A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 22, 2012.
Conversion of Nineveh
3The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,*15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’*Jesus Calls the First Disciples
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Living is an ongoing series of encounters, experiences, situations, and events between us and other actors who are also engaged in encounters, experiences, situations, and events. Part of what religion tries to do is help us understand the encounters, experiences, situations, and events of living as people in terms of our involvement with God. The passages from Jonah 3 and Mark 1 offer a window into that work.
In the lesson from Jonah a preacher who didn’t want to follow an assignment from God comes around to doing so. The people to whom Jonah didn’t want to preach heard the message he didn’t want to deliver. They changed (we call what they did “repenting”). God changed the judgment intended for them (we call what God did “relenting”).
The lesson from Mark involves another preacher (Jesus) as he began recruiting disciples as part of his proclamation about something he called “the kingdom of God” which he said had arrived. Jesus found fishermen at their work. He called two sets of brothers (Simon and Andrew, James and John) from work in their family fishing operations. In both cases the men left their work to follow Jesus.
So what’s the connection between Jonah, Nineveh, Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, John, God, and us? What does this have to do with how you and I live? The connection involves the whole idea of call and crisis. These passages sound a theme that is repeated throughout the Bible.
The Bible is always trying to show us that God is up to something. God calls us to become involved in what God is doing. That call requires us to react and respond to God. Our reactions and responses mean something to God, us, and others.
And at the heart of this “call” experience is the reality of “crisis.” God’s call and how we respond and react to it always is a turning point, a defining moment, a radical point that affects the future. We share some things in common with Jonah and the people at Nineveh. We have something to learn from Jesus and his interaction with the fishermen he recruited as disciples of the kingdom of heaven.
God’s call is always an intervention. Living is about encounters and experiences with others, including God. The Bible tells us that God finds a way to encounter us, meet us, and involve us. We’re always doing something—even when we claim to be doing nothing—so God’s encounter with us is always an intervention.
That also means it’s an interruption. We have plans and schedules. We have agendas and objectives. We have values and routines. God’s call is always interrupts us. Even if we’re involved in religious life, God’s call interrupts. Jonah was interrupted from whatever ministry he had been doing to take God’s message to Nineveh. Simon, Andrew, James, and John were interrupted from their work as fishermen. God has the audacity to interrupt us, detain us, direct us to change course, and expect us to elevate what God wants to do over what we’re doing.
Have you experienced events or situations when God did that to you or with people you know? Those are crisis moments. We have plans. We want to get them done. We live by certain values, habits, customs, and traditions. We have certain preferences, prejudices, and biases. We have a sense about the way we want to live. We have jobs, careers, relationships, attachments, and expectations. God’s call often challenges those things. God’s intervention with us is often an interruption.
The interruption associated with God’s call is part of what makes the call a crisis—a turning point and defining moment. At that point we decide whether we’re gods or God followers. Does God’s call and claim on us out-rank personal comfort, convenience, customs, traditions, and preferences?
Jonah reminds us that even religious people aren’t always pleased when God intervenes. Jonah reminds us that we sometimes don’t want to do what God wants. We don’t want to love some people. We don’t want God to love some people. We don’t think some people deserve forgiveness. We usually reserve such feelings, attitudes, and unloving actions for people we consider different. Their “otherness” makes them targets of our “un-lovingness.”
Who are the people we view the way Jonah viewed the people of Nineveh? They include people who are immigrants, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans-gender, poor people and others not considered among favored classes. They include incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons. They include all the people Jesus called “the least of these.”
We don’t like being interrupted, but we especially don’t want to be interrupted on behalf of people we don’t like—even if God is doing the interrupting. One of the harsh realities of public policy is that most policy-makers prefer to be interrupted by the powerful even if the interruption means making life more difficult for the vulnerable. Policy-makers accept calls and schedule events with lobbyists for powerful and privileged interest groups. They avoid and limit involvement with people they consider “unprivileged” and “underprivileged.”
Jonah’s experience teaches that God calls us to be agents of divine love with and to people we don’t like. God calls and challenges us to share God’s work to liberate people from situations and conditions that are damning, even when we’re content to condemn the people in those situations and conditions. God has the audacity to interrupt us and doesn’t care whether we like it or not.
Why? Because God knows people can change. Nineveh proved that people can change. No matter how much self-righteous condemnation we may want to impose on them, people can change. God calls us to become agents of the change God knows can happen in the lives of people God loves and calls us to love.
- So Nelson Mandela became an agent of change toward the white South Africans.
- Martin King became an agent of change.
- Dorothy Day became an agent of change.
- Barbara Jordan became an agent of change.
They didn’t plan to become Jonah-like agents to the Nineveh-like times and people they experienced. Nevertheless, they responded and reacted to calls from God to become agents of change.
The same thing was true for the fishermen who left their boats and nets to follow Jesus. They had work to do, families to feed, and bills to pay. But they somehow sensed they were being called into something bigger and better. They didn’t expect it to involve Calvary, but knew it would involve leaving the known routine of their lives and moving into God’s “other.” Simon and Andrew, James and John didn’t only leave their work. They left the work their families had done to do work they had never done. They became agents of redemptive change.
God’s call always involves the crisis of prophetic urgency—the crisis of “now.” Nineveh didn’t have forever to repent. Jonah didn’t have forever to go to Nineveh. Jesus didn’t have forever to wait for those fishermen to follow him. Simon, Andrew, James, and John didn’t have forever to decide to follow Jesus.
Martin King often talked about what he called “the fierce urgency of now.” He understood our tendency to postpone change. But God isn’t obligated to put God’s agenda on hold to fit our timetable. God’s call is to define our priority. When Jesus said “Follow me,” he didn’t mean “Follow me when you finish doing whatever else you want to do.” Jesus meant “Follow me now.” We shouldn’t substitute “later” for “now” and think we’re deciding to follow God. After all, now is the only time we have.
God’ call always creates prophetic anxiety and tension. Jonah, Nineveh, and the fishermen called by Jesus had to face the tension between what they wanted and what God demanded. They had to face the anxiety of the unknown versus the comfort of the routine and familiar. They had to move away from comfort zones.
Justice, liberation, truth, peace, hope, generosity, and every other aspect of divine love involves facing the anxiety and tension of leaving comfort zones in favor of God’s “consecration zone.” At some point, the consecration zone may become anything but comfortable. The fishermen who followed Jesus eventually learned that God’s consecration zone for Jesus included the horribly uncomfortable reality of Calvary. Martin King eventually accepted the fact that God’s consecration zone meant his own death. Anyone who follows God’s call must learn to face similar anxiety and tension.
God’s call always involves prophetic irony. One irony of Jonah includes the fact that the people of Nineveh were more willing to respond to God’s call for their repentance than Jonah—God’s preacher—was willing to deliver God’s message. Jonah didn’t want those people in God’s kingdom!
The fishermen Jesus called as his first followers weren’t the best religious students. They couldn’t claim religious pedigree among their qualifications. Ironically, Jesus found common fishermen who weren’t tapped as moral leaders to be his first followers rather than the religious elite. That created a crisis for the religious, business, social, and political elite who were not called by Jesus. Jesus wanted the people the elites didn’t favor. The elites wanted a notion of “kingdom” God doesn’t want.
God is still intervening and interrupting because God knows people can change. God’s call still carries ironies for us. God has the audacity to intervene, interrupt, surprise, and even disturb us with turning point events, experiences, encounters, and situations.
This is how the kingdom of heaven works. Let’s follow the call and embrace the crisis of God’s urgently prophetic work. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.