January 2021

Adjusting to Life in Nineveh

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

One of the most popular stories of the Bible is the tale of Jonah who ran from the Lord when God told him to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah was so repulsed at the prospect of saving the people who conquered his people that he boarded a boat in the opposite direction to Tarshish, on the southern tip of what is now Spain. But God thwarted his plan by sending a storm that threatened the lives of all aboard the ship, who tossed him overboard to save themselves. To prevent him from drowning, God sent a whale (or large fish) that swallowed him up. And in its belly he spent three days and nights until it spewed him up onto the shores of Nineveh.

Now, on the shores of Nineveh, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. He obeyed the Lord, and the Ninevites turned from their wickedness to follow God.

The story underscores the theme that God is the ruler of all life and seeks the salvation of all humanity, not just those we prefer over others. And as Jonah had to begrudgingly adjust to this application of God’s compassion, so do we.

Nineveh represents that place you prefer not to go. Ninevites represent those people with whom you prefer not to associate, with whom God has nonetheless made a home and prepared a place for you. And in the words of Jesus, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.” (John 14:3)

Mark’s Gospel informs us that only after John the Baptist was arrested did Jesus begin his ministry proclaiming, “The realm of God has come near,” or is within your reach; “repent and believe the good news.” (1:15) The implication is that Jesus may, at first, have been a disciple of John who, only after John’s imprisonment, assumed the responsibility of continuing the message John had begun: The realm of God is within your reach; repent and believe the good news.

Now what is good news to some may be upsetting and repulsive to others, as evident in the 2020 elections, which revealed that our nation is almost equally divided along political lines, ideologies, objectives, and visions of what constitutes good news. We are a house divided nationally, locally, and among intimate family ties, who see one another as Jonah saw the Ninevites, nauseated at any notion of meaningful fellowship with them. We’re inclined to see those espousing opposing points of view as obstacles to be overcome, violently if necessary, rather than as individuals whose heart God looks upon over anything else.

Several years ago, I was invited to preach at the ordination of a minister who advocated for an inclusive policy of welcome without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity that the statewide conference of churches to which she belonged and I led also endorsed. I noticed in the invitation that a pastor who had opposed this inclusive policy was listed as one of her mentors. As I drove into the parking lot of the church, this pastor parked next to me to explain what had happen to him since we last met.

His daughter had come out to him revealing her sexual orientation and her love for a woman, both of which she long held inside as he railed against the humanity that defined her. It was only by her courageous revelation, her love for him, her partner and herself that he was able to repent and see within her the realm of God within his reach.

We are a people and nation divided politically, racially, ethnically, religiously, economically; divided along lines of sexual orientation, gender identity and, in some cases, further divided by our separate bubbles of reality that inform of misinform our divisions.

Yet amid and throughout it all, we are continually agitated by the God of Jonah and Jesus, whose thoughts and ways, according to the Prophet Isaiah, are not ours (55:8), and who, according the Prophet Jeremiah, encourages us to build homes and plant gardens, marry, have children, and seek the welfare of the land and people among whom we are at odds. For they too are children of God.

God calls us to make radical adjustments and reconcile ourselves to life in Nineveh. For in that adjustment and reconciliation we discover the realm of God has come near, within our reach. Amen.