Go to Nineveh
Based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20, Psalm 62:5-12
It was Bible Study night that Wednesday, as it had been for countless Wednesday’s prior. Many persons gathered that evening, mostly members – including the Pastor, and one visitor. At the closing prayer, things turned tragic as the visitor opened fire with a handgun and killed nine of those gathered and injured another. His trial and conviction made the news over the next 18 months, and his sentence of death approximately one year ago was not unexpected.
What was unexpected, by the mainstream media and many commentators, was the reaction of the family members of some of those who were killed. Here was a racially motivated tragedy – one of many that the black community has suffered over that same span of time. Certainly the family members were going to come out in retaliation and want revenge. For about half of the families, however, their response was one of forgiveness. Most responded in the courtroom that they were praying for the gunman’s repentance and for his soul. This is how they were called to live out their faith in this time of trial…this was their response to evil. They had been called to Nineveh, and they were going to do what God called them to do. Let us pray…
The Psalmist pens a song entitled, “A Song of Trust to God Alone”. In the midst of the song, the writer states, “…for my hope is from God, who alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken….” And later, “…trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before God who is a refuge for us….” Hope and trust in God at all times – the God in whom you can always find a solid place to stand and to feel safe and saved. This is the essence of our faith – the sure and certain knowledge that we have a God who looks out for us and protects us in all situations, times and places.
Jesus is calling Disciples again today…this time in the Gospel according to Mark. Today He is calling fishermen from their work. As in John’s Gospel that we dissected last week, He is using the simple imperative, “Follow me”. He dresses it up a little bit for his chosen audience and says that He will teach them how to “fish for people”. Simon Peter and his brother Andrew along with James and his brother John come and join the wandering rabbi. Jesus called simple fishermen – men who were skilled at the job that they did, but who were quite likely novices when it came to rhetoric and all things spiritual. The Gospel records no outcry from family members or business partners. We’re only told that, “…immediately they left their nets…and their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men…” and followed Him. Immediately they left into the unknown, with an unknown person, without one comment at all.
In our Hebrew bible reading we are told that, “…the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’….” Now Jonah really, really didn’t want to do this job. In fact, instead of heading East toward Nineveh, he skipped town and headed to the West towards Tarshish on a boat. Every Sunday schooler knows what happened next… That’s where we pick up our scripture today. The fish spits Jonah out at Nineveh and the word of the LORD comes to him a second time. This time, since he’s already at Nineveh and he has prayed to God to release him from Sheol (the belly of the fish) he begins the long walk around town spreading his news that in 40 days Nineveh will cease to exist. Lo and behold, everyone believes him, including the King, and they wear sackcloth and ashes (even the animals) and they fast and repent. God then sees their faith and rewards them by not destroying them.
We’ve been thinking and I’ve been sermonizing about God’s call on our lives and our response to it over the last couple of weeks. The word of God or God’s call to us can take many forms. It can be a call that we embrace wholeheartedly (like my first call to Pharmacy) or it can be one that we struggle with (my 15 year debate with God about becoming a minister for example). One of my professors at Wesley liked to say that the word of God often shattered the vessel which held it. This is why it was so difficult to be a prophet and why it is truly amazing to me that so many answered when God called.
This is why I like the book of Jonah so much. Jonah is an example of how to wrestle with God’s call and to stay within your convictions. He was given the word to go to Nineveh, a city roundly despised by the Jews, to let them know that the end was coming. As far as he was concerned, let it be Sodom and Gomorrah all over again…serves them right. However, Jonah also knew quite well (as he says in 4:2), “…for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing….” So Jonah decides that God is really bluffing and won’t mind him heading off in the direction away from God and from Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t see the enormous impact one person can have on a situation. He knows there is no way out the second time and he delivers God’s warning. Then when he hears that God indeed has saved the city because everyone repented, he gets angry at God for making him come in the first place. God sees Jonah’s anger and says, “..Is it right for you to be angry?” If Jonah knows that much about God then he must know of the scriptures where God indeed changed what was going to occur based on the response of the humans in the situation. Like Psalm 62 says at the end, “…For you repay all according to their work…”
Jesus’ new Disciples were going to have it relatively easy at first. For a while they would just be following after their Rabbi and friend – learning and typically not understanding what He was attempting to teach them. They went willingly when He asked them to follow Him – they didn’t ask questions where they were going or what Jesus was all about. They must have known the whispers about Jesus, that He was the Messiah as foretold of old, but did they really understand that following the Messiah might take them to places like Nineveh? If they knew when He asked them that all would end up martyred, do you think that at least some of them might have chosen to stay at their jobs and leave discipleship to someone else?
A faith community has been shattered – it’s faith in the protection of God is sorely tested. A murderer came into the fortress of God (the church) and committed a senseless crime. How are they to respond to this person who has taken so much from them? Half of the families respond in a way that we can all understand…they do not forgive the killer. Yet, amazingly, roughly half of the families who lost someone respond in Christian love and forgiveness. They remembered God’s call on their lives to love their neighbor as they love themselves. They remember that God alone can and will judge each and every one of us. They told the young man that they not only forgave him for his act, but they were praying for his soul as well. They had gone to Nineveh and were walking around telling everyone who would listen that God was going to judge not only this one man’s act, but the actions of those who were acted upon.
These wounded family members of the body of Christ knew that the call to discipleship was to have the mind of Jesus who forgave those who crucified Him. The Christ who forgave His Disciples when they all ran away and left Him alone to face His false accusers. Jesus forgave them when some of them didn’t believe that He was in fact resurrected and among them again. The members of Mother Emanuel AME Church forgave the man who took so much from them. They traveled to their own version of Nineveh and there they spoke their truth of unconditional love and forgiveness – of their prayer that this lost man might have an epiphany and come to repent his actions. They spoke their truth that their soul waits for God in silence and thus they have received their salvation. They spoke their truth that no matter where a believer in Christ finds themselves on a mission from God, that they are never alone. We believers can take heart because neither Jesus, nor Jonah, nor the Disciples, nor any one of us is ever alone when we follow the word of God to Nineveh and beyond. Thanks be to our faithful and trustworthy LORD who sends us where we need to go…Amen!