Crows Nest Uniting Church
Epiphany 3 • 25 Jan 2015


Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20


Rev. Chris Udy


Last year our Bible study
looked at three of the short books
in the Hebrew Bible:
Jonah, Ruth and Job.
We discovered that those three books
were probably written -
or, at least, were edited into the texts
behind the translations we now read -
in Jerusalem, around about 500BC,
in the years after the return
of those who’d been transported
into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.
It was an unstable and unsettling time.
When the exile happened
most of the population
had stayed where they were
in Jerusalem and Judea -
and they simply got on with life.
They married and had families
among the people who were around them;
they did what they needed to do
to make a living
and put food on the table -
and because their new wives and husbands
and business partners
weren’t necessarily Jewish,
and they had their own culture and spirituality,
the people who’d remained in Jerusalem
gradually changed
and grew much more accepting and tolerant
of differences in race and religion.
 
But then, as I think we’ve noted before,
Cyrus the great, a Persian,
captured Babylon in 538 BC
and over the next 50 years
people like Ezra returned from exile
hoping to find that life “back home”
was just as their nostalgic and homesick stories
had said it would be,
and so the scene was set for conflict and distress.
 
Most of us know that we can’t go back.
We know that life in the home, or the city,
or the country we left years before,
has moved on.
Those we left are different.
We are different.
The world has turned,
and nothing we can do will turn it back.
But we can make a lot of people
miserable and discontent by trying.
 
Ezra came back from Babylon
wanting to find a faith and a culture
that had long before moved on.
In Babylon, Ezra and those who’d been exiled
had maintained their identity
by strenuously and rigidly refusing
to accommodate or accept or tolerate
anything that might compromise
their sense of being special, unique and chosen.
Despite encouragement from prophets like Jeremiah,
who urged them to make good connections
with their new Babylonian neighbours,
they’d kept themselves isolated
and strictly observant -
and that had been costly and hard.
But when they returned to Judea
and found that those who’d remained there
seemed to have sold out -
seemed to have compromised their faith and culture -
they were bereft and angry.
They felt like no-where was home.
They had no sense of security or comfort.
All they had was a ruined Temple,
a city without walls,
and a set of holy books -
Torah and the writings
of some of the prophets.
It was Torah -
the codes and commandments of the Law
that they had held on to
with such tenacity when they were in exile -
and it was Torah, they believed,
that had given them the morals and rituals
and warnings and promises
that had formed their distinctly different identity
while in exile -
so now, when they returned,
they set about building
Jerusalem as they’d imagined it;
Israel as Torah described it -
and that meant getting rid
of anything foreign, anything strange,
anything that the Law described as impure.
 
Ezra, in particular, demanded
that any Jewish man
who had married a non-Jewish wife
must immediately divorce her,
and send her away (Ezra 10:11).
What that meant for their children isn’t clear,
but obviously Ezra’s demand and attitude
meant devastation and heartbreak
for all those families
where a Jewish man or woman
had married one of the many different
cultural, religious and racial groups
living in and around Jerusalem at that time.
The book of Ezra finishes at that point,
and the book of Nehemiah,
written at about the same time
but from a different perspective,
adds no further detail -
but we can imagine the grief and distress
that Ezra’s demands inflicted
on hundreds, maybe even thousands of families.
 
Ezra and Nehemiah say nothing more,
but Jonah, and Ruth,
were written during this time of sadness and turmoil,
and they tell a different story.
Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman -
one of those alien women
who could never be considered
as a wife for a Jewish man - according to Ezra.
But according to the story
Ruth from Moab married Boaz,
and their baby was Obed,
who was the father of Jesse,
who was the father of David,
and David was the king of Israel’s golden age.
 
The book of Ruth is a careful and gentle argument
against the rigidity and fearful exclusiveness
of people like Ezra.
If King David’s great-grandmother
was a woman from Moab,
and if she was a shining example
of faithfulness and love -
how can Ezra’s demands for racial purity
be a call from God?
If King David has a Moabite
in the roots of his family tree,
and he was God’s choice for Israel’s king,
apparently God doesn’t see non-Jewish ancestors
as much of a problem.
 
The book of Jonah takes that argument even further.
Jonah was sent, like Ezra,
to proclaim a word from the Lord -
but he ran away, and he ended up in a fish,
proving that God is in control
even of the denizens of the deep
and the realms of storm and chaos.
God then gave Jonah a second chance -
not because God was weak;
not because God isn’t in control -
the storm and the fish had already proved
the depth and extent of God’s power -
God gave Jonah a second chance
for a very different reason.
 
This time, as we read today,
Jonah followed his call:
he went to Nineveh - that great city,
three days walk across,
and he delivered the message
he believed he’d heard from God.
"Forty days more,
and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
That wasn’t so much a warning
as an announcement - at least for Jonah.
It was a word from the Lord -
a commandment -
but when the people of Nineveh
saw the error of their ways,
and repented,
and asked for mercy and forgiveness -
“God changed his mind”
the book of Jonah says -
God also repented.
He gave the people of Nineveh a second chance,
just as he’d given Jonah -
not because God is weak;
not because God isn’t in control,
but because God is - in Jonah’s words -
“a gracious and compassionate God,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
a God who relents from sending calamity.”
 
That might, to us, sound like a good thing -
but to Jonah it was a charge,
an accusation, a bitter criticism -
because Jonah wasn’t interested in compassion.
He wanted, more than anything else, to be right -
even if that meant the destruction
of hundreds of thousands of people -
and, as the book of Jonah says -
a whole lot of animals too.
 
The central message of the book of Jonah
is that God gives life to, and cares for,
all the people of the world -
including Jonah and all the people
who live in Nineveh -
and God is much more interested
in the lives and wellbeing of all his children
than he is in being right.
God doesn’t much like destruction;
he tried that once and it wasn’t very effective.
God doesn’t limit his concern
to the people of one city, or culture, or race -
that’s why everyone gets second chances -
even frightened, angry people like Jonah -
even Ezra.
 
It would be fascinating to trace
what difference the books of Ruth and Jonah made
to the politics and religion
of Jerusalem and Judea
in the years after they appeared -
but unfortunately
we don’t have good records of that time.
What we know is that Jonah and Ruth
made it into the Bible -
and now they’re part of Scripture -
alongside Torah and the prophets -
giving us deeper textures and perspectives to live by.
What we also know
is that both Jonah and Ruth
were very important to Jesus and his movement.
Jesus mentions Jonah
when he talks about resurrection,
and Ruth is one of four women -
four non-Jewish women -
women who lived,
on the wrong side of the Law,
according to Ezra -
in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
And what we know best of all
is that the image of God Jesus gives us
is of the God of second chances,
“a gracious and compassionate God,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
a God who relents from sending calamity.”
 
When Jesus went to Jerusalem, unlike Jonah, or Ezra,
he didn’t go to inflict heartbreak
or to demand that the Law be cruelly enforced -
he went to proclaim the kingdom of God -
a realm in which God’s compassion,
God’s grace, God’s love,
is infinitely more necessary and powerful
than God’s need to be proved right.
So when Jesus appeared in Galilee
at the start of his mission,
calling disciples to follow him
on the way of the cross to Jerusalem,
what he said was
"The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news."
For Jesus, the calling and promise of God
is not a threat and a warning,
but an invitation to life
and an offer of redemption.
 
It’s interesting that Jesus’ message
is, in part, like Jonah’s -
and it’s also interesting that Jonah’s proclamation -
if he could only have seen it -
was fulfilled.
Nineveh was “overthrown” -
it was turned upside-down -
they thoroughly repented - changed completely -
and what they once had been
was redeemed and transformed.
Jesus said, not “forty days more”,
but “the time is now fulfilled”
and “God has now come near” -
not in judgmental anger,
but with grace and compassion.
“Repent.” he urged everyone who heard him,
‘change your life’s direction’ -
not because you fear punishment,
but because you can see a better way.
 
There are a good few Ezras and Jonahs today;
people who seem more interested
in predicting disaster and judgement
than finding a way through;
people who seem intent
in dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’,
and saying we should be concerned
with only our own.
But that doesn’t make much sense
in a world as intimately connected
as we now know it is -
and that is not the calling
we hear from God in Christ.
 
We are not called to fear,
or called into some kind of exclusive bunker
against the world’s distress.
“The place God calls us to
is the place where our deep gladness
and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner)
And that’s where we also meet
the God of love and grace and compassion,
who calls us to follow him
on the way of the cross.
 
Despite prophecies of doom,
the world will probably not be ending
in the coming months or years -
but things are being “overthrown”
and our lives, and those of our neighbours,
are caught in a tide of change.
We won’t be going back to the way it once was -
and we will only make ourselves and others
miserable and discontent by trying -
and we also need to understand
that God is in these times,
and in these changes,
and we need to respond
to the call we hear from Jesus.
"The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news."