Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
I speak to you in the name of the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love the story of Jonah. Jonah is a name that immediately brings to mind for many people an image of a giant whale, and a man reluctantly being delivered to fulfill a task asked of him by God. I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I have grudgingly approached a task that has been asked of me, and whether I wanted to do it or not, it had to be done, and it was my job to do it. Dreaded household chores, making a phone call I really don’t want to make, finishing a task that I just don’t enjoy, but that cannot be ignored, forgotten about, or put off any longer… Perhaps you’ve been there too?
Jonah was given a task that he did not want to do. He was called upon by God himself, so running away was futile, though he still tried to do it. But in the end, the task was his to complete and he did what was expected of him.
We only get a snippet of Jonah’s story in the reading this morning, so let me recount some parts of the story in this very, very short book housed amongst the prophets of the Old Testament. Many of you will remember the part about Jonah hearing God’s call to go to the city of Nineveh, and rather than saying yes and going to that place, Jonah rejects it, and gets on a ship heading to another city in the opposite direction. While on that boat, a storm comes up and the superstitious crew seeks to determine who has caused the wrath of such a storm to come upon them. They do this by casting lots. The lots point to Jonah, who admits that he is a Hebrew whose God is the creator of all, including the sea. The men of that crew, fearing their life prayed to Jonah’s god, seeking protection from the storm, through the promise of a sacrifice of his own servant Jonah, and so they threw him overboard and the seas calmed.
The story continues with Jonah in the sea who, as the story goes, is swallowed by a large fish, and rides in the belly of this “whale” for three days. When this time of trial is over, Jonah has been delivered to the city of Nineveh, where he is again commissioned to proclaim to the people a message of repentance – one that they desperately need to hear.
Now, if this story hasn’t been amazing enough already, something even more incredible and surprising happens next. The people of Nineveh not only heard Jonah, but they listened to what he was saying. They got the message. They were a people sorely in need of repentance, and rather than ignore this person who was sent to offer them one last chance – they stopped what they were doing, they declared a fast for all the people, and they asked for God’s great mercy. And then, and then, and then… they received it!
Their town did not come to a calamitous end! God’s wrath and vengeance, eloquently described in so many stories from the Old Testament, was not wrought down upon them! They received God’s mercy and forgiveness, and they were a changed people.
So what happened with Jonah, after all that drama? Well guess what. Jonah was still upset about his mission to go to the people of Nineveh. And he was even more upset that they received a reprieve from God’s anger when they followed through on what was being asked of them. Jonah said, “O Lord, Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah did not agree with God that such a city as this, such a people as these were deserving of forgiveness, of salvation. Jonah knew that he believed in a loving God, and that such a god would not ignore the imploring of people who truly repented. So if he were to go to that city, and offer an opportunity to change to those people, and they accepted the challenge and reconciled themselves to God, they would receive God’s mercy. And so, when Jonah fulfilled the task that was given to him, and the people did what was asked of them, God was loving and compassionate and forgiving, and Jonah – Jonah was royally “upset” at God.
The things I learn from this story: Change happens. God will be there. Not everyone will agree with God’s response. God will be there, still.
You hear it said a lot, “people don’t change.” And the truth in that is that I cannot change another person, and you cannot change another person. But I am a person of hope and I believe in resurrection. And what that means to me is that each person has the ability to look at themselves, to take in the landscape of good and bad that resides within the self, AND each person has the ability to seek to make right, to cleanse, to reconcile that which separates them from loving God, and loving their neighbor.
Sin comes in all forms and fashions, and we love and loathe our sins, don’t we? They are the indulgences that sooth in the immediacy of instant gratification, and they are the cause of the guilt that plagues the soul in the aftermath of over-indulgence.
Addiction, selfishness, lack of compassion, misplaced passion, coveting, lying, apathy...
When we take the time to stop acting and doing and being all the things that we assume society expects of us, and reflect on our day to day actions, reflect on the impact that our choices each day have on our local community, on our nation, and on people in distant lands who share our planet earth, we will most certainly find sin there.
Reconciliation comes as a result of recognizing those things that are wrong – those passions that are misplaced, those things that widen the gap between ourselves and a loving God who calls on us to do what is right, to follow a path of righteousness that has been set for us, to love and care for all God’s people – even those whom we wish we could forget about, ignore, pass by.
In order for resurrection to happen those old sins, those old ways of doing things, those old complacencies must wither and die and pass away; for you cannot have the new life that comes with resurrection, without the end of those things that stand in the way. Change can happen. But not without letting go of the old in order to embrace the possibility of the new.
God will be there. God is there. God is calling you by name, so that you will know and be able to live a life that shares the Good News. The good news that sins can pass away and we are forgiven. The good news that the work of reconciliation, of owing up to those painful things that keeps us from fully loving God, from fully loving our neighbor in need, can result in the promise of new life – through resurrection. The good news that God calls each one of us by name, calls us to action, calls us to respond to a need in someone’s life, in our community, in our world – and even if we enter into that work with reluctance, even if we’re not certain that God is right – the good news that we are forgiven of our sins and can ourselves change, is the good news for others as well. We can be bearers of that good news, and the world will be changed.
There are tasks that we all face with reluctance. Some of those are the tasks that we most dread because we know they will be difficult, they will not be “fun” and we’re not always sure just how it will benefit us. But the fact of the matter is: we are called to the task because it needs to be done. Jesus called his fishermen to be bearers of the good news, long before the gospels were written down to be read and shared in that way. They were called to be witnesses of the good news of God in Christ in the way they lived their lives. Jonah too was called upon to complete a task. One that he approached with reluctance because he had so little faith in the possibility that such sinners as those found in Nineveh could be changed. But God had faith in those people. And God had faith in Jonah. And the result of Jonah’s work was the resurrection of a people.
What task have you been putting off? What message have you been ignoring? What challenge have you been reluctant to stand up and take your place? Take a look at those things that may be keeping you from following an invitation by God into reconciliation, into something new… Consider the possibility that even though you’re not sure you want to go someplace new – change can happen, and God is there, faithfully, from the beginning, to the end, to the new beginning. Amen.
Delivered by the Rev. Mary Catherine Enockson
Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Rock Hill, South Carolina