Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Jonah 3:1-5, 10+Psalm 62:6-14+1 Corinthians 7:29-31+Mark 1:14-20

This has been a big news week in our country. We surpassed 400,000 deaths from COVID and had the first nationwide event to commemorate that on the eve of the inauguration.  Dr. Fauci has been unmuzzled. Hammerin’ Hank Aaron died. There was, of course, the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States and the first woman, Black, South Asian Vice-President.

But perhaps no other aspect of the news so captured the public’s imagination than Bernie’s mittens. Now, I don’t know what your news sources are, but it would have been nearly impossible to miss the viral spread of memes and images of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who arrived at the inauguration like he was on his way to the Post Office and thought he’d drop by (according to one commentator). He was wearing a parka and bulky mittens, and a widely-shared photo shows him sitting in a chair, off by himself, arms folded as if he can’t wait for this to be over so he can get back to work. It was this photo that began to be superimposed on an endless variety of scenes:

  • On a closed beach with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie;
  • At the 1945 Yalta conference with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin;
  • Under the Hogwarts sorting hat with Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall.

However, perhaps my favorite image has a caption with God saying, “The Assyrians repented so Nineveh is spared,” while Bernie sits, cross-armed, scowling, under an enormous green tree.

The book of Jonah, a short four chapters, is probably the best illustration you will find on the depth and breadth of God’s mercy to those we might condemn as irredeemably evil. And the moral of the story is that, while we may  not like that very much, mercy is the very character of who God is. God is love.

Since we dropped in this morning on the story already in progress, here’s a refresher on what happened. Our reading begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” Jonah has just been thrown up from the belly of the whale onto a beach. The first time God spoke, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the great Assyrian city, and tell the wicked people to repent. And what does Jonah do? He climbs on a boat going in the opposite direction. A storm blows up, threatening everyone on board, and when the sailors realize that God caused the storm because of Jonah’s disobedience, they toss him overboard, where he is swallowed up by a great fish. Jonah sings a psalm of thanksgiving to God, which we heard in our canticle this morning, and God then tells the fish to give him up. And the fish does.

And so, here we are with God telling Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh. Jonah went part-way into the enormous city, gave a one-line sermon about repenting, and apparently left. The people of Nineveh, from the king to the livestock, fast and clothe themselves in sackcloth and repent of their evil ways.

You would think Jonah would be glad at the success of his mission, but he isn’t. He plops down, kind of like Bernie, and throws himself a pity party. How dare God have such mercy for Nineveh? The Assyrians are the ones who invade the Northern Kingdom of Israel, occupying the land, and dispersing the people. How dare those wicked people repent and receive God’s mercy?  God made a tree to grow to give Jonah shade, but when it dies, Jonah is angry again, so God gives him a talking to:

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (4:9-11)

In short, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. I will love whomever I will love.

What we cannot know from these four chapters is that Jonah was a prophet who appears in 2 Kings as a “rah-rah Israel is great” prophet. Even though we read over and over again in that narrative that Israel and her kings did what was evil in God’s sight, Jonah told people that God would strike down her enemies. So, it’s something of a joke that, here, God chooses Jonah to go into the belly of the beast, and I’m not talking about the whale. Nineveh is enemy territory, the enemy that ultimately destroys Israel.

As Mark’s gospel opens, Israel is under a different kind of occupation: that of Rome. John the Baptist has been out in the desert calling people to repentance much as Jonah was supposed to. Once John was arrested for speaking truth to power, it is Jesus’s turn. “The time is fulfilled,” says he. “The kingdom of God has come near; repent” (there’s that word again), “and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). And then he begins to gather disciples around him, disciples who would also be sent to call people to repentance and to share good news.

And it was good news to those on the receiving end of Rome’s oppression and on the receiving end of the oppression perpetrated by Rome’s collaborators. Then, as now, there were plenty of people willing to hitch their wagon to whatever wicked, evil, distasteful power structure there was, just so they wouldn’t be on the bottom. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, who arrested John, was Rome’s puppet. He was a Jew who allied himself with the oppressor and who, in turn, became an oppressor. Tax collectors, similarly, were Jews who collected the hated tax for Rome and skimmed off the top whatever they thought they could get away with. Plenty of people in the Palestine of Jesus’s time needed a call to repentance because they sought after the illusion of safety and security at the expense of those on the margins – the sick, the poor, the imprisoned.

Much as Jesus was executed by the state for spreading the Good News of God’s inbreaking into the world, for inaugurating God’s reign, three of the four that Jesus called first – Simon Peter, Andrew, and James – would also be martyred, executed by the powerful for standing in solidarity with the powerless. They took the gospel all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. Did they ever wonder, like Jonah, whether it was worth it? Did they ever resent that God could love a repentant sinner just as much as God loved them?

Speaking for myself, in those moments when judge-y-ness rears its ugly head, I’m sitting there with Bernie under the tree, pouting. I don’t want to go drain the swamp. I mean, can those people really change?

And this is where I am reminded to stay in my lane. “God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike,” Matthew tells us (5:45). Our job is to say yes to the invitation from Jesus: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). Not good people or bad people or people like us or people we like. All people. Because all people belong to God.

One other shining star of this past week was the young poet from L.A., Amanda Gorman, who electrified the nation in reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb” on the steps of the Capitol at the inauguration. The closing words of this moving piece are

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.[1]

Friends, we are being called from under the shade tree and sent to Nineveh. Whether we want to go or not, there is a world of lostness and sin and evil that needs a call to repentance, not as a scold, but as an invitation. Turn around. Come this way. Be light to this world. Join in sharing the Good News of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. All we have to do is the inviting. With our “yes,” God can work miracles.


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/20/amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem-the-hill-we-climb-full-text.html

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas