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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/21/2018

Sermon by Pastor Chrys Levesque Hendrick

Repentance, Grace and Discipleship

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 / Psalm 62:5-12 / 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 / Mark 1:14-20

Last week … our Old Testament text … came from the time before all the twelve tribes of Israel … had been united as one kingdom … and before Saul … the first king was anointed.  Today … our first reading comes from the time long after Kings Saul, David and Solomon brought the tribes together as a single unified kingdom … and after a succession of kings … who ultimately brought a split to this unity.  The ten tribes in the north became known … collectively … as the Kingdom of Israel … and the two in the south … Benjamin and Judah … became known as the Kingdom of Judah.  Ultimately … in 722 BCE … the northern kingdom … Israel … was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian empire … whose capital was Nineveh … then a great city … in what is now northern Iraq.  

The Jonah story is mighty peculiar … and much uncertainty surrounds its composition … its message … its audience … and even its namesake character … Jonah.  It almost feels like something out of Aesop’s Fables … an outrageous, implausible, funny story with a divine moral … about God’s grace … grace that seems to apply … even to people outside the circle of God’s chosen ones. 

Though by no means certain … a good guess for the historical context of the Jonah story … is sometime after the ten northern tribes separated from the south.  The story seems to relate to the period somewhere on either side of 722 B.C.E. … when the Assyrians basically wiped the northern Kingdom off the map … leaving Judah as the center of the unfolding biblical story.

With all these oddities and uncertainties … we are left with little choice … but to let the story speak for itself … with only marginal help from the general context I just mentioned.  Even this vague outline suggests that Jonah … and other Hebrews like him … had plausible reason to despise Nineveh … because of Assyrian brutality towards Israel.  From the beginning of the story … when God calls Jonah the first time … it is very obvious that Jonah absolutely does not want to go to Nineveh … much less see the people there repent … and receive the mercy Jonah is sure God will show … if they do repent. 

When Jonah disobeys and takes ship to flee … God cooks up a storm that threatens the ship … Jonah fesses up to being the reason for the plight of the non-Hebrew crew … and advises them to throw him overboard.  They do so … expressing hope that Jonah’s God won’t harm them after all.  Meanwhile … God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah … who … over three days in its belly … offers up a prayer of confidence and praise to God … at which point God has the fish vomit Jonah out on dry land.

As our text for today says: The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  This time Jonah does exactly as ordered … and … just as he fearedThe people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  [Picture the king, all the people, and even the animals covered in the sackcloth of repentance and crying out mightily to God.]  And … just as Jonah feared … God did not overthrow the city.  At the end of the story … Jonah is actually angry with God … for being gracious to Nineveh … and goes off by himself to pout and whine … saying he would rather be dead … than witness God’s mercy to Nineveh.  Still, God provides implausible shade for Jonah … (who is happy about that) … and then takes it away … (which sets Jonah to whining again).  Finally … God … very annoyed … but still surprisingly patient … reproves Jonah by asking:  “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 hands from their left, and also many animals?”

  

 We may be a bit like Jonah … knowing of people we do not really want to see repent … people we do not really want God to forgive.  We live in a world where people who … by culture, race, or religion … are not like us …some of whom … have caused us great harm … or threaten to do so … and so we demonize their whole populations

They become our Nineveh … but nothing good comes of our Jonah-like rage.   

Such an attitude towards others is a roadblock … to our own repentance … to our own turning back to God … when we … ourselves … have gone astray.  We may become so sure … of our own “rightness” … that we cannot recognize our own failings … and cannot see others as people for whom God is concerned … because they do not know their right hands from their left. … Such an attitude … becomes an impediment … to receiving the Good News of God’s grace … for ourselves … much less joyfully proclaiming it to others. 

Put another way … when we hold on … to the anger and fear we may feel … towards whole categories … of “not-like-us” people … we make idols … of our anger … and fear … and outrage.  Yes, idols … idols that turn us away from God … just as thoroughly as any ancient graven image … or the idols of wealth …comfort …  power … and self-sufficiency … we too often worship in our own times.

The problem with such an attitude … in any historical age … is that it makes difficult or impossible … the creative actions that might … otherwise … bring a measure of healing in our broken world.

So, let’s contrast Jonah’s reluctant … though still effective … response to God’s call … to that recorded in today’s text from Mark.  First among those Jesus called to be his disciples were lowly laborers … fishermen to be exact … Simon [whom we know better as Peter] and his brother Andrew … as well as James and John, the two sons of Zebedee.  To them Jesus says:  “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And they respond immediately … leaving their nets to follow Jesus.

We marvel at their instantaneous response … either berating ourselves for failing to do likewise … or trying to figure out what they felt … so quickly … that we keep missing.  If we spend our mental energies on this dilemma, we miss what is really important … the simple message of Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Only in snatches do we grasp what this blessed news of divine forgiveness means for our lives … but it’s a start!

Whether we respond reluctantly … like Jonah … or make the leap of faith shown by Peter, Andrew, James and John … God does and will get the divine message out.  We can pout and rage like Jonah … when divine mercy is shown where we think punishment is more appropriate … or we can make the leap of trust … and allow ourselves to be freed from the idolatries … of anger … fear … and “know-it-all better than God” … self-sufficiency. … When we repent … and follow Jesus … we can begin to see … what marvelously creative solutions … there just might be … to some of the most intractable of human conflicts … around the world and in our own land.

We are called to be disciples … fishers of people … and sometimes prophetic voices … in a world full of the same dangers as in past eras … but more dangerous … now … because of the scale of destruction which can result from a miscalculation … as well as from high-tech … instant communications … which allow no time … for correction when a word is accidentally … or purposely … communicated to the world.

 

Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus … we are … each and all … a part of God’s intimate life and purpose.  God’s message of grace … is for all who will hear and obey … even those “not-like-us” … even … like the ancient people of Nineveh … those not part of God’s family … as we have come to understand it

Deciding who is worthy of God’s grace … and who is not … is not our job.  That privilege … and responsibility … belongs to God alone.  Proclaiming God’s Good News of grace … far and wide … by what we do … as well as what we say … ISour job and our calling

And … I am as certain as I live … that God has given us the freedom to delight and surprise the Divine Self … by the creative ways we may discover … to live into God’s holy mission … of reconciliation … here and now … and on a cosmic scale.

Amen.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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