"Where Is Ninevah?"

September 22, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Jonah 3:1-5

Congregational Megatrends Series #4

And God came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up and go to Ninevah..." Where is Ninevah? No, don’t turn to the atlas in the back of your Bible. That’s not my question. It’s not where was Ninevah, but where is Ninevah ... for you? For Jonah, it was obviously a place he didn’t particularly want to be. And yet, that’s precisely where God wanted him. Of course, sometimes it’s easier to know where you don’t want to be, than where you do want to be in life. Jonah wanted so badly not to be in Ninevah that he high-tailed it in the opposite direction, heading toward some vague port of call, romantically known as Tarshish. Where is Tarshish for you? It’s a place that always is inviting from a distance. We can spend our whole lives trying to get to Tarshish, and miss the opportunity of Ninevah - the place to which God calls us.

The place where God call us to be. That’s really where Ninevah is for you and me. So, the question is really, where does God want you to be? Or, to put it a bit differently, what is your God-given mission? To where is God calling you? Where is Ninevah ... for you?

Once upon a time, we considered that question relevant only to "professional" religious people, such as missionaries or pastors. These folks became surrogates for us when it came to mission work. That is, with our financial assistance, we made it possible for them to go to Ninevah for us. The mission field was overseas somewhere. Denominations, as we have known them, really came into existence to spread the gospel, to take God’s message to the Ninevahs of our world, which were usually perceived as somewhere "over there."

Of course, our Brethren ancestors were a bit suspicious of this missionary stuff in the last century, just like they weren’t too sure of such "new-fangled" methods like Sunday Schools and Revival meetings. I don’t think they preferred Tarshish to Ninevah, like our friend Jonah, reluctant to go where God was leading. There may, however, have been a bit of Jonah in them, just like there’s a Jonah in us all.

The Ninevahs of today may not lie halfway around the world. Ninevah could well be in our own back yard. Like Jonah, God calls us there. All of us, not some few professionally trained elite. The day of sending someone else in our place is over, or so says C. Jeff Woods in his book, Congregational Megatrends. In case you’ve missed the past few sermons (whether present or absent), we’re in the middle of a series on changes taking place in the church as we are adapting to changes in our society. As many have said, the church as we have know it is fading away. We are facing a new day, in a society that is, at best, indifferent or, at worst, hostile to this institution the church has become. The good news is that we are facing a society that is not as far removed from the first century church as we once were.

Actually, the first few centuries of the church was one of the most productive, creative periods in the history of God’s people. Furthermore, the church grew rapidly, one person at a time. It wasn’t easy, as all the stories of persecution reveal, let’s not be romantic about it. It was no Tarshish. The followers of Jesus heard the call to Ninevah, their own Ninevahs. Where was Ninevah, then? All you have to do is look at the titles given to many of the letters we have in the New Testament: Rome, Corinth, the cities of Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossus, Thessalonika. Ninevah was their own neighborhood.

The same is true of us, today. Once upon a time, the great mission field was over there. Now it is also here. Notice, I didn’t say it was only here. There must always be a balance between mission work near and far. The shift we are currently undertaking, though, is the move from "surrogate" missions to "hands-on" missions.

What I might call a "negative" reason for this is distrust. At one time we placed a great deal of trust in the institutions of our society, the church being one of them. If we didn’t agree with one institution, we placed our trust in another. Currently, though, Americans are distrustful of all institutions, especially those which seem the most distant. Denominations are not immune to this trend, which is one reason for radical changes taking place in our own, as well as every other one.

Is there a "positive" to be pulled out of this? I think so. God’s people are hungering for hands-on mission. It doesn’t mean anything anymore to just belong to an institution. People have a need, in this helter-skelter, rat-race world to believe that what they do makes a difference beyond just having their name on some role. The hunger is there among us. Of course, so is the Jonah syndrome. Anyone who has recently tried to get people involved in the life of the church knows how difficult it is to pull people out of their cocoons. Jonah’s boat may today be a television. Have you noticed how stormy the waters have been on the boob-tube lately, all the junk banging around in the hold?

A "negative" in our congregational life that I’d like to approach positively has been our recent efforts at downsizing our structure. I see our downsizing not as a matter of making do with less people, but rather a matter of freeing up people for mission work. It was our dream 2 years ago to "organize ourselves in ways that support our vision and provide us with more energy for ministry and mission" (remember that dream?). As we come up with new organization, which I hope will not be merely recycled old practices, we need to make space for our best leaders to be involved in mission work, not just in running the church. Too often, those with the most passion and ability to address a particular need are busy maintaining our organization. We’ve long said that if something is to happen here, there needs to be a champion. Well, if the person through whom God is calling us to some Ninevah is overloaded elsewhere in the church, we’ll never even get on the boat to Tarshish, let alone make it to that Ninevah.

The key words there are "God is calling us." Not someone else. Us. You and me. Jonah’s story is our story, just as surely as it has been the story of God’s people down through the ages. God’s people have always been reluctant to move beyond themselves. Ninevah is a place beyond the comfortable, it represents a needy world to which God is calling us. Ninevah is not as far away as we once thought. Our very neighbors may be from Ninevah.

Speaking of neighbors, did you do your homework last week? In case you forgot, or weren’t here, let me refresh your memory. Two weeks ago, I asked that each of you think of 3 persons you know, whom you believe do not attend a church right now. That’s all I asked. Last Sunday I added this request: think of at least 1 way that each of these 3 persons might benefit from a stronger relationship with God, not necessarily the same for each one. The homework for this week is prayer. In your bulletin please find the following prayer. Put it into your own words and pray it daily. "Lord, please communicate with these three people and let them know what it would mean to have a relationship with you." That’s the assignment. Are you willing?

A funny thing about Ninevah, wherever this place is to which we are called: God is there ahead of us. We’re not called to go where God hasn’t already been. In Jonah’s story, the people respond to his message in ways he can’t even fathom. Do you think it happened by magic? Was Jonah’s work the only thing God was doing in Ninevah? Don’t you believe it!

Where is Ninevah for you? Wherever ... whomever, remember the question with which the story of Jonah ends. It really is God’s question to us all. Turn to the front of your bulletin and read it with me: "Should I not be concerned about Ninevah?" Why not make it your question as well.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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