Third Sunday after Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-10 Mark 1:14-20
If you were here last week, you might notice a theme beginning to happen; someone discovers that God is calling them and then they decide what action to take. This morning we have two more classic stories.
In one, God calls the prophet Jonah, who as we might remember from Sunday School, gets eaten by a fish because...he didn’t want to do what God was calling him to do. The other is Jesus calling the four fishermen, who abandon their personal responsibilities to become fisher’s of people. There is also prophetic nature to each story that offer us insight to God's personality.
The title of my sermon, “A second chance,” speaks to this. God is a God of second chances. To me, that is the good news. I don't know about you, but I have lived on the grace of second chances. I can't think of anyone who doesn't long to be redeem, to have their past wiped clean and given the chance to live as God intended us to live.
Sadly, some might believe our cynical world has made it too difficult or too hard to get a second chance, much-less enjoy it. Too often we get more satisfaction watching a Tiger Woods, or Bernie Madoff, suffer a great moral collapse, then we do watching them get redeemed. When they fail, we feel better about who we are...But when they are redeemed we have to accept the fact that we are all equal...we are no different than other sinners. But aren't we all worthy of a second chance? Jonah wasn't so sure. But Jesus was.
We can't read the story of Jonah, and ignore the story of Nineveh. Nor can we read the a story of Jesus and the disciples, without seeing ourselves in the words. For this is the living word of God, and God speaks to all of us...No matter who we are or where we are at in life, God finds us. Jonah knows this all too well. Now, if you're unfamiliar with the backstory of Jonah, it goes like this. God asks him to deliver a message to his enemies, but instead he runs away. There's a storm, a giant fish, and three days of solitude to contemplate...and reconsider God's offer. Since there is nowhere to run from God, Jonah gives in. He repents, sort of, and gets a second chance to redeem himself. He goes to Nineveh and begrudgingly does what God asks. And in the end, everything works out.
Jesus, on the other hand, calls out the fishermen who instantly abandon their family business and blindly follow him. There is much more to their story, of course. But instead of zipping through it, I invite you to imagine jumping in your car and driving off in whatever direction the spirit moves you. Of course, you're leaving your life behind. You will have no forwarding address...No cell phone, no map, no hotel reservations, no money. Doesn't that sound like fun? To just trust God and go for it!
So which one of these stories is more like you? The allegory of a reluctant prophet...who knows what he is suppose to do but doesn’t want to do it? Or the tale of the runaway fishermen...who skip out of their responsibilities to blindly go wherever the wind blows. (Which, by the way, is too the land of hardship and death)
As you weigh your choices, I’ll tell you a little yarn of myself. It’s about the first time I ever rode a horse. It was in Yellowstone Park. I was ten and had gone on a trip with my best friend, Jeff Price, and his parents. Now I wasn't new to horses; I had driven past them every Sunday on the way to church. But these were much bigger in person then they were from the backseat of my father’s VW Bug. They were much more intimidating as well. Now the ones they put us on weren’t shinny and silky, like the ones you see in the movies. Ours were more dusty and dirty, and more saggy than strong. In cowboy terms, their saddles were very well worn.
Sporting new cowboy hats from souvenir shop, Jeff and I rode through the wooded trails of Wyoming. We were given clear instructions not to do anything…other than hold on...and not fall off. Our horses knew to follow the leader, whose rider was…a gristled old cowpoke that kept spitting chewing tobacco along the trail. My horse was not fast by any measure. Even in my wildest imagination, she and I would not be able to escape an attack like the one we saw reenacted a few days earlier at Little Big Horn.
Giving it all her best effort, I fell quickly behind. I would soon discover how truly unpleasant it is to bring up the rear; especially with in a group of elderly horses. It didn't take long for mine to decide she’d had enough. She just stopped. I don’t know why...but she didn’t want to go any further. There was no amount of kicking I could do to get this old gal going. All I could do was sit there....And not fall off. My heart sunk and my eyes began to water as I watched the others trod up the mountain without me. I was left all alone holding the old leather reigns. Which makes me very sympathetic to Mr. Zebedee…who was left holding the worn out nets, as his son walk away with Jesus.
The good news of this tale is there was another group sporting new cowboy hats from souvenir shop that came up behind me. They too were following a gruff old cowboy spitting tobacco. Without flinching, he smacked that stubborn mare hard enough to get her going again. I was saved. Thanks be to God.
So which one are you more like? The stubborn Jonah, who for some reason or another just doesn’t want to get up and go? Or the ones that just blindly follows the pack trying not to step in the mess that has been left in your path?
Jonah knew exactly what God wanted him to do...he just didn’t want to do it. And for a good reason. God was sending him into a foreign country, giving him an impossible mission. Imagine, going into an ISIS training camp wagging your finger and professing, “Allah doesn’t like you killing all those Christians and Jews. Stop it now or you will be overthrown.” Jonah wasn’t stupid. In fact he knew exactly what God was going to do. And I'm sure he didn’t really care if God wiped his mortal enemy off the face of the earth. Nor was he motivated to have himself killed in the process of saving them. In contrast, there are the disciples, who had no idea what they were getting into when Jesus said, “Follow Me.” I'm sure it sounded like a great idea, at first. But at what expense?
We eventually find out that things get a little weird. Jesus will tell them, “Take no shoes, no extra cloak, no money, or food. But instead rely only on the Spirit of God.” Don't think about how you’re going to support the family? Never mind how you are going to pay the phone bill, the rent, the car payment, the health insurance, and so on...Have faith, and God will provide for your needs. They would come discover there is a cost to being a disciple.
So who are you more like? Jonah or John? Perhaps you're a little bit of both?
In the way the story is often told, Jonah sounds like a whining and insecure failure. God gives him a second chance, and even then he goes off and pouts about it. Throughout all four Gospels the disciples sound simple and naïve, if not a bit dim witted. Yet God calls them out, and redeems them. Both stories give a clear picture of God. He is understanding, persistent, and grace-filled.
Jonah relents. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s all he had to say. It was the world’s shortest sermon. There is no lesson of hope or grace, no thought-provoking quotes from Barth or Bonnheoffer. Just “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And by the power of God’s Spirit, the people repent. They hear God calling to them. And make the decision to act. The entire city, from the king to their cattle, take their second chance. They turn from their evil ways, and return back to God.
God gives Jonah a second chance. God gives the Ninevites a second chance. God even gives the cows and horse a second chance. God gives you and me the same. What Jonah and Jesus teach us is that God is not just a God of Israel. God is the God of all people and all creation. God is all-in-all. A God of grace, faithful, steadfast in love and mercy. A God of second chances. But this is also a God we cannot hide from. Nor hide anything from.
We have our own failures and short comings...God knows we are stubborn; God knows we are insecure; God knows we are mean to our brothers and sisters, and that we treat strangers unkindly. God knows we are greedy, we are violent, and we are vane. God knows we are selfish, that we believe our survival means looking out for ourselves, at the expense of someone else's suffering. Yet through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we are still given a second chance. God sent his Son, not to punish us but to save us...to redeem us. God gave the world His Son, because we matter to God. God loves you and me. Not our sin, but our soul. Not our selfishness, but our true selves. You and me matter to God. We may not be perfect...but we are not so bad that we cannot be redeemed.
One of the ministers at the retreat I attended this week had this to say, “God finds us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us there.” I love this. It is the perfect summation of Jesus’ entire calling, from the crib to the cross! No matter what sin we have committed, no matter how bad our life is, God loves us...no matter what. And more importantly, God loves us too much to leave us there in our sin.
We don’t need to be perfect to be a beloved child of God, we just have to answer the call to put our new life to work. To be redeemed is to receive a second chance...to love each other, to forgive one another, to accept one another with all our differences; to offer compassion and our companionship, and so on. In other words, God calls us to be the presence of God in the midst of an often ungodly world. We don’t have to stop being human to answer the call.
So you see...it really doesn’t matter if you are more like Jonah or James or John, or Mary or Martha, or Peter or Paul…God loves you and me equally. He calls us all by name. And welcomes home...all who are willing to drop their nets, …and fears, and anxieties, addictions, and anger, to follow the way of Jesus, the way of peace, freedom, serenity and everlasting life. This is redemption and grace. This is good new for you and me and anyone who wants it.
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”