Sermon Seeds: Coming through the Call
Sunday, January 24, 2021
The Second Sunday after Epiphany Year B
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Jonah 3:1–5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29–31
Jonah 3:1–5, 10
Coming through the Call
by Cheryl Lindsay
What if true, immediate, and communal repentance was possible?
The prophet Jonah is an interesting biblical character. Among all the prophets, his story is unique, and for this reason, the book bearing his name is his story. The action, growth, and development within the narrative center on him and his relationship with God. Jonah, like the other prophets, receives a call from God to deliver a message to a people. That message is to turn to God and away from the godlessness of their society. It is a familiar prophetic message that could apply throughout history and to countless communities. But, Jonah has to deliver it to those who have oppressed him.
He doesn’t want to do it. That reluctance to take up the mantle of the prophet does not make this story distinctive. His determination and zeal in resisting his assignment does. Jonah says no to God and the call of God on his life.
Most authorized ministers that I know, when sharing their call story, will recount how at some point in the journey, they ran from the call to vocational ministry. Sometimes, the reluctance stems from a feeling of inadequacy to the perceived demands of the call. For others, it may come from a desire to live a life that they planned rather than to surrender to God’s plans and vision. For Jonah, it appears that the reluctance was rooted in resentment toward the recipients of the message. He did not want them to turn from their wicked ways and therefore receive the grace of God.
Jonah, whose story is rich with grace-filled moments for himself, objects to God’s grace extended to his oppressors. As Douglas Stuart notes, “Throughout the book, Jonah displays a readiness to receive mercy and blessing himself and a stubborn reluctance to see his enemies, the Assyrians, receive the same.” If the book of Job is an allegory that attempts to address why good people suffer, then the book of Jonah demonstrates what it looks like to love your enemies.
Jesus, in relaying the Greatest Commandment, does not provide any outs. There aren’t clauses that allow us to exclude certain people from the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. He did not qualify that we are to love our good neighbor. It’s easy to love the neighbor who keeps up their property, greets you with a smile as you pass in the hallway or the driveway, and drops off the occasional gift. But what about that other neighbor–you know the one–who you dread to see and try to avoid?
In a world that, despite the physical isolation of pandemic, is closer than it has ever been, our neighborhood has expanded globally. Through social media, we can connect with people throughout the world. That ability provides a choice to either expand our worldview with a diversity of lived experiences and perspectives or to curate even more siloed communities.
Jonah was called to get a message through in “that great city,” Nineveh. We can imagine it as a cosmopolitan locale with diverse communities, wealth and prosperity alongside poverty and deprivation, beautiful architecture in some quarters and abandoned buildings in others, compassionate leadership in conflict with craven ambition. It’s easier to isolate in large cities than in small towns or rural communities, but there are more ways to separate than physically. Sometimes, we withdraw from a community by withholding our full selves. We don’t speak up even when our values are challenged by what seems to be the prevailing view. Peer pressure, after all, does not disappear when you graduate from middle school or even college.
Jonah was called to speak up, and so are we. Fear of being ostracized didn’t silence him; however, contempt for hearers of his message made him resistant to sharing the good news. In this week’s text, we encounter the second directive to prophesy. This time, Jonah responds to the call just as God declared. He shouts to all within hearing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Given his history and disposition toward them, we might imagine Jonah declaring this with a measure of glee as he walks through the city with a message of impending gloom and destruction for his oppressors.
Last October, I went to vote early at the Board of Elections located in downtown Cleveland. While standing outside in the physically distanced line that wrapped around the block, I could hear someone on a loudspeaker. As I got closer, I could see and hear a group of people, closely assembled together with no mask, who were proclaiming eternal damnation to the very diverse group of people patiently waiting for their opportunity to exercise their civic right. Much of what they said angered me greatly, and I was tempted to get out of line and initiate a conversation. The reality of pandemic and their maskless state along with the possibility of losing my place after about forty minutes in line convinced me not to do that. (Part of me regrets that decision.) But when I picture Jonah traveling through Nineveh, I can hear the zeal and delight in the voice of the man with the megaphone. Even at the time, I remember thinking, if I honestly believed that all these people in front of me were going to hell, would I sound so happy about it? Sure, there was anger in his voice, but it wasn’t the weariness of preaching good news to a hard-hearted people or the grief of the lamenting prophet. It was the delighted anger of delivering bad news to one’s perceived enemy.
I imagine Jonah sounded like that. The lectionary text doesn’t include Jonah’s reaction, but I think it’s important. Whenever I think of Jonah, I reflect on what it would be like if the people heard the preached message and decided to do more than take it seriously and urgently. I imagine what it would be like if, after hearing a message challenging us to do or to be differently, the gathered community would arise enmasse and decide to do that very thing right then. That is the beauty of the altar call; it provides an immediate opportunity to respond to the proclamation of the word. That’s why having communion or even receiving the offering after the message can seem to flow just right. Too often, because we have developed this pedagogical approach to preaching, we treat the message as a lecture to be consumed rather than as an invitation that merits a response.
This passage from Jonah focuses on the response. While Jonah is the central character of his book, the story isn’t all about him. The people of Nineveh deserve attention, and their response is instructive and inspiring. Stuart also notes, “The Ninevites needed only that initial word, so ready were they to turn from their evil practices. Jonah’s words reached eager ears right away.” The people were hungry, perhaps starving, for this message. Perhaps they knew what they were doing was wrong. They recognized that they were on the wrong path but did not know another one to take. This idea of their readiness indicates that on some level, the people of Nineveh were waiting for God to speak.
God called Jonah to be the messenger to Nineveh. What if God is calling us to be the messenger to our Nineveh? Have we been forced out of our sanctuaries, or are we being pushed out to speak a word to the world around us…especially to that neighbor who is so hard to love in times like these?
Jonah was not called to preach to the choir. He was called to speak to the people who were on the other side of his life experience. He was called to offer another chance to the people that benefited from his past hurt and harm. That’s a hard thing to do, and we can understand the humanity of his reluctance. Yet, we are called to do the hard thing, to speak the hard truth, and to live the hard way.
In response to the political turmoil in the United States, many leaders have called for healing, but unfortunately, in their version of healing, it means moving on as if recent events have not happened. It’s been a call to forget more than a call for real healing. Real healing requires a proper and correct diagnosis of the problem as well as recognition that a problem exists, and in this case persists. Real healing means treating the wounds, binding up brokenness, and eradicating the infection. Real healing takes time and energy and is hard work.
For healing to take place, what–and who–has been broken, must be made whole. Repentance is a prerequisite, because oppressors are broken people. Hurt people hurt people, including themselves and others. For healing to take place, the hard work of repair in the lives of the powerful and oppressive must begin. That includes accountability but it also includes grace. I am fond of saying, including as a reminder to myself, that we all want grace for ourselves but want judgment for those who harm us. That is Jonah’s testimony to us. Loving our enemies is hard. Resentment flows more freely. Jonah was “forced to carry out his mission and to struggle with God’s compassion for Jonah’s oppressors.” So are we.
Our silos can become comfortable places that we desire to dwell in with the same fervor that we want to return to our sanctuaries. We get to be with people we know and who don’t challenge us too much. We can feel good about our marginal attempts to engage in justice from afar with prayer or a book study. And while those are appropriate responses, should we be satisfied with them as ends or consider them as the beginning, equipping steps of our participation in the Kin-dom coming on earth as it is in heaven?
There are people who join movements because they are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. They get caught up and indoctrinated in its tenets, values, and community. It’s hard to extract them from its grip because it fed them when they were hungry. It filled the dry spaces. It visited them in their loneliness when the church abandoned them. It gave them a path to follow and a way to be that they understood and could claim with religious fervor.
And those movements were able to stake a claim in the lives of countless people while much of the church decided to take the Jonah approach and disengage from the oppressive world around us. We became expert architects in building silos with little room for hungry seekers. Oh, we had our soup kitchen and food pantries to meet physical needs, but somehow the church of Jesus Christ began to believe that feeding spiritual hunger was imposing too much rather than one beggar telling another where to find the bread of heaven. In our correction to harmful evangelistic practices, many of us stopped telling the good news to anyone who had not already heard and received it for themselves.
Nineveh was hungry for the message as evidenced by their immediate embrace of it and response to it. God would not give up on them and would not allow Jonah to do so. The text tells us that the Holy One’s mind was changed about the calamity that would befall them, but God was consistent in concern and compassion for the people. By choosing to keep sending Jonah, God also demonstrates consistent concern and compassion for the reluctant and resentful prophet. God doesn’t give up on Jonah either. While “the ironic contrast between [their] reactions to impending doom should not be overlooked,” (Matthew J. M. Coomber) God’s consistent grace should not be ignored either.
The call to follow God’s direction, purpose, and plan requires more than we sometimes feel equipped to give or more than we want to expend. It’s costly, but the Kin-dom needs it from us. Nineveh was called to repentance. They answered that call, and God saw it and changed their future.
Nineveh is all around us… hungry, desperate, and in need of a message calling for recognition, repentance, and repair. God hasn’t given up on us either. We can do this hard work. God has called us to it. Go to Nineveh.
For further reflection:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” — Nelson Mandela
“I am always amazed by people who know something is wrong but still insist on ignoring it, as if that will somehow make it go away. They spare themselves the confrontation, but end up boiling in resentment anyway.” — David Levithan
“Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.” — Fred Rogers
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Jonah delivered a message of repentance even as he struggled with resentment. The congregation may be invited to begin a conversation about how resentment has impacted their community and ministry.
Coomber, Matthew J. M.. “Jonah.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Stuart, Douglas. Hosea-Jonah. Bruce M. Metzger et al, Ed. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1987.
Lettsome, Raquel S. “Mark.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Jonah 3:1–5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29–31
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah
9 Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work.
1 Corinthians 7:29–31
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”