s annoying.”
I never heard back. No reply came from the email. So I let it go. I said what I had to say and I left it at that. But something strange started happening. I didn’t get a reply to the email, but something changed after that. We began sitting near each other in class. I’m not even sure why we did, but there is this unspoken rule in seminary that where you sit the first day of the term in any given class is where you sit all term for that class. It’s all very Presbyterian. As classes got smaller and we kept finding ourselves sitting near each other and we began to talk about course materials. Then we began to talk about personal life and our hopes and dreams after seminary.
I don’t know why God placed on my heart someone who was so annoyed by me as someone I was supposed to be friends with. I might never know, other than today I consider this person a dear friend. One day, my friend even brought up in a class discussion how weird it was that we are now friends. I think we were Nineveh for each other.
Beautiful things come from living surprising, ridiculous, out of control lives of following God. Nineveh was spared because of their repentance. Jonah didn’t see that one coming! I became great friends with someone I irritated the bejeebers out of just a few years ago. Neither of us saw that one coming!
When we set aside our anxieties about far off or strange people and places and our pre-conceived notions of who or what God can and cannot redeem, we find hope. We find hope for Nineveh. We find hope for our own futures with God. We find hope that in this weird world, God is at work and there is redemption for those who repent. When we follow God, no matter how reluctantly, the purpose is redemption. Redemption of relationships with God and one another is the fruit that comes from reaching out to Nineveh.
This morning, we as a community mourn the loss of a dear and faithful friend – one who served this church and this community throughout the years. More than once, he told me stories of times that he would purposefully sit down and have a friendly lunch with someone he’d just moments ago been in deep disagreement with during a meeting of some sort. “After all,” he’d say, “That’s how God wants us to treat each other.” Let’s let Stew’s legacy in this church be that we are a congregation who, like he did, answers the call to leadership, to reconciliation, to service, and to love.
Sue, Randy, Jill, Sandy, Janice. . . as you are ordained and/or installed into new or returning to positions of leadership this year; and to the rest of the elders and deacons continuing their service this year - perhaps serving on the session or the deacons this year is your Nineveh. Or perhaps you are more like the disciples and didn’t need to be swallowed by a fish first. Either way, thank you for your faithfulness. I hope that you are able to remember in the midst of the meetings and the reports and all of the things that come with serving on those boards that without you stepping out into that chasm like Indiana Jones, we’ll never get through the cave.
Remember that God honors our service, whatever that is. Sometimes it’s not in ways we want or expect. . . Oh, Jonah! But God honors that service and when we travel to Nineveh, even when we sulk through the town angrily delivering the message, God can use us for the work of the Kingdom.