Midweek Lenten Sermon for March 17, 2010

The Sign Of Jonah

A Series Of Special Services for Lent

by Dr. Reed Lessing

Fourth Week Of Lent: The God Of The Second Chance

             “Hello, this is Andrew Larson.  I am unable to take your call right now, but please leave your name, number, and a short message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible (beep).”

            This is a standard message that most of you have on your answering service at work or at home. The whole point of having a message bank or an answering machine is to make sure you don’t miss your calls.  But … there are some people who use it to screen their calls, to avoid certain callers, to sift out who they want to talk to, to work out which calls to return and which calls to ignore.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you know someone who does?

            It appears that Jonah is like that when it comes to God.  The message on Jonah’s answering machine goes something like this.  “Hello, this is Jonah.  I am unable to take your call right now. Please do not leave your name, number or message, because I won’t be getting back to you.  If this is God … I already know what you have to say, and I don’t care for it one little bit (beep).”

            But God keeps calling!  He never gives up on Jonah, or us!  He is, after all, the God of the second chance.  Want proof?  I offer up Jonah—exhibit A:

            When God’s call comes to Jonah a second time, it is after he is expelled, so to speak, from the belly of the great big fish.  Jonah’s second call is the result of his “baptism”.  After being plunged into the sea, after facing his death—experiencing what he called, “The waters closing in over me; the deep surrounding me; weeds wrapping around my head at the roots of the mountains, going down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”—after that grave experience Jonah declares he experienced the salvation of our God.  “Yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

            It was a baptism!  For all of God’s baptized children have been plunged into the bracing waters. They are drowned, we confess, and their sinful nature with them is done to death.  Yet there is a double image here, for in those waters they meet their Maker in his saving Word.  From the waters they arise, forgiven and alive—newborn children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit.

            Jonah’s second call is the result of this “baptism.”  Only after being plunged into the drowning waters and revived by his saving God can Jonah hear and respond to God’s second call.  It is in baptism that Jonah and we meet and greet our God of second chances.  No … where our God meets and greets us!

            On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played the University of California in the Rose Bowl. During the first half of the game a player by the name of Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for California on his own thirty-five yard line.  In evading some of the Georgia Tech tacklers, Riegels became confused.  He started running sixty-five yards in the wrong direction.  One of his teammates, Benny Lom, outran him and tackled him on the one yard line just before Riegels was about to score for Georgia Tech.

            A coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during half-time.  That afternoon coach Price was quiet.  No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels.  Then the timekeeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time.  Coach Price looked at the team and said simply, “Men, the same team that started the first half will start the second.”  The players got up and started out.  All but Roy Riegels.  He didn’t budge.  The coach looked back and called to him again.  Still Riegels didn’t move.  Coach Price walked over to Riegels and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me?  The same team that started the first half will start the second.”  Roy Riegels looked up and his cheeks were wet with tears.  Then Coach Nibbs Price put his hand on Riegels shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back.  The game is only half over.”  Roy Riegels did go back, and those Tech players testified that they had seldom seen a man play as Roy Riegels did in that second half.  A second chance!

            Want to hear another one?

            Many Americans were taken captive by the movie Seabiscuit, which tells the true story of an undersized horse and oversized jockey who grabbed the nation’s admiration during the Great Depression.  Seabiscuit’s trainer had nursed a horse with a broken leg back to health when many others would have put the horse down.  So when a horse owner approaches him about trying to train Seabiscuit, a horse known to be too small and so rambunctious that he seemed to be possessed by demons, the trainer consented.  When asked why, he replied, “You don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a bit.”  Later in the movie Seabiscuit loses a race because his jockey, Red, is blind in one eye and so he couldn’t see another horse overtaking them.  The trainer wants to fire Red, but Seabiscuit’s owner defends him with the same words: “You don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a bit.”

            That’s God’s attitude toward Jonah. God refuses to throw away a whole prophet just because he’s running away from his call.  And such a relentlessly faithful God would never throw away a whole city just because it’s banged up a bit—caught in a sinful path that can be repented of … that can be forgiven.  The second chance that was Jonah’s is the same second chance that is Nineveh’s … is the same second chance that is OURS!  What a wondrous epiphany it is to learn that you are not trash to God—something to be thrown away.  You are worth a second chance—even a second chance that costs a whipping post … and a cross.

            Empowered with such a second chance, Jonah goes to Nineveh and offers them the same second chance.  The unfaithful prophet, now reborn in baptism, can call to the unfaithful Ninevites, fully aware of the new life that God can give.  Jonah’s experienced it!

            By chapter four Jonah will have returned to his sinful ways, moping and lamenting the grace of God.  We all do that, even St. Paul, who spends much of the seventh chapter of Romans confounded by his inability to “do the good that I would do,” and his quick propensity toward “doing that which I would not do.”  The old sinful nature does arise.  But Baptism holds the trump card—the eternal promise of God’s enduring grace!  Each day we are invited to refresh and renew ourselves in our baptismal waters.  There we meet Christ, who joined John in the waters of the Jordan and joined all of us, as well (even Jonah), in the waters that drown the old and raise the new—the waters of the second chance!

            Jonah survived only through the gospel, and so do we because our God in Christ is the God of the second chance!  As we approach his cross we remember our death in baptism.  As we approach his tomb—soon to be empty—we rejoice in the new, forever life our second-chance God has promised us.  Praise him!  Amen.


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