Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday: God Is Calling

(Pantomiming telephone conversation:)  “Hello?”  (Pause for other end to answer.)

“You’re kidding!  It can’t be!” (Hold phone to your chest as though to keep the person on the other end from hearing and whisper to the congregation …) “It’s God!”

Now wouldn’t it be something if God actually did call.

I don’t know how it is at your house, but do you ever find that one of the most irritating sentences in the English language to be, “The phone is ringing!”  This often infuriating announcement usually comes from someone in the home who prefers that someone else attend to the task of answering the phone.  I have to admit that I’m usually the one pointing out the obvious by yelling, “The phone’s ringing!”  The idea is that we don’t want to waste our energy if the call is not for us, and there are even times when we don’t want to answer calls that are for us!

Continuing on with this little “fun with the phone” routine, have you ever answered the phone and then said to your mom or dad or son or daughter or husband or wife, “It’s for you.”  Then the reply comes, “Who is it?” Amazing how many people simply want to avoid responsibility for their calls!

Welcome to the world of Jonah!  Let’s begin at the beginning!  The narrative of Jonah actually begins in 2 Kings 14:25: “In the fifteenth year of King Amaziah son of Joash of Judah, King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel began to reign in Samaria; he reigned forty-one years.  He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.  He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.  For the Lord saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel.  But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Joash.”

From this passage, we find that even in Israel, a sinful nation in the sight of God—a nation under the reign of an unfaithful king, Jeroboam, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”—the prophet Jonah was successful: God did not destroy unfaithful Israel while his prophet Jonah was speaking the word of God.  In the book bearing his name, Jonah was also a successful prophet: the people of Nineveh heard and heeded the word of God.  They repented.

Yet Jonah, son of Amittai (a name that means “faithful,” or “truth”—Jonah was “the son of faithfulness … the child of truth”), while successful, proves to be anything but faithful.  He turns tail and runs when God calls him.  And even when he does tell the truth—proclaiming the true word of God to the Ninevites—he does so begrudgingly.  Deep down he doesn’t want those nasty outsiders to know God’s truth.  Even so, God’s faithful and true word succeeds!

Jonah must have been successful as a prophet in his native Israel.  We can figure that out because he was able to hire the sailors and pay for the use of the ship.  The opening sentences of Jonah’s book have him not only paying a fare for his passage, but in fact financed the entire ship and its crew—an expensive endeavor, especially considering all of this money is being spent to disobey the command of the Lord.  The last call Jonah wants to answer is that one from the LORD!

Just like other Israelites, Jonah is called to go beyond his borders.  Abram was sent from his homeland.  Moses led God’s people from their homes.  Balaam was sent to prophesy to Moab.  Elijah had been sent to the Gentile town of Zarephath.  God’s prophets had a history of speaking God’s word beyond traditional borders.  But this call was to Nineveh, “the chief of sinners”.

The very word “Nineveh” would cause a prophet to grow pale—such was the city’s reputation!  Isaiah wrote about it.  So did Nahum and Zephaniah.  A place of deceit and moral degradation, the nation was also renowned for its bloody and inhumane warfare.  When the armies of Nineveh arose (and they arose OFTEN!) the wake of their destruction was utterly complete.  When Assyrians took over a town in battle they would take any survivors and impale them on stakes in front of the town. After a battle they would pile up the skulls of their enemies making pillars out of them.  Their leaders would often remove the heads of their enemies and wear them around their necks.  This is not a friendly nation or a friendly city, not exactly on the top ten holiday destinations of the day!  In fact this is the nation that eventually invades and destroys Israel in 722 BC (cf. 2 Kings 17).  And it’s to this group of people, to this great enemy nation, to this enemy city that God calls Jonah to go. That’s right, it’s an overseas assignment to Kabul in Afghanistan or Tehran in Iran or to Mogadishu in Somalia.

Jonah received a call that he would rather not get!  You know the feeling.  The phone rings and you just know it is your aging aunt who wants you to come over and check her mailbox for the third time today.  Or maybe you’ve had the experience of being “between jobs” and both the car payment and the mortgage are a few days late.  You screen your calls with an answering machine; or if you are fortunate you have caller ID!

Calling Jonah to go to the Ninevites was like asking a Jew in 1942 to go from New York to Hitler, and tell him that God loved him, and that everything he did would be forgiven if he would but repent.  So the Jew got on a train, all right, and went to San Francisco, then got on a ship to Antarctica!  He wanted nothing to do with it.  So Jonah actually hung up on God!  Have you ever had someone hang up on you?  It doesn’t feel very good, and you likely experience a bit of anger.  Who in the world would want to hang up on God and make God angry?

The answer is in Jonah’s name.  The name “Jonah” means “dove.”  When we hear that word we think of peace … or perhaps an image of the Holy Spirit.  That is not what an ancient Hebrew thought when hearing the word “dove.”  In that culture a dove was a flighty and brainless creature—something not to be trusted … unreliable.  A dove flies from one place to another, avoiding confrontation … seeking refuge … and then moaning and lamenting when in distress.  Sound familiar?  Like flighty, moaning Jonah, perhaps?

So Jonah, the dove, flies off, boarding a ship going to Tarshish, which is not only Tarsus, the home-town of St. Paul, but represents a pleasant place of security, a “distant paradise.”  Tarshish was on important trade routes, and was recognized as a place of gold and gems.  Imagine what the Spaniards thought about the new world—a place of exotic Aztec gold—and you’ll have an idea of Jonah’s image of distant Tarshish.  That having been said, a ship bound for Tarshish is bound to have enormous problems.  Scripture speaks of the ships of Tarshish being buffeted by winds and shattering.  Boarding a ship to Tarshish would be akin to buying a ticket to the Titanic!

Jonah’s “going down” (v. 3) begins a slow decent toward death.  The author of Jonah uses the term “to go down” several times.  Jonah is descending—heading toward the bottom of the sea and the belly of the fish.  The foreshadowing is ominous!  Jonah is headed for a fall, for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:11).

And this is what happens when we run from God’s call on our lives.  In the Bible, “to stand before the Lord” is equivalent to serving him (e.g., 1 Kings 17:1; 18:15).  The opposite, “to be removed or to flee from God’s presence,” is to refuse to serve him.  It can also denote the idea of being removed from his service (e.g., Gen. 4:16).  The person who therefore “runs away from the LORD” or “flees from the presence of the LORD” is the one who is refusing to serve God in the task he knows he has been call to do.  This is what Jonah is doing, he is refusing to serve God, even though he knows what his word says.  As a prophet, Jonah should have longed to be in God’s presence (as David so often yearned for God’s presence).  But Jonah hid from God’s presence.  It is like Jonah was on Mission Impossible, and he smashed the message device instead of accepting the mission!

But God’s word will have its way.  The book of Jonah begins with God’s word.  It ENDS with God’s word, as well.  In the words of Martin Luther, God’s word forever shall abide!

How will God’s word win the day?  The answer is in another prophet’s name – Jesus.  He willingly goes beyond his borders for us!  Jesus often traveled beyond traditional and expected boundaries—meeting with Samaritan women … touching lepers illegally.  Is that a surprise, considering Jesus traveled past the boundaries of heaven to be born, to live and to die among us, a foreign and rebellious people?  In his resurrection from the dead the boundaries between life and death will be forever broken down.  Jesus, the one who saves, is the boundary breaker.  He will not flutter away from God’s will.  He will heed God’s call, for he IS the living Word of God.

Listen, God is calling again.  He is calling us to confess our sin.  But all the more he is calling us to confess the name of Jesus.  This is our path home from our wandering.  He is our hope of survival!  Amen.

By Dr. Reed Lessing. © 2010 by Creative Communications for the Parish. 800-325-9414.