by David Baer, November 6, 2016
Today is a special Sunday. We call it “All Saints Sunday.” Maybe you have friends that go to a church called St. Luke’s or St. Paul’s or St. John’s. Maybe if you did something really nice for a grown-up, like if you brought them a cup of tea or a blanket to wrap up in on a cold day, they might say something to you like, “You’re a saint!” What do you think the word “saint” means?
Our English word “saint” comes from the Latin word “sanctus.” It means special, set apart. At my house we have special dishes with dragonflies on them. We don’t eat on them every night, but only on special occasions. They’re special. They’re set apart. And saints are people who are special and set apart by God. They’re people God uses to show God’s love here on earth, to make God’s kingdom real.
But how is it that saints become saints? Is it because they’re especially good? Is it because they always do the right thing? Is it because they’re better people than you and me? No, and I’m going to tell you a story that shows us why. This is a story about a man that God set apart and used to save a whole city. But he wasn’t very good. He didn’t even want to do what God asked him to do. And even once he did it, he felt terrible and angry with God, at least for a while. But whether he knew it or not, Jonah was a prophet and a saint. Because what makes a saint is not being a good person. It’s being caught up in the story of a good and holy God.
Let’s hear the first part of Jonah’s story… (Jonah 1:1-17)
Was Jonah a really good person? I don’t know, but he didn’t listen to God, did he? God asked him to go to the city of Nineveh, and instead, he took off in the opposite direction. He got on a boat, but God sent a storm, and everyone on board was really scared. When they figured out that it was Jonah’s fault, because he wasn’t doing what his God told him to do, Jonah told them to throw him into the sea. They didn’t want to, but finally they agreed, and then the sea got quiet, and they were safe. Now, before this they each had their own gods. But after they saw that Jonah’s God, the God of Israel, our God, had the power to calm a storm, they were so amazed that they prayed to our God, and promised to follow our God. Jonah wasn’t trying to teach them about God, but he did. Isn’t that amazing? Jonah was trying to run away. He was doing the opposite of what God said to do. But God used him anyway to change the lives of those sailors. Jonah wasn’t a very good follower of God, but he was a saint, because God worked through him anyway.
Jonah got thrown into the sea, but God sent a big fish to swallow him up to save him from drowning. And he was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights. Let’s hear the next part of the story… (Jonah 2:10-3:10)
The big fish spit Jonah up on the beach. I don’t think he smelled very good just then, do you? But God can work with people who make the wrong choice, and God can work with people who smell like the inside of a fish too! God told him again the same thing God told him at the beginning. Go to Nineveh, and tell them they have to change what they’re doing! I guess Jonah must have learned his lesson, because this time he went to Nineveh. And he walked into the city and called out to the people, “God is angry with you! Repent! Change your ways! Because in forty days something so big will happen to this city that you won’t know what hit you! You won’t even recognize it!”
What do you think Jonah meant when he said that? I think he thought the city might be destroyed. Maybe a fire or an earthquake or a flood would knock down buildings and change the city forever. But something strange happened. The people listened to Jonah. The king told them that all the people—and not just people, but animals too!—should show God how sorry they were. They should stop eating, and they should put on sackcloth. (That’s a really uncomfortable fabric that scratches your skin.) And they should all cry out to God. (What do you think the sheep in Nineveh said? “Sorry God, we’ve been baaaaaad!”) And God saw all this and decided to spare the city.
Jonah was right. The people in the city had changed so much, by deciding to listen to God, that you couldn’t even recognize the place. Not because the city was destroyed, but because it was saved. Jonah’s words came true, even though he didn’t understand what he meant when he said them. But that’s OK. He was still a saint, because saints don’t have to understand everything about God. They just speak the words God gives them to speak.
But Jonah wasn’t happy that God had decided not to destroy Nineveh. Let’s hear about what happened next… (Jonah 4:1-11)
God pointed out that Jonah cared so much about a little plant that grew up overnight and died overnight. Isn’t it right for God to care about a city with 120,000 people in it? (Not to mention all those animals!) Was Jonah’s heart as big as God’s? Did he love the people and animals of Nineveh and the world as much as God loves? No, I don’t think he did. Do you or I have a heart as big as God’s? Hopefully we don’t throw a tantrum like Jonah when God decides to be kind and forgiving to someone. But no, I don’t think we have a heart as big as God’s either. Being a saint doesn’t mean we need a heart that’s already as big as God’s. It means having a heart that is tender enough to break open and grow bigger when it has to.
We don’t always listen to God. We don’t always understand everything God understands. Our hearts aren’t as big as God, and we struggle to love everyone the way God loves. But God still sets ordinary people like you and me apart. God speaks words of kindness and warning and hope through our mouths. God feeds and heals and comforts people through our hands. We aren’t saints because we start out as good and holy people. We’re saints because, like Jonah, we are loved and called by a good and holy God. Jonah’s story reminds us that God speaks through us, helps through us, forgives through us even though we’re people who make mistakes. Will you pray with me?
God, thank you for calling us to be your saints, using us to heal and feed and forgive and bless with a loving power that only you have. There is more blessing in your words than we can imagine. There is more grace in your will than we can dream. When our hearts are too small, break them open so that they can grow and be shaped like the heart of your son Jesus. Amen.