Preaching: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
In building this sermon, remember that the Season After Epiphany is for telling about the God who meets with us. God makes himself known to us primarily by what God does. The range of God's activities are summarized in classical terms as creation, redemption, and sanctification. The following inductive sermonic approach has primarily in mind the doubtful or indifferent more than the faithful hearers.
Walking along life's road one day, Calvin, the boy wonder of comic fame, says to his faithful tiger, Hobbes: "Mom and Dad say I should make my life an example of the principles I believe in." Walking a bit further he continues: But every time I do, they tell me to stop it." Hobbes responds: "I'm not sure that total self-indulgence is really a principle."
(I. What is the problem?) Does the God of creation exercise power in an self-indulgent and discriminatory manner? Could an Adolf Hitler who eliminated six million European Jews ever have been open to mercy and forgiveness? Can the Serbian soldiers who mass raped fifty thousand Bosnian and Muslim women in recent ethnic cleansing escape justice? Why the 1993 "act of God" in the Midwest's 12 billion dollar flood? Survivors of cruelty and destruction, along with civil people, cry out for justice, retribution, and compassion. It appears at times that God functions by an uneven and even crotchety standard in the midst of the world's evil.
(II. How prevalent is the problem?) Go through the past week's newspaper and cut out the stories that are a concern or should be a concern to your people. For the sake of suggestion only, consider some of the following categories causing distress. Do men have a greater preference before God than women? Does God love a white person more than a black (brown, red, yellow) person? Consider other bifurcations: Catholic or Protestant, Spirit-filled or nominal Christian; rich or poor, advantaged or the ill; Old world or Third world, Japanese or Korean; moralist or murderer, victim or victimizer; native or expatriate, oppressed or oppressor; interdependent or co-dependent, functional or dysfunctional; straight or gays, healthy or Aids infected. What about crimes against humanity? Should a veil be thrown over the WWII French state (Vishy) regime who deported 76,000 Jews to Hitler? Is justice served by granting favoritism and leniency to cooperating witnesses of the El Ruken gang of Chicago who wrought 24 years of murders, narcotics racketeering, intimidation and mayhem?2 How much evil can arise unchecked in our human situation? Be sure the sermon illustrates the pertinencies that emerge in regard to a number of these source categories.
Instead of advancing the prevalence of concerns in a panoramic way, the preacher may need to choose one or two crucial issues and deal intensely with their relevant ramifications. Why is this a concern? Or, How does the abuse manifest itself? And, certainly, What are its implications? (Note how the sermon is subtly exegeting the sitz im leben [situation in life] of the Jonah pericope.)
(III. What are some proposed solutions?) How are these inhumanities of the world to be rectified? How can the perpetrators of a harsh world fall victim to their own kind of evil? This part of the sermon is by far the most difficult to develop and preach. The preacher must know where the hearers are in regard to the issues projected in the previous movement of the sermon. What exactly is their stance? The task here is to flush out postured solutions that are real, even productive, but fall short of the affirmation and authority of the pericope.
For example, certainly an immediate solution would be the quick destruction of any who are guilty of such evils—an eye for an eye, the full extent of the law, an ethnic-cultural-spiritual cleansing. If it is in the church, have a back door revival—clean up the church membership roll. Another solution, especially if there is the lack of political power, motivation, or choice, is to take on an attitude of anger, resentment, or arrogance. Fight fire with fire. Preach and teach exclusiveness and entitlement, where our kind alone is worthy of God's blessing. Then call down earthquake, eclipse, fire, and floods from heaven on all the others. Other solutions may involve the campaigning for a modern tolerant value system. Educate. Move toward a conspiracy of silence for the sake of healing wounds. Use the "politics of compassion" to solve life's problems and catastrophes. Afford therapy. Build democracy. Participate in organizations that share goods and ideas, defend civil liberties, contribute to refugee resettlement, empty prisons of creative persons, overturn the repression of budding forms in emerging societies and neglected groups. Many of these solutions are commendable and good in and of themselves. However, they simply do not get at the heart of the matter. Spencer Perkins, of Voice of Calvary Ministries, an interracial, inner-city ministry in Jackson, Miss., says that in the United States "We have tried everything we can think of to fight racism. Laws, legislation, the Civil Right Act. None of those things have worked to bridge the huge separation between races." Chris Rice, of the same ministry, says, "Integration was a political concept. It involved the removing of laws and legal barriers, opening the door of opportunity to all races. Those things lead to equality in the workplace and housing, but they are not going to lead to relationships of trust. That requires voluntary commitment." Integration is not the same as reconciliation.1
(IV. What does the Bible have to say in the matter?) Go to the pericope and its context. Relate how all that has been discussed so far in the sermon is not new to the human race. Show how Israel and Judah had experienced a long history of holocaust-like oppression at the hands of Assyrai. Ancient Nineveh can still be seen in modern Iraq in more ways than where the city of Mosul now stands. Also tell of Israel's compromises, like making alliances with non-believers while at the same time adhering to a doctrine of exclusivity. Describe the prophet's grudging faith. Because the prophecy is so self-critical, it does point to the heart of the matter.
The season of Epiphany calls us to ask, What is God really like? Is God self-indulgent in his sovereignty? Will God truly bring all persons into accountability for their principles and actions? God's answer to the evils and atrocities of this world has not changed. God's message is found in Jonah, chapter three. That message has been capsulized by Douglas Stuart: "But God is patient...(2 Pet 3:9)...(1Tim 2:4)...He manifests his sovereignty not in stubbornness but in grace; not in narrow particularism but in a willingness to forgive any people. There is, however, a contingency . . . Only genuine repentance can result in forgiveness. God's threat is not to be taken lightly. His warning is as severe as the Ninevites took it to be."3 God is patient. Repent and be forgiven. Creation of human beings remains the design and decisive action of the divine Creator. So affirms the gospel lesson for today: "Jesus came . . . proclaiming the good news of God, and saying . . . the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mk 1:14).
The loving God pictured in Jonah could forgive the sins of Nineveh and also of Israel. He can forgive the sins of any modern nation as well and even the final pride—our sins.
Consider for A Prayer After the Sermon: "Father, yours is the harvest and yours is the vineyard: You assign the task and pay a wage that is just. Help us to meet this day's responsibilities, and let nothing separate us from your love. Grant this through Christ our Lord."4 AMEN. Or, lead the assembly in saying or singing the "Benedictus" (Lk 1:68-79).
The same dominant truth, "God is patient. Repent and be forgiven," can in turn be preached deductively, thereby spelling out more of what it means to repent.
Donald C. Boyd
1. Newsweek, July 19, 1993, pp. 29, 58. 2. "Faces of Reconciliation," World Vision, August-September, 1993, pp. 2-5. 3. "Jonah," Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 31 (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), p. 496. 4. Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours, St. Paul Editions (Boston: The Daughters of St. Paul, 1976), p. 581.