Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 22, 2006
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20
Copyright 2006 – Reverend John Dowds
Most people, it seems, when you mention the name Jonah, know his story, or at least can recall some parts of the story quite well – enough that they can get the gist of what it was/is all about. Not sure why people know the story of Jonah so well – after all, he is simply one of the twelve minor Prophets near the end of the Old Testament – four short chapters long is his book – almost the same length as Haggai, Nahum, Joel, Zephaniah and Habakkuk…………..I would be willing to bet, even though betting is frowned upon by the Presbyterian Church, I would be willing to bet that if I had begun this sermon saying………………..’most people, when you mention the name Haggai, know his story, or at least can recall some parts of the story quite well’ – you would have looked at me rather quizzically and asked, what is he on about – Haggai – hardly know the name, let alone the story, is he in the Bible? And it would be quite understandable that you would respond that way because many of those twelve minor prophets are hardly known at all – oh we might know some snippets of their writings – like Micah saying, what does the Lord require of you, but to do mercy, love kindness and walk humbly with your God – but other than those kinds of well known verses, we may not even remember that Micah is in the Bible, let alone where to find him.
I remember some years ago, being asked, during a Bible Study at my home church, to read from the book of the Prophet Malachi – here I was, just about to enter Seminary, the Church was really pleased that I had made that decision, they had invited me to the front and made the announcement……….and the very next week, I couldn’t find Malachi to save my life – never forgotten since though, I will tell you – last book of the Old Testament, last book of the Hebrew Scriptures – check for yourself…………………
Anyway, the point is that Jonah is known much better than the other eleven minor Prophets – why is that? Most people say it is because it is a story with great drama and imagery – there’s lots of stuff for us to get our teeth into – God says – Jonah, I have a project for you, I have something I need you to do – I want you to go to Nineveh and call the people there to repent of their evil ways. Well Jonah wanted to do that like he needed a hole in the head – Ninevites were evil, and foreigners to boot, so they should get what is coming to them – I am not going Jonah said to himself, foolishly thinking that God could not hear him talking to himself and that he could actually get away from God – So he got on a ship and headed in the opposite direction. Well you know the story – a storm comes up, vicious storm – the sailors by a process of deduction determine that Jonah is the one who is causing God some angst and, as a result, the storm and so he must go. Over they toss him into the raging waters, only to have the great whale swallow him – and into the whale’s belly he goes – for three days. While there, Jonah prays like he has never prayed before and agrees that if God will just get him out of this mess he will do whatever God wants him to do – sound familiar? Been there, done that.
So, at the end of the third day, the whale, literally, throws Jonah up on the beach – and off Jonah goes to Nineveh – still reluctantly mind you – instead of going through the whole city calling the people to repent, he just hits the suburbs – yet even with that lukewarm effort, the people of Nineveh hear, repent of their evil ways, and, much to Jonah’s chagrin, God decides not to do away with them and gives them a new start.
That’s the story – or most of it – it is well known because of the drama of the storm and the fish – of course – but it is also quite well known because it is about someone’s determination not to do what God wants/needs/calls them to do. Certainly Jonah is known by many as one who spent a bit of time in the belly of the whale, but he is also known by many as the reluctant Prophet, the reluctant follower, the reluctant disciple – I don’t want to do what you are asking me to do. I am not doing it. Find someone else. And turns on his heel and goes in the opposite direction.
Ever felt reluctant to do what God wants us to do, to say what God wants us to say, to hear what God wants us to hear? I have.
One of the things I have always felt reluctant to do throughout my entire ministry – and no less now than twenty years ago – is talk about money from the pulpit. And I am not alone in this – some ministers just refuse. Others, when that theme needs to be addressed, take the Sunday off and invite in a guest speaker. Why is that?
Well for me talking about money and encouraging people to give to the work of the kingdom sometimes feels a bit self-serving – because in part I am talking about my stipend – and that feels uncomfortable. Talking about money sometimes feels a bit too much like the secular world where money seems to be the driving force regarding just about everything. Talking about money in church sometimes feels like talking about sex in church – well that is just not done, you know – why? Well, it just isn’t.
But reluctant or not as I might be to talk about it, and you to listen to what I or others have to say about it – bottom line is that money matters – money enables us to do, and sometimes hinders us from doing, those things that God requires of us. Money is a very, very powerful tool – inside the church and outside the church. All the love in the world is not going to keep the lights on, the heat up and pay the mortgage for this building. All the grace in the world is not going pay for the curriculum for Sunday School or send our young people on retreat or provide for the washrooms to be kept clean and neat; all the speeches about justice, fairness and our commitment to meeting the needs of the poor in the world will not put food in their bellies or water in their cups; all the compassion and care in the world is not going to meet the financial needs of staff called to serve in particular ministries within the church.
Money matters – it really does – it is not the be all and end all – far from it – it cannot and should not dictate how we vision and plan and determine our mission and focus and calling and commitment – but fact is, some of the work of our community of faith can only happen if we have the faith, the energy, the desire and…………… the money.
Whether we want to talk about it or not, one aspect of living together as a community of faith and care – which is our theme for this month – is thinking about, reflecting upon, recognizing, that financial stewardship is important. That does not mean that we bombard each other with figures on a regular basis; it does not mean that we push the guilt button – the ‘you should be giving more button’ – it does not mean that we lay ultimatums on the table – ‘if you don’t give then this or that wont happen’ – what it means is that we need to remember that good financial stewardship is a significant component in the exercise of our calling as God’s people. It simply is.
When Jesus called and calls people to be his disciples – it is an all encompassing call – mind, heart and soul, time, talent and treasure – come follow me, he said to those first disciples and says to us – not when it suits, not that part of you that is left over at the end of the day, not that small remainder in your pocket, not only the parts that come easily to you – I need the very best of what you have to offer – because when push comes to shove, you’re my body on earth, you are continuing what I started, on you I am depending to do the work of the kingdom – money is one of the tools that helps us do that work – we all have it – it is a fundamental part of each one of us – and we have it to give.
Somewhat reluctantly I say all of this today for of all the reasons I mentioned earlier – somewhat reluctantly, perhaps, you have listened to the content of this sermon.
But my reluctance is, to some degree, outweighed by the fact that I know, I have experienced and seen, as have many of you, the great ways in which money can be used for the work of God’s kingdom – and every time that happens I am reminded that although the way in which money is used can cause great problems, equally, the way money is used, can be expressions of grace, love, faith, compassion and care.
We are a community of faith and care – that’s what we say, it is what we believe – some days we simply need to put our money where our mouths are.