Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
3Epiphany, Year B
Suppose—just suppose—God called you to go to an Al Qaeda training camp in Syria and preach repentance to the terror-teachers there? Would you go?
- Maybe you would think of all those beheadings done by Al Qaeda, and you would be terrified. (I would!)
- Maybe you would think that hard-core terrorists wouldn’t repent just because you witnessed to them about Jesus.
- Maybe you don’t think such hard-core terrorists would deserve this kind of SECOND CHANCE. Now, I want to move sideways just a bit to observe that, if you thought this, you would be a very sophisticated theological thinker, and a person of very deep faith. To not want to talk salvation to hard-core sinners because you think they deserve an unkind fate would require that you have a LOT of FAITH that God would, in fact, give them another chance. This kind of thinking has faith that God wouldn’t send anyone on a hopeless mission (would he?). This kind of thinking knows that God is merciful, and overflowing with second chances. This kind of thinking expects the terrorists to repent, but wants God to send doom instead of second chances.
I’m sorry to tell you, in my made up story, for whatever reason, you run away—with disastrous results. Every step you take brings new perils, new challenges, unheard-of problems. Until you finally get the message and say, “Not my will, but yours, God. I’ll do what you ask, even though I very well might die in the process. I’ll do what you ask, but there’s nothing I can say or do that will work. I’ll go, Lord, but isn’t there someone I could witness to, instead, who’s a little closer to home, a little more like us? The Lutherans, maybe?”
But you hear God calling you a SECOND TIME—giving YOU a second chance to do what’s being asked of you. So you go.
Now, I don’t want to fault you, because going to witness to people who think of you as their enemy is an extremely courageous act. And there you are, armed only with God and the words that God has given you. Maybe. Are you SURE the message—God’s message—is “Forty days more and you will be destroyed?” Maybe you’ve mixed up your desires with God’s. Or maybe not. We’ll forever wonder if this was actually God’s message. But there you are,
We don’t know your tone of voice. Maybe your voice sounds elated, “40 days and you are going to die.” Maybe your voice is small with sorrow. Maybe your voice is squeaking with fear. We just don’t know; God has given you a second chance, and you are doing what God told you to do, right?
But, you know what? You were right all along. God IS the God of second chances. Not only do you survive to tell the tale, but the “sermon” you spoke, in whatever tone of voice, convinced the whole city to repent. The enemy repented greatly. Convincingly. Overwhelmingly. And, as you predicted, God (our God of mercy) spared the terrorists and you.
You KNOW this story. Instead of calling us to go to Syria and preach to terrorists, in the Bible the person God called was Jonah, who promptly and famously set out in the opposite direction. Until God reversed his course. Until God gave him a second chance. And Jonah obeyed, this second time around, with incredible results.
There’s much more to this story of Jonah. Later, for example, Jonah pouts that God is merciful to those foreign terrorists, who in Jonah’s day were called the Ninevites. Much later, the Ninevites apparently recants of their repentance, because that empire and its capital city of Nineveh was no more by the time Jonah’s experiences are written down. But what I want to focus on is the piece of the story our Old Testament lesson shares today.
- Jonah repented (made a U-turn of his life) and was given another chance. When he repented and began moving in the direction God wanted him to go, his life stopped getting impossibly difficult.
- The Ninevites repented, made a U-turn of their scorched-earth ways, at least for a while.
So we have two examples of repentance. What we learn from this lesson is that God amplifies any efforts we make to carry out his will. God amplifies even our half-hearted and begrudging efforts. What we learn is that God keeps calling. What we learn is that God is merciful, when we repent and make U-turns toward God.
We learn also that God is the God not only of second chances, but third, fourth, and fifth chances, as well. However, we learn that U-turns are required, to align our lives with God’s will for our lives. Saying “sorry” isn’t enough. Behavior modification is required–not just for a while, but permanent behavior modification.
I’m guessing here, but I suspect that none of you are being called by God to preach to Al Qaeda terrorists. (Are you?) What I am sure of is that God is calling us at Resurrection to do something important, calling us individually and collectively. I thought that God was calling us to build affordable housing right here on the spot, along with a church building. I still think this is the case, but I wonder if that is ALL we are being called to do. What good will a new church building be if we can’t fill that building with people who will continue to carry out our mission in our community and in our world? Who are we reluctant to tell about Jesus? Who are we afraid of inviting to share our faith? Jonah suggests that those are the very people who God—impossibly—is calling us to invite. How will we do that?