Summit Presbyterian Church
January 21, 2017
Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Resistance is Futile
I had an older relative who put up a spirited resistance to the changes and limitations that came with growing older. (She died 20 years ago, at 91). She was funny and brilliant. She cared faithfully for her husband who died with Alzheimers. But truth be told, she was something of a misanthrope, even when she was younger. She did not suffer fools gladly (or wise people) and had a biting tongue. She valued her independence highly. After her husband died her children convinced her to move back East from California, but she wasn’t happy about it — she complained about the small town, the neighbors, the weather. Giving up her car was especially difficult. Her family knew it was time when neighbors told them that when they saw Lucy coming down the road they took a right into the nearest cornfield. But it wasn’t until she drove through the back of her garage and did a couple of laps around the back field that she gave up her keys. Without a car, and becoming confused, she also had to give up her house and move into Assisted Living. That’s a transition that’s hard for everyone, but Lucy had nothing good to say about it. She fought with the staff and was clearly depressed. Soon she had to move from assisted living to nursing care, and everyone expected the worst: daily battles, deeper depression. But her children reported something surprising. She seemed happier than she had in years. She may still have been mourning her losses, but she also seemed to enjoy the staff and other residents, the food, even the activities. Her children speculated that once she realized resistance was futile, that no matter how hard she fought she couldn’t regain the independence she once had, she had room for something else. Room for rest and peace. Room for other people and simple pleasures. Maybe even joy.
Several years ago the Christian Century invited a number of theologians and pastors to sum up the gospel in 7 words or less - and then they were allowed to expand on it with one more sentence. Beverly Gaventa, a professor at Princeton said: “In Christ, God’s “yes,” defeats our “no.” She went on to explain: “Our ‘no’ is a human rejection of God's claim on us as our creator, sustainer and lord, a rejection that produces alienation and isolation, even from ourselves.” Martin Copenhaver, a Lutheran pastor, said something similar, “God Gets the Last Word.” “To be sure,” he continued, “the second-to-last word, which can be very powerful, can be given to something else.” These two statements agree: God is stronger than our resistance to God. It may not appear that way. Plenty of people die unrepentant - as far as we can tell, refusing love or righteousness or any faith at all. It appears that nuclear weapons or climate change, the violence, fear and greed that’s threatening human life on earth, could have the last word. But that’s because we’re only seeing part of the story. God has eternal life and the world to come in God’s hands. God will be victorious over all that opposes God - including us. We see that in the resurrection. In the words of the Easter hymn: The strife is over the battle done; victory of life has won. We have examples in today’s scriptures.
When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy, Jonah didn’t say no, but he went in the other direction. He found a ship bound for Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord, or so he thought. To make a long story short, it didn’t work. God hurled a great wind upon the sea. Jonah was thrown overboard. God appointed a big fish to swallow him up, and then the Lord spoke to the fish, who vomited Jonah upon dry land. When the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, Jonah realized resistance was futile, at least to this particular call. He dragged his feet, but he went to Ninevah.
In Ninevah the people had been saying “no” to God for years: not because they had the wrong religion, but because of the evil and the violence in their hands. But when Jonah warned them the city would be overthrown, they believed him. They realized further resistance was futile, and turned to God, fasting and wearing sackcloth — even the kittens.
We don’t know how Andrew and Peter, John and James were saying “no” to God. Probably, like most of us, they weren’t doing so explicitly — they just got busy with other things, like nets and boats. But when Jesus called them they asked no questions, gave no arguments, they didn’t do any research. They didn’t even think of resisting, such was the power of Jesus! Immediately, they followed him.
Is there a way you’re resisting God, kicking against the goads, fighting a losing battle? Perhaps God is calling you to a new kind of work, but you keep saying you like your job now, you’re making good money, you enjoy telling people what you do at parties - why change? . . . . . (Clergy will often describe their call to ministry in that way, although that was not my experience). Or perhaps God is calling you to a different point of view - say, around race, or politics — but you don’t want to change because that would mean having to admit your were wrong. It might mean losing friends, or even your sense of who you are. Or perhaps God is calling you to forgive someone close to you. But that would mean being vulnerable and giving up a resentment that offers comfort. Or perhaps God is calling you to a change in lifestyle — to one that’s more frugal, or generous, or sober. But you’re worried about your future, you like your stuff — who doesn’t? — you want to be wild. Saying yes to God is hard. It’s hard because discerning God’s call is no easy thing, we often get it wrong and have to listen again. But it’s also hard because saying no is so easy: it feels safe. It’s familiar. Boy, is it familiar.
But the good news is: resistance is futile. God is more powerful than our resistance to God. So why don’t we give up sooner, rather than later? Why don’t we surrender now, and make room for God? For the way of God is the way of abundant life, for ourselves and the world. Consider the Ninevites: although we don’t hear the details, imagine a city where people have given up evil and the violence in their hands. We see that with the disciples. Their new life was not an easy one. They would no longer have the security of their nets, they would see their teacher executed, they would lose their place in the community. But after the resurrection they were filled with so much joy and excitement they preached Christ day and night. They became a community where there was not a needy person among them, and great grace was upon them all. Such is our life when we when we stop fighting and open up room for God.
I should probably end there, but I’m going to end with scripture — the ending of Jonah. It’s a cautionary tale. For although Jonah did go to Ninevah, he kept up the battle with God. But it’s also encouraging. For it shows God’s gentle persistence, for us and all creation, even in the face of our “no.” It continues where Patricia left off. Listen to the Word of God, Jonah 4:1-11:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”