"Get Up and Go"
Tim Carson
Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · January 25, 2015
The Third Sunday of Epiphany
 
Litany
Adapted from Mark 1:14-20
 
On this little planet in time and space,
something always comes first, a forerunner, a prelude.
For Jesus, it was John, the voice in the wilderness,
who not only baptized him but shared much of his message.
Then John’s time was over. He was arrested, and the darkness settled in.
That was Jesus’ cue to come full center, and he spoke about the time
being right and the reign of God drawing near.
The next thing you know, he was asking people to follow him.
He told them that if they were fishers of fish,
he could reshape them into fishers of people.
Can you imagine that?
 
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen. Amen.
 
Pastoral Prayer
Nick Larson
 
God of wonder and mystery, God of the stars and the universe, God of winding ways and straight paths, we gather today with gratitude for the gift of your constant presence, your trustworthy guidance, and your daring risk-taking with us. You dare to love us despite our inability to respond fully. You dare to care for us, despite our challenge in caring for others. You dare to walk with us, despite our fickleness.
 
On our own journeys toward the stars and guiding points you put before us, you continue to lead us forward, guiding us by the teachings of Jesus, to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in your loving shadow. As we struggle with the wrangling of this world, the violence committed daily against one another, let alone the pain of broken relationships and loss, you remain steadfast in your care and devotion for your entire creation throughout the universe. It is almost too much to take in sometimes. And even in our doubts and disbelief, our struggle to understand and constant misunderstanding, yet you remain constantly present to us.
 
We pray for peace in this world, Lord, the kind of peace in which we can celebrate diversity, and are joyfully challenged by adversity, and share in the joy that is to be found everywhere. We pray for those, who are lonely that you might lead us to reach out and be friends. We pray for those who are hungry that you might lead us to offer sustenance. We pray for those who are lost that you might lead us to give hope and direction.
 
We pray for our world that we might find a way to work together to lift one another up. We pray for our city that we may seek to build up this body and seek to repair any divisions that separate us. We pray for our church that we may continually seek your Spirit in our lives and our daily decisions. And we pray for ourselves that we might continue on this journey, learning the lessons you offer, seeking the fullness of your perfection, and live, as you would have us live.
 
These prayers and hopes we offer in confidence and gratitude of your love and join them with the prayer of Christ, saying…
 
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 
The Scripture
Jonah 3:1-5
 
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 
This is the Word of the Lord for us today.
Thanks be to God.
 
The Message
Get Up and Go
Tim Carson
 
The book of Jonah is really a short story, a parable, if you like. In the Bible, its length is often one page, front and back. And though it has been inserted in the section of the Bible devoted to the prophets, it is unlike other prophetic books such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. Other than the main character being a prophet, the similarities with the other prophets are negligible.
 
What we have here is a parable. No scholar of today thinks this is historical. It is a story like Jesus would have told to tell a truth.
 
Jonah is the only prophet who is so reluctant that he actively flees the Lord’s command. Except for Jonah, the entire cast of characters is Gentile, and they are routinely more pious, obedient, repentant and faithful than the main character, Jonah.
 
The plot of the story is simple: The Lord speaks to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s nemesis, Assyria. The prophet has an immediate revulsion to the idea and instead of heading east to Nineveh, he travels west to a port city to catch a ship traveling to points beyond.
 
The Lord scuttles that plan by stirring up a storm that fills the sailors with dread of catastrophe and they pray to their gods. Jonah, on the other hand, retreats to the hold below and falls into a deep sleep. Sailors awaken him and ask him how he could sleep during such a time and plead with him to pray to his god as well. Soon enough they determine that Jonah is a man with issues and sure enough, he is. He is fleeing God and that is the source of their troubles. Jonah volunteers to walk the plank and they take him up on his offer. Just as life is getting worse for Jonah, it gets better for those aboard ship because the storm ebbs. The Lord deploys a big fish to rescue Jonah and from its belly Jonah prays a prayer that sounds like a compilation of every Psalm of deliverance you’ve ever heard. After three days, the fish, having made U-turn, takes the seaweed-wrapped Jonah back to where he began and vomits him up on the shore.  
 
It was there that the reluctant prophet heard the voice of God for the second time, and this time he heeded it. He walked straight into Nineveh, that great city, and after about a day’s journey into its bowels, he spewed out the verdict of God much like the fish had spewed him up on the shore, like a projectile, a built up force that needed releasing. But what came next filled Jonah with disgust and horror.
 
The inhabitants – from the king all the way down to the livestock – all repented, fasted and begged for mercy. And then the worst thing possible happened: God relented, turned back, and had mercy. This was a nightmare come true and Jonah said so. He shook his fist at God and told the truth, that the reason he fled in the first place was precisely this, his suspicion that God would be merciful as God is inclined to be. And mercy for the Ninevites, those long-hated enemies, was just not something he could stomach.
 
The end of the story finds Jonah wasting away under an arbor. The Lord first gives and then takes a plant to give him shade. In the worst of Jonah’s despair, the Lord makes a point: So you have deep feeling toward this plant but you think I shouldn’t have equally deep feeling toward those thousands of people?
 
And that’s how the story leaves it and leaves it with us. Such an ending is not accidental; we have to figure out what to do with it.
 
What we are left with is ourselves, of course. We are more like Jonah than we want to admit, more like Jonah than the sailors who tossed him overboard, or the fish that scooped him up, or the inhabitants of Nineveh. We are like a reluctant prophet who runs from the word of the Lord because it asks us to do something distasteful, something that requires abandoning long-held biases, witnessing mercy lathered upon our enemies, the ones we won’t stop hating.
 
It’s a strange matter that the one vested with sharing the word of the Lord is also the one least responsive to it in his own life. Almost everyone in the story is more virtuous than he right up to the end. And that leads us to the inevitable question: Who is it that needs to turn around, repent, start over, and surrender the old so the new spirit of God may be born? The answer is obvious. It is the Ninevites, to be sure.
 
But it is also Jonah, especially Jonah, perhaps more Jonah than anyone else. And if you happen to believe God has granted a great gift of faith to you or your religious community you must also humbly recognize that the first ones needing to change are those vested with the treasure, the message, the word of truth.
 
Welcome to the story world of Jonah and its scathing message not for the world or those outside our faith, but rather for those who dare to claim that they have a message to share. This is a word for every religious community that makes a faith claim at all. It is for Israel before even thinking of going to the Gentiles. And I would say it is a timely word for the Church:
 
It demands that the church remove the log from its own eye before attempting to remove the spec from the eye of the irreligious. Look at your own life, Jonah.
 
There are three enormous turns in this story and they occur whenever the voice of the Lord speaks.
 
The first response to sacred speech is flight – flight from God, flight from the demand of God, the word that would take us to the place we do not want to go, that asks us to abandon our own evaluation of others to assume instead God’s hope for them. This is the out and out refusal to listen or cooperate with the wind of the Spirit, the ultimate resistance.
 
The second response to sacred speech follows our flight and resistance, and is often heard after we are covered with fish goo and on the shore right back where we started. Just because we traveled far to escape it in no way means that we have escaped God or ourselves; that inner geography has remained untraveled.
 
However chastened we may feel by the effects of this boomerang trajectory, we may go where we should but only because we are resigned to our fate and carry resentment, a begrudging attitude, going because we have to, because the alternative has proven worse. But we have not moved to acceptance, to any surrender, and anything resembling joy.
 
We are, like Jonah, still serving our sentence but on parole. We wear the leg shackles of prisoners as we walk the road into Nineveh. We appear free but are not really. And when the story turns in the direction we feared it might, that only reminds us how chained we still are.
 
It is possible to go through the motions of doing the right thing without transforming the inner spirit to match. And that is what leads Jonah to his final despair and the final sacred speech that comes to him. As he wallows in his own self-pity, he is confronted with what he lacks: love and mercy.
 
That is precisely what flows out of God to the world. But Jonah, in his self-absorbed prison, cannot receive it himself or extend it to others. And that is the last word of the story, this parable: the essential nature of God that Jonah cannot accept and most surely lacks.
 
What a strange downer for an ending! A downer unless we pick up the story and finish it for ourselves, which is the idea.
 
There is only one way to become a spiritually free person in the world and that is to let go of all our preconditions on what we think God should do and accept the strange way of God that comes to us on its own terms. As Isaiah wrote of God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways” (55:8). But we don’t want to believe that. We secretly want God’s thoughts and ways to reflect what we already are and believe.
 
I don’t know if Jesus read the story of Jonah or not, but if he read and quoted other prophets like Isaiah it is likely. And if he did read it, I can only believe he greatly enjoyed Jonah because parables and stories were often his preferred and chosen way to convey his truth.
 
For example, do you remember his parable of the great dinner (Luke 14:15-24) in which the invitations to the great feast were met with all manner of excuse and evasion? Like Jonah, the story is filled with humorous exaggeration. 
 
One man says he can’t come because he has to buy some land sight unseen. Another says he has to go out to pay for yoked oxen he’s never tried out. And perhaps the most laughable in Jesus’ time, he can’t come because he has just been married and has responsibilities!
 
One lame excuse after another drifts back toward the master and we realize that we are witnessing a huge evasion, an escape from the invitation, a refusal to enter into the ways of the kingdom. Like Jonah, an escape plan has been mounted. God asks him to travel east by land and he instead charts a course west by sea. But, as the Psalmist writes (139) no matter how far we travel away from God, even if to the farthest limits of the sea, the presence is still with and among us; there is no escape.
 
One of my favorite new authors is Nathan Poole, a native of Georgia, writer of short stories, who has spent most of his adult life making a living as a carpenter and plumber. He is broadly published in highly respected journals and has received numerous literary awards. I love his earthy, evocative, storytelling style.
 
In one of his heartbreaking stories, “A Map of the Watershed” (Father, Broker, Keeper. Sarabande, 2015, pp 3-26), he tells the story of an aging widower who, shortly after losing his wife, started noticing the early onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Though his wife practiced her spirituality, especially through prayer, he had always remained a step away from what he experienced as something hidden behind a closed door.
 
 “If there is a god,” Jim thought, “his followers must be running on fumes by now” (12). But ever since his episodes had come on he had been experiencing this strange impulse and unusual desire to, of all things, pray. And in one scene as he sat at his kitchen table, we read:
 
“The temptation to pray was not new but had come when the spells came. But it seemed strange or sentimental to take on so simply a habit that had always been hers. He sat at his kitchen table and smoked cigarettes and drank cold coffee until the desire faded…” (12).
 
It is an unusual turn of phrase to describe spiritual yearnings in terms of temptation, but that is close. For a person who holds spiritual dimensions at an arm’s length that is exactly what it is like, the temptation to go to a foreign place, a way, a reality unlike what is known and lived. Jim sits at his kitchen table waiting for the impulse to pass, like someone waiting for an old obsession to rise and fall away.
 
But this masking it with another cigarette and cold coffee is part of the flight from God, the walling off, swallowing hard, thinking of something else, and heading away from the call of God by sea. It is something that all of us experience and for those who swim most deeply in the spirit it only gets more difficult, on different levels.
 
In Jim’s story, his harrowing ride takes him out away from his kitchen table and eventually deposits him in the hospital room of his daughter. Her life has fallen apart and her despair has led to an attempted suicide. And as he sits there and looks into the palm of his daughter, he remembers how he traced the lines and named each one after a river, rivers that all flow to the sea:
 
“He lowered his face into her palm (of rivers) and they rushed into his mind, culminating like a long-coming prayer that forms high in the … watershed of early spring…and comes barreling down after the summer storms with irresistible power…” (26).
 
Sometimes all the rivers do run to the sea, and the voice that we resist is eventually the same one that draws us back, draws us back to who we are meant to become and where we must go.
        
The Benediction
Tim Carson
 
And now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you always. Amen.
Last Published: January 27, 2015 11:42 PM