This morning we begin a new worship series as we explore the subject of “calling”. And as we do so, we are going to be looking at a number of Biblical characters and their call from God. Many of their stories hold elements of the supernatural, phenomena that we tend to relegate to the dustbin of mythology and legend. Even so, I am sure that you will find your own sense of call connecting with at least one of these figures, if not more. This whole subject of “calling” is an odd one, isn’t it? It makes me think of those spy movies with the comically large phone on the President’s desk, usually bright red with no numbers on it, just a blinking light that lets you know when we’re at DefCon 1. Absurd. Then again, think about the language we use to talk about our work. It’s our “vocation” – literally, our “calling”. Or it’s our “profession” – literally, our public witness of faith. But let’s not get too carried away: “job” comes from the word “gob” – so our jobs are just lumps of stuff.
And yet, I think we’ll be surprised when we look at these lessons from Scripture. Very few of those who were called by God responded positively. Think of Moses, confronted with the burning bush: “Surely you must have me confused with someone else! Can’t you send my brother? Why would the Israelites even believe me? I stutter!”
Or Sarah, laughing at the idea that God would make pregnancy possible in her 90’s – and I would say that laughing is probably the most positive response you could expect from her.
In other words, most of those who are called by God don’t take the miraculous at face value. First, they don’t believe it. Second, when it becomes unavoidable, they look at it as a job, a lumpy gob of purpose that they just had to carry around with them. I’m not sure times have changed all that much, frankly. We tend not to believe that God has any kind of special role for us; and even when we do recognize that God wants to be at work in our lives, we work really hard to make it clear that it will only happen on our terms, not God’s.
Speaking of Jonah, what a story! It ends up being a kind of satire of the prophetic calling. Many of the details are familiar: God calls Jonah to preach not to God’s own people, but to Nineveh. Nineveh is the modern-day Iraqi city of Mosul. Now think about the geography at work here: Jonah’s trip from Israel to Nineveh would take him East: over-land. Jonah responds to this clarion call by hopping on a boat: that is, heading in the opposite direction. West.
Then comes the storm, where his shipmates learn that this is their shared punishment because Jonah ran away. He finally convinces them to throw him overboard, probably hoping that it would all be over soon. But instead of drowning, Jonah is swallowed up by a large fish that God sent to save his life. He is spit out onto land. And when God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, he probably remembers how long it took to get the fish smell out and obeys.
His message certainly makes this seem like a suicide mission: a Hebrew prophet walking for three days across this massive city where he is an outsider, a foreigner, telling everyone that Nineveh has a little over a month left before it will be destroyed. And, much to his surprise, the whole town reacts faithfully – more faithfully than Jonah’s own people ever have to the words of prophets – and they fast and repent.
God relents, and Jonah is…furious? I love his rant against God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and mercifully, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” You might as well add “it’s not fair!” at the end. Jonah sulks off to pout at the end of town.
Then God finishes off the story with a little object lesson, sending shade to keep Jonah cool, and then destroying that shade. And Jonah, who just told God that he was ready to die, is now mad about the bush being destroyed. “Jonah,” God says, “if you’re upset about this bush dying, imagine how I would feel about all of Nineveh being destroyed?” And, somewhat fittingly, the story ends with that question mark hanging in the air.
There is so much in this story to unpack, but it’s not really feasible to leave any part of it out, is it? Jonah is painted so broadly in such a short period of time that we feel like we know him well. Could that be because we see so much of Jonah in ourselves?
Let me ask it this way: have you ever known what it is that you’re supposed to do and done the exact opposite? I don’t mean in a “my boss wants me to do something but I don’t want to do it” kind of way, but a “I know what the right thing to do in this situation is, and I’m just going to push that ethical decision-making over into this brain compartment for the time being” kind of way? It’s that “cheating on the diet” type of cognitive dissonance, but writ large. You know you’re supposed to head off on that arduous overland journey, but instead you set out for sea in the other direction. There’s often a “just this once” kind of thinking that can cloud our judgment. We know what we ought to do, and we’ll be sure to do that next time, but this time, we’re gonna just let ourselves off the hook. After all, Tarshish is pretty nice this time of year, isn’t it?
Or have you ever done what you’re supposed to do begrudgingly? Again, we’re talking about one of those “right thing to do” types of situations. You’ll do it, but only after a sarcastic “fine!” comes out of your mouth as you mutter about how unfair life is. It’s like a larger version of the “doing the dishes” chore that is annoying and time-consuming, but you know at least know that it gets you out of having to shop and cook. In other words, we may go to Nineveh, and we may say the words that God wants us to say, but we’re only doing so because we were told to do it. Our hearts aren’t in it, and we actually kind of hope that it fails. But the alternative – seasickness and a ride in a fish’s stomach – isn’t much of an alternative at all.
Or have you ever felt disappointed by God? Have you ever tried to re-write Genesis, working to make God in your own image, rather than the other way around? Has God ever failed to act the way you want God to act? Or has God interceded in a way that you wish God had just minded God’s own business?
Let’s be clear about this: there are things for which we blame God that are not of God’s doing whatsoever. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about big stuff, world-altering things like grace. If we’re honest, we’re pretty sure that forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t nearly as much fun as grudges and punishment. Mercy may be what God wants, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree. And that’s where the satire kicks in nicely: we end up practically yelling at God for being too nice. Not only do we want our tribe to win; we want all the other tribes to lose, and lose big.
So, let’s re-cap: we are like Jonah when we run away from what we are supposed to do, when we merely go through the motions of doing what we’re supposed to do, or when we want God to act the same petty way that we would. Did I miss anyone?
And yet, here’s what’s amazing: God calls Jonah anyway! God didn’t give up after the unscheduled cruise, or after Mr. Grumpy Pants went off to pout. Despite all evidence to the contrary, God still thought that Jonah had potential. God was sure that Jonah could still grow and learn and change. Could it be, possibly, that God thinks just as highly of you?
Where is it that God is calling you? Is your Nineveh far away, or is it, perhaps, closer than you’re willing to admit?