Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 1/25

          The story of Jonah is a fascinating little story even though I’m not sure that we give it the respect it is due.  By that I mean we tend to dismiss it as one of those stories we learn in Sunday School because it is such a great story with Jonah getting tossed overboard, swallowed by a big fish or whale or whatever it was, then puked up onto land three days later; it’s a great story, kind of a funny story, but that’s about it.  In addition it’s tucked away in the Old Testament among what we call the Minor Prophets, Obadiah and Nahum and Haggai, people like that, but even among them Jonah is different because it’s a story as opposed to oracles of impending doom or of hope which is the content of the other prophets.  But within the 48 verses that make up Jonah’s four chapters, there is a lot that we ought to pay attention to, stuff about us, stuff about God. 

          Before I go any further let me emphasize that there is no question in my mind that this is a story, it’s not an historical account.  There might well have been an actual Jonah who was involved in preaching to Ninevah but I doubt it happened quite this way, but if you want to treat it as something that actually happened that’s OK; just don’t waste a lot of time explaining how you think it’s possible for someone to live inside a big fish for three days because while you’re doing that you might wind up missing what is most interesting about the story; you might miss the truth it contains and sometimes the truth contained in stories is deeper and more profound than history anyway. 

          One piece of the truth this story contains concerns God.  One of the speakers at the conference I was at week before last said that he has become less concerned about whether or not someone believes in God, more concerned about the nature of the God they believe in.  Jonah believed in God; he believed in the God they called “the Lord” because they didn’t dare speak the holy name of Yahweh.  In other words he could recite the creed; he knew Deuteronomy 6:4, what Jews call the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

          Jonah believed in God and he believed what most people believed about God; that is that if you obey God, you will be blessed, if you disobey God you will be punished; simple moral calculus, everything is neat and tidy, you get what you deserve.  That’s what Jonah believed, but that didn’t keep him from being disobedient.  He knew what he was supposed to do, he just didn’t do it.  So…when Jonah was called to go to Ninevah to preach repentance to the people and instead got on a boat going in the opposite direction, he got exactly what he deserved when he was tossed overboard into the chaos of the sea; you disobey you get punished.  The God he believed in should have been done with him and, as he sank into the water, Jonah would have to admit that he had no right to feel like he was being treated unfairly.  He had disobeyed and had no reason to expect to be rescued.

          But…the Lord provided a great fish to swallow up Jonah.  The Lord provided; he didn’t have to, but he did, rescuing Jonah from the chaos of the sea, finally placing Jonah, somewhat indelicately, in safety on dry ground.   Apparently the Lord didn’t play by that simple moral calculus that Jonah was expecting.  Despite Jonah’s disobedience, despite his resistance to God’s will for him, God wasn’t done with him.  As the beginning of today’s portion of the story says, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” 

          Jonah wasn’t expecting a God of second chances, but that’s what he got and that’s one huge piece of good news you can take from this story because who among us doesn’t need a second chance or a third or a fourth, once in awhile? 

Now, as a result of all that had happened, you would think that this God should have had Jonah’s undivided attention, but being near the top of any list of the great dopes of the Bible, Jonah still didn’t get it.  Oh, he did go to Ninevah this time; even he wasn’t silly enough to go in the opposite direction again, so he went; and when he got there he preached but he did it as half heartedly as he could, going through the motions of doing what he was called to do, but that’s about it because you see, he didn’t want those people to repent.  He wanted the wrath of God to rain down on the Ninevites but instead he found out a little more about this second chance God. 

          Despite Jonah’s less than inspired preaching, the people of Ninevah repented anyway.  The king called for everyone and everything, humans and animals, to repent and fast and put on sackcloth and “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”  God changed his mind!  Even evil Ninevah was going to get a second chance!  It’s right there in the text.  God changed his mind and that poses a challenge not just to Jonah but to philosophers and theologians who say God is immutable, impassable, unchangeable, a challenge to those who say God knows everything that’s going to happen before it happens because that God never has to change his mind.

          The truth of this story is truth about the God of the Bible who is capable of change, a God whose mind is changed quite often actually.  Jonah still wasn’t up for that though.  Even though this God whose mind can be changed had already worked to his advantage he was still looking for a God who controlled everything from beyond according to pre-set rules and conditions, a God who is mostly a scorekeeper and judge; at least that’s what Jonah wanted when it came to bad people like the people of Ninevah.  But again, that’s not the God we find revealed in the Bible. 

The God of the Bible is much more complex.  The God of the Bible is gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love toward everyone, even those who Jonah and you and I don’t like very much.  The ways of the Lord are not always predictable, because this God is elusive at times, harder to pinpoint in large part because he prefers to work at things from within, rather than simply control them from without.  That’s the God that we finally find revealed in Jesus, who is the ultimate example of God becoming part of our world, working from within through all the messiness and nastiness that humanity and the world are capable of.

          God was at work in and through Jesus but God also works from within through human agents, like Jonah, like the disciples Jesus called and like us.  And you might notice that God doesn’t bother to first perfect the human agents he decides to use.  He calls imperfect people, like Jonah, like the disciples, like us; he provides choices and when we mess up, he gives second chances.  That’s the nature of our God. 

The gospel lessons for this week and last week have been about Jesus calling disciples.  We sometimes express surprise at the disciples Jesus called in that they are mostly a bunch of ordinary fishermen rather than people of standing and status.  Based on the witness of the Old Testament though, we shouldn’t be surprised because God mostly uses people of little note or standing to accomplish his will.  That too is part of the nature of our God.

God does work from within through human agents.  God does call us to serve, to be part of the mission, but God is still at work; in other words he doesn’t just hand out assignments and then say, now you’re on your own.  God continues to be at work, part of the mix.  In our Trinitarian understanding of God we call this the work of the Holy Spirit and we ought never underestimate the power of the Spirit to make our less than adequate efforts effective as he did in the case of Jonah as he did with the disciples of Jesus.  We often don’t know the impact of what we do because the Spirit works and moves in mysterious ways.  By the power of the Spirit though, what we do does make a difference.       

          So while we learn quite a bit about God in the story of Jonah, we also learn something about ourselves, namely that if God is able to use the weak proclamation of a character as resistant and disobedient as Jonah to get an entire nation to repent, surely he must be able to use each of us in some fashion.  As Joy said last week, part of our call is to discern just what it is that we are called to because it’s not the same for everyone.  But remember the God of second chances.  Even if you get the call wrong, even if you resist it, even if you head in the opposite direction, another chance will be provided for you to get it right.  It’s the nature of a God who has chosen to be in relationship with, and who works through imperfect human beings.  Second chances come; they have to.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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