Jonah, Jesus & Us: Jan. 22 sermon “Changing Speech, Speaking Change”

I always feel inadequate when it comes to posting my sermons. Most all the blogging pastors I know are great at posting brilliant manuscripts, and most of them manage to do so by early Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, I usually don’t have a manuscript. But that’s ok because I think sermons are auditory (and visual) events to be experienced more than they are papers to be read. I’d love to post a video of my sermons. But we don’t video record our worship gatherings, so that’s out. We do, however, record all our Sunday worship services on audio cd, so I should at least be able to do that, right? Well, for the longest time the whole service (usually about an hour-long) was all on one track. Now though, thanks to our faithful and talented sound engineer, Chris, we at least have a few tracks on the cd’s.

Then there’s the whole question of which of our two services to post. No two sermons are exactly alike. This week for instance, listening to both sermons I thought the first time was a bit tighter. But I forgot to mention that Jonah, son of Amittai means “Dove,” son of “Faithfulness.” I remembered that the second time, but the audio quality wasn’t as good. What to do, what to do… (a first world problem, to be sure).

So I’m trying a hybrid today. Here’s the audio of my sermon (beginning with our Deacon Beth storytelling the gospel reading). Below that are the notes I used along with the two slides I showed. Rev. Russell Rathburn’s The Hardest Question posts and John C. Holbert’s reflections on Jonah helped shape my thoughts. (Along with memories from my favorite seminary class: Jonah & Ruth with Dr. Julie Duncan.)

Texts are Jonah 3 (though really the whole book) and Mark 1:14-20.

Hope you find it engaging. I’d love to hear your comments.

This is the only time in the whole three-year Lectionary cycle that we read Jonah, which is one of my favorite books, so there’s no way I’m passing up this chance to spend some time in this delightful, confounding, silly, challenging book. Plus, I think it will help illuminate the gospel reading.

Close your eyes. You go into work tomorrow and are given the worst assignment possible.
…What is it? Anyone willing to share?
I’d guess we’d eventually hear funny stories, poignant stories, dangerous stories, even maddening stories.

Well that’s what happened to Jonah: he showed up to work one day and God gave him the Worst. Assignment. Ever.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah, ‘Go at once to Nineveh and cry out against it, for they are wicked.”

In other words, God said, “Go to the capital city of your greatest enemy, the Assyrians – people who don’t know the Lord, people who are known throughout the ancient world as ruthless killers – Go to them and deliver the message I give you.”

We’ll get into Jonah’s reaction to that word from God, but first we need to rescue Jonah. Rescue him from the whale that is the Sunday School pabulum we’ve been fed all these years. What’s the one thing most everyone knows about Jonah? The whale.












I think we confuse him with other whale riders like Pinocchio or maybe even Rudolph in that ‘70s classic, Rudolph Saves Baby New Year. The whale is probably the least important part of the whole story! Here’s how we’ll rescue him: by paying attention to genre.

Genre matters. We know this. It’s probably just harder for us to apply that knowledge to the bible. Think about it like this: what’s the difference between a 10:00 NBC 5 news cast and a Saturday Night Live skit? Do we approach a Tom Brokaw Greatest Generation program the same as we do an episode of the Simpsons or South Park?

We need to similarly approach scripture. Jonah is the Colbert Report of the bible – whip smart, wickedly funny, and overwhelmingly satirical.

It seems to me, knowing that can help us make some sense of Jonah’s actions and words…and help us see just how darn funny this book really is.

Jonah is here, in Jerusalem. God tells him to go to Nineveh, here. So Jonah, whose name means, “Dove” son of “Faithfulness”, does exactly as one so named would do. He flees in the exact opposite direction! Tarshish is most likely in southern Spain. The exact opposite direction and the edge of the known world.

Do you know where Nineveh is today? What modern-day country? Iraq.
Maybe Jonah isn’t so crazy after all.

Jonah, the prophet, the mouthpiece of God, speaks not a word but flees instead, getting himself into many strange, and even funny, entanglements – worthy of a TV sitcom!
Maybe we need to do a study on Jonah, there’s so much here:
-He meets some pagan sailors
-Ends up inside a great fish
-Offers a prayer so sanctimonious it causes the fish the vomit
-Finally goes to Nineveh where he gives one reluctant, half-hearted sermon – a mere 8 words! – and suddenly everybody repents! I mean EVERYBODY: the people, the King…even the animals.
-even the animals are wearing sackcloth. Again, sounds like something right out of a Simpsons episode.

First the pagan sailors, now the awful, violent, enemies in Nineveh do what the prophet of God never does in this story: offer sincere prayers of repentance and change their ways to follow God.
Which, of course, makes Jonah furious.

I understand Jonah, I really do. I don’t have to think long to come up with a few people whom I think need to get what’s coming to them.

“This is what humanness is: sometimes we want education and enlightenment and understanding, and sometimes we want confirmation of our biases and soothing for our prejudices.” – Between Two Worlds commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on The Atlantic

Jonah tries to flee from God’s presence and finds that’s not possible. God doesn’t just reside in Israel. Jonah wants to limit God’s mercy – after all, the Ninevites were vicious, awful, sinful people. They were the enemy. But Jonah suspects and then finds out that’s not possible either. There is no limit to God’s grace.

And that brings us to Jesus. As author Gary Wills puts it, “Jesus continually tells people – shows people – to their astonishment, that no company is beneath his presence.” People in jobs that are despised? Not beneath Jesus’s presence, he spends time with them.
People that are outcast, excluded, reviled because they are the wrong race or the wrong gender? Jesus spends time with them. Speaks with them. Eats with them. They are not beneath his presence.

Notice what Jesus says in Mark. What is the good news? “The Kingdom of God has come near.” “Repent and believe that God is here with you, among you. God is near.”

How do we change the things we see in the world that are wrong? There are a multitude of ways, I’m sure. In one way or another, don’t most methods for change involve using our voice?

How do we make change?
-Vote. That’s a form of speech, isn’t it?
-With our money, we fund efforts with goals similar to ours “put your money where? Where your mouth is.” Is that a form of speech?
-We speak. Online, through letters, in person (such as at a city council meeting or    a Congress member’s office. Or to a family member or loved one in need of help.)
-And sometimes, we tell stories. The Emperor is a pompous jerk? Tell the story of his “New Clothes”

People trying to limit God’s grace? Trying to keep God for themselves? Insisting that God’s favor is ONLY for them? – Tell the story of Jonah. But remember, sometimes we’re those people. At least I know I am. So then we tell the story of Jesus. God draws near.

If we are to learn from Jonah, if we are to follow Jesus, then today we need to say to any whom the church has made unwelcome, to any the church has made to feel unwelcome, unworthy, or unloved… to them Jesus through words and actions says, God draws near to you.

Can there be any doubt that those who currently hear that message of being unwelcome and unworthy more than any others right now are our gay sisters and brothers? If we are to learn from Jonah, if we are to follow Jesus today, then to our gay sisters and brothers we must say we repent of our lack of love. To them we must say, God draws near to you.

But Jonah teaches me something else too: sometimes we’re the ones limiting God’s grace. At least I know I am. So again we tell the story of Jesus: God draws near.

Who are the Ninevites in your life? Really consider that: who do you despise? Who do you want to see “get what’s coming to them”?

The word I hear from God through Jonah and Jesus is: whoever your Ninevites are, this week, go and tell them ‘God draws near to you.’ Find out how speaking those words changes them. Find out how speaking those words changes you; changes me; changes us. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Jonah, Jesus & Us: Jan. 22 sermon “Changing Speech, Speaking Change”

  1. Chris

    Thanks for the kudos. This might be the first time I’m mentioned in a published text. If you are going to continue this we can video tape the sermon for you, or at least make sure the audio recording is up to snuff for publishing. Great job.

    1. Well, I don’t know if this little blog of mine, with all of seven readers, counts as “published”…but I’m more than happy to extoll your virtues, Chris!

      Having video would be great! I think it is easier and more interesting to watch and listen, rather than just listen. I get stir crazy quickly.

      Thanks for engaging here.

  2. Pingback: What’s Eating Jonah | life at the intersection

  3. Pingback: How Dare You?! – All That I Can't Leave Unsaid

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