Lectionary blog for Jan. 25, 2015
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12;
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

By Delmer Chilton

The world was rocked a few weeks ago by the terrorist attacks in Paris. We witnessed 40 world leaders and throngs of ordinary people walking arm-in-arm to signal solidarity and protest against monstrous evil. In the streets and on selfie tweets and on Facebook and any other way they could, people loudly proclaimed, “We are Charlie!” Even the magazine Charlie Hebdo did it on its cover with its usual satirical twist, showing Muhammad holding the Charlie sign – under a headline that said “All is forgiven.” There were marches across Europe and heightened tensions everywhere, softened only by the fact that one of the French police officers killed was a Muslim. 

For most of the 21st century, the West has lived in fear of Islamist fanaticism. We have fought a long war, calling it a “War on Terror.” In the last year or so our fear and distrust have become even more focused on the group known to many as ISIS, or the Islamist State, a very scary army that is attempting to create a new country from parts of Iraq and Syria. Their technique is sheer brutality and intimidation. They have been particularly rough on the Christians, many of whom trace their roots back almost 2,000 years in the area. 

Now suppose, in the midst of all this, a voice you were sure was the voice of God were to come to you and say to you, “Get up, go to ISIS, that great state and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Wouldn’t you likely be like Jonah and take off in the opposite direction? Jonah’s escape plan reminds me a little bit of that old Steve Martin/John Candy movie, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” I don’t care how, just get me far away from here. Alas, there is no way to run from God. As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And God is there with you.

Once Jonah learns that lesson and emerges from the belly of the beast, God comes to him a second time and says, “OK, are you ready to go where I tell you?” And Jonah goes, reluctantly, unhappily, unenthusiastically, but he goes. He goes to Nineveh and preaches judgment saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Notice, there’s not a wisp of hope in that statement, not a hint of grace, not a whisper of forgiveness. It is as harsh and cold and final as Jonah could make it.

Can you imagine going into the heart of ISIS country and standing on a street corner and shouting out that message? I’m sure, you’re sure, we’re all sure, that such a preacher would either be shot or beheaded in a matter of minutes.

And yet, this is what God asked Jonah to do and what Jonah eventually, did. And the radical surprise is that it worked. The Ninevites repented, said they were sorry, and God changed his mind about destroying them. Ah ha – what a Hallmark moment, everybody’s happy. Well, not everybody. Jonah’s not happy. Jonah’s really angry actually. Jonah is still thinking about all the people the Ninevites killed over the years, all the lives they destroyed, all the damage they did. This can’t be right! This can’t be the way this ends! It’s not fair; it’s just not fair. And Jonah’s right – it’s not fair. But it is the way God operates – a fact for which we should all be glad, very, very glad indeed.

Jonah is one of those stories in the Bible that is true without being particularly factual. It is like a Hollywood movie, “based on a true story.” There was a man named Jonah, you can find him in 2 Kings 14:25. It’s one small mention, but he appears to have been a very nationalistic prophet, a real “God and country,” sort of guy. And the Assyrians had been a very powerful and feared nation headquartered in the city of Nineveh about 100 years before our text was written. The author took these slim facts to spin a story that aimed at getting the people of Israel to broaden their understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy. If God can love and forgive the people of Nineveh, God can love and forgive anybody – including us. If God can love and forgive the people of ISIS, God can love and forgive anybody – including us. And if God can love and forgive anybody, so can we.

What if God is calling us? What if God is calling us to do something we don’t want to do? What if God is calling us to extend not only God’s mercy but our mercy – not only God’s love but our love, not only God’s forgiveness but our forgiveness – to people we don’t like, people we don’t believe deserve love and forgiveness and mercy? 

Here we sit, minding our own business, mending our nets, being nice and good to those who are nice and good to us, busy about the business creating a friendly, family church – when suddenly we hear this voice saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”

How shall we respond? Will we repent? Will we change our minds about what’s important and alter the direction of our lives to follow more closely God’s call? Will we leave whatever boats and nets represent in our lives and follow after the one who calls us? Will we go to “Nineveh” and preach God’s love?

Amen and amen. 

Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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