Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Willing and unwilling servants

     Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of His salvation -- Our collect for this week was certainly appropriate. Our Gospel lesson dealt with Mark's retelling of the calls of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. And our Old Testament lesson was about God's call upon Jonah. In a sense, we are given four wonderful examples and one anti-example of responses to God's calls on the lives of individuals. Simon and Andrew leave when Jesus calls them, an act which in itself was unusual, for rabbi's never called students. Students chose rabbi's. And James' and John's acceptance is even more astonishing! Once again, Jesus calls them. Unlike Simon and Andrew, however, who seem to be working for themselves, James and John are mending nets for their father, Zebedee. As unlikely as it was for Andrew and Simon to walk away and follow Jesus, James' and John's decision to follow Jesus is extraordinary. They are abandoning the seeming needs of their father! They are walking away from the family business. Often, Jesus' calls on our lives are not without costs. His call can cost us jobs, worldly power and honor, money and even relationships. Of course, the rewards for faithful obedience far outstrip any worldly benefits.

     God's call upon Jonah, however, probably speaks more to our relationship with God. In chapter three, we hear that Jonah preached to Nineveh and that the people of Nineveh repented. Jonah's call is heard, and God is moved to put off the calamity which He was going to bring down on that enormous city. What we do not see, unfortunately, is more of the call of Jonah. We all know from Sunday School classes in our youth that Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish. And many of us are taught that Jonah's entombment in the fish belly presages the time Jesus will spend in the tomb. What we often forget, however, is what led Jonah to that fish belly.

     When God first calls Jonah, Jonah runs away. Jonah does not want to preach to Nineveh because He knows God is merciful. Jonah fears that if he preaches, and Nineveh hears him, God will relent of the punishment which He intends for Nineveh. Israel hated Nineveh. Who wants their enemies not to be punished? So Jonah flees from God. He boards a ship and sets sail as far away from Nineveh as he can get. God sends a storm. After some time, Jonah perceives that He cannot flee God. So, he tells the shipmates to toss him overboard. That is when he gets swallowed by the fish. While in the belly, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh.

     After our reading from this weekend, Jonah goes outside the city to sulk. The Scriptures describe Jonah as displeased and very angry. Jonah whines that he knew this would happen. I preached, they repented, and God forgave them their iniquities. Jonah is so upset, so exceedingly angry with God that he asks God to take his life. And God simply responds with a question, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

     While Jonah is sulking and waiting to see if God will destroy Nineveh, God causes a bush to grow. The bush protects Jonah from the heat of the sun. And Jonah loves the fact that it is there. But, the next day, God sends a worm to destroy the bush, and He sends a sultry east wind to tire Jonah. Once the shade is destroyed and the elements weigh on Jonah, Jonah's response is predictable. He begs God to kill him. And God reminds Jonah that he did nothing to get the bush, so he should not be angry that it is gone. God asks Jonah why he should be so concerned for a bush and He not allowed to be concerned for a city with more than 120,000 people who have not heard His message of salvation?

     One of the Gospel lessons for each of us this week is just how powerful and merciful God truly is. God is able to work through both the lives of those who willingly and eagerly embrace His call upon their lives, and He is equally able to work through the lives of those who do their best to fight His call upon their lives. From a worldly perspective, Jonah does not deserve to be remembered as a faithful servant of God. Some prophet. He fought God every step of the way, and when God won, Jonah complained all the more! Who wants to be like him? Yet so often in our walk with God, we are every bit the Jonah and less the James and John. We want God to work on our terms rather than for us to work on His! And, in spite of our attitudes, in spite of our discomforts, He is still able to accomplish His purposes. No matter how much we fight, how much we kick, how much we scream against what He intends, He will still accomplish all that He wants to accomplish. We can either be willing, loving participants, or we can suffer the just punishments of our Father in heaven.

     Think of Jonah. For all his whining, all his anger, all of His response to God, why should his ministry ever be committed to the memory of Scripture? Further, given his responses, why should God have ever caused one of the largest cities in the world ever to hear the message of such an unwilling prophet? Yet that precisely informs us of God's mercy. He can take an unwilling servant and cause amazing miracles to occur. Jonah does nothing other than preach. By worldly standards, he certainly did not deserve to be remembered as the prophet that called Nineveh to repentance. Thankfully, and mercifully, God does not work by worldly standards. The same all-powerful God is exceedingly merciful. Though God might rightly be exceedingly angry with each one of us and allow us to perish in our sins, He chooses over and over to call us into right relationship with His through His Son.  And that, after all, is the true hope of the Gospel.  When we did not even realize we needed a Savior, still He came, still He called, still He redeemed!


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