SERMON: 25 January 2009
by Canon Sharyn Hall
Jonah 3: 1-5,10
Mark 1: 14-20
Two weeks ago there was a story on the news about an unusual advertising campaign in London, England. The advertisements on the buses read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” As you may imagine, the signs have caught the attention of many people and caused some controversy.
The signs are sponsored by the British Humanist Association, with outspoken support from Richard Dawkins, who is famous for his book, “The God Delusion.” The Humanist group says that the signs will be a refreshing change from posters threatening eternal damnation, and advertising that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
Reaction to the signs on the buses has been mixed. Some people find the posters outrageous. Other people welcome the campaign as a way to make people think and wonder about God. Financial support for the campaign has been surprisingly high.
The media headlines call the signs the atheist bus campaign, but atheists usually attempt to prove that God has never existed. The slogan on these signs says simply, “There’s probably no God.” The implication is that God’s existence does not matter one way or the other. This attitude of indifference is more worrisome than a futile attempt to prove that God does not exist. With this indifferent outlook, God becomes irrelevant to human life, an option for people to embrace or ignore. This idea is reinforced by the phrase, “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In other words, God in your life is a burden, not a comfort or a joy.
In the Jonah story of the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah finds God’s presence an unwelcome burden. God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and urge the people to repent of their sinful ways. Nineveh is a huge city full of powerful noblemen, wealthy merchants and a strong king. A message of repentance would not be welcome. Jonah viewed Nineveh with fear and awe, so he resisted God’s call and ran away.
His ordeal at sea and his fearful experience in the belly of a huge fish made him think twice about saying no to God. So Jonah prayed to God for deliverance. The fish obediently spit Jonah on to dry land, and Jonah began is mission in Nineveh, proclaiming the day of the Lord and the need for repentance. To Jonah’s surprise, all the people, including the king, repented of their evil ways and God spared the city from destruction.
This fantastic story has captured the imagination of people for centuries, and there may be several suggestions as to the moral of the story, but perhaps we can say that Jonah’s mistake was to question God’s judgment. Jonah believed the people of Nineveh would not repent. God believed the people would repent, and God needed Jonah to make that happen.
A call from God is to be accepted or not; however, if we choose not to accept God’s call, we may find that God is persistent. Whether we believe in God, ignore God, or even dismiss God’s existence as irrelevant, there may come a time when we encounter more than we can handle. At that time, God gives us a choice – do you want to accept my way, or do you want to go your own way?
That is what Jesus did when he encountered the fishermen by the sea of Galilee. He invited them to leave their everyday life and follow him. They had a choice. We are told that Simon and Andrew and James and John left their nets and followed Jesus. We are not told if there were other fishermen that day, who chose to stay by the sea and continue their ordinary lives. It’s a good guess that the village people thought that the ones who stayed behind were wise, and the ones who left with Jesus were foolish, and perhaps irresponsible. They left their families and their community for a wandering life, which could be harsh and dangerous.
Jesus was calling his disciples to a life in which God was the centre of existence, a way of life which questioned the natural human tendency of self-preservation and self-interest. If we follow Jesus, we are reminded that God gives us a choice in the big decisions of our life, and in the everyday moments of a routine day. God is always available for consultation
In the most celebrated events of last week, God’s presence and blessing were sought by millions of people. Prayer to God played a prominent role in the inaugural celebrations for Barak Obama as President of the United States. Some people might dismiss the prayers and church services as simply tradition, but as one commentator noted, Barak Obama was surrounded by prayer. Although much of the prayer was Christian, there was also a recognition of other faiths, which come to God in their own ways.
God got good publicity last week. God was not an option, or a burden, but a source of hope, of strength, and of guidance. Millions of people around the world, in Asia and Africa, in Europe, Russia and Britain, heard the call for God’s presence in the future of global humanity. In his stirring inaugural speech, President Obama referred to the noble idea of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” He was paraphrasing the American Constitution, but there was no doubt that such ideals are rooted in the belief that God is the benefactor of humanity. Although God-given, those ideals require human commitment and hard work to be realized and sustained in our world.
In conclusion, Barak Obama stated confidently that “ with God’s grace”, the gift of freedom would endure into the future. Because of that gift of freedom, we can choose to believe in God or not, to accept God’s call to us or not, but we may find that God is persistent, reaching out to us with love, and drawing us into the way of justice and peace and compassion for all people. As Christians, we believe that there is perfect freedom in service to God. Amen.
Note: Since I preached this sermon on January 25, the advertisement campaign has come to buses in Canada, causing comments and controversy. There are opportunities for comments on various websites.