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.
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 three year old son and 6 month 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.