Today’s readings contrast two different responses to God’s call.
In the reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses two different pairs of fishermen – first, Peter and Andrew, and then, James and John – and says to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And they drop what they are doing and follow Jesus.
Jonah’s response to God is completely different. God said to Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh,” and Jonah got up and bought himself a ticket to Tarshish. Nineveh was on the eastern end of Mediterranean, and Tarshish was on the western end. In other words, God told Jonah to go one way, but Jonah ran as hard and fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Which story is more like your life? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been like Jonah more often than I’ve been like Peter and his buddies. More often than not, when God tells me to do this, I do that. When God says, “Jump,” and I dive for cover. When God says, “Put service above self,” and I just keep going my own selfish way.
So what do you suppose made Jonah so reluctant to go to Nineveh?
To understand that we have to know a little history. Nineveh was a city on the east bank of the Tigris river in Assyria. In the 8th century BC, the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and also went to war with the Southern Kingdom of Judah, although Judah lasted another 200 years or so.
In other words, God was telling Jonah to go and preach to his worst enemies, to proclaim God’s judgment on them. Even worse, Jonah had to give them the chance to repent, to change their ways, and to escape God’s terrible judgment.
The Assyrians had had no mercy on Jonah’s kinsmen and women in the Northern Kingdom, but now Jonah was giving the Ninevites the opportunity to pray to God to be merciful to them.
Imagine the conversation between Jonah and God: “You want me to go where!? To those rascals, those rats?! Do you know what they did to the Northern Kingdom? Imagine what they will do to me when I go and proclaim your message to them! They don’t even speak Hebrew. You mean I’ll have to learn Ninevish to speak to them?!”
And that’s when Jonah bought his ticket to Tarshish.
The book of Jonah has many messages for us.
One is that we cannot confine or constrain God’s mercy and love. We’re fine when God loves people like us, people who look like us, people who speak our language and have our values.
There’s something in every human heart that makes us just a little suspicious of people who are different from us, whose skin is a different color, who speak a different language, who pray in a different way, who perhaps order their political and economic affairs differently.
I hope you’ve had the opportunity to see the wonderful new film Selma. There’s a great scene in it in which Dr. King is talking to his wife, Coretta. She’s clearly worried about what might happen to him if he continues leading the civil rights movement. And he says, “One day I’ll have a church in a small college town and do some teaching at the college.” That was what Dr. King really wanted to do, but God had other ideas. In Ralph Abernathy’s autobiography he says that Dr. King rode to Selma in the back seat of his car curled up in the fetal position, but when they arrived at the site of the march, King got out of the car and strode to the front of the marchers. I don’t believe that King wanted to go to Selma; he was a reluctant prophet, a reluctant warrior for peace. But he heard God’s call, and he answered it.
During my last year at Yale Divinity School, I had the opportunity to meet Billy Graham. It was a very brief meeting, but I was deeply impressed with him. This was 1982; President Reagan had been president for only two years; the Cold War was entering its last phase.
Graham told the story of his recent visit to the Soviet Union. He had had the opportunity to meet with the Politburo, the men who ran the USSR. And he came back to the US believing that they sincerely sought peace with America.
Was Graham naïve? Perhaps. But what a contrast Billy Graham presents with Jonah! As a young man Graham had preached about the evil of the Soviet system. He had preached about a war between the US and the Soviets as the battle of Armageddon in the book of Revelation. And then he heard God telling him to go to Moscow and speak with the Soviet leadership, to talk to them about God’s message of peace, of spears being turned into pruning hooks, of missiles and tanks being turned into money for agriculture and education and health care.
And what happened? Reagan and Gorbachev met and began to negotiate down their arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying for a minute that Billy Graham ended the Cold War. But isn’t it remarkable that this evangelist, this conservative Christian, heeded God’s call to go to the capital of his greatest enemy and tell them about God’s good news?
So if Billy Graham can go to Moscow, can’t we at least go across town and get to know the people who are different from us? Can’t we make an effort to learn their language and share God’s message with those we do not know?
When we hear and respond to God’s call there’s no telling what might happen. The walls that separate us can fall. Hostile nations can make peace. The lowly can be lifted up and the mighty brought down from their places of power.
God’s message to Jonah was not that different from Jonah’s message to Nineveh: Do you want mercy or judgment? Will you hear and heed God’s message and change your ways or do you want to end up in a dark, cold place, a place as stinky and nasty as a fish’s belly?
But even in that dark, cold place there is hope. It is the message of the Psalmist: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139)
Where can we go from God’s presence? Where can we go that God does not pursue us with mercy and love? Nowhere. There is no place we can go where God is not, no place where God will not hear our prayer and deliver us.
This morning at the 10:45 am service we will be baptizing Oliver Abrao and Madeline Melien. The next part of my sermon is for them, but you are invited to listen, too.
Oliver and Madeline, today you are becoming a part of God’s family, a part of this church.
Throughout your life God will be speaking to you. God is going to summon you many times during your life. God is going to summon you to love him and to love your neighbor. Sometimes God will speak to you in soft and gentle tones, and sometimes God may have to shake the heavens to get your attention.
Sometimes you will be like Peter and the fishermen and you will hear God’s call and follow him. At other times you may be like Jonah and resist God and even run away from God.
There will be times when you will feel just like Jonah did in the belly of the fish. You will find yourself in a cold, dark place. You will wonder where God is. But never forget this: God is with you. There is no place you can go where God cannot find you. There is no prayer you pray that God does not hear.
Today we are giving you several gifts: a candle, a cross, a bottle containing some of the water from the baptismal font. And since this is Las Vegas, we’re giving you a T shirt. But I hasten to add that it does not say, “I was baptized at Christ Church and all I got was this lousy T shirt.”
But the most important gift you are receiving today is the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is a gift that God gives to everyone who is baptized.
The Holy Spirit will help you hear and heed God’s call. The Spirit will bring you comfort and courage even in the darkest and coldest places.
May God bless you and always give you a willing heart to hear Jesus calling and follow him, because if you do, you will have the most marvelous adventures.