Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 21 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Ps 62:6-14; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20

We are given, as our first reading today, just a small fragment of the book of Jonah, obviously selected to parallel the sudden turn of the first disciples on the lakeshore. But since Jonah doesn’t often come into the Sunday lectionary, and since it’s actually quite a rich and fascinating book, I want to take some time to look at this fragment in its context.

The basic set-up for the whole book is that God comes to a prophet named Jonah, and tells him to go and tell the city of Nineveh that they are to be destroyed for their general iniquity. Nineveh was the capital of the later Assyrian empire, an empire of great wealth and great terror, which essentially wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel, ravaged the cities of the southern kingdom of Judah, and besieged and nearly conquered Jerusalem. By the time the book of Jonah was written, that empire had fallen, replaced by the Babylonians, but Nineveh remained as a name which evoked an almost legendary enemy, a name which evoked destruction and oppression. Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, the imperial cities echo down the generations. So Jonah, a Jewish prophet, is being told to go into the very heart of enemy territory, into a place of danger, violence, horror, and to speak the word of Israel’s God in that place.

Understandably, he is reluctant, and tries to escape in the other direction by boat, and there is a charming folk tale interlude involving a giant fish, which is all most people know about Jonah. But in the end, once the fish situation is resolved, Jonah accepts that he must do this, and—it appears from the text—makes a quick circuit around Nineveh, delivering God’s message in the most rapid and perfunctory way he can manage, probably hoping not to be noticed. And at this rather lukewarm rebuke, the people and even the king of Nineveh suddenly, astonishingly, repent. The fact that this resembles nothing in the historical record doesn’t take away from the shock of the author’s point—that Nineveh could turn around. That when God’s word came to the evil empire, even through a frightened and reluctant prophet who was fulfilling the minimum requirements of his job, everything changed.

And Jonah—and this is where the book takes a really brilliant turn—Jonah is furious. Jonah throws an absolute tantrum at God, accusing God of making him look like a fool, and, even more seriously, of showing absurd, excessive, and entirely predictable mercy to the undeserving. Jonah’s rant at God runs, more or less, “I knew you would do this! You always do this! I knew you’d just end up showing them mercy! What is with all this freaking mercy?” This is followed by a series of interactions between Jonah and God, which include Jonah saying that he’s just going to lie down and die then, and that’ll show you, God, you and your stupid mercy. The book concludes with one of my favourite final sentences anywhere, God gently demanding of Jonah, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah is a slightly absurd, I think deliberately partly comic, figure. But the challenge of Jonah is real. To accept that turning is always possible, that the worst and most damaging of powers may just possibly repent, that God cares about Nineveh too, that even when the armies of Nineveh are wrecking Jerusalem, that bad rich city also contains many people as foolish as ourselves, and as fragile—and also many animals. That all these creatures are the real and legitimate focus of God’s concern, and that the oppressors may someday come to us with their hands empty of weapons, and desire to do better. Some part of us does not want our enemies to repent, will not accept it if they do. Like Jonah, we came to see some smiting, and indeed some smiting may seem well-deserved. But, while there is false repentance, and necessarily a real place for caution, and repentance must always be tested and maintained, we cannot reject anyone. We cannot consider anyone to have gone beyond the reach of love.

I do not question the need to oppose, strongly and openly, the increasingly public and vocal racism in our society, and I’ve been with some of you in Nathan Phillips Square and no doubt will be again. But I am also mindful that people who have left white supremacist movements tell us that they usually did so because people on the other side talked to them, often for a long time, invited them to turn, and helped them make that turn when they were ready. I am not good at talking to people with whom I deeply disagree, and I am usually suspicious of people who say they have changed. But the story of Jonah tells me that these are limitations on my part, and that God is going to keep pushing me.

And this gives us, I think, a slightly different slant on today’s Gospel reading. These first disciples are not in the position of the people of Nineveh, but in the position of Jonah. They are, though they probably don’t realize it at this point, being called to walk defenceless into the heart of violence. It will begin in Galilee, first with demoniacs and lepers, but then also Gentiles, and Jewish collaborators with the Roman military occupation. And they will go to the occupied, dangerous, troubled city of Jerusalem. They will be called on to preach not destruction, but the possibility of new life—and this message will be received, unlike Jonah’s message to Nineveh, with general rejection. All the powers of that city will turn upon them, and the one who called them will die before their eyes. And yet, finally, the first person in Mark’s gospel to confess Jesus as the Son of God will be one of the very soldiers whose job was to murder him. Had the first disciples known quite what they were getting into, they too might have been tempted to head for the open sea and take their chances with giant fish.

But we do not really have a choice. Like Jonah, willingly or unwillingly, we have to enter the places of violence, because they are everywhere, even within ourselves. We can only choose how we walk—and realize that, in fact, even that may not matter to anyone but us. The powerful and eloquent prophetic words of all three Isaiah writers seem to have had little or no effect on their times, but in this story Jonah, dragging himself nervously through the streets of Nineveh with a half-hearted message, turns around an empire, even against his own will—and then complains about it. And if God is concerned for all the foolish inhabitants of Nineveh and their many animals, God is concerned for Jonah too, terrible prophet that he is. God is concerned for the Roman soldiers themselves, the conscripted men doing deadly work they did not choose. All of them, all of us.

Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the disciples would falter and fail. Even after the resurrection, they would be unwilling to recognize the changes happening among the Gentiles, would have to struggle long and hard to allow them into the community. But God’s purposes would still unfold. And the disciples would be changed, as, perhaps, Jonah was too.

Metanoiete, Jesus says, almost his first word in Mark’s gospel. It is translated “repent”, but it really means something more like “turn your mind around.” Be other than you are. Transform. For the shape of this world is always passing away, and the only constant is change, change which may be unexpected, confusing, not how we thought things should be. We must hold it all lightly, this time and all it contains, our greatest griefs and our deepest loves, knowing they cannot remain; and yet also knowing that they do matter, that God holds everything in infinite regard, even the cows of Nineveh. Drop everything if you must—or stay in your boat if that’s what you’re called to, because beings require food, and the world still needs fishers of fish. Go into the places you’d rather not go, even if you get there indirectly. Love your enemies enough to keep speaking. Metanoiete. Turn towards the wind of infinite change. Turn towards the world.