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This Week's Sermon !

January 21, 2018, -

Jonah 3: 1-10
Psalm 62
Mark 1: 14-20

The Reluctant Prophet

It was the craziest story my co-worker had heard in a long time. Her son, a classmate of mine from high-school had come home to report that he had seen a car with an easy chair strapped to the roof, driving down the street. That wasn’t the unusual part though; the Amazing thing was that SOMEONE WAS SITTING IN THE EASY CHAIR. His mother did not really believe him! It was well before the TV show “Mr Bean”! Do you remember when HE tried to DRIVE a car while seated in an easy chair attached to the roof of his lime green Mini!!

At any rate, my friend was not convinced, that is, UNTIL her husband came home with the same story. I think that by the time he saw the car, the police had pulled them over. The reason? There was no room left inside for an extra person!

You could say that the story of Jonah is an unbelievable story; some might call it, “A Whale of A Tale,” even though there’s no “whale” in the story: it’s a fish! Maybe the difference is not important.

That’s what most people remember about Jonah - the big fish which swallows him. It’s one of the stories I learned in Sunday School, complete with a vivid painting! In the story of Pinocchio, the tale of a puppet who becomes a real boy, both Pinocchio and his creator Gepetto, end up in the belly of a whale named Monstro.

The tale of Jonah is quite the story, and even it you leave out the impossible part about the fish, it’s still quite unbelievable. When we hear the story we are left scratching our heads and wondering “what is that about, really?”

If you look at it closely, the first thing you see is that his sermon was 8 words long. EIGHT WORDS, preached without any enthusiasm whatsoever. I’m already over 300! And the result: whole city repented - well really, the king ordered the whole city to exhibit signs of repentance, and even ordered it for the animals. No food, no drink, for anyone or anything and all of them had to dress in sackcloth, all signs of repentance! I’ve seen race horses outside with blankets on, especially in cold weather. I’ve seen small dogs wearing coats and even boots. But sheep? Cattle? I’ve seen those odd looking “belted cattle” in the Mt Denson area, but they just “look” like they have wide belts around their middle. I wouldn’t want to put any kind of clothing on a bovine. And, just try and get my cat in an itchy coat!

It sounds a bit like a crazy camp song!

When we read this story there several things we need to know; things the original readers would know without being told or reminded. One is that the city of Nineveh (representing all of Assyria) and Israel were bitter enemies. The other thing is that this story is like one of Jesus’ parables. Everyone would have known it was “made up” but also that it had a much deeper, more universal meaning!

The story of Jonah is one of repentance and forgiveness. It is also a story of call and response. It is a story of God’s willingness to embrace the “other” and of God’s call for us to do the same. It is a story about the power of God to change hearts and minds and to transform lives. It is about God’s willingness to stick with a people who, more often than not, ignore God’s call and run in the other direction. It is, in the fullest sense of the word, “gospel”.

In Canada we take our war history seriously. In fact, in the last few years, there seems to be a resurgence in the importance of Remembrance Day. As a country that continues to receive immigrants from just about every country in the world, we need to walk the sometimes fine line of remembering past sacrifices and forgetting past divisions. While we remember the sacrifices of our veterans we must not transfer those animosities to our present generation. The Germans and the Japanese are no longer enemies. 104 years ago Russia was on our side!

The Rev Martin Niemöller, awarded the Iron Cross for his service in WWI, went to Adolph Hitler before WWII to protest his anti-Semitic policies. He was imprisoned for 8 years for his opposition to state control of the German churches. He once confessed,

“It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.” 

Let’s look at the Jonah story a little more closely. First: some background. Before the time in which this story is set, the people of Israel were defeated by the powerful Assyrian empire. The best and the brightest were carried off into exile in Babylon. After Assyria was defeated by Persia about 70 years later, Cyrus, the king of Persia, allowed the captives to return home, or at least to their parents’ home. At this time there was a very strong movement to become “pure” and to rid their community of “foreign influence.” It was the ultimate in “stranger danger”. They viewed all things foreign as ‘the enemy’, and as the large part of the reason for their defeat. They were told to purge the country of all things foreign.

This story, and the story of Ruth, both challenged their assumptions about God and about foreigners.

Second: a quick recap. Here’s the gist of the story. Jonah was called by God to preach doom to the city of Nineveh, but he did not want to! Now, you would think that Jonah would LOVE to preach destruction to Israel’s enemy but Jonah also knew Israel’s God and the power of God’s word! He knew that if he preached, “God will get you” and they repented, God would forgive them, which is exactly what happened!

So, since he wanted to see them destroyed he bought a ticket on the first boat going in the other direction. A storm came up and he confessed that the storm had come about because he was fleeing from his God and he is thrown overboard. BUT, God isn’t finished with Jonah yet. Instead of letting him drown, God sends a really big fish to swallow Jonah and save him. He remains inside the fish for three days! Then the fish spits Jonah out on shore and he goes and reluctantly preaches to Nineveh.

You know how it is when you contemplate a task that you don’t want to do, like shovel snow or mow a lawn. Every step feels like three and every shovel feels like it weighs three times what it really does. It takes him days to preach his 8 word sermon!

His message has no hope, no “unless”. It may well be the worst sermon ever preached, “three days more and Nineveh will be overthrown”. 8 words. That’s it. BUT the king and the people and the animals repent and God does not destroy them.

However, instead of rejoicing, Jonah goes off sulking. God doesn’t get it; how can Jonah be upset; his preaching saved thousands!

What is the good news of Jonah in 2018 in our little corner of Nova Scotia?

We live in a world of division and mistrust very similar to Jonah’s world. Ironically, Nineveh is very close to the modern city of Mosul which has been in the news more times than we can count in the last few years. While Jonah lived in the shadow of the Exile, we live in the shadow of 9/11. Much of the increasing complexities of our lives, from opening a bank account to flying on an airplane are a reaction to those events.

We live in a country that is trying to come to terms with its colonial history and its treatment of indigenous peoples. The commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women and the Truth and Reconciliation process in relation to residential schools are part of the process of truth telling and repentance we must go through to come to a more healthy relationship with our first peoples.

We are being called to deal with global warming in a county that depends on fossil fuels and economic forces that are generated by them

Those who work for minimum wage are advocating for a living wage while “business” asserts that it is not economically sustainable and are fighting it tooth and nail.

We buy goods which are manufactured by North American companies in sweatshops and in very unsafe conditions in the developing world and we buy agricultural products whose growers work in conditions we would not tolerate here in Canada.

We as individuals, and as a church community, fit into each of these “debates” or “dilemmas” at different points of intersection and fear or welcome any anticipated change in different ways. We face a complex and complicated set of problems.

We may forget that it is also a time of great hope and possibility. The call of Jonah was to call an entire people to repent and embrace the ways of life. We are called, as Jonah was called, to realize that our God is a God of all people and all lands. This is the God who called all of creation “GOOD” - and not just the human part. This is a God who wills life in all abundance for all peoples - no matter who we are or where we live.

We are called to live lives of faithfulness where love of God, self and neighbour are held in a delicate balance

Maybe the fist steps for us, as we seek to answer this call, are to a) BELIEVE that it’s not just about us, and b) begin a meaningful and life changing conversation with all of the interested parties.

We have no other place to go. At this time we have no other planets to settle, no other worlds to go to and do it right. Let’s embrace our faith in the God of all the nations and proclaim the love of this God to everyone we meet.


1995- 2018 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

For some good stuff go to:
journeywithjesus.net-a weekly webzine for the global church

The United Church has a great online bookstore and here is the link. If you live in Canada they will even send you a book display for your event and people who dont get to see that many books at once can have a ball!

Links to My Other Pages at this Site

  • Sermon Ideas 4U Sermon Archive Site!
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  • The Kings United Pastoral Charge
  • Who is Beth Johnston
  • An Anniversary/Memorial Service Sermon
  • A Sermon for a "Covenanting Service"
  • Sermon on Teenage Suicide
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