This is the text of the message I prepared for a cluster service of the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches, for Sunday 21st January 2018. The congregations were gathered at Yallourn North.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20
In Mark 1:14-20 we read Mark’s account of where and how Jesus began his ministry. This is an important text because alongside the story of Jesus calling the first four to the ministry of discipleship and men-fishing we hear the first declaration of the gospel message according to The Son of Man. Jesus says that the time of the revelation of God’s Way has come, so turn to God and hear the good news.
In Jesus’ day to call someone to believe carried the meaning of that person committing him/herself toward a special relationship marked by loyalty: it did not carry the meaning that the person should accept a special set of statements to be true. Belief in the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus’ mind was about an insatiable commitment to God and a passion to bring about the realisation of the kingship of God on the Earth in the same way that God is king in Heaven. So, Jesus’ call to the fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 is a call to attention, repentance and belief in the way of the Kingdom in the perfect tense (continuous present, once and future). Jesus goes on in the gospel stories to exhibit the arrival of the Kingdom by teaching, healing and exorcism, and private prayer. We’ll see Jesus in action next week, so I’ll leave Mark 1:21-45 until then, but that’s what it’s about, the activity of the Kingdom once revealed.
What is going on in today’s reading carries the message that the proclamation of the Reign of God precedes the ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The first thing Jesus does is declare God’s arrival; Jesus does not begin by healing or saving, he begins by proclaiming. In other words, the key to the gospel is that you get aboard the Kingdom before the stuff of ministry happens, so that the stuff is put in context. Healing and saving are activities of the Kingdom, a display of what life is like under God’s reign, or better said within God’s realm.
When Jesus invites the two sets of brothers to join him there is a deliberate echo of God’s invitation to Abram – leave your father and the family business and follow God to a new place and a very different future to the one predicted by the generations. As Abrahamitic men these Galileans would have had confidence in their place in God because of their ancestry, their obedience to the Law of Moses, their attendance at the local synagogue, and their respect for their parents and family ties. But Jesus calls them to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are required to leave all that social and religious confidence behind. What Jesus is saying is that they have nothing to rely on, nothing to take confidence in except the hope that God is on their side. If you are not hitched to God’s wagon it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were or which religious centre you attend on which day, even if it is a synagogue on Shabbat. This is the eternal invitation of Jesus, even today, even to Christians. The only thing you can rely on is grace, and by grace alone can you act and serve in the world as if it is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.
In our Hebrew story this morning we hear how Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God. Unlike Jesus, and hopefully unlike you, Jonah does not want the hearers of his gospel, the Ninevites, to repent. Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he doesn’t like what they represent; so, his message is as brief as he can possibly make it. He obeys God just enough to stay out of trouble, and remember his recalcitrance has already cost him three days lost at sea, but he does the barest of bare minima so that he is seen to be obedient yet be unsuccessful in God’s mission. In fact, Jonah’s whole message is five Hebrew words in length. Five. And there’s no hope in it, no call to repentance, no instruction about what to do; Jonah is practically boasting to these people, whom he intensely dislikes, that they are going to get splattered.
If one of you had come to me with this message for the Latrobe Valley I’d probably have rejected it as not having come from God. I believe that God’s prophetic messages always have hope in them, so I’d have asked you to go away with your epic judginess and come back when you had the complete message, the “…but if you turn back and repent then…” part. And I’d probably be right in doing that, since for much of Western Christian history the story has changed, and the rumour of God is widespread. But in Jonah 3 something different is going on, and as a filter of God’s prophetic message I’d need to be very careful. The prophecies of disaster tinged with hope as are always addressed to God’s own people. “Repent,” says God, “and if you do then I will restore you and bless you.” The consequence of not hearing God is that the disobedient go further into their own dilemma. It’s not that God causes evil against them, it’s that God does not intervene to prevent the evil they have brought upon themselves.
But the Ninevites know none of this. They don’t know God and they are not participants in the covenants of Abraham and Moses. They are not lapsed Christians who have heard the message but have fallen away from salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. No, the Ninevites have no relationship with The LORD upon which to call. They’ve had no previous warning of divine wrath precipitating disaster, or which behaviours that wrath is directed towards. They are unaware, and therefore in shock when Jonah speaks his five words. And so, the people do the best they can with what they know about gods, they act with penitence in the only way they know, by sackcloth and ashes (mourning) and by fasting. By completely embracing self-humiliation the once proud city hopes to be saved from external calamity. And the humbled city is saved. Nineveh knows it cannot “return to The LORD” since it was never “with The LORD” in the first place: however, it can turn from its wickedness and embrace wholesomeness, and it does that with such fervour that The LORD relents and the city is saved.
The word declared is enough. God acts through prophecy and a call to repentance, and then through signs. In the case of Nineveh, the sign would have been destruction, and it is averted by the people’s response to grace. In the case of Galilee, the sign is healing, exorcism, and resurrection, and it is manifested by the people’s response to grace.
In Psalm 62:9-10 we read how confidence in anything other than The LORD comes to nothing. We are not self-sufficient. And we cannot make ourselves self-sufficient by wickedness, as if God keeps us subordinate by the law but we could be powerful if we ignored God and tried for ourselves. We have tried, it doesn’t work. What does work is found in Psalm 62:5-8; trust and rest in God. God alone has power, and God alone can be trusted to wield power since God does so with love and justice foremost (Psalm 62:11-12). Jonah didn’t have love, so he couldn’t be trusted to judge Nineveh. God loved the Ninevites, even as God detested their behaviour, and because God loves God is mighty to save.
God’s intent is always to save and not destroy. God warned Nineveh, even though Jonah didn’t like it, and Jesus warned Judea even though they didn’t like it. Often when Christians speak of Hell as the deserved end for the enemies of God we miss the point that the message of Jesus is better read as repeated warnings against the self-destructive practices of violent society and personal sin. Hell, for sinners and the destruction of Nineveh are not predestined, the message is not “this is where you’ll end up if you are naughty”, but “this is where your self-destructive behaviours are leading you”. The message of the Kingdom, to change your life and your mind and live as if God is king and LORD, and Nebuchadnezzar, or Trump, or Turnbull, or Molech, or Baal, or Nathan Buckley are not. As proclaimers of the Way of Jesus and the gospel of Immanuel we must always make sure that grace has the final word.
When Jesus spoke of hell and judgement he did so with the backdrop of his message of God’s grace and the world’s terror. Judgement for Jesus was not so much about sinners going to damnation as it is being about rabble-rousers and plotters bringing down the wrath of the Romans. Jerusalem was Hell in 70 CE, there was fire and brimstone, death and horror, and the temple was destroyed: Jesus saw it coming in the escalating violence of the Zealots and the inevitability of the religious resistance movements. This is what God saw in Nineveh, and even though Jonah saw something different God’s message was put across and the self-destructive behaviours of the Ninevites were stopped and decline into hell was averted.
The Way of God is non-violent resistance to the evil in the world, and following the destruction of the temple Judaism and Christianity caught that. That had been the message of Jesus from that first day beside the lake, and that was in the message of Jesus as he approached those two boat crews and called for disciples. Unlike Jonah there is no delight for God or Jesus in seeing people go through Hell, so how can there even be the slightest shade of that in the Church?
Our job is to let the world know that the King is coming, not so much as to warn them against divine wrath in the tribulation following our Rapture, but to prepare them for the better way of life on Earth when the King of Glory, the grace-abounding healer, saviour, redeemer and reconciling Lord takes the crown.
There is no greater thing than knowing Jesus, just because he’s Jesus.