Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
Jonah is quite the character, and perhaps the greatest preacher of all time for with a sermon just eight words long he saved a great city, Nineveh.
I mean really, think about it. Think about it.
God called Jonah to go warn the Nineveh about the judgment that was to come upon their city.
Now Nineveh was the arch enemy of Israel at the time, and quite frankly, there was nothing Jonah would have desired more than to be able to sit back and watch God destroy Nineveh like he had previously destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
What better outcome could there be than that the wicked people of Nineveh be destroyed.
And so rather than go to Nineveh, Jonah resolved to head the opposite direction, to Tarshish, in Spain. And we shouldn’t miss the geographical point here, Jonah fled in the opposite direction to the farthest known part of the world.
And then, as you know, came the storm, and the fish.
God was not content to let Jonah off the hook from his mission, and intervened. A great storm arose, putting the ship in peril, and Jonah, realizing it was all his fault had the sailors cast him overboard to appease God’s anger.
At this point, Jonah probably figured that he’d die, and perhaps even that his death was preferable to fulfilling God’s call to go to Nineveh.
But then God went fishing.
Sending a great fish, God scooped Jonah up out of the waters, and the fish carried Jonah in its belly back to Israel, and there deposited him safely upon the shore.
And then this reluctant preacher spoke the Word: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
What happens next is the true miracle of the book of Jonah. The fish, nah, that was no big deal. What was big was that upon hearing the word Jonah spoke all of Nineveh repented in the hope of saving themselves. The King said:
“Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
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.
So Jonah was pissed.
"O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Then God turned his attention to Jonah.
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Sometimes, in God’s incredible grace, we are surprised and things do not work out as we expect.
I reminded of a experience that I had one year when I was out hunting.
I was walking along a game trail looking for deer, when I saw some motion ahead, and an animal coming toward me. I waited for it to come out into the clear, so I could identify it, and specifically was looking to see the tail.
But instead of the white tail of a deer, what I saw was the long tail of a cougar.
Momentarily, we stood face to face, the cougar and I, and having identified each other the cougar took off through the woods. I, knowing that deer avoid cougars, realized that there was little reason to continue hunting and turned around and headed back the way I came.
What surprised me was that on the way out, I crossed the cougar’s tracks a half dozen or more times.
I was aware, that I was being stalked by the cougar.
I, the hunter, had become the hunted.
This is what happened to Jonah.
He was sent to proclaim God’s word to the Ninevites, and instead, it was he that heard God’s word proclaimed to him.
He was sent to save the Ninevites from their sin, and in the end it was Jonah that was saved from his own sin.
When he did go, he proclaimed a word of law and judgment, warning Nineveh of the impending destruction.
But in the end, God acted with grace and mercy, not only toward Nineveh, but also toward Jonah.
The Book of Jonah, is not so much about the Ninevite’s conversion, than it is about God’s attempt to save and convert Jonah.
There’s a second message in all of this.
It’s about fishing.
I love the image from the Gospel lesson, about our being called to follow Jesus.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
This is the thing.
You cast your nets, or line into the water, but you have no control over what bites.
Another story from my hunting and fishing days.
One evening I went out to fish near Thompson Falls and was specifically fishing for bass. I got a bite, and what ensued was a long battle as I proceeded to hall it in.
When the fish came up next to the shore, a huge mouth emerged from the water and I realized this was no bass, but a large Northern Pike. The largest fish I’d ever caught. 38 ½ inches long, 18 pounds.
When we cast our nets, we do so not knowing what the catch will be.
Jonah was caught off guard by God’s grace and mercy, and more than anything else, he did not want God’s grace and mercy to extend to his enemies, the Ninevites.
But they heard the word, and repented.
We, like Jonah, are called to bring the word of God to the world in which we live.
And we have our own hopes and expectations about who we will “catch”.
I can tell you that congregations are quite specific in their hopes for who they’d like to reach with the Gospel.
Every congregation I have served has expressed a deep desire to reach young families with children, for nothing speaks to them more of congregational vitality than to have all sorts of young folks, with children, in church.
Kennon Callahan, a church consultant, talked about one congregation he consulted with in St. Petersburg, Florida.
They had gone to great length to reach out to the young families in their community. They had even built a gymnasium hoping that people would be attracted to the activities they could promote there.
But no one came.
Callahan observed that in St. Petersburg, the people moving into the community and looking for a church were not thirty years old, with children. They were 65 and looking for a place to retire.
What the congregation ended up doing, was to start offering programs in their new gymnasium, designed for the seniors in their community, and then they grew.
I had a similar experience in Sandpoint. People wanted to see many new young families come. But Sandpoint is a retirement community. Two thirds of the people who move there, do so to retire. “Young families” are sixty five years old.
So we built a senior housing community.
But more so than just a specific demographic, the Gospel tends to reach those who most need it.
Jonah was convinced of Nineveh’s wickedness, yet they were the ones who heard God’s word and were forgiven.
This is the problem the Church wrestles with.
You see, the Gospel of God’s grace and mercy, of the forgiveness of sins, tends to attract sinners.
And we are not sure of what to do with the sinners it attracts.
We proclaim the word of forgiveness, and sinners receive it even though we’d prefer that the righteous come. That’s our nature.
Our church has struggled with this, particularly with respect to the controversy over gay and lesbian people in the Church.
So we proclaim the Gospel.
But what do we do when our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are the ones who hear the Word and respond? Do we say, “No, not you!”
The same can be said of any number of groups.
The poor. The outcast. The foreigner. People who are too old, and people who are too young.
Kennon Callahan also speaks about one principle that comes into play far too often.
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
We tend to want to reach out to people just like us, and we don’t know what to do with people that aren’t just like us.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Who is welcome?
That’s the question I continually ask myself, and challenge congregations with.
Who is really welcome?
Congregations tend to have signs and mission statements saying that “all are welcome” when in truth, only “some are welcome.”
For example, would an undocumented person be welcome here?
That’s a hard one for us today. If illegal immigrants did show up at our door we’d likely have to debate calling the authorities or not, wouldn’t we.
They are perhaps, the Ninevites in our midst.
And perhaps, of all people in our communities, they especially need to hear about the unconditional love of God and his grace and mercy.
This is the thing: Those we have the hardest time welcoming, are often the one’s we are most called to welcome, because the very thing that makes them unwelcome, is the reason why they so desperately need to hear the message of the Gospel.
One final story, this one from AA.
Early on in AA, a question arose. Now in AA they publicly proclaim that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.
But one evening, a big, black, transvestite man showed up at the meeting.
“What do we do?” was the question they asked when they called the headquarters and spoke will Bill W., the founder.
“Well, does he desire to stop drinking?”
“Then you have to let him in.”
I’ve often thought and wished we could have the same attitude in the church.
When someone shows up at our congregation, the only question we ask is “do they desire God’s forgiveness?”
“Well, then, sinners though they be, you’ve got to let them in.”
One final thought. Remember how I said that the real message of the book of Jonah is not what Jonah said to the Ninevites, but what God said to Jonah?
Well, the thing about accepting the unacceptable is that we learn something about ourselves.
When we embrace sinners with the grace and mercy of God we are reminded that it was that same grace and mercy that embraced us.
For we all come to this place as outcasts in need of forgiveness. And there is a place at the table, for all.