Sunday Sermon by Rev. John Spangler: Written Off, Never

Sunday, January 21, 2018
Jonah 3, 1 Corinthians 7
Mark 1.14-20
This sermon was preached by the Rev. John Spangler, of Gettysburg, PA.

Jonah“Written Off, Never”


If Nineveh comes up in polite conversation, with the prophet Jonah, its not about hope or high expectation.   



Nineveh was not remembered for its nice neighborhoods. It was not a place Jonah liked. It was too big, three days walk across. It had crime and corruption. Moreover, it was the capital of the dreaded Assyrians to the east. No one thought of it as a desirable place to live, especially if you compared it to Norway. 

Jonah had written it off. Or at least he was ready to. And when God asked him to go there and proclaim the divine word to the city, it caused him mixed feelings.  Well, not really mixed. Jonah went the other way, got on a boat going west to Tarshish, (since Nineveh was to the east of Israel). That’s when God sent the storm, scared the daylights out of the sailers. Fear often leads to bad outcomes, and they all quicky run out of sailing ideas. That led to their thinking they were cursed, and so they tossed Jonah overboard. Problem solved. He ends up inside the belly of a great fish, which spits him out on dry land again. And so this text of ours today is an echo, the second instruction from God, who apparently really meant it.

Nineveh is the place Jonah loved to hate. So Nineveh had forty days to turn it all around. To drain the swamp so to speak.  Nineveh represented everything wrong, all things dangerous, corrupt, excessive, profane and secular. And so Jonah wants this foreign capital to get its just reward with no warning. He would rather see the city going up in flames than to even give it a chance for repentence and salvation.

The reluctant prophet goes to Nineveh. But Jonah is cynical, and has a plan. He only goes 1/3 of the way into the city (not to its center) and speaks only five Hebrew words, “Forty days — Nineveh will perish” in order to be as ineffective as possible. That is a low information message. A ten second sermon. Most people in the city would have heard nothing. Some might have heard this pronouncement, warning actually, only indirectly. But the prophet had done his duty, and that would fulfill his obligation.

But God, who writes off nothing and no one, was just getting started. Jonah’s worst nightmare unfolds before him, as he waits to see what will happen to Nineveh from atop a high hill. Jonah would rather die than see this city saved. But Nineveh’s king is the first to take his words to heart, acknowledging the Lord God of Israel as THE Lord, and orders a city-wide fast. The repentance with full on sackcloth and ashes, causes God to withhold the judgement against the city. Repentance wins the day, God offers grace where there was no hope.  

By now, you might suspect that the book of Jonah is situated in the holy scriptures like the Borowitz report, like the Onion. That isn’t so far off. It is a little legend, a parable with a point. This book is an extended riddle in which God’s intentions did not fit the expectations of the human prophet. For God was not ready to write off the great city, warts and all. And, with a little humor and irony:  the story brings shame upon Israel, that such an open, listening ear for God might be found in the foreign capital of Assyria. If only such faith should have been found in Israel.

What is our take away? There is no place, and no people, who live beyond God’s reach.

As St. Paul was struggling with the Corinthians, whom God had called into community, it seemed as though numerous groups among them were trying to promote an agenda. And factions in the community would be a strong challenge to the effectiveness of the gospel message. The Corinthians were looking for ways to divide their people. Paul tries to help us see how we make distinctions, dividing ourselves right and left, red and blue, spirit and body, set apart and worldly, in order to elevate something that matters so little.

For example, Paul believed that the world was changing around him, and soon would be coming to an end. His own life was marked by imprisonment, beatings, pain and sacrifice for the sake of Christ. It seemed to him that if one were to be responsible to a spouse, or responsible for a family, such risks would be more difficult under these circumstances. So he wrote in favor of remaining unmarried, “as I am” he said.  While it doesn’t matter ultimately if you are married or not, he offers advice about the rich world of the spirit that is becoming visible through the good news of Jesus.  It is better to invest in this new world, with its new social order than to focus on the old, which will pass away so soon. What matters to God is your whole person. Not just your body, or merely your spirit.  Depending upon which corner of Corinth you were in, factions were ready to write off everyone unlike themselves.

 It was this “my way or the highway” thinking that Paul was attacking. And now Jesus was starting his ministry and calling his disciples, his followers and conversation partners.  Fishermen. Who saw that coming? This kind of calling, plus the rounded out call to a tax collector, demonstrates that God believes that the entire human race, all kinds of people, great cities of beauty, crime and corruption are all worth calling, investing in, gathering, saving.  

One epiphany that each of our lessons for today possess is an eye to a new world. The rules are changing. The definitions of the world built up by human expectations no longer contain all the intentions of God’s new kingdom.  No matter what the world looks like, there is no person, no personality, no race, no class, no country, no continent, no part of creation God will write off. God won’t write off people, will not give up on endangered species, God won’t give up on the kinds of people I might not like; and God will not write you or me off either. Instead, we are the called to help lead the way – to help prepare the way for others to hear the gospel’s hope, and see the new thing that is to happen. Here is the final kick — God will not even lower expectations because our skill set is merely fishing or mending nets.

When I think about the state of our time, the spiritual state of our nation, the chaos at work in the world, it is important to hear God’s call to the church to step up and be the sign of the gospel in the world. Signs of grace, that we bear because we know both what has happened in our experience of grace in the past, and also because what we may look forward to in the future. God is still calling, still speaking, ready to move ahead in a very imperfect world, with surprises we haven’t imagined yet.  That is, at least in part, the good news for today.

 Epiphany is the gift to the church that reminds us that new things happen and even a less-than-perfect people are called to point to it when God moves forward.   Amen.

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