A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Sunday, September 18th, 2016.
Principal reading is Jonah 1
The book of Jonah is one of what are known as the ‘twelve minor prophets’ – not because they are any less important but because of the briefness of their accounts. Jonah is unique among all the prophets because this narrative story tells the story of Jonah himself rather than relating oracles spoken by the prophet. Most scholars agree that this story is not historical in nature but written as a story to get a point across – just like the parables of Jesus convey deeper meaning within stories.
Our story opens with the words of the Lord as spoken to Jonah, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’
A direct command from God to Jonah – leaving no room for interpretation or misunderstanding. Jonah doesn’t question the command he has received directly from God, he out right rejects it!
We have known other prophets who heard God’s call and then tried to wriggle out of obeying: Moses complained to God that he wasn’t a good speaker when God called him to confront Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from slavery – God supplied Moses’ brother Aaron to accompany Moses as the spokesperson; Jeremiah claimed to be too young – ‘only a boy’ to which God ‘touched his mouth’ and put his words into the mouth of Jeremiah; even though Amos protested that he was only a herdsman, the Lord was with him as he reluctantly answered God’s call. So being a reluctant prophet is not new.
But Jonah doesn’t negotiate with God, he turns his back on God almighty and goes in the opposite direction.
“But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa – Nineveh was east, he went west to Joppa – and found a ship going to Tarshish; – Tarshish was the farthest seaport in the known world at that time – so he went as far away from where God was instructing him to go as he possibly could.
‘so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.’ – not only was he avoiding Nineveh, he was actually trying to get as far away from God as he could – he was trying to escape God’s presence.
In the mind of the Hebrew people of this time, the sea was a terrifying prospect – an unknown quantity – full of sea monsters and unpredictable storms so the fact that Jonah was willing to get on a boat and sail to the farthest point then known, was indeed a statement of intent – he intended to get away from God.
Once on the ship, Jonah sought to get even further away from the Lord. He went down into the hold of the ship and went to sleep. Sleep is another way to avoid an issue, isn’t it?
So what is going on here with Jonah? Did he feel inadequate for the job? Was he afraid? Did he fear that he would fail? Did he fear for his life? Perhaps.
By all accounts, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was the stronghold for a people with very barbaric ways. Torture, murder and mayhem were common practice there. Atrocities unspeakable were attributed to the people of this city. According to one account, when the captured peoples were unable to pay tribute on time, they were butchered and their farms were destroyed making it even harder to come up with the required tribute – a vicious, predictable, cycle of events. The Ninevites indeed were evil in their ways – no doubt about it. So we can certainly imagine that he could be afraid of the prospect of going to Nineveh.
So he ran away from God. Or so he thought. Jonah ran away from God only to discover that God was inescapable. Jonah’s idea of God was too small – God almighty was Lord of all things including the sea and the monsters within it. God is God and Jonah underestimated him. Jonah said NO to God’s call for him and attempted to run away, to escape God’s presence.
We, like Jonah, must realize that there is NO place where God is not present. God is God of all things, all places, all people. God is present at school, at work, at town meetings, at the beach, on vacation, in the traffic jam, in our neighbor’s back yard, at the council meetings, at trustees, deacons and mission meetings, at choir practice, at women’s circle, at every meeting of every board and every committee. God is God of all things, all places, all people, all times. AND God cares about every aspect of our lives. Do we realize that? Do we know that deep down in our hearts or do we try to forget that at times?
Why is that we in the ‘Church’ – with a capital ‘C’ find it difficult to believe that God calls each of us to do God’s work. Do we feel inadequate like Moses or Jeremiah or Amos? Do we feel that others – ie those who have attended seminary are the ONLY ones God calls to ministry? Do we think we’ve put in our time already? Are we are too busy with family responsibilities? Or are we too busy with other ‘community’ activities? Or are we afraid? Do we think that if we share God’s love we that we will be ridiculed rather than applauded? Do we think that if we reach out to those in need we place ourselves and our church in vulnerable positions of liability? God calls each of us individually and each church community to do God’s work. And it may not be easy work – it might be darned hard. But God will not call us to a task for which he does not equip us.
How do we recognize what God is calling us to do? God spoke directly to some of the prophets like Jonah and Moses – others heard his word in dreams – some heard God’s word as delivered by angels. God’s call to Samuel was confirmed by an old man. Do any of these methods happen today? Perhaps. More likely though is that you will hear God calling you through other people. People may ask you to help in some way that they think you have a gift for – this may or may not be something you have thought of before.
You might do something without thinking and someone is really moved or touched deeply by your actions – this may be God’s way of affirming a ministry you have not previously considered. You may hear God’s call in a dream. You might have a vision for a wonderful ministry that seems impossible – share it with others. Let the Body of Christ help you discern if this is God’s calling for you or not.
Once we have recognized that God is calling us, how do we answer? Do we enthusiastically say yes and then trust God to be with us as we answer the call? Or do we come up with questions and obstacles all the while saying we’re just ‘checking things out’ before proceeding. For certainly God doesn’t want us to jump in with both feet without testing the water first, does he?
Time and time again, Biblical accounts of God calling people to do God’s work tell us that God expects us to say YES first, follow in faith and ask questions later. Too often we do just the opposite. We come up with so many questions and reasons why we can’t do something, that we ourselves become the stumbling block to God’s work here on earth.
Maybe we are more like Jonah than we like to admit.
God called Jonah and Jonah ran.
God is calling each of you.
How will you answer??