Faith Never Came Easy
I’ve never been a part of a faith tradition that regularly practiced altar calls, and I’m kind of thankful for that as a preacher. I think it would be an awfully big temptation to judge every sermon I preached based on how many people responded on any particular Sunday. Were 3 people or 30 people moved enough by that sermon to get up out of the pews and walk forward?
Which is why I really want to know what on earth it is that Jonah preached to the king of Ninevah that was so earth-shattering, so transformational, that the king called for the entire nation to walk around the streets in sackcloth and ashes. What was in his sermon that prompted the entire town to respond to the altar call. `Most preachers I know, we feel lucky when less than 50% of the congregation falls asleep during the message.
But I want to know what Jonah said to make the king of Nineveh stop everything in its tracks, put on sackcloth and ashes and praise God? We don’t know much about this king. He is not named. He is not described in any detail. What we know about him is summed up in four verses in the book of Jonah when the king hears the prophet’s words and makes his decree of obedience and praise.
Now I know that you’re sitting there thinking that obviously Jonah was just a lot more dynamic that your own preacher. He had the great PowerPoint presentation worked out showcasing that dreadful outcome of Ninevah’s disobedience. But don’t miss what a huge transformation this is for the king.
To begin with, he was a king, and Jonah a lowly preacher. And a foreigner to boot. The Ninevites had their own gods, and the king’s life would have been much easier if he had just dismissed Jonah’s ranting about Yahweh and saved the sackcloth and ashes for another day.
And yet, something convinced the king to stop where he was, no questions asked, and turn his nation around, taking on a posture of faith and hope in God’s forgiveness.
Often when I meet someone and am asked what I do for a living, one of three things usually happens. Sometimes people look for the quickest exit to the conversation possible, preferring to talk to a houseplant than to a preacher. Other times, people are quick to tell me where they go to church so they can assure me their soul doesn’t need to be saved and I need not waste any effort trying.
But other times, I get to hear all the fascinating reasons why people don’t go to church, or sometimes don’t even believe in God at all. This whole idea of God, of showing up to church to talk about a guy who rose from the dead and ascended into the heavens two millennia ago, it’s just not rational. The thought of loving your neighbor who does absolutely nothing for you in return, and probably plays his music too loud on the weekends and lets his grass grow too tall, the thought of loving him no matter what makes no sense.
The much more rational course of action is to sleep in on Sunday morning, use that precious time to work the Sunday crossword over coffee and pancakes. So what motivates us instead to drag ourselves out of bed on a Sunday morning, to drop our hard-earned money in the offering plate even when we know it won’t directly benefit us, what makes us love our neighbors even when they are the most obnoxious people on the block, or even worse, Methodists? What makes us respond to the altar call of getting out of bed, getting dressed, and driving to this place most Sunday mornings?
The truth is that there are some days I don’t know why I do it, why I believe. Faith has never seemed to come easily for me. How I wish some days that I could hear from the mouth of God as clearly as Jonah did. But for me, many days it seems much more of a task than a gift.
And that has left me wondering if the key to this story of Jonah may not be his preaching after all. Maybe it isn’t Jonah’s words that turn the Ninevites around, but something else. And maybe that’s why his sermon doesn’t get recorded in the scriptures.
Jonah, after all, is about the worst example of a prophet we could ask for. He hears God call to him, and runs the other direction. It’s not until he spends three days stuck in the belly of a fish that he begrudgingly relents and tells the Ninevites they are going to burn.
The Ninevites, on the other hand, they undertake a posture of faith, even though Yahweh is not the God of their own people. They fast. They pray. Jonah sat in the desert and moped, worrying about survival. The Ninevites on the other hand took on the difficult work of spiritual practices and found themselves celebrating and rejoicing because to them life had been restored.
And I’m left wondering why it is I so often would prefer a Jonah experience—hearing the voice of God speaking in my ear—when what I should be doing is following the example of the Ninevite king who, with his people, found new life in the word of God’s forgiveness? The answer, I think is a simple one.
It is easier to sit in the desert and pout than it is to walk through the streets in sackcloth and ashes.
It is easier to be angry with God than acknowledge our dependence on the grace and love of God.
It is easier to be Jonah on our own terms than Ninevites on God’s.
Yet we who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ have been called not to a life like Jonah’s, but a life of faithful response like the king’s. It is not mere acknowledgement of God in our belief but the bearing out of God’s word in our very lives that is the call of the Christian disciple.
A life lived in faith is not one defined by amorphous belief but one of embodied believing, and doing, and being.
It is a life that builds Christian character through spiritual practice. And in that life what we do forms who we are, and who we are bears witness to whose we are. Like the Ninevites who wore their repentance on their backs and on their brows, we are called to wear our faith on our sleeves.
At the fountainhead of faith is the promise of the God who was as good as his word. If the king of Nineveh was able to live so fully into the promise on the word of a wayward prophet, how much more might we who live in the light of Christ, the honor of God made human and dwelling among us?
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.