If they gave out awards for Bible stories the way they do for movies and TV, today’s gospel story would probably win Mark an Emmy for Best Director. The story of Jesus calling the fishermen to his cause is dramatic, fast-paced, well-structured and compelling.
As a faith story, too, it’s a winner. Good news is clearly proclaimed. And people respond immediately - dropping everything and changing their lives to follow God.
It’s exciting! Sometimes I think it would be fun if church were always like that.
But it’s not. Life’s not like that.
Life’s more like Jonah.
In a scriptural library full of historical drama, pundit and panel commentary, a lot of documentary, some infomercials and a mini-series or two, Jonah is the only half-hour sitcom.
And it’s a doozy.
Jonah - like so many prophets - is called and given a task by God.
Get up. Go to Ninevah. Preach against them, because I have noticed their wickedness.
This is classic prophet fare - go tell the evildoers they are in trouble.
So Jonah promptly gets up and goes.
Goes in exactly the opposite direction, as fast as he can hop on a boat.
You can’t blame him, really, if you know that Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrians, the folks whose mission in life seems to be to destroy God’s people and God’s country. Ninevah is across the river from present day Mosul, Iraq, and it was probably about as safe for Jonah to go there as it would be for you or me to run over to Mosul and announce to the Islamic State folks that God is mad at them.
And if the Ninevites do repent, God will have to give up avenging God’s people and be nice to them. This leaves Israel as the losers and the bad guys as the winners.
So Jonah knows that God’s plan here is a few cards short of a deck, and he skips town to give God time to think better of it.
No sooner is he underway than God sends a storm.
The worst storm ever.
The sailors pray. They toss all their valuable cargo overboard. They seek divine guidance (any god’s guidance!) for the source of the storm. Turns out it’s Jonah - who’s been sleeping through the whole thing. Woken up by the captain, he suggests to the sailors that they toss him overboard to appease God. They try instead to rescue him, fighting the storm to see him safe to land, but finally have to give up, and send him over the side.
In a drama, we’d cut to commercial at this tragic point.
Instead we discover - as Jonah splashes down - that “the Lord appointed a large fish to swallow Jonah.”
It’s worth noting that despite Jonah’s clear lack of enthusiasm, the sailors pray to his God in the storm, and worship his God in the calm after. Prophetic success, in spite of all Jonah’s indifference and avoidance.
We return from commercial to find Jonah in the belly of the fish, strumming his banjo and singing to God in thanks for being saved from drowning. "Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land."
I do mean vomit. The image of a great big fish ralphing out a prophet is an original part of this story.
I told you it was a sitcom.
And now we arrive at the point we heard this morning. God speaks to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (God’s going to be a little more precise this time, ghostwriting Jonah’s speeches. We all learn from experience.)
So Jonah goes. Goes into the city, but not to the center. And yells, “Forty days until Ninevah is destroyed!”
That’s it. Not one word more. Shortest sermon or prophetic oracle on record. And it gets the most overwhelming response.
Boy, do they ever repent.
Every last one of them fasts and wears a hair shirt. And when the king gets involved, so do all the animals. Imagine a town full of penitent goats and pigeons. Wearing hair shirts.
So God decides not to destroy them.
Once again, outstanding prophetic success from half-assed prophetic work.
Of course, Jonah has no real incentive to work at this. He knows that if the Ninevites repent, God’s going to be nice to them, and that is going to be terrible for Israel, having their powerful and merciless enemy introduced as a new baby brother in God’s family…. Because you have to be nice to the baby, even when the baby clearly does not follow the rules.
You and I, much later, might be delighted to think of God’s mercy and forgiveness embracing the evil empire. But to get Jonah’s point of view, imagine how you’d feel if God announced that the Islamic State terrorists were your new best friend, perfectly suited to rule half the world and dictate American foreign policy. Maybe domestic, too.
This is not change we can believe in.
And it makes Jonah furious.
There’s a final bizarre scene with an appearing and disappearing shade tree where God and Jonah argue about whether it matters that God’s ways are not our ways.
As the story ends, we’re meant to be left laughing at Jonah while the lesson sinks in: You can’t always guess what you want from God.
And God’s overwhelming successes can take root in our own sloppy indifference, and blossom while we try to avoid the icky changes they require.
Which makes it the perfect story for an annual meeting Sunday.
In less than an hour, while we enjoy a tasty potluck, we’ll take a look at the Ninevites that surround Calvary - a budget deficit, some leadership challenges, the plain fact that we just don't come to church as much as we used to, on average - and you’ll probably notice that those things could threaten some change at Calvary.
Not immediately. Not profoundly. We’ll be here in fine form next week, and we have a lot to celebrate now.
But that potential for unpleasant change is there, and I don’t want to embrace it any more than Jonah wanted to go to Ninevah.
If you feel the same way - if you want to bend all our efforts to bringing things back to the way they were, and better - that’s fantastic. Talk to our incoming Senior Warden; he’ll put you to work.
And that’s also why God gave us Jonah this morning.
Because at the end of the day, the story of this church is God’s, not ours, to shape. The unpleasant change that lurks over a horizon may also be God’s overwhelming triumph; our best efforts to get it right may be the laughably long way ’round to salvation, and no matter what, we end up where God calls us to be.
So today is a day to celebrate.
Because we’re here. And Jonah’s story assures us that being here (anywhere!) means that God is doubtless getting us where we need to go. That storms and fish bellies and wild success are all equally valid steps on that way.
And while we may never win best drama,
God works through laughter, too.
Human comedy is also divine.
And if God gets the last laugh, well, that’s a delight God wants to share with us, when we all end up where God wants us to be.