Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The Gospel again this week takes us into that remarkable moment when Jesus calls the disciples. Jesus says “Follow me!” And they do without it seems a moments’ hesitation or doubt. Last week it was Philip and Nathanael. This week it is Simon and his brother Andrew, and then James and John.
These are not men who in the words, Bob Dylan “had noth’in so they had noth’in to lose.”
No, these were men who had a plan and were doing fairly well in. They were busy with their livelihood, planning for how they could add few extra nets, a boat or two, or perhaps even one day hire a few more men. They were busy creating a life for themselves.
But when Jesus calls to them, they effortlessly let go of their plans and let Jesus’ plan how become their plan too. I find their ability to do, staggering and also intimidating.
Who does that? I mean really? The ease and clarity of these first disciples can leaving the rest of us feeling not so much inspired but instead relieved that it was them and not us on the beach that day!
So I have to say I was quite relieved when I turned to our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and found that it comes from the book of Jonah. While the lectionary passage that Karen read for us today, lifts up the few verses in the entire book when Jonah is looking somewhat presentable as a follower of God, if we were to broaden the lens a bit, spend a bit more time with Jonah, we would soon see that he is not at all like those fishermen on the sea of Galilee. He is not at all a model disciple full of clarity and conviction. Instead he is overly burdened, anxious, and convinced he knows what is best. And as such, perhaps he is someone we find easier to relate to.
So let’s take a closer look at Jonah and what we may learn from him.
The book of Jonah opens with Jonah receiving a word from God telling him to arise, go Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian Empire and to call upon the people there to repent for their wicked ways.
Jonah hears this call, but unlike those disciples on the beach whose actions speak an immediate “Yes” to God. Jonah’s actions speak an immediate “No”. Instead of stepping in to follow the call, Jonah spins on his heal and heads off in the opposite direction trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and what God is asking him to do.
Why? Because God’s plan does not make any sense to Jonah. In fact, God’s plan is just the opposite of what Jonah’s plan for the Nineveh would be. You see Jonah hates Nineveh. Nineveh is part of the Assyrian Empire and as such is the enemy not just of Jonah but to all the Israelites. For Assyria sacked the northern kingdom of Israel and laid waste to its cities. The last thing in the world Jonah could have imagined is that God would ask him to be a part of a plan for the salvation of his enemy. It is easy to follow God when we agree with what God would have us do. It is much harder to do so, when we are conflicted.
One of the really amazing but also terribly challenging things about trying to live a life of faith, is grappling with the idea that God cares about how we spend our lives. Scripture gives witness that God is not only active in history, but that God has a plan or a dream for how history is to unfold. To live a life of faith then is not to what we please but it is to yoke the living of our particular lives with the arch of salvation history that is God’s dream and plan. Living a life of faith is this dynamic enterprise of discerning how to bring our living in this place and time more and more into alignment with God’s plan for all creation across the sweep of time. To live a life of faith is to understand that our lives are not just for us to live for our own enjoyment and benefit, but to see how our lives can ever more fully participate in and open to the wider life of God.
But while we can be sure that God has a plan for everything, we can also be sure that everything is not part of the plan of God. One sweep of the headlines is all it takes to see that all that is – is not all that God desires. Much of our reality and living is not what God would have be. But discerning in each moment of our lives where God’s plan for our living should take us, can be hard.
What I love about the book of Jonah is that in its engagement of hyperbole it makes it pretty easy to see pinpoint this point of divergence between Jonah’s plans for his life and God plan for him. It is when God says “go” and Jonah says “no.”
Not only does Jonah say no but he goes so far as to jump on a boat and head out to see so that he can get as far away from Nineveh as possible. But when a raging storm, threatens to swamp the boat, even the sailors are clear that something has gone terribly wrong between Jonah and God and as. When Jonah’s life falls out of alignment with the life of God things get stormy and despite his attempt to take control, Jonah ends up more and more being out of control, being first tossed by the waves in the boat and then being tossed by the sailors out of the boat and into them!
So I wonder if one way we can discern if our living has fallen out of alignment with God is when we too find that we are being tossed about by the tempest of our days or even find ourselves subsumed by them. And here I am speaking more about our inner disposition than outer circumstance. For we know by looking at the life of Jesus that he continually faced storms around him, but he did so with an inner calm and assuredness. If our inner state is one of exhaustion, anxiety or deep discontent, could it be a sign that our lives have slipped out of alignment with the life of God?
Sometimes we can discern this for ourselves and make the changes that are needed. But more often than naught, it takes others to help us see this and to help us make the changes to bring our living back into alignment.
Maybe Jonah’s first mistake was that he did not seek out the counsel of a friend or guide to help him make sense of this tension he was feeling between the plan he had for his life and what he heard God calling him into. This reminds me of something Brita Gill-Austern mentioned to us when we were debriefing at the end of the day on our trip to Zambia a couple of years ago. She said, pay particular attention to the places of tension you encounter for it is there that you may find the greatest opportunities for growth.
And it makes me think as well of our Gospel passage today. It strikes me that when Jesus first sets out to call disciples he calls not individuals but companions. I wonder if Simon and Andrew and then James and John upon hearing and seeing Jesus took a moment to turn to each other and to discern what it was that was opening before them. I wonder if it was this companionship that enabled them to step ever more fully into God’s plan for their lives.
We need people around us to talk to and who will listen deeply. It is my hope that this is what we can be for each other as church. It is my hope that whether it be in Bible study or women’s group, in Java Gents or lunch bunch, or whether it be simply inviting someone you trust here among us out for coffee, that all of us will feel that being church means that we are here for each other. Ready to listen deeply and hear and ready to help and discern the synergy or dissonance between where we are and where God would have us be.
But the good news in this passage is also that even when Jonah pursues his own plan, confident that he knows best and kicking up tempest in his wake. Even when he heads off in the opposite direction that God would have him go, God does not let him go. Even as Jonah is sinking down into the depths of the deep, as the last whisper of breath and hope are draining from him, God rescues Jonah by sending a big fish, a whale to scoop him up and then vomit him out again on dry land.
Now I heard about a sermon Professor Adam Hearlson once preached on this passage from Jonah. And I was told that in it Adam lifted up a very compelling and inspired. And that is that Adam looked upon the whale that comes to Jonah is his time of distress and sees in it, the church. When we are sinking beneath all that burdens us, when we cannot catch our breath, when are losing our last shred of hope and are at the end of our rope, God sends the church, God sends the church to find us and to scoop us up. God sends the church to carry us. God sends the church to give us rest until we can rise again. And God give us church to vomit us out so we can begin again. OK, not so sure of that last one but you get the idea, church challenges us to get back on our feet and try again.
I remember a dear friend of mine who had just gone through a really terrible and trying experience saying to me that how grateful she was to be able to simply rest each Sunday morning in the pew. She was grateful for the pew that held her and the people do did so as well. She said for months she did nothing but just rest there in the pew, letting grace slowly and tenderly resuscitated her until one day she found herself able to breathe on her own and not just breath but sing. Without being taken into church, without this time in the belly of the whale to borrow Adam’s metaphor, my friend told me she did not know if she would have the strength to begin again.
So what does where does all of this leave us? I hope it leaves us with the assurance that being called to align our lives with the life of God is not a one time test of our capacity for discipleship. Instead it is a lifetimes’ work of discernment that we are called to engage together, supporting and challenging, rescuing and rejoicing together. A life lead in alignment with God is much too demanding and complex for any of us to live alone. We need the conviction of the Simon and Andrews, the James and the Johns among us. But we also need the humility to see and discern those times when in pursuing our own plans we may stray from what God may have for us. And we need each other, the church to search us out and scoop us up when we need to rest and help to begin again. Amen