Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Evangelism All Over Again

Two weeks in a row of Jesus calling disciples means two weeks in a row for preachers to talk about evangelism--everyone's favorite word. As Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) makes clear, the invitation is, indeed, to believe the "good news," which is what the word evangelism means. Maybe this second-chance for preachers is an opportunity to preach about how evangelism is still good news for the church.

Today, however, I'm drawn to the reading from Jonah, in which we read about the success of the reluctant prophet's work: "The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth." But, before we get there, we need to remember what the story of Jonah is all about.

We all remember the "belly of the fish," in which Jonah lived for three days before being vomited up on the beach. But do we remember how he got there?

We probably even remember that Jonah was running away from God and God's call and that God caught up with him in a violent sea storm that caused the other passengers on the ship to thrown him overboard. But do we remember why Jonah was running away?

The people of Nineveh were the sworn enemies of God's people. They were members of the Assyrian Empire, which was located north of Israel. For years, warriors from Nineveh would come south and raid the northern cities of Israel, pillaging the towns, burning the crops, killing the men, and abducting the women and children. Essentially, they were terrorists. To God's people, they were the epitome of evil. When the prophets dreamed of a day when God's people would be saved, those dreams were articulated in terms of the total and terrible destruction of Nineveh. So imagine then what it felt like for Jonah to hear God call him to go north into the heart of enemy territory to ask the most evil people in the world to repent. Not fun, huh?

But you know what's worse than being sent into enemy territory to proclaim the need for repentance? Succeeding in that mission. In chapter 4, we read that Jonah ran away from God not because he was afraid of what the Assyrians would do to him but because he was worried that the object of his evangelism would repent and convince God to change his mind about the calamity he had promised to bring upon them. And that's exactly what happened.

This is evangelism at its hardest. This is God giving good news to the people we hate the most. This is grace and forgiveness and love for the most unlovable scum of the earth. Isn't that great?

This Sunday, preach evangelism--good news for bad people. And that doesn't just mean bad people like you and me--those of us who shake our fist at bad drivers or take the larger slice of cake for ourselves. That means good news for the kind of terrorists who have hurt us the most. Can that be possible? Can God really extend the offer of forgiveness to our sworn enemies? Absolutely. That's the real good news. And it's our job to share it with them.

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