A sermon on repentance and our part in it, on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”

Hold on, this was only the second time? That means that Jonah disobeyed God once; ran away from God once; tried to hide from God only once, and ended up nearly shipwrecked, swallowed by a sea monster, and spat up without ceremony on the beach.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” No wonder Jonah didn’t make the same mistake twice. Once! Once, he disobeyed! And look what happened.

It makes me wonder whether we – whether I sometimes presume a little too much on the patience of God. As much as I love and miss the ocean, I do not want to end up as shark bait.

Last Sunday we heard that the word of the Lord was rare in the days that Samuel spent sleeping on the floor of the temple. Nevertheless, when he was called, Samuel was ready to leap up, to wake up Eli, to listen and obey. And today, there is an urgency to the messages of scripture – from the cautionary tale of Jonah to the radical ramblings of Paul. In the gospel accounts, Jesus calls, and his disciples do not take so much as a beat to decide, and to act decisively, to follow him.

Now, I don’t think for a second that if those fishermen had taken a moment to consider their options, that Jesus would have abandoned them, or given up on them. After all, it is not as though the Lord gave up on Jonah; on the contrary, God pursued him across the ocean and into the depths in order to rescue him, in order to give Jonah that second chance to obey the word of the Lord, and to give the citizens of that den of iniquity, Nineveh, a chance to do the same.

Even so, it hardly seems polite to keep Christ waiting when he calls, after all that he has done for us. The present moment is passing away, says Paul, philosophically, since the present is always slipping through our grasp. Where is our sense of urgency for the gospel, for the word of the Lord?

The story of Jonah does not begin and end in the belly of a big fish. Before he boards the boat, Jonah has rejected God’s call for Nineveh to repent. It’s not only that Jonah doesn’t think that Nineveh can be saved, nor even that he doesn’t think that Nineveh is worth saving. Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be saved! Jonah hates that Nineveh repents and is saved! After he preaches to them, and they repent, and return to the Lord, Jonah gets angry with God for showing them mercy; even the same mercy that Jonah was shown, if you like, what with God saving his life after he was cast into the ocean in the middle of a storm.

The people of Nineveh are Jonah’s enemies, politically, economically, religiously, ethnically. Jonah would rather see them suffer than be saved. Jonah would rather see them continue in their sin than do the right thing, because he would rather be righteously angry with them than risk having to confront them as sisters and brothers, children of the one living God.

He reminds me of the elder brother, in the parable of the prodigal son; the brother who is jealous of the love that their father shares with his younger, more foolish sibling, as though there is not enough for them both; as though the younger is stealing their father’s attention. You would think that Jonah would have had enough of God’s attention to be going on with.

Sometimes, I worry that we have given up on Nineveh. We look around, at bad news and bad neighborhoods. We worry about rising crime and rampant gun violence. We cringe at the state of public discourse, and the coarseness of our politics. We hear rumours of wars, and warnings of warheads. Our idols topple like dominoes: him too, him too, him too. We wonder if there is any goodness left in the world worth our passion, our urgency, our attention. And let’s be honest, there are those we would rather let rot.

Jonah lived to tell the tale of his flight from God and his fight against the grace and mercy of God the better part of three thousand years ago, and have we learned anything from his foolishness in the meantime? Or would we still prefer to be right than gracious; justified than reconciled? Would we still prefer to let Nineveh rot in its own evil deeds than convert it to the righteousness of the kingdom of God? Are we still running, with Jonah, from God’s call to preach the Gospel to everyone? For everyone?

That doesn’t mean just making nice and pretending that all is well with the world. It does mean calling out what is evil in the sight of God, and recommending righteousness and repentance. That is what God sent Jonah to do in Nineveh: to make a fool of himself by calling out their foolishness and telling them, “This is wrong!” But not only “This is wrong,” but, “There is a better way. God’s anointed one has shown us a better way. Jesus has shown us a better way.”

It means risking looking foolish by sharing our faith with the lost and the blind, the captive to sin and the courtesan of evil. By risking our faith on the rocks of another’s shipwreck. It means standing for the word of the Lord; standing on the promises of God; on the promises of our baptismal covenant.

It means living with the hopeful expectation that repentance is possible, that righteousness can prevail, that even when our hearts fail us, there is room in God’s heart for redemption. It means ridding our own hearts of bitterness, so that there is room for God’s righteousness, and the mercy of the living Christ. It means standing on the side of love, and in the shadow of the hope of reconciliation.

And what if Nineveh were not to repent?

Jonah still gets to go home by another road, and I can only believe that God has a Plan B for Nineveh, too; one that doesn’t involve Jonah, or me; one that I can safely leave between God, the people of Nineveh, and their very own very big fish.

If we give up on Nineveh; if we write off our enemies, or however we define the bitterness of our hearts to political opponents or prodigal sons; if there is someone that we think we would rather let hang than let hear the word of God, then that is the person we need to pray for first, and with whom we need to share the righteousness and the revelation of God in Christ.

If we give up on Nineveh, we run the risk that instead of becoming fishers of men, we become like Jonah, in need of a fishing vessel to rescue us from the deep water we get ourselves into when we turn our backs on the grace and mercy that God has for all that God has made.

The good news is that if we miss the mark, there will be a second chance. After the storm, and the belly of the whale, and the undignified beaching, God will call again.

For my part, this time, I hope to God that I may listen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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