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In the wake of Jonah’s message

Jonah 3:1-10
Mark 1:14-20

January 25, 2015

Year A

Many of us have long known the story of Jonah.

In Judaism the story of Jonah is read for service at
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, Jews seek forgiveness from God and from the people they have hurt. They seek teshuvah, which means to return to God, or to make whole. It is no coincidence that the people of Nineveh are seeking the same thing. We read this story to remind us of how important it is to seek forgiveness, to make teshuvah, and to know that God understands and accepts our atonement – we can be a forgiven people. We can live with one another in the fullness of right relationship.

The Jewish people know the story of Jonah as one of many truths. It is their myth. Most of us know Jonah as the guy who was swallowed by the whale. Some of us might remember Jonah as the reluctant prophet. After the incident with the whale the story goes like this. God calls upon Jonah to proclaim a word of judgement against the city of Nineveh and instead of responding he runs away. He boards a ship for the farthest port of
Tarshish, but his plan to escape is foiled by a storm. The others on the ship blame him for the storm because he is running from God and they believe they will be punished and so they toss him into the sea where a huge fish swallows him up. Three days later the fish spits him up on dry land and he is back where he started. Does this story sound all too familiar? Not yet? Soon it will.

Then God calls on him again. Again, God directs Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time he goes, but with great reluctance. He goes only part way into the city and his message is short, it’s only one line. He says to the people, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But the message was loud, and it was long enough; the people heard, and they understood what he meant. The king responded immediately and everyone followed his example. They put on their sackcloth as a sign that they were repenting.

Just imagine how that was: hundreds of people with their animals, the story says, were wrapped in white sackcloth sitting in the city square fasting and weeping, believing that God would hear and see their repentance and have a change of heart.

This story is about atonement which is the Jewish term for how we are forgiven and the Christian term is repentance. If we are to be forgiven, it is good if we first atone, or repent. The word repent means to turn, and make different. It comes from the word Wicca which means to shape and make different. So, when we repent for our mistakes, that means that somehow we will act differently. It means that we will learn to behave differently, and for those that are seeking repentance from us, they will be able to see that we are truly involved in learning to act in a different way. We will behave in such a way that those who are looking for us to change will be able to say,
“They really are trying to change,” and perhaps I can forgive them. I believe that forgiveness often takes a long time and doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Atonement is the same; we atone in the same way we repent; different religions, different words.

I see this process as circular. Imagine a huge circle and we can enter the circle and reflect upon the process of repentance anytime we want. This would be a place to go not only when we are thinking about repentance, but perhaps, when we want to discern how to get to Nineveh, how to get to the place, where we want to start. I think starting is sometimes the most difficult piece. Once we start, once we have the sack clothe on, then we can move ahead, no matter how slowly. I suspect that most of us have something to atone, or repent for. Sometimes we get caught up in how others should be asking us for forgiveness and we forget that our own transgressions have piled up around us. It is in this circle that I am talking about that we can discern these matters. In the circle we can come and go, as we need to.

We can enter in and leave and come back anytime to enter into our conversation with ourselves. It is always a process of discerning where we stand with one another and with the energy that we call God or Spirit or Creator.

In the Old Testament Biblical story, God sees that the people are capable of change, they are repenting and so God decides not to destroy them. The weeping in sackcloth paid off. Remember, in ancient times quite often people believed that God had the power to do whatever God pleased, without interacting with the people. This story points out the people’s interaction with God.

The story tells all of these quick turn a- rounds: Jonah turning from God.

The Ninivites turning around to God and God turning from a threat of destruction to justice and mercy which, of course, the people themselves created.

God trusted that Jonah was capable of getting this task accomplished and God trusted that Jonah was capable of a broader perspective than what he had displayed when he ran away to sea. We have to remember, that Jonah was probably a Nationalist and interested in only his own people. This would be a really big deal for Jonah – he is stepping out of a place that is comfortable and journeying to a strange and different place.

  • How do we live out this passage in our church and in our personal lives?
  • How does God call us to turn and go to Nineveh?
  • How do we respond?
  • What part of you is Jonah?

Charlotte Sullivan’s story:

As many of you know I worked on the Haida Gwaii Pastoral Charge in Prince Rupert Presbytery. In 2005, dignitaries, MPs, and staff that was involved with Residential Schools, and active in the Federal Government and United Church General Council (
Truth & Reconciliation) were part of a Healing Potlatch in Hazelton, BC. Charlotte Sullivan was from the Gitxsan Nation, and a survivor of residential schools; she also worked for the UCC and lived in Hazelton. The chief of the Gitxsan Nation, Jim Angus, was there also. He had his walking stick (often referred to as a “talking stick”) with him, and he banged it on the floor to bring order to the potlatch. It was time to enter the feast hall and Charlotte said, “Where is the Indian Agent?” He appeared and she said to him, “You took me away to residential school and now you can bring me back,” and so she entered the feast hall with the Indian Agent from the Federal Government. Towards the end of the evening they, the hosts, gave away toonies, loonies, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and the odd hundred dollar bill, because at Potlatch you believe that you can give everything away because one day, you will receive it all back.

Charlotte’s story, like that of Jonah’s, includes elements of prophecy and action. Like Jonah, Charlotte turns and goes to Nineveh – sometimes not eagerly, but she goes anyway and finds ways to engage people in the business of atonement, or redemption. She makes changes that will affect everyone involved in residential school healing. That isn’t easy work. It is painful work and it involves facing a painful past. She is willing to interact with those responsible for her pain and that is the part that offers both suffering and eventually healing. When we act, when we turn, God turns with us. We always co-create with others.

The gospel of Mark offers us some insight to how we turn and go to Nineveh. The story of Jonah was written about the forth century before the birth of Christ. Marks gospel is the first gospel, written about twenty years after Jesus’ death. Mark’s mother hung out with the apostles and many scholars believe that the last supper was at her home. So Mark quite likely grew up knowing this story. It would have been a part of his faith and it would have been a story that helped him make sense of his world. He would have had some sense of who Jesus was and the work he did.

The Mark reading opens with a sense of urgency. John the Baptist has been arrested and his message of salvation and repentance has disturbed the religious and political authorities of the day. And now, Jesus is following in the steps of John the Baptist – life as a follower of Jesus was a risky business. So to set the context, we need to remember that there was no church and no one was yet a Christian. This won’t happen for another forty years.

But people had liked, and responded to this man Jesus. They liked what he was saying, and they were willing to turn and to listen to him, to follow his ways which instigated change in the social, political, and religious world. But remember, this is why John the Baptist is in prison. It is a chaotic time when what you are doing is trying to create a society where people have equal rights. Chaos happens when the people on the margins of the society become the main focus of what is being talked about. This gospel passage is Mark’s understanding of that time.

Mark writes,
“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark is calling the people to repent, to turn, to listen to this new and radical leader, who has a vision for their future.

Marcus Borg in his book “The Heart of Christianity,” says that Mark’s message regarding the kingdom of God is central to the gospel and central to being Christian. This message regarding the kingdom is heard throughout the gospels.

Borg says the Christian life is about the kingdom of God and the Bible is political as well as personal. It combines sharp political criticism and at the same time, mostly through story and parable, the Bible teaches us to be passionate advocates for those on the margins of society.

Borg says that we must create a radical vision if we are to offer advocacy that leads to an alternative social vision. If we protest the nightmare of injustice that is all around us, then our voices proclaim the gospel’s dream of justice, a dream for the earth. Criticism and advocacy are grounded in our understanding of the character and passion of God, if you like, an energy, a spirit within that acts as the God of love and justice, whose passion for our life together is the kingdom here on earth, brought together and made whole by us. (p.126 Borg)

Once we have that piece figured out, that piece being the kingdom here on earth, then we face the question of who is going to do this work. In the gospel, after proclaiming the kingdom, Mark writes about those willing to do this work. For Simon, Andrew, James, and John turning to follow Jesus meant turning away from what they knew – these fishermen dropped their nets, turned and took on a different life. Indeed, they would have found life very different and they were being asked to explore the world in strange and exciting new ways, At the same time some of that must have been frustrating and difficult. None of us finds it easy to change what we believe.

Not Jonah, not Charlotte, not you, or me – we don’t turn and go Nineveh on a whim. It has to be serious business to convince us to change our ways.

But Jesus calls us to live by the priorities of our spirits and so we are called to live as though the kingdom really is in our midst.

Going to Nineveh is hard work. Being a Christian is hard work. Turning around, and going in another direction is not easy, being involved in the work of being forgiven and forgiving is hard. Bending, shaping, making new, can be hard work and then on the other hand, it might be the most exciting work we will ever enter into. This turning around might be as dramatic as leaving your boats and nets behind for something else. It might be as dramatic as being spit up on dry land when that’s the last place on earth you want to be. Turning and bending, even just a little should be dramatic; we want it to be dramatic. We want to be in a place in our lives where we look forward to change that will allow us to be dramatic, interesting and challenged by the creation of the kingdom of God.

Let’s take a minute to reflect on our journey to Nineveh. Put on your white sackcloth and reflect on your life. When will you go, where will you go and what is your greatest hope?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood