Below is the sermon I gave at the 85th Anniversary of First United Church in Sydney, NS. I was asked to speak on the future of the church.
“Jonah and Us”
First of all, I want to thank you for inviting me here to speak at your anniversary service. It’s quite an honour to be asked to speak at other churches. (well, it’s either that or your scraping the bottom of the barrel, no matter, it’s still nice to be here).
It’s even nicer this morning because you’ve asked me to come and speak from my heart about a matter that I am very passionate about, the future of the church. In fact, I have to admit, it’s a challenge to make sure I get everything I’d like to say done in 45 minutes or so.
I’m probably going to say things you already know. I hope I’m going to say things that will challenge you, and challenge you deeply as we all move forward as members of the United Church of Canada in this time and place in our history.
If I’m not able to challenge you to think about what it is we do as churches in our communities as representatives and carriers of the love of God shown through Jesus Christ, I might as well just stand up here and tell jokes.
Are you kidding me? I see that maybe I might need to back up a little bit and start from the beginning! I mean, what has your preacher been preaching about? This isn’t a good start people.
Let’s try a different approach…
“Sigh… My apologies to your minister, clearly you folks haven’t been listening. Jonah… remember? The guy we just read about in the Bible?
Ok well… where to begin then?
This morning we read from the first chapter of the book of Jonah where we learn that God has instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach about the evil acts that are rampant in the city. It was a nasty town with all kinds of bad stuff happening in the streets.
Sounds like a lovely job God gave him, no?
“Go into the city and tell them they are evil and that God is coming to wipe them out.” How fun!
Jonah felt the same way. He wasn’t keen on going into a hostile environment and hopped on the first boat out of town heading in the opposite direction. And we found out what happened once they hit the open sea. A huge storm came up, threatening the lives of everyone on board, that is until Jonah fessed up and was thrown over the side and the sea became calm.
But that’s not all, we learn Jonah was then swallowed by a great fish, and he was in there for 3 days. While he was in there, he dedicated himself to prayer, because really, what else is there to do in the dark belly of a giant fish! He just pours his heart out.
After the third day, the fish vomits Jonah up on the land, and God once again instructs him to go to Nineveh.
Jonah goes and spends the 3 days crossing the city of Nineveh telling them of the evils they are doing, and that God is coming to wipe them out. As he’s doing this, people are scared. They are believing in God and fasting and wearing sackcloth, which is a sign of humility before God. Even the King himself joins in and instructs all people and animals are to fast and wear sackcloth. Now that must have been quite the sight putting sackcloth in sheep and cows and whatever.
And God relents. He lets them live.
What does Jonah do? Does he celebrate that he was part of this great revival in Nineveh? No… he gets mad, and he goes and sits up on a hill overlooking the city waiting, just waiting for God to destroy it. Which of course, He doesn’t.
Jonah realizes, in his anger, that he knew God wouldn’t do it. That God is a god of abundant love and mercy which He pours out freely on those who call on Him.
Jonah made two mistakes that we make today in our churches.
The first mistake is that he just doesn’t listen to God. God has a plan for Jonah. Well, actually, God has a plan for Nineveh that Jonah is a part of. God’s plan, which Jonah doesn’t realize, is to bring back the people to Him. God is seeking to reestablish a relationship with the people of Nineveh. Jonah is to be the one who delivers this message, calling them to repent from their sinful ways.
Yet Jonah doesn’t get. Jonah can’t see the wholeness of God’s plan, he only sees his part. His part being he’s going to a dangerous city. A place he doesn’t want to go to because he’s afraid of the people there. Afraid of what they might do; how they might react to the strong words God has given to Jonah.
I have a simple question for you this morning. Where are you in God’s plan to help bring people back to knowing the love and mercy of God that Jonah realized?
Is this church in the streets of Nineveh, or is it on the ocean heading far from here?
I’m going to argue that this church, and most of the churches in North America are on the sea, running away, hiding from God.
This is a problem.
The world is acting more and more like Nineveh every day. Just look at the news. Greed is rampant. Businesses and business leaders are making money hand over fist, at what cost? The cost of people who struggle each and every day to put food on the table, to heat their homes, to provide for their children.
The church is the prophetic voice in this mess. The church is the place for people to learn about God’s mercy, love and grace. Yet, what do we do with it?
We sit on it.
We go to church on Sunday, we listen to the Word of God proclaimed in songs, in prayers, in reading the Bible, in preaching, and then we go home and wait to do it all over again next Sunday.
For the last few weeks at my church, we’ve been looking at the first Apostles and other leaders of the church after Jesus ascended to be with God the Father. We looked at Peter, the first to walk out of the house on the day of Pentecost and birth the church by preaching about Jesus Christ in the streets. Not unlike what Jonah finally did when he entered the city of Nineveh. And like the people of Nineveh, people responded by the thousands to what Peter was saying just that first day.
You want to know how to be a church? Look at the Book of Acts. See how the new leaders in the church acted. Look at how Peter preached.
Look at how Stephen stood up before the the leaders of the temple and told them how they were missing the point. It cost him his life. He was stoned to death for what he said.
Read the story of Philip and how he spread the Good News to a foreigner from a strange land. Establishing the church in Ethiopia.
Read about Saul a hunter and killer of the first Christians, who became Paul, the one who transformed cities across the middle east through his travels, his preaching, his leadership and his letters. The man who wrote a good chunk of our New Testament.
These are our examples. These are the men and women who stood in the streets of cities, proclaiming Jesus Christ alive and risen, the Son of God, who lives and reigns forevermore.
In times of great hostility, of great danger for their lives, they spoke the word of God publicly, and served fairly everyone who came to them. People sold all they had to join the church, and everything was divided up among them so no one would go without.
How well do we as churches today, share the Good News of Jesus Christ in our streets? How good are we at standing up and proclaiming Jesus Christ and his commandments to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves? How are we doing?
As churches, we need to begin living out these things in our daily walks, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings. Each and every one of us here make up the church, which is not a building but a community of individuals united in love for God, the Father, through our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son.
It begins with me, with you, with our families, our children. It begins when we begin to move in our hearts and respond to what God is asking us to do here. Today. Now.
There are times when maybe we think we’re doing what God has asked us to do, and maybe something very different came from the results. And maybe we’ll get a little upset or mad. Or maybe we’ll resent the church down the road because they had a great idea that’s helping people instead of us.
This leads to Jonah’s second mistake. He didn’t see what was really happening. He resented that God didn’t do what he promised, completely missing the joy of the moment. People found God. They found love and hope.
We do this too. We get upset because maybe someone else has great ideas, or they look like they’ve got more blessings than we do.
What we don’t see is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference in the being part of God’s plan who has the most blessings or gifts because we all have them. We’re all part of what God is doing in our communities.
Jonah was good at creating messes. Messes like on the ocean when he disobeyed God and nearly caused innocent men to die at sea. And there was also the personal mess he became when he realized God didn’t do what Jonah said He was going to do, namely destroy Nineveh. God does what God wants. Not what we want.
So maybe we need to step it up a little bit. Maybe we need to start getting back to our roots. We need to get back to not just knowing Jesus Christ in our heads, but knowing him in our hearts.
This is what being the church is about. It’s about helping people discover the Jesus Christ in their hearts. But it needs to start with us first.
The first leaders of the church, they had Christ in their hearts and the love of God burned within them, and they couldn’t help but share it with others. And boy did the people respond.
You want to know what’s missing from church today? Do you really want to know? I’m going to tell you.
It’s not children. It’s not families. It’s not people in the pews. It’s not money, or leaders, or treasurers, or preachers.
What’s missing from the church today, and listen carefully, because it’s really, really important…
It’s the love of God.
It’s not that God doesn’t love the church anymore. That’s not it at all. It’s that we’ve stopped responding to God’s love.
All through the Bible, when people encounter the true love of God, they respond. The people of Nineveh. The people in the book of Acts. Everyone Jesus met on the roads he traveled. Over and over again, the pouring out of the love of God shown by people who had the love of God in them, it brought people joy. It brought people hope. It brought them a love they had never seen before.
This is the call to the church today.
What is the greatest commandment according to Jesus Christ? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”
When Jesus sat on the beach eating fish with the disciples in the days after the resurrection, what did he tell Peter to do? “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
What did Jesus tell the disciples in his final instructions as recorded in what we call the great commission?
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
These are the instructions Jesus gave to those he was teaching, those he was training to be leaders of the new church.
The same church we are today. Reading, learning, called to follow these same instructions.
How are we doing?
Do this… follow the commands Jesus has given us. See what happens when the love of God flows through you when you know Jesus Christ in your hearts.
The churches that are growing, they do this. It’s not the type of music. It’s not the type of building. It’s not how many staff. It’s all the love of God living in and through these communities of faith.
They are traditional, they are contemporary, they are rural, urban, old, new…
They are all churches committed to living out the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Almighty God.
This is who we are called to be. This is who we are. Each one of us, a child of God, who is able to live out this love here, out there, anywhere.
Let’s let God live in us. Let’s let God use us. Let’s not run away any more. Let’s follow what Jesus Christ has shown us. Let’s start now. It’s not too late. People are wanting, they are craving a spiritual connection to something much greater than the are. Something we know about. Something we can share.
Let’s not be afraid. God is with us. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.