Epiphany 3 Sermon

Sermon text: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

This week was an important one, and I’m not talking about the inauguration (more on that in a moment), I’m talking about the two game series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and my Washington Capitals.  Go ahead…I’m prepared for your boos and jeers. Also, for all you Penguins fans, congratulations on winning both of those tight games.  It’s a good rivalry between these two clubs.  Both have been competitive for a long stretch and they often meet each other in the playoffs.  When they meet on the ice there’s usually a lot of action.

Jason, one of my good friends in seminary, was a die-hard Penguins fan and we had a great time ribbing each other time there was a show down.  Once, he and his wife had tickets for a Pens-Caps game in Washington, DC.  Donning all their Penguins gear they went to the Capital One Arena for what was an exciting game—the type you expect from these two teams.  And they, the two of them had a terrible time.

The next day I heard the report of how awful my team’s fans were, and I believed every word of it.  The Capitals fans were shouting insults and trying to provoke Penguins fans.  Jason said that it was unsettling.  They felt threatened and it certainly made it difficult to enjoy the game.  They swore they would never go to DC for another hockey game.

What happened is that Jess and Jason and all the many Penguins fans were viewed as “Other.”  Their allegiance to the visiting hockey team chipped away at their humanity in the eyes of the raucous home crowd.  And because they were “other” it was now permissible to insult, swear, and even threaten anyone wearing black and gold.

It’s amazing that people would stoop this low or get this amped up over sports teams, and I imagine this is a common occurrence at any match between rivals.  We have lots of practice treating people as “other,” and it starts at a young age.  Look no further than the school cafeteria and you will find a long list of benign reasons for why peers treat their classmates as other: interests, clothing, looks, popularity, wealth, academic ability…there’s no shortage of the “other.”  There’s no shortage of people that are bullied, harassed, looked down on, discounted, forgotten, or hated.

For the prophet Jonah and the people of ancient Israel, the “Other” is the Assyrian.  The Kingdom of Assyria was to the north of Israel and the people were absolutely despised.  They were a feared enemy, known for their violence and brutality. It was a kingdom built of the foundation of their bloodthirsty army.  In the year 722 BCE the Assyrians actually conquered the northern half of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and they laid waste to the people living there. Their king, Tiglath-Pileser, will go down as one of the most hated names in all of Hebrew Scripture.

Imagine being in Jonah’s sandals.  Imagine having to go to Nineveh, one of the Assyrian cities, to deliver a prophetic message to a people who don’t even believe in your God.  Imagine delivering a message to people you view as other, and who view you in the exact same way.  There is no love lost here.

The initial reaction for most Israelites might be one of gratitude—a longing to deliver just deserts and satisfaction over the fact that these heathens are going to die by the hand of God for what they did to your country and your kindred.  You might want to bring a bag of popcorn to watch God wipe your mortal enemy off the face of the earth.  After all, when the prophet shows up and delivers the message it is usually too late.

But no, not Jonah.  Jonah knows better.  Jonah knows God’s character and God’s heart.  The prophet mourns the task he has been given.  First, Jonah goes AWOL.  He tries to take a slow boat to nowhere—but God foils that plan with a storm and a big fish.  And today we hear his second strategy—he walks a third of the way into Nineveh, delivers a paltry eight word sermon, and skips town.

Then, the thing Jonah feared most happens before his very eyes.  The people of Nineveh, the enemy, the other, they hear and respond to his message.  They fast. Everyone fasts.  Even the animals.  They repent.  They show their repentance by wearing ashes.  They wear uncomfortable sackcloth.  Even the animals are given sackcloth diapers.  It is a masterclass in repentance and God changes his mind about the calamity he had planned.  The other is saved.

Later Jonah will pray, “O Lord, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Life would be so much easier if God simply agreed with us and would smite all of the people we label as other, wouldn’t it?  Wouldn’t it be great if our judgments were God’s judgments?  But Jonah shows us that God doesn’t work that way.  Grace doesn’t work that way.  God’s forgiveness doesn’t work that way.  God is also the God of the other, and I’m fortunate for that, because I’m positive that I too am classified as “other” by people in the world.  None of us escape that label.

In fact, I think we continue to be skilled at creating the “other.”  We’re just as proficient as the students in the school cafeteria, but now we’re more practiced and polished.  As we transitioned from President Trump to President Biden on Wednesday we are reminded of how our politics never tires of creating others and countless misfortunate labels.  As people we continually use age, sex, education, income, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, criminal record, physical ability, religion, gender, and on and on and on.

We all have the challenge of Jonah:  to not see someone as other, but to see them as human, as a child of God, and deliver God’s life giving message.  Can our desire for grace and love overcome our want to be better than and righteous?  Can our love of God’s Gospel overcome our tendency to be sticklers of the law?—well, at least the laws that we care about.

Jonah reminds us that God’s desire for love and mercy and forgiveness far outweighs our capacity as humans.  That while our ability to create division and the “other” is immense, God’s ability to mend and unite is limitless.  In the end, God is the one who will bless Capitals fans and Penguins fans, Republicans and Democrats, Israelite and Ninevite.  Despite our judgments and prejudices, God’s grace prevails.  For God will never turn the work of his hands in the “other.”  AMEN

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