10.16.22 Sermon Summary - The Sign of Jonah
As we ponder this day's stories, I want us to think about them in light of the Scriptures from last week. Simon, Peter, and James, and John have been fishing. They've had no success Jesus and the great crowds following him, come. Jesus steps into Simon Peter's boat, asks him to put out from shore a bit and spends the day teaching and preaching. Simon Peter's heart is moved - we Methodists might say strangely warmed - when Jesus turns to him and says, “put your boat out into deep water and cast your nets.”
Simon Peter says, “Lord, we fished all day with no success but because you say so, because of what I have heard we will do this.” They go out into the Sea of Galilee. They cast their nets. They have this great catch. and Peter falls at Jesus' feet and says, “go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He hears, he obeys, he recognizes his sinfulness, he repents.
Compare that to the readings we heard today. Jesus is preaching and teaching in some Pharisees and scribes say to him, “teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
Perform for us…. prove what you are saying…. and Jesus calls up stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. Stories the Scribes and Pharisees would have known well. The story of the Queen of the South, the Queen of Sheba, told in Kings and Chronicles, a great and powerful leader who comes to question Solomon, listens, and acknowledges Solomon's wisdom, “and see something greater than Solomon is here,” Jesus proclaims.
But I really want to focus on the first story that he evokes. This adulterous generation that's a charged word, isn't it? Remember that one of the central metaphors for the relationship between the Hebrew people, Israel, and God is that of bridegroom and bride. The law is form a union. Jesus is telling the leaders of the people that they are not fulfilling their vows.
“This adulterous generation will receive no sign except the sign of Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for 3 days. The son of man will be in the earth for three days.” The sign of Jonah.
Jonah, the great prophet, the mouthpiece of God. Known in Israel, known beyond Israel, who receives the word of God to go to Nineveh...
Now, one can understand why he might be reluctant to go to Nineveh. It is after all the capital of Assyria, the empire which has destroyed the northern kingdom. They are the sworn enemy They are frightening and powerful.
“Go to Nineveh, that great city,” God says, Jonah understands what God is saying and Jonah runs away. Other direction. Books passage to Tarshish… and as he's running away, a great storm alights on the Mediterranean and the crew - drawn from many different faiths and nations, worshipers of different gods - start comparing notes. Whose fault is this? The gods must be angry. Somebody did something wrong. It must be one of us. Fess up…
and so they start talking about their gods and who they worship and Jonah - who is actively running away from God right now - says to the men, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and dry land.”
Oh, the hypocrisy to proclaim oneself a worshiper of a God you are actively running away from. The Creator of the very sea you think you can escape on?! If we read more of Jonah 1, Jonah gets it. He says to the men, this is my fault. I have angered God. Throw me overboard. You guys will be okay.
But initially the crew doesn't do it. They continue to try to work their way through the storm. They refuse to sacrifice this stranger who has admitted that it's his fault. But they're overwhelmed and they pray to the God of Israel. “Do not let innocent blood be on our hands.” We're doing what we think you want. And they cast Jonah overboard.
I love this image. It's funny What is the fish thinking? and I'm glad that we laugh because Jonah is funny. It is a comedy. It uses irony and absurdity and humor to make a point to the people of Israel - to make a point to us here in Fort Scott, Kansas today. That fish ,incidentally which provided by God according to our reading. Different translations offer some different words. It's important to read different translations of the Bible and catch nuance of certain words especially when there are differences and in Jonah 1, that great fish is “appointed” in some translations. “provided, prepared.” God intends that fish according to the Book of Jonah. God prepares that fish. God provides that fish. God appoints that fish.
It's not lost on me. The word we use for where the Bishop sends pastors in the United Methodist Church is appointed. And what we believe happens is the Bishop and the cabinet and the churches are engaged in prayer. We identify needs and skills. We look at the clergy available. We identify their needs and skills… and at the end of that process of discernment, the bishop says “Christopher you're going to Fort Scott.” I didn't apply to come to Fort Scott. I quite frankly wasn't even ready to move when I got that phone call.
But part of my confirmation of call - that I dare to say that I believe God calls me to preach. It's absurd folks. Especially if you know my whole story. God has a tremendous sense of humor. But one of the core confirmations for me that that is true, as absurd as it sounds to me is that I… long-time control freak, who wanted everything to be planned and done exactly his way… is now willing to go wherever the Bishop, whoever the Bishop is at the time, which I also have no control over, wherever they say to go, I go.
This is not of me. Something else is happening in my life. Appointed this fish is. This fish hears God's call and obeys… much unlike our hero, Jonah. So, the sailors from many nations, they throw Jonah over and the storm calms and the sailors are struck by the great power of the Lord and they pray to the God of Israel and they offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and they make vows because of this great thing that they have experienced.
Jonah, meanwhile, gets a holy time out. He gets to sit and think about it for a while. To acknowledge that he has done wrong and Debra read for us the beautiful prayer that is chapter 2 of Jonah. A prayer of joyful thanksgiving in the midst of the fish. Jonah doesn't experience this as punishment. Jonah recognizes that this is a gift. Where he would surely have drowned. He is instead provided a way. God has made a way where there is no way. And Jonah is thankful. And Jonah renews his vows. I will do what you say to do. I will worship in your Temple again. I will proclaim your glory. And so God speaks to the whale, the great fish. Jonah finishes his prayer with the voice of thanksgiving, I will sacrifice to you what I have vowed, I will pay.
“Salvation belongs to the Lord” or our reading today was “deliverance.” God saves. God has saved me. And so, God speaks to the great fish, to the whale. And it spewed Jonah out on the dry land. The fish hears and obeys. Will Jonah?
The voice of the Lord comes to Jonah again, “go to Nineveh, that great city. And do as I tell you.” and so… as we continue reading in chapter 3 and 4, Jonah goes. He goes to the capital of the Assyrian Empire and he proclaims the word that God gives him. It is the shortest, most fantastically productive evangelistic call in history. He walks through this great city that is so large it would take days to walk through and he says “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed!” That's all he says. Over and over. “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.”
I want you to consider how we would react if someone walked through downtown Fort Scott saying 40 days more and Fort Scott will be destroyed.
Would we put on sackcloth and ashes? Would we put sackcloth and ashes on our cattle? Would the stock exchange… I get the updates from on the sale heads? anoint their cattle with ashes, place sackcloth on them, tell their cattle to repent. Nineveh does…
According to this book of comedy, this book of prophecy. and the Ninevites, this very symbol of evil and oppression say, “who knows? God may relent and change his mind. He may turn from his fierce anger so that we do not perish.” Insiders and outsiders, those who are supposed to hear and obey the God of Israel, those who are foreign….
Over and over the outsiders hear and obey. And our hero, Jonah, retires from the city, goes up on a hill nearby, and if you've read Jonah 4… he is furious. Furious. Angry enough to die! Why is he so angry? Because he knew, he knew…. “This is why it's fled to Tarshish at the beginning for I knew that (angry voice) you are a gracious God and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” See, normally, we say things like, (pleasant voice) you are a gracious God and merciful and slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love”… when it's for us but… It's for them too. How dare God be gracious to them. I knew this was going to happen. That's why I tried to run away. I worship the God who created the sea and the sky but I want that God to behave my way rather than conform myself to this overwhelming grace.
Jonah is a short book. It's a humorous book. It is a crucially important book. The book of Jonah tells us a great deal about how we are to read and live out Scripture. And while it is a book of the Old Testament, I believe that his message is that we are to be Christ like. That we are to follow Christ. That we are to obey God as we understand God.
And that we are not in charge of drawing the lines of who else gets to be in. As soon as we start thinking that we control or define or limit God… well, we've gone overboard. And yet God appoints and provides and prepares - even for one so sinful as me - ways forward. We are called to be Christ like, to forgive to take on the suffering of others, to live with compassion and grace to be humbled, to claim resurrection to avoid bearing false witness. How easy it is to demonize others. Even when they're wrong and… sometimes people are wrong… but we slip into persecution. We slip into demonizing.
We begin to say things to win political points. We even convince ourselves they're true. In the midst of our United Methodist debates and division, as some congregations decide they cannot abide by decisions that are being made or just might be made in the future. One of the things I am thankful for is that we in the Great Plains Conference, one of the most diverse United Methodist Conferences in the United States, if not the world. We have pastors from Africa and Korea, in the Philippines, we bear witness together in the midst of our differences and our disagreement, and early on, leaders of the various factions in the Great Plains made a commitment to be civil to one another. To tell the truth of our disagreements but to not allow falsehood to enter in.
Sadly, that has not been true everywhere and one of the things that is circulating widely amongst the WCA or Global Methodist Church movement is the idea that United Methodists are going to denounce the resurrection. That is not true.
We can disagree over a lot of things. But at the core of our identity is the life death and resurrection of Christ. Maybe part of the reason that that rumor never took hold here in the Great Plains is because one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the world is in Kansas City, Kansas. It started about 32 years ago in the basement of a funeral home. And that group of twelve people that gathered in the basement of a funeral home named themselves the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection because God keeps God's promises.
United Methodist are not denouncing the resurrection. It is the center of our faith.
Even as we disagree with one another, even as yet again, we divide. So… how do we read the Bible? Jonah is a crucial book because it is about how we read the Bible. It pushes against other parts. It broadens our horizons. Do we read the Bible as a tool, as a weapon for us to impose our judgment on others or do we read the Bible with humility, recognizing that these ancient stories are our stories. I am Jonah. I tried to go to Tarshish. Some of you have been in the pit. Some of you have experienced liberation. Nearly all of us have been baptized. I want to close with a thought on church splits and schisms and disagreements. Sometimes they're important. We owe part of our legacy as United Methodists to the division of the Reformation which was sparked in a couple of weeks, 505 years ago. And the story is that a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. He had some questions. He wanted to debate some topics. He saw things happening in the church that he didn't think were right.
What he didn't is the thing he was disagreeing with had come from the top down. The Pope was on board but he stood his ground even in the face f being excommunicated. He stood his ground. He was a man of passion and conviction.
He wasn't perfect. A great deal of the lingering anti-Semitism in our churches today can trace its heritage directly to a book Martin Luther wrote late in his career. But he was a man of conviction that at least sometimes got it right. It took a couple hundred years but the Roman Catholic Church actually admitted the thing they disagreed about… the topic that most sparked the reformation, Martin Luther was right on. That the practice of selling indulgences had been wrong.
Luther was a stalwart figure, convinced he's right, willing even to suffer for it… but why was he in Wittenberg, Germany at all? He was on staff at a seminary in Wittenberg, Germany because the Bishop had decided to get rid of him… because he was so afraid of God… so convinced of his sinfulness and worthlessness… that when he tried to hold communion, to preside at the Eucharist, his hands shook so much that the blood of Christ would spill out.
He couldn't perform the basic task he had been called and appointed to do because he was so desperately afraid of the wrath of God. and so, he was taken out of the local parish. He was sent to Wittenberg to basically get rid of him, to be an academic and as he read the Bible…
See back then, you didn't have a copy of the Bible gathering dust on your shelf. There were only a few printed or handwritten versions. They were precious, they were kept, even priests didn't have them. They were trained in what to preach, they preached by memory. We didn't read the Scriptures, you didn't read the Scriptures, but… because he was at Wittenberg, he had a copy available, he could read the Bible. And so he read and he prayed…. and he found himself in the belly of the great fish…. and he found in the Scriptures liberation. He read and realized that we are justified by grace through faith! That God has already done what is necessary for salvation! That we are loved and forgiven… and Luther’s hands stilled. He became able to proclaim the gospel. To preside at the table. He became able look at what was happening and say this is wrong and here is why I think it's wrong. and the reason he was able to do all of that is at his darkest moment… in the midst of a storm, he remembered that he was baptized. “I am baptized.” I have been in the waters of death with Christ. I am risen in Christ. I am baptized.
As we gather today to remember our baptism, to remember that we have died and risen with Christ, that Christ has already accomplished what is necessary, that we are freed, that we are justified, that we are liberated. By grace through faith, and that grace, and that faith is a gift of God. Symbolized in the waters of baptism. Thanks be to God.