The Revised Common Lectionary for January 22, 2012 pairs a selection from Jonah 3 with the call of the first four disciples in Mark 1. Both texts certainly involve making a change in direction. Here is a sermon that looks at the story of Jonah as a whole and focuses on what it took to get Jonah turned around.
A Sermon on Jonah 1:1-2:1a and Acts 9:1-9
Imagine what it would be like to move forward, full speed ahead, with total confidence. Imagine what it would be like not to have to struggle with doubt or indecision or anxiety. Feeling certain certainly does feel good. Complete certainty—what an appealing possibility! Or is it?
For the two men in our scripture lessons today it was full speed ahead. Paul was on his way to Damascus to conduct a holy roundup. Filled with conviction, he climbed up on his horse and headed out. This was holy war! Paul knew in his heart that these people following the Jesus Way were wrong, dead wrong. These people of the Way were dishonoring God and disrespecting God’s good law. They were condoning sin and leading others to do the same. For the sake of the true faith and true belief, they had to be stopped. Whatever it took: inquisitions, beatings, prison, even death, just stop them! Full speed ahead in the name of the true religion. Full speed ahead in the name of God!
Paul was sure he understood what God wanted. But Jonah indeed did know what God wanted. God was calling him to go to Nineveh and preach the good news of repentance. That was clear. But Jonah didn’t want those no-good Ninevites to be saved, so it was full speed ahead for him in the opposite direction. God would just have to find somebody else. Being God, God certainly could find somebody else if God wants to.
“I’m outta here,” Jonah declared. He went down to the seaside, and bought a ticket on a boat bound for Tarshish. Then he went down into the bottom-most part of the boat. Then he went down into the oblivion of sleep. He wanted to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. He didn’t even want to think about those people!
No uncertainties nipped at Jonah’s heels or Paul’s heels. It was full speed ahead!—but in both cases in the wrong direction. They were both certain they knew better—better than those Ninevites! Better than those people who belonged to the Way! By implication, even better than God! We can take it from here, God!
Thinking they know better has gotten the people of God into trouble time and time again. Assuming they know the way has gotten them into trouble time and time again. Where has arrogant certainty led the church through the ages? Into crusades, so called “holy” wars. Into violence against one another, Protestant versus Catholic, Anglican versus Presbyterian. History is full of Christian fights. No wonder many of the people who emigrated to America were so passionate about religious freedom and about not tying the church and state together. They had seen too much violence perpetrated by the state in the name of God.
The “I know better than you” attitude is alive and well. How painful it must be for God to watch his children saying hurtful, contemptuous things to and against each other, self-righteously casting aspersions on each other’s faith. How painful it must be for God when his children simply aren’t listening to him any more. They may still pray—but they use prayers like bookends to their meetings. They say a few words to God before and after, but there’s not much openness to a fresh word from God. Instead of earnestly seeking God’s way, they go on about their business and invite God to bless their assumptions and their decisions and what they are already doing. We were talking last week about churches running on autopilot: the same people always doing the same things in the same way. Well, when you run on autopilot, you don’t have to do the work of searching, discerning prayer. There’s a whole lot less struggle. You can just wave at God from afar.
Going off in the wrong direction and staying there can happen with the best of intentions and before you even know it. This is what it’s like: in an article that I read this week, the author described how she had flown to visit friends in another city, and picked up a rental car at the airport to drive to her hotel. Confident that she knew the way, assuming that the way to the hotel would be self-evident, just common sense, she started out. “This exit is where I need to get off the interstate,” she said to herself. And within minutes she was hopelessly lost in an ugly part of town that was a maze of warehouses and tenements with bars over the windows and doors, and not enough street lights.
God had to act pretty decisively to get Jonah’s attention. Jonah had deliberately plugged up his ears. God stirred up the sea, and when it became clear that the storm was on account of Jonah, the ship’s sailors threw Jonah overboard. Down into the deep he went. Jonah was ready to accept death. He’d rather die than go to Nineveh anyhow. But that’s not what God had in mind. Instead of letting Jonah drown, God sent a huge fish—notice that the fish followed God’s instructions better than Jonah did. God instructed this fish to swallow Jonah alive. And then Jonah waited in the darkness of the fish’s belly for three days.
Paul, too, was barreling down the wrong path, and God couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Paul was so confident that he was doing the right thing and going the right way that, again, the Lord had to act pretty spectacularly in order to get his attention. A gentle word wasn’t going to do it. The Lord didn’t give Paul a gentle nudge; God knocked him down. A stunning light, painful to the eyes, overwhelmed Paul, and he fell. He fell off his high horse. The light of truth will do that to you. The Lord didn’t speak in a gentle whisper but in an agonized cry: “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” I was struck this week when I read the text in French and it said, “Why are you making me suffer? Why are you hurting me?” In hurting the Lord’s people, Paul was hurting the Lord himself.
Proud Paul found himself down on his hands and knees, and in the dark. He didn’t know which direction was which any more. “Go into the city, and wait, and you will be told what to do,” the Lord instructed. Paul let himself be led, and he waited in the dark for three days.
Before God could redirect these two, Jonah and Paul, God had to stop them in their tracks. God had to put them in timeout. Timeout is a way to discipline children. You stop them and separate them and move them away from the action—rather like Dennis the Menace sitting in his chair facing the corner. This is aimed at giving them some time to settle down and think. Then you redirect them. This is what repentance means: stop, and let God redirect us. Stop, and let God turn us around.
For Jonah and for Paul, this was timeout big time. It was not fun. It’s hard to imagine any place darker and yuckier than the inside of a fish’s belly. There Jonah was squeezed by the walls of the fish’s digestive system, and sloshing around with everything else the fish had eaten. There couldn’t have been anything appetizing in this mess. Jonah must have fasted. This couldn’t have been fun for the fish either, with Jonah stuck in there for three days.
Paul, the one who was sure he saw everything so clearly found himself in total darkness. He didn’t eat or drink anything for three days. Totally dependent on others around him, Paul had to sit there and wait for further instructions.
These two people whom God intended to use as messengers were in timeout, with plenty of time for considering and reconsidering, and plenty of time for praying. Jonah prayed, “Help me, Lord. I am in the pit. This is low, Lord. Hear my prayer coming up to you. You are the one who saves.”
Paul prayed as well. We don’t see this directly in the text, but a few verses later the Lord speaks to Ananias, who will help Paul, and the Lord himself describes Paul at prayer. “He’s praying right now, Ananias, and he is seeing a vision of you coming to help him.”
Three days in holy timeout, and Jonah was ready to listen. God instructed the fish to spit Jonah up on the beach. God then repeated the call, “Go to Nineveh and tell the people what I tell you to tell them.” This time Jonah went. This time he let God do the directing.
Three days in holy timeout, and Paul was ready to listen. “Listen up, Paul,” the Lord said. “I’m doing something new here. I’m doing something new in you.” The result when Paul did listen up, when he was yielded and waiting, when he was ready to be led? No more violence, even though now he was just as passionate about the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross, the way of suffering service as he had been about his old way. Now Paul was on a new journey to the ends of the earth, reaching out to the people he used to shun, this time led by the Lord and not simply by his own assumptions.
Sometimes it is necessary to come to a complete stop and wait, take a timeout, and then be redirected, like the woman who was hopelessly lost in a bad part of town. Finally she saw a light, a 24 hour coffee shop, and she stopped. Somebody was going to have to redirect her. Inside, the waitress was unable to give her directions. Her heart sank. But then a shabby looking homeless man approached her and said, “Can I help you, ma’am?” She explained her predicament and he gave her detailed instructions, warning her of the twists and turns that lay ahead. She had to humble herself, admit that she was going the wrong way and accept direction in the form it came to her.
This is what repentance is: recognizing when we are going the wrong way and when we have gotten distracted from God’s calling, and when we have veered off of God’s way, stopping, and letting God redirect us to a new way.
The Lord can be very creative in getting people’s attention. It doesn’t always take a big fish or a blinding light. Sometimes what it takes the very uncertainty and struggle that we wish we didn’t have to deal with. It doesn’t always mean coming to a complete stop. It can be more of a slow down when God uses the very obstacles and closed doors that dishearten us to redirect us where he wants us—where God needs us out there in a world of Ninevites and people of all sorts that need the gospel. That need to know Jesus
Think of how much easier it is for God when we’re willing to put ourselves in holy timeout, listening, ready and waiting to hear what God is going to say to us, setting aside our certainties and assumptions. Think of how much easier it is for God when we already have our hands stretched out, ready for God to take them, ready to let God do the leading. Think of how much easier it is for God when we are willing to repent.
Think of the people God might touch and reach through us when we do.
Image: Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun