Word of the Week

A Sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

For someone in a long-term relationship and desiring to get married—especially for us women—most of dream about that day someone special asks us the big question.

“Will you marry me?”

I have a friend who knew her day was coming and called me regularly to practice how she was going to say that one word she’d be dreaming all her life to say.

Should I say: “Yes!” Like this she’d muse.

Or maybe like this? “Yes.”

She told me she’d be secretly practicing her answer for months and months in front of the mirror. Though I secretly rolled my eyes, I knew this was serious business!

When my friend asked me my engagement story to Kevin I was no help to her practice.

For when Kevin got down on one knee and proposed to me at this parents’ cabin on Christmas Day of 2006, I could not seem to get the word, “Yes” out. Even as I tried and tried nothing came.

Instead, I stared at Kevin and stared at the shiny thing he put on my hand and after a VERY long pause spoke saying: “Does this ring have insurance?”

True story. And I haven't been able to live down my lack of "yes" and the question since . . .

No matter if we are saying yes to a marriage or any other big life decision, there’s an assumption on so many of our parts that when we get to the big moment that we’ll magically say yes with roses and confetti falling from the sky, of course.

And our Old and New Testament lessons for this morning don’t steer our attention otherwise. For what we find are people responding to the call of God with seemingly radical obedience that makes our day-to-day struggles of following Jesus look weak and without conviction.

But is this really accurate?

Let’s start with Jonah.

As we read our lection taken from Jonah chapter 3 what we find is “the word of the Lord coming to Jonah” telling him to go to Nineveh, one of the largest city in the modern world at that time and preach the a message of repentance.

And what do we see happening? Verse 3 tells us “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord.”

As he preaches, verse 5 tells us that the “people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on a sackcloth.”

Seems beautifully simple doesn’t it? Jonah says yes to God. He preaches as he felt like God was telling him to do. And the crowds believed and turned their lives back to the Lord.

And then there is our gospel lesson. After Jesus returns from the wilderness of temptation, he goes into Galilee and begins to preach saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent believe in the good news.”

Soon after this we are told, as Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee he finds Simon and his brother Andrew. Jesus approaches these two fishermen. Then, just as they cast their net into the sea, Jesus asks them to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Again it appears to be a simple story: Jesus accepts God’s call to preach. Jesus extends an invitation to these brothers. And they respond by “immediately” following him.

So is this what we are to make of what it means to pattern your life after Jesus? Is this how we are to describe the call of God going out into the world? Simple, straightforward, full of lots of non-stuttering “Yes’s?”

Well, when we dig deeper into the context from which these two lections came what we will discover is not so much.

For, the witness of Jonah or Jesus’ disciples is not one of blind obedience, or even obedience without a long dialogue.

Let’s go back to Jonah. We might have missed something in verse 1. Let me read it again, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah for the second time . . . “

For by chapter 3, this was not Jonah’s first rodeo with God’s calling.

Because we know Jonah’s name is associated with one particular thing, right? It’s a ____ (whale).

For when we go back earlier in the text, we discover that the word of the Lord came to Jonah the first time and he said no.

He ran. He got on a ship heading for the farthest place from Nineveh because he didn’t believe “such people” were worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.

But when he found himself on that ship and the waves grew and the winds howled, his fellow passengers threw down lots deciding to kick him off the boat. And Jonah ended up in the belly of what scripture calls a “big fish.”

A metaphoric tale or not, we learn that Jonah got 3 days to sit and reconsider what it was that God asked him to do in the first place. Then he said yes.

It takes a journey for Jonah to say yes to God’s call, not just a moment.

And then there were those disciples—Andrew and Simeon Peter. If you were here last week, you remember that we studied how they ended up with Jesus from the perspective of John’s gospel.

It’s was a great education for me to prepare to preach last week—to see the longevity and interconnectedness of the disciples to Jesus.

Do you remember? Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. When John refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” Andrew jumps on over to Jesus’ camp. Then soon he tells his brother Simon about it. Then together they tell Philip who is from the same Galilean town, Bethsaida, and the story goes on from there.

But none of this back story is told in Mark’s version of the story. We only see Jesus passing by and using language that makes us think he’s in a hurry. Notice with me the words in the passage. Verse 18: “Immediately they left their nets” and in verse 20, “Immediately he called them.”

What we need to understand about Mark’s storytelling bent is he’s doer without hesitation.

He believes the kingdom of God is coming. So, there’s no time to waste in telling it to us and no time to waste in responding to it.

So, with all of this considered, I believe it was a journey for the first disciples to say yes to Jesus’s call, not just a moment (we just don’t see the full picture from Mark’s perspective).

But all of this goes against our popular notions of what responding to God’s call looks like, doesn’t it?

I mean, isn’t following Jesus about saying yes during a “Just as I Am?” invitation hymn on the 6th verse right as the preacher is about to close the response time?

Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do around the camp fire at youth camp on the last night?

Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do when a missionary comes and gives a dramatic speech about how bad things are “over there?”

Maybe not.

One of the great saints of the church who we hear mentioned more often these days because of the current pope is St. Francis.

Though many of us might know about St. Francis that he loved the dramatic and blessed animals and trees, do we know where his story all started?

Francis, one of seven children, was born in 1181 to an well-to-do family.

Francis grew up with everything he could have possibly wanted and more: the best clothes, the best food and drink and a high-class education.

And with this mentality, Francis’ father, Pietro, a respected cloth merchant, believed his son would follow his footsteps or even do something more honorable than him, I guess as most parents believe about their children.

And Francis has ambition and gumption too. He wanted to be well-known and accomplished.

When he was 20 years old, scholars believe that Francis left home and joined the army. Francis coveted the knighthood and sought to be brave in battle.

However, while fighting in Perugia Francis was captured. He is believed to have spent the next year of his life in prison. There began his process of listening and discerning the call of God on his life.

When released, Francis felt like he heard the words from God, “Repair my church.” He felt overwhelmed one day while visiting Portiuncula, a church in disarray.

Francis began to do just this. He used the resources he had, which was his father’s fine cloth, sold them and used the money to repair the church.

You can imagine how well this went over. His father felt disgraced, for this way not the way that his inheritance was to be spent! Francis could not bear to face his father and according to tradition, hid in the woods for one month before returning home to face him.

Francis soon stopped attending family events, going about business as usual and talked to the bishop about joining the ranks of the clergy.

Soon thereafter, Francis gave back the money he had made on the cloth. Then before the bishop of Assisi, he tore of his clothes and gave everything he had back to his dad.

Francis’ call to follow Jesus would be one of complete surrender—giving us his family ties, his money, his power and even his dignity to say yes to Jesus.

Later, he would take a vow of poverty and go about the work of “repairing the church” as he’d heard the calling long before—not as he’d first thought (in repairing the physical structures of church buildings) but in the work of reconnecting souls to the heart of the gospel.

But again, just like in the case of Jonah and Jesus’ disciples this call for Francis to say yes to God was about a process, not a moment.

And I love each of these three stories in all of their uniqueness because of how they tell us something about saying “Yes!” to God.

So many of us crave that moment when the light bulbs go off when we figure out exactly what we are supposed to do with our lives. Or we crave that dramatic conversion experience. Or even we crave the perfect moment when we use just the right infection of our voice—which we’ve been practicing for weeks of course in preparation.

But if we want to follow God and God’s call in our lives through the life and death of Jesus Christ, then, we don’t have to feel so anxious toward having a perfect moment.

No, because I believe God knows what it is going to take for each of us to say yes to the calls in our lives. And God gives us grace for the journey.

I don’t know about you, but from all of my years of growing up in church, I think it was easy for me to get the idea that God was somehow like a man standing over me with big stick. And that the nudgings of the Holy Spirit were somehow to be received like daggers in my back . . . when I felt like God wanted me to do something I needed to do it right then or else!

But, my friends, I don’t think this is how our God of grace works. God gave us our lifetime to walk with Jesus and learn.

We’ve all got our own process that will be completely different from our neighbor’s. And we’ve all got a loving heavenly parent who is by our side (if we allow it) encouraging us step by step toward the path that is our way.

So it is ok if it takes us a while to say yes. And it’s ok if we ask: “Does this come with insurance?” Questions, concerns and emotional ups and downs are welcome in God’s kingdom. None of us are ever asked to be faith robots.

God doesn’t want our forced conversions that we are going to wake up the next morning and regret like a bad hangover. No.

God wants us to journey our life through toward that which heals us, that which makes us whole.

Of course it might be easier to say yes to God the first time God calls—I mean, if we don’t want to be like Jonah and in the belly of the fish and all—but still God’s plans for us remain the same.

And as long as we are breathing on this earth, there’s time to say yes.

So I ask today, will you say YES to the journey?


(If you are interested in learning more about the life and calling of St. Francis, I just read this lovely book. And while fictional it offers some great insights, in an approachable way about his life).

I Don’t Want to Go!
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Preached June 16, 2013
Watonga Baptist Indian Mission

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience in your life when you felt like God really wanted you to do something and you absolutely did not want to do what you thought He’d asked you to do.

I know I have.

Over a year ago, Kevin got a call from a recruiter. They wanted to talk to him about a job. It was with a big organization called Feed The Children.

On the way home from work, the day that the recruiter called Kevin, he phoned me to ask me what I thought.

“Oh that’s really exciting, honey” is what I am sure first came out of my mouth. It sounded like an exciting opportunity to do good with his job that I knew Kevin couldn’t pass up. But then there was a catch—that would be his next sentence.

“You should know,” Kevin said, “Feed The Children’s headquarters is located in Oklahoma City, OK.”

“What??” was my first word in response to that. “Why would we want to move to Oklahoma?”

The thing was is that we had a nice life and jobs for ourselves in the Washington DC area. Kevin actually liked his current job. I was the pastor of an American Baptist church like this one that I adored. We liked where we lived. Why would we want to move? After all, most of our friends and family lived on the East Coast. We counted the hours—it would be a 22-hour drive from Washington DC to OKC: at least a two day trip to get back home if we wanted to.

Soon, I was not in favor. Not in favor at all. Kevin can tell you, that there were some less than appropriate preacher like words that came out of my mouth in response.

But the more Kevin talked to the recruiter and then the organization’s leaders, it became clear that it was God’s calling for us not to stay but to go.

We were to move at least part of our lives to Oklahoma for a season. We were to join in God’s mission to feed children in need around the world. Even if it means leaving the familiar for something unknown to both of us . . .

I still wasn’t happy about it. But, during the time when we were discerning what to do next, I heard a sermon preached on the scripture passage before us today. I knew that I did not want to be called Jonah.

While Jonah is often referred to as “Jonah and the whale” as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God’s plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. It’s a story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God’s love for all people and all parts of the world—even the parts that are unfamiliar to us.

And this is the summary of what God asked Jonah to do: go preach God’s word to the Nineveties.

It is good to first consider the who’s and what’s of Nineveh and why God’s message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.

Furthermore, Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years!

Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights and their land.
But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians—the bad guys in the story. God said, “Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.”

We find very few details of Jonah’s life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere.

In Jonah chapter 1, we get down to the main event quickly: the Lord saying to Jonah in verse two: “Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!”

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy!

And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn’t even get to say something tame. . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: “God wants you to repent for you’ve done really bad things.”

(Not exactly the words that would lead to kind hospitality from Assyria, wouldn’t you agree?)

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid.

Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him.

Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world.

Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God– a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don’t we?

And so Jonah ran. We’d run away too, wouldn’t we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

Jonah ran away as far as he could, 750 miles away in fact. He jumped the first boat for the other side of the world. And this was until a huge storm descended upon the waters. His shipmates through lots to see who’s fault it was—a part of ancient custom. And the lots landed on Jonah. Soon Jonah was overboard and found himself swallowed up by a fish.
There was once a Sunday School teacher who taught a lesson about the story of Jonah. When she had finished, she asked her class, “Okay everybody, what did we learn today from the story of Jonah and the big fish?”

Some of the kids talked about Jonah having to preach to the bad people. Some of the kids talked about Jonah really, really not wanting to go.

And a bright little eight-year old girl thought for a moment and said, “Always travel by air.”
Smart girl, huh? Makes me want to fly next time too, right?

So what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it– what happens if it doesn’t go away?

What happens if we are called to be with “those” people and God just won’t let us forget?

What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Today is Father’s Day—the day that our country has set aside since the early 1900s to recognize the father’s in our midst just as we do with the mothers only a few weeks ago.

Though Hallmark and television commercials want to make this day into a sappy holiday with all sorts of grandeur expressions of love and appreciation—for many of us, some of the men in our lives aren’t all that. Sure, we respect them as elders, we respect them as those who gave us life or gave our children life, but they don’t seem to be the kind of people in whom we can overtly appreciate on a day like today.

But what if God calls us to those people?

Roberta Bondi, a Christian teacher at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, writes about one such experience in her life in her book, Memories of God.

Having grown up with a father she didn’t like very much, a father in whom she’d isolated herself from especially as her parents divorced and she lived in different states from her father in her high school years. She was always mad at her dad for leaving her mom, her and her sibling behind. Then she writes about a change that happened in her heart over time as she began to study the scriptures and consider what God most wanted from her:

Eleven years ago, my father’s sister, whom I had not seen since childhood, moved to my hometown and we began to spend wonderful time together. . . . . My aunt began suggesting that I go and visit my father, whom I had not seen for a number of years. I knew that he was remarried, that he was ill with emphysema, and that he was retired [He possibly could die soon]. I was terrified by the idea of a visit. I took a trip to Connecticut [where he father was living at the time]. It was not an easy trip, since I was still so afraid of him. . . . . And now, amazingly, being able to see him for the first time through adult eyes, I began to see not my childhood image of my powerful, mythical father, but rather my actual flesh and blood, real human father. In that trip, I began to learn that my father had changed over the years. He still had a good mind but from somewhere against all expectations he himself had learned a lot of gentleness. Just as surprising, considering his previous history, he had become a Christian man to the core.

Roberta goes on to write: “It still seems to me to be an astonishing gift of God’s grace that in the last years of his life I was able to stand with him as his friend who was his adult child.”

It was Roberta’s Jonah moment of decision come to live with wonderful effects.
Maybe for you in your life—your call of “go” is not to another job or city, like it was for Kevin and I. Maybe it is not to praying about and working toward a renewed relationship with an family member or friend, like Roberta Bondi.

But, I do know this: that the Jonah tale was not just a one-time deal. It’s not just a story or a metaphor as some would like to call it that doesn’t relate to us anymore.

Sure, we might not actually get swallowed up in the belly of a fish like Jonah did.

But, what I know of our God is that we are continually asked to do what is UNCOMFORTABLE to us. And, if we say no, there are consequences to our actions, we don’t get to have the fullness of blessings that can be ours in this life when we say no to God.

I believe God longs to show us—not punish us—the beauty of what can come from the most broken situations of our lives.
If we look back at our scripture passage—Jonah chapter 3, verse 5, we read that God used Jonah in the most amazing way. For, “the Ninevites believed God” as Jonah brought the message. Jonah was not harmed (as he thought he might) through being in this unfavorable situation and place. Rather, Jonah received the blessing of being God’s instrument of peace and love to an entirely new community of believers.

I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who “those” people are in your life.
You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you’d explode.

Whoever is on your list of “those people” I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God’s family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .

It’s a hard edge to sit with this morning. But, today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed to those, especially those in whom we may not really want to move towards. And I know this, as we do, God will bless our steps.