This sermon was preached on Sunday, January 24, 2021 at Kerr Presbyterian Church by Rev. KJ Norris as part of the Life in the Spirit Series.
Are you interested in learning more about Jonah’s Journey? Listen to Pastor KJ’s sermon series from Lent 2019.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Read Jonah 3:1-10
and Mark 1:14-20
I know I’m showing my age saying this, but every time I read this Scripture from Mark 1, Whoopi Goldberg comes to mind. In the 1992 blockbuster “Sister Act,” Goldberg played the character of a nun who became a nun solely to escape from her past. She was placed in the witness protection program for having seen a murder at the club where she was a singer. And they placed her in the middle of LA in a church which had little connection with the neighborhood and had lost its call to serve the Lord.
Goldberg comes in and leads them to sing a pop tune from the 1960s which arguably has nothing to do with God—“I Will Follow You,” and the nuns and soon after the whole community find themselves rejuvenated to serve the Lord and to love one another. Suddenly they find themselves singing: “I will follow him, where ever he may go. There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away.” Nothing can keep them away from their love. The love of God who they pledge to follow.
“Follow me,” Jesus calls out in Mark 1. And all of life changes.
Today we are pulled into not one but two great stories of repentance. Two calls to give up everything to come and follow God.
The first is the call that comes to the people of Ninevah. You remember the story. The prophet Jonah is sent to the city of Babylon—to a people who are oppressors. Who rule by might and violence. Who force other nations to pay them for “protection” the protection that they themselves will not come and destroy their homes and kill their family members and steel their goods.
Jonah doesn’t want to go. Jonah knows God is merciful and Jonah has no love for this other nation, for this group of people who he has written off as unredeemable. He does not want to see God’s love come to the Babylonians. So Jonah runs the other way and ends up in the belly of a great fish.
We open our reading today just after the fish has spit Jonah onto the shore and as verse 1 says, “The word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh…proclaim the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:1, emphasis added).
And Jonah goes, half-heartedly. Unlike Goldberg’s character whose enthusiasm is contagious, pulling people in from the streets, wanting to be a part of the movement she is building, Jonah simply walks to the middle of city and gives the least win-some sermon ever written: “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown.”
This is one of those moments in the Bible when I just shake my head in disbelief. Really? Did that work? But somehow we find that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts even in the most meager of circumstances, even through the most modest attempts to follow God. This is good news for those who feel the Spirit moving, calling us to tell others about the deep love of God. We don’t have to know everything about God and our words don’t have to be perfect, we simply need a willing spirit.
In Ninevah, all the people believe God—notice, not Jonah, but God. All the people believe God and put on sack cloth and ashes and sit in the dirt as a sign of their repentance. As a sign that they no longer want to live the way they have been living. As a sign that they are turning from evil.
Many of our stories of coming to faith look like this. We had been bound by something—something often of our own choosing—something was holding us from being who we are called to be.
For many it is like the Ninevites—we were bound by hatred and violence. Anger towards others held us captive. We had been told that only might makes right and that we have to fight for everything we have. Perhaps we had been fed the lie that people who look like us or worship like us or have marriages like us are naturally better than others. We had spent our lives putting ourselves above others and forcing relationships out of our lives, believing they held no value. When we hear the message that life does not need to be driven by power and violence and hatred we respond, wanting to know this great love which has no boundary.
Or for others of us we were bound not by hate and violence but by addiction. We were bound by something that in the short run made us feel better. The drug made us forget where we were and the sorrows of our lives. And there are many drugs, both the prescriptions and street drugs which promise freedom but then rob us in the end. But also other drugs. The drug of materialism and the belief that if we just surround ourselves with enough stuff nothing can hurt us. Or the drug of self-indulgence—as long as I’m watching this show or playing this video game or eating this delicacy, I don’t have to think about the world. It will stay at bay. We soon find that these addictions which we first believe are our saviors, our rescuers, our freedom are actually our bondage. And when true good news comes, true freedom, we eagerly turn to God.
Well, this is how it was for the Ninevites. The worst sermon ever preached was somehow heard and the people believed there was a better way than the path of violence. And in hearing a simple call to change they walked away from their sins. They sat in sack cloth asking to be set free from their addictions. They gave up serving other masters and turned to God instead.
And all of Ninevah from the least to the greatest—from the king down to the animals in the field—all of Ninevah repented. They changed their ways.
And God changed his mind and decided not to bring destruction. God saved them on that day from two kinds of destruction. The destruction of their own making—the hurt that they were causing to themselves through their hatred and addictions. And the destruction of God’s own making, the judgement they were under for harming others and refusing to love as God calls us.
This is what repentance looks like. It looks like confession. It is a way of being willing to look at our lives and see what in our lives are we doing which is against God. How are we hurting others? In what ways are we refusing to love? How are we putting our trust in what is untrustworthy instead of in the one who deserves all our worship?
And in the second story we find a different kind of repentance.
Jesus, too, has a simple sermon. “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
But we might be surprised to notice that repentance looks different in this situation. When we look at Ninevah, we may be quick to judge, just as Jonah did. Oh yeah, we might think. Clearly they needed to repent. Look at the mess in their lives. Look at the evil.
But two sets of brothers, one standing along the shore tending their nets, the other positioned on a boat beside their father doing their daily labor: were these two also in need of repentance? Jesus thinks so.
Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God had come near. The brothers were called to come follow Jesus towards the Kingdom of God.
This idea of God’s Kingdom come is one that we say a lot. We pray it daily in the Lord’s Prayer and hear words about God’s Kingdom both the Old and New Testaments, throughout the Bible.
But what does it mean? What does it mean to pray for God’s Kingdom to come? How can we follow to God’s Kingdom?
Well, when we are talking about kingdoms, when we are talking about any political structure at all actually—kingdoms, democracies, republics–we are really talking about how we order ourselves. “How do we order our society? On whom or what do we spend our budget? Whom or what do we honor? How and for what end do we use our military, economic, or social power? How do we organize institutions to serve our shared values?” (Connections, 212).
These are kingdom questions. When Jesus speaks of repentance, he doesn’t just speak of the letting go of evil. Yes, certainly that is part of repentance as it was for the Ninevites, but Jesus is talking about something much greater. Jesus calls us to reorder our entire lives. To reconsider the systems and structures we live by. How do we order our values? How do we order our expenditures? How do we order power? How do we order our words?
This week we experienced a kind of reordering of our nation. On Wednesday we witnessed the inauguration of a new President. Some here may have wept for joy, excited by this new day and hopeful for what will come in the next four years. Some here may have wept in sorrow, feeling like the nation may head in a direction it should not go.
It’s good to pay attention to what is happening in our nation and world and to get involved in our own governance for it does affect our lives and the lives of our neighbors. But regardless of how we see the events from Wednesday, we are reminded today of our call.
Our call is not to loyalty to one particular American political power or another. Our call is not to follow the leaders of this world but our call is to the Kingdom of God. Our call is to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to orient our lives around Jesus. Following Jesus means that in everything we do and say and everything we don’t do and don’t say is governed by the one who calls us his own. By the one who created us and loves us. By the one who shows us the path of righteousness.
And therefore, the brothers fishing at the sea of Galilee needed to repent every bit as much as the people of Ninevah. Jesus was asking them to not be guided by the work they were doing or even by their family connection but instead to orient their entire lives to the way of God. To live with God’s plan and God’s purposes at the forefront of their minds, to be continuously asking: will this choice I am making bring honor to God? Does this purchase show love? Does this work I am doing better humanity and the earth God created or does it work against God’s kingdom, God’s ordering of our lives?
Notice that in this form of repentance, the brothers are asked to use their gifts in new ways. They are still fishing—their personhood and gifting is not taken from them—but it is used in a new way. Fishing for people instead of fish. It’s more like what Whoopi Goldberg’s character did. She uses her gift of music to serve God rather than using it solely for her own profit or for the consolation of others.
So, how about us? How are we called to repent? Both forms of repentance are necessary. We are called to both: called to look at our lives and see places where we are refusing to walk in God’s way, where we are choosing hatred and division or where addiction is holding us bound. The Holy Spirit has come to set us free from these things which bind us and we are called to turn from them. And notice that the turning does not come just once, but over and over again just as the call came to Jonah again a second time.
And we are called to not just turn from evil but to turn to good. We are called to order all of our lives around God’s kingdom, seeking God’s will, God’s plan, God’s path, God’s intentions. This too is an ongoing turning. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see the brothers back to their task of catching fish by the sea and Jesus again calls them to follow him.
Whether we are newly on this journey or have been walking the path for quite a long time, we are daily invited to repent. Daily invited by the God of the universe to choose love, to choose faithfulness, to choose to walk in the fruits of the Spirit.
This week we are finishing our Psalm challenge. And our final Psalm to commit to heart is the most difficult one I have encouraged you to learn, Psalm 130. It begins with a plea to God to save us, rescue us, forgive us—a word of repentance. And then it goes to remind us why we come to God asking for this repentance. We do so because of God’s love.
We come because we know that the Psalm 23 which we learned this past week is right–this path God leads us to is far greater than any the world can provide. It is the path of green pastures and still waters. The path of righteousness. The path to the table where we join with our enemies in peace. It is the place where our cups overflow with the goodness of God, with love and joy.
This week as you study, be encouraged to wait on God. May God be with us this week as we seek repentance and a reordering of our lives towards God.
Green, J. B., Long, T. G., Powery, L. A., Rigby, C. L., & Sharp, C. J. (2020). Connections: Year B, Volume 1: Advent Through Epiphany (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worsh). Westminster John Knox Press.