Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 24 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

So, I talked last week about the standard form of the call stories in the gospels, and here we see it in its prototype, the first call narrative in the earliest gospel. It is very much part of Mark’s prevailing atmosphere of crisis – the decisive moment is now, is here, and we must respond when the signal comes. It can be like that, when a call comes, or it can be, as we talked about last week, something more tentative, something which takes longer to mature. But I’m not going to repeat too much of what I said last week; instead, I’d like to focus on a very interesting word from the Gospel reading, and a partially parallel word from Jonah. “Repent,” says Jesus—almost the first word from his mouth in Mark’s gospel. But it’s not at all clear the the English word does capture the meaning of the Greek. The Greek word is metanoiete, and while the English “repent” has strong overtones of acknowledgement of sin, penitence, sorrow for our wrongdoing, that is not what metanoiete means. It means, “transform your mind.” Tturn your mind around. Think a new thought, a different thought, think your way into the new reality of the kingdom which is now within our grasp.

It’s hard, thinking a new thought. We’ve all learned that, this year, thrown into a new situation none of us wanted, forced to reorganize our priorities, our actions, our ways of demonstrating care, our ways of working to protect the weakest, even our understandings of who are. We can sometimes, when things seem stable, forget that the only constant in our world is change; this year we have not been able to forget, and it has been a hard teaching. It’s a time when we might struggle not only with our understandings of ourselves and of the world, but our understandings of God, and God’s intentions. The English word “repent” shows up some translations of today’s passage from Jonah, too, where it’s used to translating the Hebrew word way-yin-na-hem, applied in this text to God. Our translation today, interestingly, gives it as “God changed his mind,” as if it were the word metanoiete, but it isn’t, not really; it is crucially different.

Jonah is one of my favourite books in the Hebrew scriptures, both very funny and profoundly insightful. Jonah has been called—as the disciples are called—and he is specifically called to go and preach to Nineveh, which was for the writer of Jonah a mythical evil empire, the heart of oppression and violence, a place of wealth and danger and horror. And he, quite understandly, doesn’t want to. He goes to great lengths to try to avoid doing it, and God goes to equally great lengths to get him, including famous fish-related incident which is the only thing most people know about the book. So Jonah ends up, eventually, in Nineveh, where I imagine him plodding dismally around the city doing the bare minimum of prophesying, to which, astonishingly, all the people of Nineveh actually respond, fasting and putting on sackcloth and renouncing their evil ways. And, says our translation, God “changed his mind” — way-yin-na-hem — and did not destroy Nineveh after all.

It is problematic, to say the least, to imagine a God who had a firm intention to destroy a whole city, however evil, but changed his plans because the people wailed sufficiently. It is complicated, thoughout all of scripture, to balance the God who is described, over and over, as the force who devastates empire, often with massive collateral damage, with the God of love and individual care. But the Hebrew word is a really interesting one, which may help a bit with this. The root from which it comes is actually a word meaning “comfort” or “console” — it is used to speak of someone recovering from a great personal loss, for instance, finding comfort after the death of a loved one, moving on from mourning. So perhaps, what we see here, refracted through the imagination of a writer, is not so much a God who will smite you if you’re bad, or indeed if someone around you is bad, but may relent if you grovel for long enough, not a God who sends disaster or disease—but rather a God who grieves for the pain which humankind brings upon itself, the harm which oppression and empire bring, the inevitable damage of the collapse of great power; a God who mourns for us and longs for our restoration, and whose response to our return is a sort of comfort, a recognition of the return to wholeness, the response of the father when the prodigal son comes home. This my child, who was dead, is now returned.

Does the sentence suggest a change in the actual nature or mind of God? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the author of Jonah really thinks so either. Because what happens next, and where the book really becomes particularly wonderful, is that Jonah has an absolute tantrum at God. He has come to see some smiting, and now he’s been deprived of his smiting, and he’s seriously pissed off. And he says to God, in almost these exact words, “I knew you were going to do that! You’re always showing mercy! What is it with you and all this freaking mercy?” And after a bit of back and forth involving a gourd, he decides he’ll just lie down and die, because that’ll really show God a thing or two. So finally God comes down and has a word with his crankiest prophet, and the God who speaks is that infinitely faithful God who grieves for all the lost, the God who is always a God of unchanging mercy, even when that’s not what we, in our crooked little hearts, are wanting or expecting. “Should I not care about Nineveh?” asks God. “Should I not care about all these people, confused as they are? I am the God who stretched out the heavens, should I not care about this city too, and all its people—and also many animals?” And that’s the final word of the book, a grace note on God’s part, the animals of Nineveh, those helpless bystanders in the human drama, brought into love’s concern.

Jonah is a slightly absurb, I think 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, and that even when the armies of Nineveh are wrecking Jerusalem, the evil empire also contains many people who are innocent and foolish and fragile—and also many animals. That all these creatures are the real and legitimate focus of God’s concern, and that even the oppressors may someday come with their hands empty of weapons, and desire to change. 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.

Those first disciples are in the position of Jonah as the book begins. 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 fictional 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. 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. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the disciples would falter and fail. But God’s purposes would still unfold. And we must go into those places, and testify, by our words or by our lives, to those purposes unfolding.

So turn your mind around, and come.