The God of Second Chances

whale, face On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend, our Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy held a Saturday workshop and Sunday worship service. I wasn’t able to attend every function, but I was able to meet and listen to the guest speaker, the Rev. Jimmie Ray Hawkins, a Presbyterian pastor serving in North Carolina, with an impressive record of service including leadership in the so-called “Moral Monday” movement. It’s a rather serious and sober thing to think together about racial justice, so I was grateful for the way Pastor Hawkins sprinkled humor into his remarks. Here’s the joke I liked best.

A young atheist was working as a community organizer in an impoverished neighborhood. He grew tired of the Christian woman at the neighborhood meetings who was a tireless advocate for prayer. It’s God who has the power to change things, she said, and it’s to God we must turn to address our struggles. Finally, the young atheist had heard enough, and decided to teach the woman a lesson. He went grocery shopping, filled up his trunk with bags of food, then quietly placed the bags on the woman’s front porch before knocking on her door and hiding in the bushes. When the woman opened the door, and saw all the food, she was beside herself with joy. Looking toward heaven, and opening her arms, she said, “Lord, I praise you for your goodness and might, and thank you for bestowing upon me these wonderful and bounteous gifts of food.” The atheist appeared out of the bushes, and said, “See here, you old fool. There is no God! I bought you these groceries, and it’s the people like me that are going to keep people like you from going hungry.”

Again, the woman looked toward heaven, and opened her arms. “Lord,” she prayed, “I never would have believed it unless I’d seen it with my own eyes. Not only did you give me all this wonderful food that I so desperately needed, but you got the devil to pay for it, too!”

Like the woman, most of us find it difficult to believe in something without evidence. Remember the words of Thomas recorded in the Gospel of John: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” In our age of emphasis on scientific method and empirical evidence, the tendency is even more pronounced. Especially when some circumstance or event falls outside our experience of the world, unless we’ve seen it with our own eyes, then it’s likely that we may not believe it.

That’s how it is with the Jonah story from scripture. For generations, Christians have debated whether it is history or fiction. If you told people that a whale appeared during worship this morning – that a young man named Jonah actually had been in the belly of the whale – then who would believe it? You’d have to explain some things before people would accept the story as true. In a similar way, if you tell me that the Bible says that a whale consumed a young man named Jonah, who survived and became a prophet, then there are some things that need explaining. Since we weren’t there to see it with our own eyes, it’s difficult to believe it happened just the way it’s written.

Those of you who aren’t in our “New Experiences Together” children’s program may appreciate a brief recap of Jonah’s story. Jonah, a prophet living in the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E., is called by God to go to Nineveh, a very wicked city that is the capital of the Assyrian empire. Jonah is to “cry out against it,” to remind the Ninevites of their sin, and God’s coming wrath.

But Jonah heads in the opposite direction, going down to the shore town of Joppa, and buying a ticket for the distant city of Tarshish. God sends a storm, the sailors use the ancient technique of “drawing lots” to discover who is the cause, toss Jonah overboard, who is consumed by a great fish, in whose belly Jonah has a chance to reconsider his actions. Jonah prays, God speaks to the fish, and Jonah is spewed out upon the dry land.

Jonah responds to a second new call by going to Nineveh. He preaches that God’s judgment is coming and the city will be overthrown. Surprisingly, the Ninevites listen, and turn from their evil ways. God does not carry out his intention to destroy, and Jonah gets angry that God has changed his mind. Jonah, who himself was the beneficiary of a second chance gets mad that God gives others a second chance. The book ends with God scolding Jonah for his narrow-mindedness, and defending the decision to spare Nineveh.

If we can move beyond the debate about whether Jonah is “history” like we find in a newspaper, or “fiction” like we find in a storybook, we will find that Jonah affirms important truths about the nature of God and God’s relationship with his people. John Calvin, in his commentary on the third chapter of Jonah, wrote, “There is here set before us a remarkable proof of God’s grace, — that he was pleased to bestow on Jonah his former dignity and honor. He was indeed unworthy … but God not only restored him to life, but favored him again with the office and honor of a prophet.” The story of Jonah is, I think, something like Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Both tell a story that moves from the consequences of human sin, to the wonder of God’s forgiveness, to human anger that forgiveness would be extended to the undeserving. Like the Prodigal Son, Jonah is a story that affirms God’s mercy and grace, that tells us our God is the One who gives us a second chance.

The lectionary schedule of readings pairs today’s story from Jonah with a text from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. In this passage, Jesus calls his first disciples. First he calls Simon and his brother Andrew, and then calls another pair of brothers named James and John.

Some biblical scholars suggest that the disciples immediately left their careers and families because Jesus was so charismatic. Others insist that Jesus’ call presumes a prior acquaintance. They say that these men probably had known Jesus for some time.

Perhaps they had been present along the banks of the Jordan, listening to John the Baptist preach, and watching as his cousin was baptized. Perhaps they had felt a strong tug to stay and be involved in the new spiritual revival. But concerns about home and livelihood drew them back to their fishing nets.

In the weeks that followed they regretted their decision, and wished that they had chosen differently. Then one day He appeared, and asked them to follow him. This time they didn’t hesitate. That personal invitation from Jesus was the second chance they needed.

Some of us have been participating in our Sunday morning class on the “Christian parenting of teens.” As we’ve thought about parenting teens, we’ve also been challenged to remember what it was like to be a teenager. When we think back, most of us can recall a time when we did something that seemed fun but wasn’t smart, or followed a silly impulse that lead to an outcome more serious than we intended. When we think about a time like that, and how we got from that time to this time, most of us have reason, like Jesus’ disciples, to be grateful that we worship a God of grace rather than retribution. We are grateful that God is more even more powerful than we thought, for we worship the God who gives us a second chance.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on January 25, 2015.

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