LISTENING TO GOD
No matter what our personal style is - God has work for us to do.
Whenever a family has two children, often the children fall into two stereotypes – the goody two-shoes and the rebel. The goody two-shoes generally follows the rules, rarely gets in trouble, and usually does what they are asked to do. The rebel on the other hand makes their own rules, is regularly in trouble, and rarely does what they are asked to do. The goody two-shoes conforms to expectations and the rebel blazes their own trail. Many a harried parent has said to their rebel child, “Why can’t you just be more like goody two-shoes?”
Today, our scripture gives us not just one set, but two sets of such siblings. First we have Jonah in our Old Testament lesson and the disciples in our gospel lesson. When Jesus calls out to the disciples who are fishing and tells them to follow him, all four disciples drop their nets, abandon their family and livelihoods, and follow Jesus. They do not ask questions. They do not take a moment to consider the invitation and carefully discern whether to go. They do not even complain. They immediately drop what they are doing and follow Jesus. The disciples are our goody two-shoes today. The rebel, then, is Jonah. If you remember, God came to Jonah early on and told Jonah to go to Nineveh. And while Jonah did respond immediately, his response was to run in the complete opposite direction. He runs the opposite direction, hops on a boat, and makes his escape. Of course we know how that turns out. Jonah is tossed overboard when the seas get out of control, and he is swallowed by a large fish. Even in our lesson today, when God tells Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, we can tell Jonah’s heart is not in the work. Later we find out that when God forgives Nineveh, Jonah rebels again, throwing a temper tantrum of epic proportions, proclaiming that he wish he could die he is so upset. Jonah is our rebel today. [i]
Our second set of siblings is found in the Jonah story itself. We know that Jonah has already rebelled and taken to the seas to escape the job he is supposed to do. But look at how he does execute his work. When he finally does proclaim the judgment on Nineveh, he only says five words in Hebrew, translated, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah is a grumbling, half-hearted rebel of the Lord. Meanwhile, Nineveh proves to be our goody two-shoes this time. This is the most surprising turn of events too. Nineveh is a brutal power in Jonah’s day. [ii] They are known for their vicious treatment of the people of Israel. They are the enemy. But when the residents of Nineveh hear the judgment of the LORD – Jonah’s brief, half-hearted one – they immediately respond. [iii] All the people put on sackcloth, even the king and the animals; they take up a fast, sit in ashes, and turn from their violent ways. Talk about a 180! And what makes the situation all the more ironic is that Nineveh, the city we might normally label as the rebel in this story, actually comes out as the goody two-shoes; and Jonah, the prophet of God, who should be the goody two-shoes turns out to be our rebel.
In our world, we know what happens to these two archetypes. The goody two-shoes are ones who get straight A’s, have successful careers, have happy relationships, and lead stable, content lives. They are held up as the shining examples for all of us. The rebels, on the other hand, are the ones who get sent to the principal’s office, have spotty employment, are in and out of relationships, and are known for their instability. Though the rebels may be fun to be around, they are not as dependable as the goody two-shoes. And for those of us who are rebels, we are told time and time again to get our act together. In our world, society is quite clear about which role we should choose.
The good news is that God is not like the rest of the world. God has enough room for everyone. God invites everyone: rebels like violent Nineveh and Jonah, and goody two-shoes like the disciples and the reformed Nineveh. God encourages both and God gives second (and third and fourth) chances to both. God’s mercy is so abundant that God is willing to totally change God’s mind. Like the old hymn goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.” The grace in our stories today gives us hope that those uptight goody two-shoes and those restless rebels among us both have a chance in God’s eye.
But the good news today is not just easy news. The good news comes with work too. God has mercy for both Nineveh and Jonah, but God does not let either off the hook. God saves Jonah from the perilous sea and the big fish. But then God puts Jonah back to work. God does not destroy Nineveh, but only when Nineveh turns from its evil ways. God is much like the parent who loves their children equally – both the goody two-shoes and the rebels. But part of that equal love is also an equal expectation that we all respond to God’s invitation. We may all respond differently, but God will not rest until we respond. The question today is what invitation from God have we been avoiding, and how might we take up God’s invitation anew? God is waiting for our response. Amen.
[i] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Jonah 3.1-5, 10” found on January 22, 2015 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2347.
[ii] Callie Plunket-Brewton, “Commentary on Jonah 3.1-5, 10” January 21, 2012, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1214 on January 22, 2015.
[iii] Joseph L. Price, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 270.