Preached online to All Saints, King City,
Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 27 January, 2021, The Third Sunday After Epiphany.
Readings for this Sunday: Psalm 62.6-14; Jonah 3.1-5,10; 1 Corinthians
7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
When God saw what they did, how they turned
from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said
he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jon 3.10).
Recently I was interacting with a stranger on social
media and I realized during our conversation that I had totally misunderstood him. Whereas I had first thought that he and I
were likeminded, I realized that we were on opposite sides of the political
fence. What saved the conversation was
that while he corrected me, he was kind and gracious, and that was incredibly
refreshing, considering how badly people can behave online. I certainly would speak with him again and could
learn to call him a friend.
Recent events in the US have shown us what happens
when large groups of people entrench themselves into more and more extreme
positions. Social media, 24-hour news
cycles, and over the top rhetoric make us tribal, suspicious, and hostile to
those who don’t share our positions.
Politics has become transcendent, so that we see our side as the
greatest good we can imagine, and so we become programmed into ways of thinking
that are self-righteous, judging, and which are very far from the gospel of our faith in Jesus Christ.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures offers us a
way out of the mindset that leaves so many people angry and hostile to one
another. Unlike the other prophets who
hector their own people about Israel’s failings to live up to God’s covenant,
Jonah gets sent to a foreign people, and a very nasty one at that. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital
city of the Assyrian Empire: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry
out against it” (Jon 1.2). It would be
like today a Christian evangelist getting sent to the capital of North Korea.
Assyria was so hated and feared that another Hebrew
prophet, Nahum, wrote a whole book in which he imagined God destroying Nineveh,
rather like the author of Revelation imagines God destroying Rome. Nahum called
Nineveh a “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful” (Nah 3.1) and predicted that
it would face “Devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2.10).
Not one to embrace a martyr’s fate, Jonah buys a
ticket on the first ship going as far from Nineveh as possible, but as you
recall the story, Jonah can’t escape his destiny. God sends a giant storm, the sailors appease
God by throwing their passenger overboard, and Jonah ends up in a giant fish which
“the Lord provided” (Jon 1.17). In the
belly of the fish, Jonah thanks God for saving him and praises him as the true
God: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jon 2.9), by which Jonah says more
than he realizes.
It doesn’t occur to Jonah that if deliverance belongs
to the Lord, then the Lord can deliver or save whomever he wishes, including
the people of Nineveh. After what is
sometimes called the worst sermon every preached (loosely paraphrased as “Forty
days from now, God will kill you all!” Jon 3.4), the King of Nineveh repents, along
with the whole city, even the animals. “All
shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3.8)
and God has mercy on them. Jonah
however is not pleased at this, he pouts, and in the final chapter, God teaches
him a rather comic lesson about mercy. First God makes a plant grow to shelter the
pouting prophet, and then God kills the plant, and when Joseph is angry, God
teaches him a lesson: you’re angry that
the plant died, but you were ok with a whole city being destroyed, so how is that right (Jon 4.11).
Jonah is a strange book of the bible, and Joseph is
one of the bible’s antiheroes, the patron saint of reluctant missionaries and unwilling
evangelists. The totally unexpected repentance of the Ninevites
is probably intended to make show the superiority of the Hebrew God over people
who, as Job says, “worship vain idols” (Jon 2.8), which is a very common Old
Testament theme. In that respect, Jonah says the same thing as his fellow
prophet Nahum. However, Jonah makes a radically
different point by imaging God forgiving Nineveh rather than destroying
it. If deliverance does indeed belong
to the Lord, then God is far more merciful then the self-righteous Jonah could have
As one commentator put it recently with marvellous simplicity,
the Book of Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we hate. Jonah wants Nineveh destroyed because he
hates them and fears them, and with good reason. The Assyrians were a terrible, cruel
empire, and historically they suffered the fate of other cruel empires. But
history and theology don’t always teach the same lessons. The author of Jonah dared to imagine the
love of God for all of his creation, even for the enemies of Israel, and took that
thought experiment to its logical conclusion, where bad people can repent and
If Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we
hate, how do we implement this lesson in our lives and in this historical place
and time? A friend of mine said that the
partisanship and bitter politics of the last four years made him a worse
person. I confess the same thing. In
times of bitter division, it’s a great temptation to think the worst of those
we disagree with. Here in Canada, we’ve
seen a change in our own politics and a deterioration of our civil discourse
that seems driven by the events of the last five years, and maybe longer.
Let me be clear that the answer is not to give into a
kind of “good people on both sides” kind of moral relativism. The images we saw from the attack on the US Capitol
on 6 January included many images of fierce hatred and moral evil, including people
identifying with racist and neo-Nazi causes.
God may love the people that we hate, but God hates sin and hatred. There is a place for moral outrage in the
life and voice of the church, and there are some on the extremes
of left and right who need to be shunned by decent people and corrected by just law.
Paul says that we as church have the “mind of Christ”. How do we as disciples of Christ live in an
age of violent and extreme beliefs? It’s
not easy, but I think we start by avoiding the self-righteousness of Jonah. We believe in a good and merciful God. We believe that all are created equally by
that same God. Our voices, our
actions, and our ethics need to flow from these starting points. Today, at the end of the Week of Christian
Unity, we are called to ask ourselves, what will our disagreements look and
sound like when we realize that those we
may disagree with are just as beloved of God as we are?