A Prophet's Call For Repentance Is Transforming

[]The name of today's lesson, "A Prophet's Call For Repentance Is Transforming," in a way speaks for itself, but is not probably the best title for a sermon. I put this sermon title together on Monday when we were preparing the bulletin. And then after a full week of duties and different responsibilities and seminars, and a night sleeping and thinking on these lessons, it transformed a little bit, but not too far. I think if I could change the title right now, I would change it to, 'A Faithful Response Can Be Transforming.'

But first, we'll start back with the actual title, 'A Prophet's Call For Repentance Is Transforming.' And here we're talking about someone who isn't necessarily a prophet, but the person who we just read about a few moments ago and who I talked to the children about…Jonah, the son of a faithful man who God called to do great things, although Jonah didn't know what greatness there would be in that calling that he had.

Imagine you, for a moment, being Jonah and being called to go to a city that is the place of the enemies of your nation, to go to a city where the people there do not understand or respect anything about your faith or even know about your God, to go to a city where there was essential lawlessness and brutality, as we know about the Assyrian Empire which was known to be very violent and brutal in its time. Imagine hearing God's voice calling you to go to that place. What would you do? Perhaps think, "Is it really God calling me to go to this place? No, probably not." But if you said, "That's unmistakably God's voice talking to me in the Spirit in some way, and God had spoken to me before so this must be God," then you might say, "Hmm…" We might take the other rational approach, "I am getting out of here! I am going to get as far away from God and Nineveh as I can because I am not giving up my life to go into that city just to speak to them and have them strike me down."

And that is what Jonah did, and he ran. And he sailed as far as he could go. But, as circumstances would have it, Jonah winds up returning and praying to God to ask God to let him live and go to Nineveh after being swallowed by the great fish, which we call a whale. And one of our young scholars who was up here said, "A whale is a mammal, isn't it, Pastor Steve?" I said, "Yeah, so that wouldn't make it a big fish." But that's okay. The essence of the story about Jonah being swallowed by this massive fish or this whale is that something amazing was happening and something that Jonah would have seen as irreversible: how could he survive being in the belly of a fish, or a whale? But Jonah's prayer, in faithful response to God, his own repentance brings him to survival, brings him to the shores and another chance to hear God's voice calling him saying, "Jonah, go to Nineveh and tell the people in forty days they will be destroyed for their wickedness."

By this time, like many of us, we would say, "Okay, I'm going, don't' worry, no problem. I'll get there as fast as I can." And Jonah's faithful response brings him to face all of his fears, to go where he never would have gone because he wanted to be faithful to God at this point. He had become perfectly obedient. So Jonah goes off to Nineveh and he calls to the people walking through town. And one Scripture says he literally walks to the middle of town before he starts saying anything and others say as soon as he gets to the city. But he goes and proclaims that the city of Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days for their wickedness. Now, without reading the story, we would imagine, knowing these violent people, the Assyrians, they probably would have laughed at him and then dragged him around the city behind a horse or something. But instead he finds his way to the king who is horrified and awestruck and fearful of this God who he has never heard of before. So he calls the city to repent. He calls them to dress in sackcloth and to spread ashes on their faces and cry out to God. And the people do, for many days. And God changes God's mind and decides to spare the people.

So when we look at this story, Jonah seemed to be no better than the people even though he was the faithful person at first. He ran away from God, showing a lack of faithfulness. But in his own repentance, he himself becomes faithful and goes to a city that is not faithful, and is faith-less. And they repent and they are transformed, and they too are spared. The city is not destroyed. Now, our reading doesn't go on to say that Jonah then becomes very angry with God over saving these people and he goes and sits under a tree that God has grow up over him as he's sitting there. Another miraculous story, which would be all too human and real for us as well. How could their wickedness be forgiven like this? Oh, how soon we forget, Jonah, don't we? How soon we forget. But we see this pattern of God's call and first not a faithful response and then a faithful response, leading to transformation and renewal, not only for Jonah, but also for the people of Nineveh.

Now let us jump to the Gospel lesson. Here we have Jesus who is still at the start of his ministry after the arrest of John so we know Jesus has been baptized and probably going around speaking to the crowds and doing some miracles. I say that because these fishermen who were called went all too willingly. I know if a stranger were standing on the shore calling me to, "Get out of the boat and come away with me," unless they were standing there with an army, I probably wouldn't. I would say, "What? Who are you?" and be screaming back and forth. Instead, we have the story of the fishermen who are mending their nets, and Jesus says, "Come. Come with me," and they respond with faithfulness. They go with him. Now, I rationalize that they recognized Jesus or had heard about him and knew who this must be who was standing before them. But however it happens, maybe it was the Spirit of God in them saying, "Yes, you need to go," they were faithful and they went willingly. And then later Jesus sees two more fishermen in a boat with their father and calls them. And faithfully, they respond. They come to the shore and they follow Jesus.

Now, given that these people were doing what brings money and vitality to their families, that was no small feat, for them to get up and leave. One, two brothers to leave their father in the boat who needed their help. The others leaving their livelihood behind, maybe not knowing where they were going. Could they have been afraid or possessing any of the same fears like Jonah may have had, or skepticism that any of us may have if someone were to call us and to ask us to follow them without knowing where we were going?

It's quite a quandary when we really think about it. How willing would we be to go? How willing are we to faithfully respond to God's calling? We are not likely to have Jesus come walking down West Baltimore Street and knock on the door of the church while we happen to be in worship and say, "Hey, Grace UCC congregation, come and follow me." That is not…well, I can't say it's never going to happen because I allow a slim possibility for God to do anything. But it's highly unlikely. God is not going to call us in that way. But God is calling us in many and various ways in the things that we already do in the ways that we serve our community. Whether it's through Carpenter's Table or the love that's spread by the 'Son'-Shine Committee or Lay Life. Whether it's through our Learning Center providing a safe and loving environment for children for pre-school in preparation for kindergarten. Whether it's the mission moneys that we give to help the hungry or the sleep-out to bring recognition that homeless is a problem. Whether it's the funds we give to Caring & Sharing to keep people from being evicted from their homes or apartments or to pay their electric or water bill so they have the essential services they need. All of these things are vital things and God has called us to do them, and we are doing them to the best of our ability.

But in this year of transformation in 2009, and after going to this renewal seminar on Friday, I realize this is a year of transformation for us that must begin with a year of prayer, a year of us to pray for God to enlighten us with the full vision of the future of this church. "God, where are you calling us?" We go through the routines and the missions and the activities that we do, and we are making a difference. But is God calling us just to simply to continue these things or to maybe do something new, to maybe do something entirely different than before that may take us out of our comfort zones and perhaps make us a little afraid? It could be; I don't know. With this seminar on church renewal, the one thing I was sure of is God is calling this church to renewal. God is calling us to faithful response. And God is going to give us a vision. It may not come today because I can tell you it didn't hit me…not yet. But God is going to do something here. And if we are a people of great discernment, and we discern what that is together and faithfully respond to that call, not only will we be transformed, and not only would we transform things in our community, but we will see the amazing nature and power of God.

This is something that I feel, and this is something I know can happen. So I call all of us to be in this year a people of prayer, a people asking God to guide us and to lead us, asking God to show us visions and dreams of who we are and what we are to be, a people who are open that when someone comes through the door and asks us for something, might this be a messenger of God that is calling us to something new? When we serve the people in the ways that we already do, might we be reinforced that God has called us to these things, and it is good. Let us do the best we can. Let us be faithful. Let us be faithful to knowing that God is going to transform us in some ways, and it will be good. And let us start with a year of prayer. Let us pray.

Holy God, you have touched us in amazing ways through the texts for today and through your Spirit which is flowing freely in this place Help us to know you, to truly know you and understand you. Help us to open ourselves to all of that which you call us to. Help us to be a people of vision and transformation, that we may willingly and faithfully go where you call us. Touch us and guide us this day, and hear us as we fervently pray in this year of prayer. In Jesus' name. Amen.

January 25, 2009

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve