A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on January 25, 2015 (Third Sunday after Epiphany)
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.”
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—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. – Mark 1:14-20
Jonah is a marvelous little book in the Bible. It is short, and easy to read
(Give a brief synopsis of the book of Jonah)
Jonah has fascinated biblical scholars for many years because so little can be discovered about when it was written, by whom, and for whom, and for what purpose. It is ridiculously funny, ironic, and satirical. But the story is hard to believe. Or hard to stomach – just as Jonah was hard for the great fish to stomach! Could a storm be calmed by throwing Jonah overboard? Could a man survive three days and nights in the belly of a great fish? Would an entire nation and its king repent because of the half-hearted preaching of a reluctant prophet (the kings of Judah and Israel refused to do that!)? Would a people doing penance put sackcloth on their animals?
It is all hard to believe. Is it true? Is this story of Jonah a true story? Did it all happen exactly as the Bible says? There are many faithful believers who will insist that every word in the Bible is literally true – it happened just as it says, and to think otherwise shows a lack of faith. But there are also many people who scoff at the idea that this could actually happen, and so they dismiss the entire Bible as nonsense. What is a faithful Christian to believe?
Here is what I believe. Some of you have heard me say this before, or at least have come to know how I understand the Bible. But some of you who are relatively new among us may have questions as well. My guess is that Jonah was not a real person – at least not the Jonah of this story. There is mention of a Jonah son of Ammitai in 2 Kings who may have lived about 8 centuries before the time of Jesus (2 Kings 14:25), upon whom this story may be based. But the ill-fated sea voyage, the great fish, and the spectacularly successful preaching are the product of someone’s brilliant imagination. Jonah is not a biography.
The same is likely true for many other stories in the Bible. I am not alone in this belief. Just this past week we learned of the death of Marcus Borg – a well-known biblical scholar, author and teacher at Oregon State University. Borg wrote several books I have read and even used as source material for sermons, such as “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” Borg was a part of a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar which for years carefully studied the sayings of Jesus, trying to decide which of them were authentic, and which were probably never said by Jesus but were attributed to him by the authors of the various gospels. He considered himself to be a faithful Christian, and yet he believed that many parts of the Bible were not factually or literally true.
If that troubles you – if it goes against what you have been taught to believe – let me know. We can get together to discuss it. My intention is not to dismiss anyone’s faith, but to deepen it.
So why do we read these stories from the Bible if they may not be true? I guess part of the answer is that our ancestors in faith read them and built their lives upon them. Centuries ago some very faithful and influential people decided that these books (66 in our version of the Bible) could help us learn about God and God’s ways, and collected them into one volume we call the Bible.
But the other answer for me is that this book of Jonah – although it is a funny, unbelievable story that probably never happened – is true in a different way. It shows the ways that we sometimes respond to God in our lives. Jonah isn’t a story about a Hebrew would-be prophet who lived more than 20 centuries ago, it is a story about you and me.
When I first started to believe that God might be calling me to ministry, I was sure it was some kind of mistake. I was studying for a graduate degree in Chemistry, and ministry didn’t fit with my planned career path – or anyone’s idea of a normal career path. God was starting to say to me, “Go to seminary.” I went to New Jersey instead. But I wasn’t able to run away from that call forever. I didn’t get swallowed by a great fish, but my career as a research chemist eventually spit me out, and God again told me to go to Chicago, that great city, and learn there. When I was ordained in July of 1996, I used the Jonah story as one of the scripture texts for my ordination service.
And although only some folks are called to ordained ministry, we believe that all baptized Christians are called to ministry in one form or another. Maybe that call comes in the form of a telephone call from our Nominating Committee, asking us to serve as an officer of the church (we have an opening for an Assistant Moderator!). Maybe one of your friends or a fellow church member, or a pastor has said to you, “You would be good helping plan worship, or working with the church finances, or teaching, or serving the wider church.” But that would require time and work and meetings, and there are other things you would rather do, and you may not really believe you would be good at it anyway. I have experienced this myself! But you may still feel that persistent nudge in God’s way. Many of us have a little Jonah in us.
Sometimes entire churches can be Jonahs. God may call a church to minister to a changing community — folks with different customs or language, or to the poor. And churches may resist that call because they don’t feel comfortable or because it means a change in their traditions.
Just remember that Jonah was a huge success, when he finally went where God wanted him to go. In fact, he was so successful that it made him angry – because he didn’t want the Ninevites to repent. God’s call took him where he did not want to go.
There is a saying about God’s ways with people that has a lot of truth to it: “God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called.”
So what does one have to believe in order to be a follower of Jesus? If you don’t have to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true (as some churches insist), what does one have to believe? This is where we turn to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. These disciples would follow Jesus during his earthly ministry for a few years. After his death and resurrection they would be the ones who would share the stories of Jesus, carry on his ministry; and preach about how he saves humanity from its constant urge to run away from God instead of following where God leads. And according to tradition (their stories are not included in the Bible) most of them would give their lives as a witness to their faith.
Who were these brave souls of such deep faith? Simon, Andrew, James, and John were ordinary fishermen. Working stiffs.
And what did Jesus ask them to believe in order to join his company and journey with him? Nothing. Just follow. They would come to believe along the journey. One of the great technological marvels of the 21st century is the system of satellites that can pinpoint the location of certain electronic devices to within just a few yards anywhere on earth. Known as the Global Positioning System (GPS), this has made it possible to develop navigation systems that are now common features of many new cars sold in the United States. With a navigation system, you can program in the address of any destination where you want to drive. The system will determine where you are, suggest several different routes to get to your destination, and then give you turn-by-turn directions about how to get where you want to go. You can choose the shortest route, or the fastest, or the one that avoids construction zones or tollroads. And if you somehow miss a turn, the computer will “recalculate” a new route to get you back on track in a matter of seconds. Have a sudden urge for a cup of coffee or sandwich? They will find the nearest Starbucks or McDonalds.
What amazes me about these technological marvels is the trust that people put in them. Users will drive to their destinations completely oblivious to where they are, focused only on the directions the device gives them. They may drive for hours, unaware of what city or even state they are in. But sometimes these devices don’t find addresses accurately. And if they ever lose power – what then?
And what happens when you don’t know where you are going? What do you do when the place that you want to go is different from where God wants you to go? On our faith journeys, we may have to rely on God’s divine GPS.
May we be willing to trust God when God says, “Go,” or “Follow.”