3 Epiphany B 2021: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20
Five little words – that’s all it took.
Five Hebrew words. English is not quite that efficient. We need eight words to accomplish the same task. “Forty days more,” Jonah declares, “and Nineveh will be overthrown.” No silly stories. No strained analogies. No tired metaphors. No happy talk. Not even any attractive alliteration. The verdict has been rendered. The clock is ticking. Jonah is done.
The message is a direct declaration of doom. It contains no prescription for remedial action. It offers no hope of reprieve. The verb is in the passive voice. It specifies no actor. It is the bureaucrat-speak that fills our political discourse. “Mistakes were made.” “Shots were fired.” The message is designed to fail.
It has precisely the opposite effect.
Jonah seems unaware that the Lord likes a good joke. The word for “overthrown” can refer to destruction and demise. It more often refers to change, alteration, or even transformation! This verb, writes Philip Cary “can also—unfortunately for Jonah—mean conversion and being turned into something new.”
Who is fooling whom at this point? Does Jonah already know the LORD’s intention to spare Nineveh? Jonah later protests that he did know about this in advance. So, Cary suggests, it may be that Jonah manipulates the LORD’s message to have the most lethal implications and the least chance of success. Or is it that the LORD gives this bit of sermonic double entendre to the unsuspecting prophet who then feels used and cheated?
Or…do we witness both things at once, as Cary suggests. “There is room to wonder whether, in the very content of the message,” Cary writes, “Jonah was trying to pull a fast one on the LORD—and whether what actually happened was that the LORD pulled a fast one on Jonah.” The “old switcheroo” is a staple of comedy in all times and places. Is that what we witness in God’s word through Jonah to Nineveh?
Five little words – “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” It is the most effective sermon in history, as well as the shortest.
Not only do the hated Ninevites – and their pets and livestock – grieve and repent their sins. More than that, they trust the LORD to have mercy. “Who knows?” the great king wonders and hopes, “God may relent and change [God’s]mind; [God] may turn from [God’s] fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
Friends, that’s faith – trusting God for good in life and in death. Jonah is the patron saint of pious pagans, no matter how much Jonah hates the results.
Faith makes these pious pagans God’s friends. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,” we read, “God changed [God’s] mind about the calamity that [God] had said [God] would bring upon them; and [God] did not do it.”
If Jonah’s five little words are challenging, my five little words feel disastrous. God loves the insulting insurrectionist and the unrepentant white supremacist. God loves the arrogant authoritarian and the sniveling sycophant. God loves the ignorant thug promoting toxic masculinity and the self-deluding conspiracy monger. God loves the privileged, the powerful, and the well-positioned, even as they move heaven and earth to defend their domains.
Dear Lord, that pisses me off to no end. I’m with Jonah on this one. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” he protests in chapter four. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew,” he laments, “that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Isn’t this exactly what I told you would happen, Lord? I knew you’d go soft in the heart and soft in the head. I knew you’d fall all over your merciful self the second those stinking Ninevites made the first mention of remorse. Didn’t I tell you?
And now, I suppose, you expect me to love them too. Well, guess again, bucko!
I’m ready to charter a boat for wherever Tarshish is – if it’s a place where God hates the people I hate. I’m ready to live in Tarshish –where I’m always righteous and right, where those damn fools will get what’s coming to them. Buy me a ticket, pack my bags, renew my passport – I’m ready to go!
Five little words – God loves people I hate.
Jonah’s quarrel is with God’s character, and so is mine. Jonah knows that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Lord, what is wrong with you? Why don’t you have higher standards? Why do you love the people I hate?
Perhaps like Jonah, I’d rather die than live in such a place of perversion. God understands that, and God agrees.
If I am to live in the land where God is in charge, my hate must die. My self-righteousness must die. My longing to punish must die. My self-absorption, self-justification, and self-idolatry must die.
If it’s all the same to you, Lord, I’d rather sleep in the hold of my escaping ship and let the world around me go to hell in a handbasket – or in whatever other container might be appropriate.
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,” we read in Mark 1, “and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Turn around. Get a new mind and heart. Let go of my smug certainty and let God be God. Let go of my hate and let God be love.
I want to be clear. This lets no one off the hook. God’s love changes people. First and foremost, it changes me.
God’s love also changes the wicked Ninevites, at least in the Jonah’s story. This is not acceptance, acquiescence, or apathy. This love is the fire that requires repentance and burns away impurities. This is the love that embraces us as we are but cares too much to leave us that way. This is the love that tears down to build up, that breaks down to break open, that kills to make alive.
I am dragged into this kicking and screaming. Conversion is first of all the work of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving Flame of faith. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him,” writes Martin Luther. “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with [the Spirit’s] gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.”
The Holy Spirit brings a decisive break with the past. Think about the calling of those first disciples. It is worth examining the break that happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. In the ancient world, all social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.
“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” N. T. Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is.” The first disciples are presented as models and examples for us, and the picture is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.
Again, I want to be clear. The same Holy Spirit that calls me to let go of my hate calls others to do the same. No one is let off the hook.
God loves people who want to protect their privilege at the price of real justice. God’s love in Christ will kill that white male supremacy and make them alive – if they wish.
God loves those who treasure their treasure above their neighbors and do everything possible to protect it. God’s love in Christ will kill that greed and make them alive – if they wish.
God loves those who use fear and fanaticism, lies and lewdness, grievance and grandiosity to perpetuate their power. God will kill that spirit of deceit and make them alive – if they wish.
Five little words – God loves people I hate.
Real repentance is resurrection – new life beyond all that would keep us dead and buried. The result is trust in the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. If I trust in that God who comes to us in Christ (and I do), then repenting my hate and embracing resurrection is the path to new life every day.
The Book of Jonah is the only book in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures that ends with a question mark. It does so, because in the case of Jonah, the issue hangs in the balance. Will Jonah’s hate be overthrown? We are left to ponder.
So, this message ends with a question mark as well. God loves the people I hate. Today, will I allow myself to be changed?