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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 25, 2015

 The Danger of Call-Waiting

Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20

              To call the Book of Jonah a book of prophesy is kind of a joke, and I think the Hebrews knew it when they listed Jonah along with the so-called Minor Prophets.  To call Jonah a prophet is a joke, and again, the Hebrews who included this brilliant little book in the Bible, knew it.  The whole book of Jonah is written as a joke, or with a sense of humor.  And if you cannot laugh, or appreciate the intended humor, you will miss much of the point of it.  Take for instance, our text this morning.  “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time….”

             One of the great comic devices of the best humorists and comedians is understatement.  Bob Newhart, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin, to name a few, all majored in it.  And if understatement ever appeared in its dry, restrained, deadpan, ironic clothing, it appears in this line: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell.’”

             The first time this call came, let’s just say that things did not go so well for Jonah!  He was asked to go to Nineveh, but chose instead to go to Tarshish, a city whose name means “gold covered streets,” a city in Spain as far away from Nineveh, in modern-day Iraq, as someone could go!  That is why I said Jonah is a joke of a prophet.  A prophet obeys God’s call and speaks God’s word.  Jonah flees in the opposite direction!  He jumps a ship to Tarshish, and God intervenes, creates a terrible storm, and finally these pagan sailors figure out that the storm has been sent by Jonah’s God, “the creator of heaven and earth,” because Jonah has not obeyed God’s call.  You see, Jonah hates Nineveh, and hates the Ninevites, and the last thing he wants to do is preach a word to them.  Then they decide, at Jonah’s insistence, to cast him into the sea, where he gets swallowed by a big fish and “was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”  He prays from that dark, scary place, pleading and blaming God, along with some true lines of awe and praise.  Then the Lord causes the great fish to vomit Jonah up, right on the shores of Nineveh!  (It’s like a cut-rate, no-frills Mediterranean cruise!)

             So with deadpan humor, the writer tells us, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”  This time, Jonah goes, and Jonah preaches to them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  It is not what you would call Good News, is it?  And yet, the people believed God, and repented!  Even their evil king believed and repented.  Even their animals, their cows and goats and pigs, put on sack cloth and ashes and repented!  And Jonah is “exceedingly displeased,” and throws a fit over God’s ways with him.  He pouts like a little child.

             So what does this laughable Old Testament book have to say to us?  First, that God is a living, responsive God, always willing to adapt and change, to deal creatively with people like Jonah, or people like us.  Jonah tries to put God on call-waiting.  That is the opposite of those fishermen Jesus first called!  Mark loves the word “immediately” – it appears twice in our New Testament lesson this morning!  When God calls, God wants us to respond, and to respond immediately.  But if we do not, because we are afraid, or like Jonah, because we don’t want to, God is willing to work with us.  The same with the Ninevites.  God is ready to judge them harshly; God is ready to destroy them, but God is also willing to repent when they repent of their evil ways.

             God loves repentance!  It is a word that means to turn or to change.  Jesus’ first sermon in Mark is a call to repentance.  In Hebrew, the word is “shūv” – a word that means “to turn around,” “to head in a new direction.”  In the New Testament, in Greek, it is the word “metanoia” – a word that means “to change.”  God is endlessly inventive in responsiveness to our foolish, fearful, recalcitrant, stubborn, blind ways.  And God is always willing to let us repent, to lead us to repentance.

             Thursday night, Connie and I went to dinner, and she discovered that our back door had been left unlocked.  I had gone out it a day earlier to feed the birds, and forgot to lock it.  I was guilty, and I hate to be guilty!  So Connie said something to me, and I said something back to her, and pretty soon, here we were, on a date, out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, and we were barely speaking – and when we were, we weren’t exactly saying loving things to each other!

             So we sat in the car and finally started talking.  (I would love to tell you that I initiated the apology, but if I told you that, you might think I’m telling a joke!)  The point is, we both repented of how utterly silly and stupid our words and behavior had been – and it changed everything!  Repentance – admitting your sin and expressing genuine sorrow for it – always changes everything!  To repent is to make all things new!  It is to start over.  God loves repentance.  So does Jesus!  And God is responsive to our willingness to repent.  Indeed, read Jonah!  In Jonah, God repents, and saves the Ninevites, and God repents, and won’t give up on Jonah.

             Which brings me to the second lesson Jonah holds.  God is persistent, and never gives up on us.  Jonah goes in the exactly opposite direction that God calls.  So God sends a storm, and then a great fish, and then a whole city that repents – God won’t give up on Jonah or the Ninevites!  God persists, finding ever new ways to get to Jonah.  Jonah is like us, and we are often bad jokes, and not much more, when it comes to being Christians.  We can be so narrow, so judgmental, so small and harsh to each other!  We can be so selfish, just like Jonah!  And God remains ever faithful, ever sure.  God offers mercy when we deserve judgment, and God’s judgment is always intended to lead us to mercy.  God did not give up on Jonah.  And God won’t give up on you.  God does not walk away – God persists.

             Finally, don’t miss the universality of God and of the Gospel.  It was the best part of Judaism, which at times could be so narrow, so clannish.  Israel was called to be “a light to the nations.”  And Abraham was promised that “through his family God would bless all the families of the earth.”

             God loves everyone – even the Ninevites, who live in modern-day Iraq, which says to me that Jonah only gets funnier as years go by!  We all suffer from some form of “Ninevitas.”  We all have our fears and prejudices that keep us from living and reaching out as widely as God does to embrace the whole world.  God offers salvation to everyone in Jesus Christ. 

 “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

like the wideness of the sea.

  “For the love of God is broader,

than the measures of the mind.

And the heart of the Eternal

is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful,

we would gladly trust God’s Word,

and our lives reflect thanksgiving

for the goodness of our Lord.”

             Repent!  And know that God never gives up on you, and will never stop calling you to grow and change!

                                                                                     Amen.

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