Sunday, January 25th, 2015 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Psalm 62:5-8, Jonah 3:1-5,10, Mark 1:14-20
Hymns: “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”, “10,000 Reasons”, “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”, “Just As I Am, Without One Plea”, “Lead On, O King Eternal”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “How Great Is Our God”
Special Music: “God of This City”
“No Town too Small, No City too Big”
It was no easy task, back in the day, being a prophet of the Lord. Imagine, if you will: you are the person who has been chosen to speak to the people on behalf of God. By implication, that first of all means that God speaks to you. Now, I don’t really know much about the societal view on this kind of thing twenty-five hundred years ago, but I do know that these days our society tends to call people who say that God speaks to them “crazy”. We don’t pay them any heed. We write them off, because more often than not, they tend to be more off base than Lorenzo Cain stealing second. Even the ones with money and power, like Harold Camping – the guy who guaranteed us that the world was going to end on May 22nd, 2011 – are dismissed as being looney when they try to tell us that God spoke to them.
So let’s say a prophet of God, who was probably already looked at somewhat askance by his own society, was told to go to a massive city full of heathens and tell them that God had spoken to him, saying that if they did not repent, they were going to burn. I’m just going to go ahead and guess that none of us would be very thrilled about this prospect. I mean, seriously, who among you, if told tomorrow to go to Chicago and proclaim that it would fall into Lake Michigan if the people did not turn to God, would drive up there tomorrow and stand in the middle of Lincoln Park, breathing hellfire and damnation upon those Illinoisans? I’m guessing that quicker than you could say “Dan Ryan Expressway” you’d be run out of town on a rail… if, that is, you weren’t at the bottom of the Chicago River with concrete galoshes.
But let’s take it a step further even than that. What if you were told to do that… and you just really HATED Chicago, DESPISED the denizens of the Windy City? Worse still, what if you knew that these people that you couldn’t stand would actually listen to your words, repent of their sins, and be saved from the coming wrath of God? I’m guessing that you’d be on the first flight to Cancun as quickly as you could get to KCI.
This is the situation in which Jonah found himself some two and a half millennia ago. Yes, he was the prophet of God, and to be honest, the Israelite people were probably somewhat used to prophets by that point. There was a long and sometimes checkered history between prophets and Israel – for every Samuel, the good prophet who was resigned to cleaning up the messes of Kings Saul and David, you had a Balaam, the less-than-stellar individual who ticked God off so badly that an angel was sent to kill him – and he was saved only by the intervention of his stubborn donkey, who actually started talking to him and told him off but good.
Sure, you had the really good prophets, like Elijah and Elisha – the two prophets who were regarded among the most righteous in Israel’s history – but even they had their down moments, like when Elisha, irritated that a bunch of kids were mocking his baldness, summoned a pair of female bears, which proceeded to kill 42 kids. Not exactly a sparkling moment of uprightness on Elisha’s part.
So that was Jonah’s situation. Prophet of God to the people of Israel. Probably just barely tolerated by the Israelites. They would politely listen, but at some point during one of his sermons, they might nod off, or just leave. And quite honestly, they probably wouldn’t have been too unhappy if he packed up his prophecy game and left.
And then, one day… he did.
Yep, God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them that, to quote Johnny Cash, sooner or later, God’s gonna cut you down. In this case, sooner rather than later – specifically, forty days. But Jonah wasn’t having any of it, although his means of escape was a boat to Tarshish – in modern-day Spain – rather than making the trip to Nineveh – in modern-day Iraq.
You see, Jonah was not a big fan of the Ninevites. He thought that they were all a bunch of heathens who needed to fry. The irony, of course, is that Nineveh was part of the Persian Empire, which was ruled by King Darius – the same Darius who had not that long before released the Israelites from their bondage in Babylon and funded the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. Jonah hated Nineveh nonetheless, and was convinced that if he went and told them that God was going to send some holy carnage their way, they would repent and be saved.
Well, we all know what happened when Jonah got on the boat. Storm, fish dinner, fish vomit. There’s a whole Veggietales movie about it, featuring the Pirates that Don’t Do anything.
What’s more important is what happened after that. Jonah begrudgingly went to Nineveh, which according to Jonah 3:3, was three days’ walk across. Now, imagine you’re SLOWLY walking at an average two mile per hour pace, from sunup to sundown every day. Call it ten good hours of walking. Twenty miles per day, sixty miles across total. That is a HUGE city. That’s from here to Lee’s Summit.
While strolling across this massive city, Jonah cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And he was exactly right about the Ninevites’ response – they repented, and God forgave them. And Jonah was IRRITATED – but never mind his irritation, the fact of the matter is that the salvation of Nineveh stood as proof to the entire region that no city was too big, no people too great, to not be able to receive the forgiveness of almighty God.
Now, let’s consider another scenario. Let’s say you’re not a prophet. Instead, let’s say you’re a traveling preacher. When you hold forth in the public arena, you don’t preach doom, gloom, and destruction, but rather good news – a message of hope, for all people. The irony of your position is that your mission and the way in which you go about it is really not that different from that of a prophet, but you’re also not going around claiming to speak for God (at least, not yet). You’re going around telling people that there’s a better way to live their lives, and that they can be happier if they would just obey the commandments that God has already given.
Let’s say you’re one of these itinerant preachers, and you’re really looking to make an impact. Where are you going to start? Well, you can always take the Billy Graham route. His first crusade was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which, while not the biggest city in the world, still has over a million people in the metropolitan area. This crusade had an immediate impact, attracting six thousand attendees over an eight day span. From that point forward, he would go on to hold four hundred sixteen more crusades over the next fifty-eight years, with the last one coming in New York City in 2005.
For what it’s worth, he didn’t make it to Chicago until fifteen years in.
But let’s face it – Billy Graham needed those big crowds in those big cities to kick start his career. Without them, he would’ve just been a traveling pastor for Youth For Christ – or in fact, had he not been given the opportunity to join Youth For Christ in 1946 while recuperating from the mumps, he probably would’ve ended up as – survey says – a chaplain in the United States Navy. But he ended up going the crusade route, instead.
The point is, if his first crusade had been in, say, Gower, his entire career would’ve been a bust. Nobody would’ve come to a little farm town forty-five minutes north of Kansas City to hear a relatively unknown Baptist preacher speak. And while I have to say that I personally think that Gower is a perfectly lovely place to begin a ministerial career, it just wasn’t the kind of place that Graham needed. He needed a large city where his message of salvation through Jesus Christ could reach a large audiene.
The irony, of course, is that Jesus’s own career took exactly the opposite path. He did not, immediately after His baptism, set a course for Jerusalem to open up a crusade (because, let’s be real, that probably would’ve resulted in Him being crucified much earlier than He was). Instead, He wandered around the shores of Lake Gennesaret, picking up a bunch of fishermen, a couple of Jewish zealots, a tax collector, and an accountant, telling them that if they followed Him, He would make them “fishers of men”. And even then, He didn’t head off to the big city.
No, instead, Jesus stayed in the Galilee region, and indeed, remained there for most of his three year career, only going to Jerusalem at the end. And it wasn’t as though He was the first wandering preacher who went about Galilee – as we’ve established, His cousin, John, went before Him, baptizing people in the Jordan River – although John fit more in the mold of the Old Testament prophets. He had a nasty habit of doing things that really irritated the powers-that-be, such as calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Eventually, he stepped on the wrong toes one too many times, and King Herod had him arrested and then executed.
Jesus, of course, started His ministry right after John’s death, and His popularity immediately grew immensely in the Galilee region. Herod, being quite the politician, knew that arresting and executing Jesus so soon after John the Baptist would be a very unpopular move and probably lead to his downfall. And so, Jesus was, for the most part, left alone for the next three years, going from small Galilean town to small Galilean town, preaching the law and the prophets, and telling people that He was the fulfillment of those prophecies. Some believed Him, some didn’t. His own town tried to run Him off a cliff, whereas Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea would come to believe and follow Jesus.
The ministry of Jesus is not just the earthly manifestation of the coming of the Son of God – it is proof that out of a small town, out of a relatively remote region, can come things greater than are imaginable. It is proof that no town is too small for the will of God to be done there.
And all this leads me to a conclusion I never would’ve imagined just a few days ago.
You see, in the midst of Phoenix – a truly massive city – sits a small community that, when I attended school there, was known as Phoenix Christian High School. Now, when I say small, that’s in relative terms as compared to other Phoenix high schools, as it is considerably larger than East Buchanan. But situated where it was, smack in the center of the sixth largest city in the United States, it felt very, very small.
Like any school, Phoenix Christian had its problems when I was a student there. Much of the person that I was when I was in high school has changed – in my opinion, largely for the better. However, without my years at Phoenix Christian, I don’t know that I would’ve ever ended up in ministry. When you attend Bible classes for fifty minutes every school day for four years, it generally leaves something of a mark on you – and the Biblical knowledge that I gleaned there served me well when I finally made my way to Wake Forest, as I already had in place a good base of information for my seminary professors to mold into theological thought and process.
Given my affinity for Phoenix Christian, it disturbed me this week to learn of vast infighting between the board and the administration that ended with the school administrator, the business manager, and the football coach being fired by the board and actually removed from the school campus by the Phoenix Police. I can’t imagine any scenario in which a group of Christian people, acting as Jesus taught, would have thought that that was the best way to resolve a conflict – especially since it seems to have been over the administrator and the board disagreeing over the hiring of the football coach.
But even as I despaired of the turmoil that wracked the school, I was reminded of the two themes I’ve presented today – there is no city too big, there is no town too small. In any place, the work of God can make a difference for the people, and this small school has been doing the work of God to make a difference in a very big city for nearly seventy years. No matter what the outcome of the events of this last week, God’s work will still be done, both to the students of that school and the people of the city of Phoenix.
No stubborn prophet, no lack of population, no intractable school board is too great for God to overcome. There are greater things yet to come, greater things still to be done in every city and town, in schools and churches. No person is too great or too humble to do the work of God, and no person is too righteous or too corrupt to receive God’s grace.
As we this morning pass under the sign reminding us that we are now entering the mission field, may we take with us this thought, that no town is too small, and no city is too big. Let us be the presence of God and the message of Christ to all persons, near and far, and may we embody the greater things yet to come.