"Christians are people who say, 'Black lives matter'": A sermon on Jonah 1

[Ed. note: We interrupt our regularly scheduled hiatus to bring you this timely sermon from DET contributor Hank Coates.]

Dearly beloved,

I thought long and hard about what I was going to preach on this morning. I’ve been planning this sermon series on Jonah, but in light of events of last week, 300 killed in a bombing in Iraq, two black men seemingly executed for no good reason other than being black in the wrong place at the wrong time, revenge violence of the worst kind in Dallas which left five dutiful public servants, officers of the law, killed while defending people who were exercising their constitutional right to protest, well, I had to think long and hard about what text to craft my sermon around. And that’s just last week, we are less than one month out from the largest mass shooting in modern American history at a night club in Orlando, Florida. Throw in the most bizarre, toxic, and downright frightening election season in my lifetime at least, and you know, it can honestly feel at times that things are coming apart. That things are bad, and that’s scary and we don’t know what’s going on. Now things aren’t as bad as they were in 1968, with massive riots, with MLK and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated, 300 a day getting killed in Vietnam. But I wasn’t born in 68! And so it feels like, to some, that we are on the brink of something. It doesn’t feel like 1968, but for some of us, we wondering if we’re in 1967. In the midst of all this, one thing becomes clear to me.

By Tony Webster (Black Lives Matter Minneapolis) [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
This long, hot summer, when tensions seem at a long time high, we need Jesus. We need him, now, because things are scary out there and it is ok to admit that. America doesn’t need to be made great again, American Christians need to repent of our sins, I need to repent of my sins, which include the sin of staying silent when the innocent are killed, repent of the sin of holding to the sidelines in the face of great injustices being perpetuated against black people every day, repent of the sin of desiring vengeance and justifying the murder of cops doing their job because a couple of bad cops literally get away with murder, and instead, stand in awe of our great, loving God, and in dong so learn again what it means to be Christians. Because at the start of the day and at the end of the day, what is a Christian?

Christians are sinners saved by the power of God in Jesus, who died so that we might live. Christians are people who love neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Christians are people who work for the reconciliation of all peoples. Christians are people who can say black lives matter because all lives matter and that’s why black lives matter. Christians say black lives matter. Full stop. Christians are people who mourn with the broken hearted, be it with the families of the police officers ambushed a couple of nights ago in Dallas, or with the family of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and say to all, “this is not right. This is not how the world is meant to be.” Christians are people who answer the call of Christ to be peacemakers, no matter what the cost or inconvenience. This is what Christians do: they answer the call of the God who loves us, who tells us to arise, go, do something, be my people, obey my command to love, be my witnesses in a broken world. Go, answer the call, tell the world that I am with the world because I love the world! This is hard. And it seems impossible. And so, for all of us, we refuse to answer this call, because it is simply too hard, too scary. God’s call for us is to speak. The human inclination is to remain silent.

But our scripture today, Jonah 1, is about a man who didn’t answer the call of God and instead ran away! Now look, I’m not your pastor. I am privileged to stand in front of you all this summer, it is a real gift to be with you. But I don’t know you as well as Pastor Karen does. You don’t know me. So I have to discern, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what the Word of the Lord to you, to all of us particularly, today, is. And this is hard. This is scary, and maybe I wanted to run away! But, Jonah, all four chapters, seems strangely appropriate for this moment.

We are Jonah. Jonah is the typical human, fallen, scared, confused, seeming out of his league in the midst of crazy circustances. We are Jonah, we can show him a little grace, can’t we? So let’s see what we can learn, if anything, from Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet, someone called by God to get up, go tell others about what God has done, is doing, and will do. And Jonah was called by God, was given a job to do by God, but Jonah didn’t want to do it. He was supposed to go into the belly of the beast, into the city of Nineveh, and preach judgment upon them. Now we can get why Jonah didn’t want to do this, yea? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians would destroy Israel someday. He was walking into enemy territory to, cry out against that great city, for the Lord had seen its wicked ways. The people in Nineveh? They didn’t know the Lord. Jonah’s job was to tell them about the Lord. But Jonah got a call from God and went the exact opposite way. We are supposed to think that he is driven by the same fear and unbelief that would drive any of us: faced with the prospect of calling out to the great city of Nineveh in the name of the Lord God of Israel, he does not believe the word of the Lord and does not trust that the Lord can deliver him from Nineveh’s evil. So he runs in the other direction. Let me read the beginning of the passage:

By Pax Ahimsa Gethen [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

Now I can understand his disobedience, can you? He’s afraid. It could be like the fear of a black man or woman being pulled over by a cop late in the night. Paralyzing fear. Jonah’s fear, it’s real. It’s human. And we need to acknowledge Jonah’s fear, like we also need to acknowledge the fear of our black brothers and sisters in 21st century America. But, but! I said this passage was a comedy, a farce. It is. But even in comedy, serious issues, of divine significance, can be present and acknowledged. Jonah is a prophet, he is one who speaks the words of God, he is expected to answer the call of God to go preach, but, this is a prophet who runs away. And that’s kind of funny.

So Jonah is afraid. And so he goes into the direct opposite direction of Nineveh. He buys a ticket to Tarshish, which is on the exact otherside of the world from Nineveh. God says go one way, Jonah goes another. Tarshish was a rich port city somewhere in modern Spain. Tarshish didn’t promise death, Tarshish promised a life of luxury. Now Jonah bought a ticket to get on a ship—he spent money thinking that money would buy him an escape from God’s plan, as if money can fix all of his problems. Hmm.
But when God calls you, God doesn’t let you go. Psalm 139 reads,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

So he let Jonah run away, but there are consequences for our actions. A great storm came and thrashed the boat. And there is meaning in this storm. Storms always come into our lives, and we’re not the only ones who get wet. That’s what happened here, the sailors on board this ship, they are terrified for their lives because of the storm that Jonah brought. Actions have consequences, and those consequences can impact a whole mess of people. Sometimes we bring other people in advertently into our storms. And these sailors, they cry, they cry out to their gods but nothing seems to work. What is Jonah doing? Well he’s sleeping, unaware of the mess he’s made for others because of his disobedience. God’s prophet, the one God called, is asleep.

Now these men didn’t know the Lord. Like Nineveh, they were lost. But the captain of the ship in the storm, he seems to have some sense. He wants all on board his ship to pray for safety, including this man who is asleep in the ship’s hold. “Get up!” he says, “Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” Us. We, Note he says us and we. This captain, who doesn’t know the Lord, is concerned for everyone. He’s not selfish like Jonah, who disobeys the Lord and doesn’t care who such disobedience impacts. No, this captain is a good captain, unlike Jonah, the prophet, who runs away.

These sailors, who don’t know God, they just want to live and they are sure that something, someone can save them, but they don’t know what that something is. The Lord is the only one who can help, but they don’t know the name of the Lord, because Jonah has been silent, Jonah has been asleep, because Jonah ran away. Freshly awakened Jonah emerges on the deck, and they cast lots, and yes, Jonah is outed—he is the one to blame for the storm. And what happens next is profound—these men, who did not know the name of the Lord, come to saving knowledge of the Lord because of Jonah, the prophet of the Lord who ran away!

“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

They don’t want to cast Jonah into the sea, to certain death, because despite them not knowing the name of the Lord, they are good men. They want to save Jonah, despite Jonah being the cause of all their problems. But Jonah, the Prophet who ran away, is the Lord’s. And the Lord won’t let Jonah go. And the Lord gets what the Lord wants. And what the Lord wants is that all people come to know his saving love that stands on the side of the oppressed, makes the crooked straight, and releases the captives from their chains.

Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Here’s the thing the text is saying: They know the Lord now; they are not only safe under his protection but they know the Lord by name, all because prophet Jonah ran away. Because the Lord will work through all people, and the Lord never gives up on us, even when we run away.

We are all going to run away. That’s what we do. We are human, and we instinctively run away from the call of God. That’s why we live in a broken world. We have a skin problem, yea, but we also have a sin problem, and that’s why obeying God can be so difficult at times. And it is because of Sin that we run away.

And so I say, Thank God for Jesus.

In our New Testament passage Jesus identified himself, directly, with the Prophet Jonah, the chosen one who ran away. Jesus Christ, is the chosen one from God who never for a moment turns and runs away goes where God sends him: And God sends him to be among us to save us. Jesus, the chosen one, our God, redeems all those who flee from the call of God to love our neighbors as self. Jonah does nearly everything wrong, does not love his neighbor as himself and gets into the deepest trouble imaginable, yet all the while he remains God’s beloved and chosen one. He does everything wrong, almost, yet through him the Lord God of Israel does everything right. And Jesus identifies himself with the Prophet Jonah to send us, today, an incredible message: even though we are Jonah, even though we screw up, even though we run away, "I am the God who is with you and I am going to save you and you are going to be my people and I am going to be your God, and I will empower you to go out into the world to be with my people who are suffering, who are crying out in the face of injustice, I am going to empower you to be my hands and feet to witness to a broken world that I am the Lord, that I am the King who saves, that I am the God who saves. That I am the God who hears my people when they cry out!"

By Tony Webster (Black Lives Matter) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
So brothers and sisters, Grab onto him to learn from him. Let Christ’s light shine on through you. We can’t do this on our own. We need Jesus to get through this moment. And the good news is, that even when things seem dire, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. So let’s not stop at words: with Christ as our guide let us work, let vote, let us struggle, let us join alongside our black brothers and sisters as we strive after a fair, equitable, just, and safe society for all of God’s people.

And I close with scripture, just so you don't think that it is I who has the last word: Proverbs 31:8-9 commands,

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[a]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

And Luke 4:18-19 reminds us who it is who we follow:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

[Note from the author: I am preacher at a church where I am not the pastor. I am filling a pulpit this summer of a tiny church, full of God's good people, in rural rural rural North Carolina. I'm called to preach in season and out of season, but I would be lying to you if I didn't say I was nervous about preaching today to a congregation I don't know well. Below is the sermon I preached yesterday. I don't know if it is any good, and I know it doesn't do full justice to our moment. But preachers are called to preach, in season and out. So I preached.]



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