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Immediately! ?

netsJonah 3: 1-5, 10
Mark 1: 14-20
Introduction to the reading – Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

Jonah is a different kind of prophet – he was not rejected by the people who heard him. Also, unlike the others, God did not send Jonah to Israel to chastise and warn them to repent. Jonah was sent to Nineveh, to a foreign land inhabited by a strange, non-Jewish people who were known to be wicked and brutal. And the results of his mission were amazingly successful!

The story, of course, is famous: how at first Jonah ran from God’s call and caught a ship to Tarshish to get away from God’s presence; how God sent a great storm to threaten the ship and Jonah let himself be thrown overboard to save the others; how he was then swallowed up by a big fish, where he remained until he earnestly prayed for relief; and how God heard his prayer and caused the fish to spit him out onto dry land.



The story continues in our reading for today, from Chapter 3.

Sermon
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – in the late 1960s, that is, at Douglass College in New Brunswick – I was a chemistry major. Not my true calling, as it has turned out. In my senior year, along with Judy Accardi, one of my chemistry major friends, I took a seminar in American literature. As a final project, we devised a bit far-fetched but creative presentation on a Hemingway novel (The Sun Also Rises?) describing how human love relationships are like chemical reactions on a molecular level. The approach over time from a distance…nearing….trembling… EXPLOSIVE BOOM! Seemingly instantaneous but actually not.

Is that the way it happened with Jesus’ first disciples? Is that the way it happened in Nineveh?

A key word in the short Gospel passage from Mark that we heard earlier is “immediately”. Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Immediately [Jesus] called them and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. Now these four disciples – Simon, Andrew, James and John – were probably not down and out poor fishermen but more likely fairly well off for their time. So to turn their backs on family, social standing and livelihood was a significant move. And to do so immediately …?

Their move seems sudden, but maybe they had heard about recent events. They probably knew what John the Baptist had been doing, baptizing lots of people out in the wilderness and talking about someone else to come along later, someone stronger, holier. Word about John had spread, and it’s likely that word about Jesus had spread also. So maybe they were curious, beginning to be drawn in by the word going around: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

So… maybe Simon, Andrew, James and John were mentally and spiritually ready to go along with Jesus. As God would have it, that literally was the case.

Jonah, on the other hand…

When Jonah hears from God, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me,” Jonah did go immediately – in the opposite direction! We all know the story of where that led him … Jonah in the belly of the big fish.

But then, Jonah repents and promises to do God’s will if he could be given another chance. And so God spoke to him a second time … and he did go right away.

Lo and behold, the people of that wicked city listened to him! Jonah hadn’t even gotten halfway through the city and the word spread. God spoke so clearly, so distinctly through Jonah that immediately, they went into heavy repentance. And God accepted their repentance, for they were being transformed.

Why did they do this and why right away? Had their bad behavior been weighing on them all along? Did they really believe in the God of Israel and literally fear him and their own destruction? An action that seems sudden may actually be the product of reflection over a period of time. And then one day, an opportunity comes to make the change, and…BOOM: sackcloth and ashes for everybody.

So, here is the question for today: over time, what have you become mentally, emotionally and spiritually ready to do that will change your way of thinking and acting, a way that might be more in keeping with God’s justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love?

How you respond to this question with respect to your personal life only you can know. But certainly there is no shortage of public issues: climate change, immigration, economic injustice, governance. I note, for example, the email sent last Monday by Harold Delhagen, leader of the PCUSA Synod of the Northeast:

Dear Friends,
As with many of you, I have become weary and sad at the constant flow of hateful speech and racist rhetoric from our president and his followers. The daily barrage of these words, and the devastating actions that follow them, leaves me exhausted and wondering how to best use my public voice in ways that don’t simply add to the constant flood of exchanges around them.
This morning as I rise from morning prayer there is a fire in my bones that I cannot quench. It rises from the deepest part of my spirit and compels me to speak a word that makes it clear that there are regular episodes of [the current] behavior that are undeniably immoral and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
There are times when the intersection of public discourse and the Gospel so powerfully intersect that we cannot remain silent.

We call ourselves Christians. If you are serious about that identity, it ought to be a constant reminder that Jesus is imprinted on your psyche. We acknowledge that the Word of God is at work upon us. Sunday after Sunday – at least as your pastor keeps on hoping – you keep coming back for more Jesus, for clearing away the detritus of the week gone by and for the prophetic word that might make a difference, or a change, in the way you think and act in the week ahead.

Someday that change may be dramatic, seemingly immediate, as it was for the people of Nineveh or those first disciples. Or perhaps it may just evolve. But still, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than anything we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
January 21, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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