This is a copy of the sermon from the Sunday Service on 21 January 2018.
What do you know about the city of Ninevah?
It was the largest city of the Assyrian Empire up until630 BC it was the largest city in the world. It was an empire known for its brutality and violence. So to find that just a few words from Jonah were effective enough to turn them from their violence is nothing short of remarkable. And given its reputation its no wonder Jonah was reluctant to go there. To understand the jonah story you have to dig around the edges.
Throughout my ministry people have often ask me why I’m pretty serious about reading and understanding the bible.
“It’s just an old book they say”, and “time has moved on”.
Yes, I say, I agree.
But have you really read it? I usually ask.
And 9.5 times out of 10 the answer is no.
And many of those who have, have found it quite unsatisfying and frustrating.
“I just can’t get into it” they say.
It doesn’t read like a Lynda La Plante novel and much of it doesn’t hang together. Parts of it even contradict each other.
And over the years I’ve discovered that many Christians have a poor grasp of what the bible is on about, its weaknesses and its strengths, how came to be what it is. Why some material was left out and why it’s worth reading.
That’s not a judgement, just an observation.
It might even be a bit of a lament. Because it really is worth reading; both as a collection of faith stories about the spiritual journeys of the Jewish community, and stories about the birth of the Jesus Movement of which we are part of the latest expression, some 2000 years later.
This is especially true with regard to the important issue of discipleship, of which we are again part of the latest expression.
For example, this period between Christmas and Easter often brings us into contact with the stories of the call of the disciples.
You know, those little quick fire stories of Jesus walking along a beach, and people who are mending their nets, drop what they are doing, abandon their jobs and follow Jesus into an known future.
Over the years these stories have often been used to justify all sorts of exercises in evangelism and recruitment. They get crafted into rather romanticised moments in a short but sharp recruitment drive. And in the story we had today we hear about not catching fish but catching people. Well, I don’t know anyone who appreciates being caught, and once they discover they have been, they wriggle free and get away. So what’s this all about?
“And they left their nets and followed him”.
Even today, in some traditions, I’d now be asking you, if you’d be willing to leave your nets, your jobs and careers in order to follow Jesus.
But that is not our tradition, and nor is it what this passage is about.
What we need to understand here, is that the people who were transformed by the Jesus ministry were already people of faith. All the disciples were Jewish. Not one gentile among them.
They were Jews being invited by Jesus ( another Jew) to enter a more radical expression and experience of Judaism. They were being invited to join a reform movement that was likely to be misunderstand, opposed and suppressed. Reform is usually resisted.
These were not conversions from no faith to faith, or conversion from one faith to another faith. This was conversion within a faith. Conversion from a nominal passive experience of Judaism, to a dynamic give up everything, risk everything kind of Judaism.
What we are witnessing through these stories is the experience of Awakening.
An awakening WITHIN the faith.
Old values represented through parables.
New actions, all designed to wake people up.
Now for my money, that’s a story worth trying to understand and value.
You probably know this already, but the work of most ministers is helping and encouraging members of the church community to experience and develop a richer and deeper faith. To wrestle with the biblical stories and theological language and concepts, and nurture a spiritual life that is both renewing and world changing.
A faith that might encourage them to leave their nets behind so-to-speak, and follow Jesus into an unknown future: one that generates a heady mix of risk, adventure and hope.
In the film / musical PT Barnum, Barnum the creator of the circus, is trying to encourage a young man to leave the world of elite theatre and join him in a risky major theatrical adventure. The young man resists and says to Barnum why should I abandon the world I know? Its a world in which I am respected. It pays well and I am comfortable.
And Barnum comes out with this memorable piece of scripting:
Comfort is the enemy of progress.
Comfort is the enemy of progress.
40 years ago I received a similar invitation: to leave behind a very lucrative, stable and acceptable profession. And I did. And I’ve not regretted for a single moment that decision. In a small church in Mordialoc, I gave my life to Jesus. I’ve questioned some experiences that were a consequence of that decision, but never the decision itself. Its been a wild and wonderful journey ever since. Ive met some amazing people and communities.
How strange that sounds in a 21st Century context. I gave my life to Jesus. It’s got that old time religion feel about. And that’s really not me. I don’t talk like that.
over the past few days, I tried to think of another way of saying that. A different way of expressing that decision, but I couldn’t. Because quite literally that’s what happened.
Now I know of course that faith journeys go in all sorts of directions. That we embark on our journey in different ways shaped by our personalities.
Personalities which we can also see in the responses of the 12 disciples who followed jesus – 12 being a symbolic expression of the new tribes of Israel.
Among the 12 there are reckless,
suspicious individuals but they all took that important life changing step of throwing their hat into the ring and getting behind Jesus and getting caught up in the movement to Reform Judaism.
Reforming it in such a way that it might be a source of hope to all those who felt they had no place in the God Story, who felt that they did not deserve a place, because of who they were or what they did, or where they came from, or because they were ill, or battling their own demons.
Through the Jesus story – they were the people who’s hopes were awakened.
There was a place for them in the God story.
Something that the people of Ninevah also experienced.
They were woken up by Jonah who spoke truth to them.
Unexpectedly, they turned around. Changed their ways. Embarked upon a different way of living – they rejected violence and peace came upon them.
You may not know this but throughout his ministry Jesus was asked again and again for a sign. A sign that the kingdom of God was coming. People were looking for clues. But jesus never gave them an answer – except this one. He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (When a whole nation turns around and lives out its faith differently)
Look, I don’t know what the future holds for this particular faith community, or for Christianity in the 21st century. Im not sure I have much influence over that. But it seems to me that unless it works out how to reform itself in order to serve this present world with Good News. Then it will go the way of all redundant religions.
But i do know that whenever and wherever people of faith are awakened by the spirit of God and the mystery of life – amazing things can happen.
So, between now and Easter Sunday can I invite you to go on a personal faith journey and spend the next few weeks thinking about this question:
How does faith influence who I am?