Scripture Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Jonah 3:1-10 (The Message)
Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
3 This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.
Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.
4 Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”
5 The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”
10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.
Mark 1:14-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I love the book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the story, and if you have 10 minutes, I encourage you to read this book, which is satire. Here’s a quick refresher: Jonah gets a message from God to prophesy against the city of Ninevah - a major city in Assyria that had conquered Israel. Needless to say, the Israelites weren’t huge fans of the Assyrians and Jonah is no exception. He decides to go in the opposite direction, hoping to escape the command of God. He boards a ship only to come face to face with a terrible storm. As the crew are throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load, the sailors discover that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard as well, and consequently a big fish swallows him up. Jonah appears to have a revelation while inside its belly, whereupon God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the shore. This is where our story picks up - and we see Jonah half-heartedly walking across the city for three days, yelling out a one-liner of judgment, with no mention of God or how they can change their ways - and all of a sudden the whole city repents, even the animals are commanded by the king to join in the fasting and to put on sackcloth.
Contrast what Jonah pronounces: “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed” to the one-liners that Jesus delivers in the Gospel text: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In Jonah’s case, of course, the book is satire; it’s meant to be an exaggeration - a story of a reluctant prophet sent to convey judgment upon Israel’s enemies - and he’s reluctant because he knows how merciful and compassionate God is and he doesn’t want to give the Ninevites a chance to receive the mercy he feels is reserved for his people alone. Of course, a message of pure doom and destruction wouldn’t normally play well in any given situation. It makes me think about people who stand on street corners and preach hellfire and eternal punishment - does anyone really respond to that? I remember one individual in particular, who wore a gigantic billboard with every “turn or burn” stereotype you could think of plastered on it, and he stood outside the TD Garden or Fenway for every single Celtics and Red Sox home game. It made me feel sad that this messaging was not likely to lead anyone into repentance of any kind. I much prefer Jesus’s invitation - a call toward something - belief in a cause, a new purpose, a message of hope and excitement as opposed to one of doom and gloom.
In each situation, those we’d expect would have no business with religious matters go all in for God. The evil outsider Assyrians change their ways, the fishermen drop everything, and perhaps the extremity of their responses (going so far as to make their animals fast or leaving their very livelihoods and families behind) has something to teach us about who God is and what God yearns to be up to in our lives and in our world.
It hinges on this word: repentance.
I think many of us associate the word repentance with feelings of guilt or sorrow that we need to absolve ourselves of or the sins that we commit that we look back at in contrition. We feel bad, we resolve to do better next time. Repentance. We repent to try and escape the feelings of shame, thinking that by saying we’re sorry it absolves us from discomfort and means that all is well again. If we want an extreme picture of repentance - we have our perfect illustration from the people of Ninevah.
The Greek word, however, that gets translated as “repentance” in the New Testament is metanoia. There’s no easy english equivalent. It’s perhaps best translated as “a change of mind” - and not a change of mind like you thought you wanted an egg salad sandwich for lunch and then decided you really wanted tuna. Metanoia refers to a change of mind and heart that denotes a fundamental shift in outlook and attitude - and that prompts a change in behavior. Maybe the metaphor would be more like you wanting an egg salad sandwich for lunch, but then you decided to become a vegan.
Metanoia is a word that is utterly devoid of emotional charge. There’s no connotation anywhere in this word that denotes contrition, regret, or sorrow for actions as a requirement for changing your mind. So to use repentance - which does convey these meanings - as a translation for metanoia misses the fullness of the invitation Jesus is making. It doesn’t mean that remorse and contrition don’t have their place in our discipleship - certainly we have seen the need for personal and communal lament and penitence - but it isn’t precisely what Jesus is asking of us in this verse.
When Jesus preaches “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” Jesus more accurately is inviting people to change their outlook. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. Change your outlook and believe in the good news.
How would your outlook change if you knew Jesus has come near to you? If you knew the kingdom of God was in your midst?
I don’t know about you, but I think that I would be so captivated and drawn in by the beauty and joy and hope and grace, that that alone would be enough for me to take a breath and say “yes - I need more of that in my life - that’s the outlook I want to have as I understand myself, as I look out on my friends and family, as I look out on my world - maybe not as I look out on my enemies, but I want to get to that place.” I think I wouldn’t be so focused on all the things we’re conditioned to view as important - climbing the ladder of success, acquiring the latest gadget, thinking others are here to serve and satisfy our own needs, worrying about my own small anxieties and insecurities, thinking that salvation can be found in power and empire. Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom arriving would place all those things in perspective for me.
There’s a beautiful quote from author Madeline L’Engle, who is perhaps best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time. She’s also a faithful Christian, and writes this: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
I believe that’s the kind of invitation that would lead to a brand new outlook on life. I believe that’s what God wants from us - belief in the good news - a transformed perspective - an awareness that Jesus himself is near to us which leads to a desire to know with our whole being how we are a part of God’s unfolding kingdom.
What I take from both these texts is that God draws near to us - through the message of a reluctant prophet, through the presence of Love Incarnate, through the words of scripture or the pages of creation, through whatever means necessary - God draws near. Sometimes the nearness of God causes us to make amends and change our ways. Sometimes the nearness of God overwhelms us and leads to life-changing decisions. Sometimes the nearness of God is a gentle reminder to reorient our perspective toward hope, love, grace, and truth.
As we make our way toward the season of Lent - how do you see God drawing near to you? What enables you to experience metanoia - that change in outlook - that enables you to believe the good news of life abundant?
May we open our hearts and our lives in new ways to God’s transforming Spirit - in our lives and in the world around us. Amen.
Scripture - Selections from Amos 5
Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!”
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
in all the vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,
says the Lord.
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
This is a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. He wrote this letter in response to a statement named “A Call for Unity” made by eight white clergymen in Alabama - a statement that expressed awareness that social injustices existed, but argued that the battle for justice should be fought through the courts and not taken to the streets.
I want to share a portion of this letter (you can find the whole text online https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html or tune in tomorrow to a reading sponsored by the BTS Center) - because in it, there is a lot that addresses the church - and the white church in particular. I believe his plea for action resonates today as our nation faces a continued struggle with Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and economic justice. This video is from Park Community Church in Chicago, IL.
As you listen and watch, I invite you to find a word or phrase or image that strikes you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXVdKdgetK4 - Park Community Church, Chicago, IL
What did you find that resonated with you?
I share this in hopes that we might find a renewed commitment in our own lives - and in our life together as a church - to not remain silent on these issues. What we’ve seen over these past weeks - and months - is not a new reality, but one that has been revealed; not a creation of tension, but one that has existed for generations that can not be ignored. We may wonder what our place might be in the struggle for racial justice, as many of us can feel helpless, unsure, timid, or even far removed and wonder what impact any of our actions could have. And yet - hate has its adherents in every corner of our country. Even while we work on our own personal preferences and prejudices, we’ve seen that that is only one piece in a wider system engineered to disenfranchise our Black siblings.
My prayer for us is that we carry these convictions and not just leave them as personal ones - but that we find ways to engage in the struggle, whether that’s jumping in to our book study with Gloria on Sunday afternoons, or by sending a letter to our elected officials about your concerns, or by planting seeds in conversations with friends or family. There’s always a place to start, whether you are new to anti-racism work or are a seasoned advocate.
It’s only together that we can help be a witness to and create together a community where we can be extremists for love in the way of Jesus - Jesus who had this radical, persistent, unwavering message of love of God and others that was so powerful it threatened the very fabric of empire. It is that relentless pursuit of love that will turn the church once again into a thermostat transforming the mores of society - so that we might be reflections of God’s beloved kingdom here in this place and wherever we might find ourselves. In Jesus’ Name, this I pray. Amen.
I almost didn’t know where to start this week. Coming back from vacation into the midst of unfolding national crisis - not the pandemic, which is the crisis we’re now all used to, but the unsettling upheaval at the Capitol building - made me feel like I was diving back into the deep end with no time to catch my breath.
There were tears, there was prayer, there was my own fair share of doomscrolling as I tried to reorient myself in the midst of all the disorientation.
Scripture has a remarkable way of speaking into our griefs, our fears, our despairing. The text appointed for this Sunday - the Baptism of the Lord in this Epiphanytide - is the passage from Mark we will hear. I chose to pair it with these words from the Gospel of John - a passage I read this week in my own prayertime with Ben - because as we look at baptism, one of the sacraments in the Christian life, I believe how we understand baptism and how we live out those vows we made or were made on our behalf and we claimed for our own later in life is important to how we respond in a moment like this one.
I invite us to listen to Mark, 1:4-11 and John, 3:16-21; Mark will be from the New Revised Standard Version, John from The Message.
Scripture - Mark 1:4 - 11; John 3:16 - 21
Mark 1:4-11, NRSV - Eldon Mayer
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John 3:16-21 The Message - Deb Bowman
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
19-21 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
The word that caught me in my reading of the Mark passage is the word “wilderness.” Perhaps that is because I’m reading Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness right now, perhaps it’s because it’s an adequate metaphor for how I’m feeling these days. In any case, this is where John the Baptizer first appears on the scene - ministering in the wilderness, people coming from all over to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. Among the people we also have Jesus - and at his baptism, we see the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If we read further on in Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus from here is thrust out again into the wilderness to be tested and tried for 40 days and 40 nights.
I’ve often considered baptism as the rite of belonging. Everyone, of course, is God’s beloved child, but the act of baptism is one where you claim it for yourself (or, in the case of young children, where that promise is made on your behalf). It’s a public act, one of staking out your identity as someone who yearns to steep themselves in God’s love and live their life out of that center, one that says “yes” to God’s action in your life and in the world. It’s the reason that baptisms in the United Methodist tradition are always done in the midst of public worship - because it’s a sacrament that not only honors the commitment of one individual or family, but also because the community promises their nurture, care, and support as well.
Because in addition to belonging, in addition to baptism being about saying “yes, I’m going to live like I’m in God’s family”, baptism is also about boundary making. In our increasingly secularized world, the very act of baptism, the commitment to actively living as a baptized Christian in this society, is one that places us squarely in the wilderness, and you need a community of support around you in this journey. It means that how we define ourselves, how we understand the world around us, is by nature going to be different from the systems of the world - and that’s because of the vows we make and claim as part of the baptized.
In the United Methodist tradition, there are three questions that are asked of those being baptized (or are asked to the parents/sponsors when the individual being baptized is unable to answer for themself):
(1) Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
(2) Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
(3) Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
3 vows: Repentance of sin and rejection of the spiritual forces of wickedness. Resting evil, injustice and oppression out of an acceptance of God’s power. Relying fully on Jesus Christ and his grace and living a life in service to him as Lord.
Repent. Resist. Rely.
This means that as we look out on our world - as we look at what happened in our Capitol building on Wednesday, as we look at the continuing dehumanization and polarization of our country, as we look at our systems of health care or equality for our LGBTQ siblings or anti-racism or how we care for the most vulnerable members of our population - we do so through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus sets the agenda, the witness of God’s action in the world is our compass, the Holy Spirit becomes our guide. That puts us out in the wilderness because of the calling to live our lives steeped in this awareness of who we are as beloved children of God and how God is active in our world. We see this most clearly in our reading from the gospel of John: “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
Father Richard Rohr, a Fransican priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, wrote this week in his daily devotional email:
“I’m convinced we are living in [a time of unveiling] —when reality is being revealed as it is. Systems of evil have become both more brazen and banal, our sense of “normal” has been upended, and yet in the midst of it, God continues to invite us to deeper transformation.
No matter what is going on around us, it’s important to remember that God keeps transforming creation into something both good and new. Instead of hurtling us towards catastrophe, God always wants to bring us somewhere even better. A helpful word here is “evolution.” God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. That might be hard to see sometimes in the moment, but it’s nevertheless true.”
Given where we are right now, our world...our community...our church...I want us for a moment to take a step back and consider these events through the lens of our baptismal vows. Where do we as a local church need to repent? What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist? In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
Where do we as a local church need to repent?
What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist?
In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
I’m going to give us a few minutes to think about and jot down responses to these questions before we move into discussion together. You’ll also need your bowl or cup of water handy.
We’ve heard these yearnings - both for us as individuals in our own personal journeys, and for us as a congregation together. We hold these intentions as we reaffirm our baptismal vows together - and if you aren’t baptized and you are feeling moved in this moment, let’s have a conversation and talk together.
We remember in this moment that we are a baptized people - called to live as God’s children in this world. We come today to the waters to renew our commitments in each other’s presence to Christ who has raised us, the Spirit who has birthed us, and the Creator who is making all things new.
And so I ask you, will you turn away from the powers of sin and death?
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of our sin!
Will you let the Spirit use you as prophets to the powers that be?
We accept the freedom and power God gives us
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves!
Will you proclaim the good news and live as disciples of Jesus Christ, his body on earth?
We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior,
put our whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as our Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races!
I invite you to hold your hand over your water as I pray,
(written by Scott A. Ressman in Immerse Yourself: Elements for a Liturgy on Baptism of Christ Sunday. https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/12/litany-god-of-waters.html)
God of the waters. Water of birth,
moving us from safety into the world.
God of the waters. Water of connection,
engaging the playful Spirit,
the passionate Christ,
the challenging God.
God of the waters. Water of life,
God of the waters. Water of trouble,
journeying us from here to there,
from the known to the unknown.
God of the waters.
Live in us.
The waters are here - an opportunity to refresh and renew our souls - to remember your baptism and to be thankful. Come to the water and dip your hands to commit again to living out these vows that we claim for ourselves. You can make the sign of the cross on your forehead or simply let the water run through your hands.
[moment for people to do that]
Song - Rain Down
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love on your people
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love God of life
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.