Readings from Scripture (CEB) Jonah 3:1-5,10
The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)
4 Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.
10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and didn’t do it.
(CEB) Mark 1:14-20
After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.
Acceptance, Courage, Wisdom
Well Jonah was a prophet…but he never really got it…
And if you watch him you can spot it…He did not get the point!
Compassion and mercy from me to you and you to me
Exactly what God wants to see and yes that is the point!
Yes Jonah was a prophet, but he never really got it. Jonah’s story is a big fish tale that tells of what happens when we avoid the work we’re supposed to do. Jonah was called to preach. That’s it. He was called to preach a message of hope to the people of Nineveh. Jonah had heard of the deep, entrenched, systematic problems of Nineveh that wouldn’t magically fix overnight with just a change in government. Jonah knew that the people needed to change, but staying inside the belly of the beast was seemingly easier. For the people needed to want to change, to see that compassion and mercy were worth the work. And Jonah was called to proclaim to Nineveh that God hadn’t given up on them yet; there was still hope.
But…Jonah decided otherwise. Jonah figured that the people weren’t worth it. Jonah thought about all the QAnon folk that had listened to false prophets, and those led astray to paths of self-destruction and despair, deciding that they deserved their punishment. How many of us smiled guiltily and gleefully when Capitol rioters were arrested this past week, and collectively exhaled when the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris went off without more violence.
(As an aside: I read of one preacher this week that wouldn’t be speaking about the inauguration because it does nothing to further the kingdom of Jesus Christ. While he’s right – the story of Jonah and Nineveh reminds us that sometimes what happens in far-away lands affects us too, as this global pandemic has pointed out)
Back to the story…Jonah decided the people weren’t worth it. Jonah figured that the message of God was judgment, rather than hope for one last chance. Or maybe Jonah decided that Nineveh didn’t deserve hope. That they were incapable to making a change in their lives. It’s like he heard the first line of the Serenity Prayer (written by Reinhold Niebuhr)
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
as some sort of mic drop…Jonah hearing: God grant me the permission to give up even before I try. God, grant me the peace of mind to think that I know best. God, I accept Nineveh just the way it is, because I know I cannot change it. The end. Story over.
How many of us have stopped the story there? How many have had some huge task before us, and not had the strength to get to the next line of the prayer? I know I’m harsh on Jonah, but only because I see in him, myself. In those moments that the task before me seems overwhelming or my gifts seem underwhelming, it’s easy to stop. It’s why we often stop on that first line, because acceptance of the way things are is easier than seeing a way forward. With defeat in our voices, we declare, it’s just the way things are…it’s the way things have always been…we’ve never done it that way. And we stop the story there, as if God wasn’t both a participant in our lives and the one to whom we are praying. God, grant me peace of mind and heart to just get to the next line…for with help and trust, we pray for
courage to change the things I can
Jesus was a prophet, who got it. Jesus was called to preach a message of hope knowing that the deep, entrenched, systematic problems of Israel wouldn’t magically fix overnight with just a change in government. Jesus knew that the people needed to change. The people needed to want to change though, to see that compassion and mercy were worth the work. And Jesus was called to proclaim that God hadn’t given up on them yet; there was still hope.
So Jesus runs towards the people instead of away from them. Jesus preaches a message of compassion and mercy from me to you and you to me…proclaiming
Now is the time! Here comes God’s kin-dom!
Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!
Or as another scholar has retranslated:
“Turn around to take hold of something better than what you have now”
I love that. Turn around to take hold of something better. Turn around and glimpse and grasp something – a new vision for you, a new promise for the earth. But we must turn around, turn away from all that we know – turning away from those old patterns of behaviour that lull is into Jonah-like comfort accepting that the way things are, are the way things are always going to be.
Something better is always just beyond our vision. Turning around allows us to reorient our vision, to see a new way of being. This pandemic has done it for us. It’s forced us to consider all that we’ve accepted as things we cannot change. It’s made us look at our lives and our world with the wisdom to know what (and who) can change and what (and who) cannot. But it’s more than that. We’re not just turning our eyes away from something, but towards something better.
Taking hold of God, taking hold of God’s vision for all of us, turns us around to see Jesus running towards us, calling us to drop our nets and the things that entangle us: our hangups, our struggles with helplessness, our self-identity and self-worth (or the lack thereof) – those things that sometimes hold us back. We’re called to drop all our preconceived notions of success, to stop overlooking the things we can change because we’re distracted by the acceptance of all that we can’t. Take hold of a vision that’s better – better for all of us.
Did you know that all Jesus’ ministry is patterned off of this invitation? The wine at the wedding was the best they had. The feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just a socialist pipedream where all are fed, but showed that when it was all collected, there was plenty left over. Every parable dreamed of an upside down world where people were paid fairly, respected and forgiven, healed, welcome and accepted in profoundly different ways so much so that two-thousand-year-old folks in various communities just had to share their experience of something better.
And so I’m going to give you something better – because someone this week said all this better than I could… Amanda Gorman’s powerful poem read at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was not just about the state of the United States, but her Biblical message of hope offered a vision where we treat one another with respect regardless of the position we hold. (I’ve included the whole poem after this sermon, as there’s part of me that wanted to skip the sermon entirely and invite you listen to her words alone).
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace…
For we choose to turn our eyes towards something more powerful, something that leads and empowers, something that gives both peace in the moments of helplessness, and prodding when courage is what’s demanded of us.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
May the peace of God allow us to accept our limitations gracefully, that we may save that strength and courage to not only see the light, but to be it as well. And may the wisdom of God gift us with a discerning heart to see how we are all called to a better way forward, together.
 God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
 Blount, Brian and Charles, Gary, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p37 – and this retranslation is not dissimilar from the sermon that Jonah eventually preaches to the city of Nineveh.