Monday, January 26, 2009

Nineveh Calling: Sermon at a Baptism

Jonah 3:1-5,10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20 are the scripture portions for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

So what’s with Nineveh? Two things worth remembering. First, Nineveh stood for how far a great and civilized city can fall. There is no Nineveh now, except as a future archeological dig, for it’s buried in the sands of Iraq, on the east side of the Tigris River, directly across from modern Mosul. It was an exceptionally large and powerful city, one of the oldest and greatest of Mesopotamia, and was at its height the capital of the Assyrian Empire—until its calamitous fall in the year 612 BCE. Ah, the glory that was Nineveh.

But second, Nineveh stood for how sharp a turn-around a government can make. Except it wasn’t the government exactly; it wasn’t from the top down. Rather, it was the people of Nineveh who took hold of their situation and launched this dramatic change in their course by personal repentance and change of heart. We don’t know the exact nature of what had gone wrong there—the story of Nineveh is not presented as history, but as an object lesson. Keep it simple, and it’s probably a story about corruption derailing a great civilization, corroding a culture of law and sowing seeds of destruction.

The prophet Jonah is forever linked to Nineveh. In Israel, Nineveh was seen as standing for all that stood against the chosen people of God. It was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy. When God called Jonah to report for duty in Nineveh, Jonah fled by sea, not so much refusing to be posted in enemy territory, but having the dark hunch that, if he were to go there, God would use him as an agent to bless Israel’s nemesis, and that was too much for Jonah to swallow. You know the rest. The problem swallowed him (you might call it a whale of a problem) and the unrelenting grace of God spat him out on Nineveh’s waterfront, requiring him to serve an all-embracing God. You can run, but you can’t hide. You can believe in a narrow nationalistic God, but God will be what God will be, and do what God will do.

Eventually, God the persistent persuaded Jonah the resistant to deliver a prophetic message to the people of Nineveh. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” is how it came out of Jonah’s mouth. Bible scholars wonder if Jonah didn’t confuse his will for God’s will. It’s clear in Jonah’s larger story that all along he dreaded the possibility that God might be calling Nineveh to repentance and renewal, and dreaded even more the prospect that the people of Nineveh might turn to God, take him up on the offe, and find blessing. Jonah the patriotic Israelite was offended by the large-heartedness of God.

And he was absolutely right in his hunches. Nineveh would not be overthrown (not this time—later, but not now). Instead, Nineveh would do an about-face. From the greatest to the least, female and male, peasant and nobility, young and old, influential and powerless, the citizens of this city take the initiative, display a deep change of heart, and show their readiness for a new era of honesty in service of the common good. This popular movement reaches the ears of the monarch of the city, and he joins them, giving official approval to what has already swept the land. It is time for change.

Jesus himself honored the reputation of the people of Nineveh when he announced his vision of God’s final judgment: the citizens of Nineveh would stand in judgment of the people of Israel, for the Ninevites had known how to repent and that is the spiritual skill God requires for nations and neighbors to be at peace with one another. (And with that as an example of our Lord’s public preaching, you don’t have to look further for reasons why the powerful found him a threat to the status quo.)

Do I hear some possible applications of this story to us in our day? I do.

We need no more of the politics of Jonah, wrapping himself in his nation’s flag, blaming enemies abroad, fearing change, and dreading a world where all have access to the mercy of a just God.

In the mess we’re in, we dare not waste our soul’s energy fixing blame for causing it. Fixing it requires understanding what has happened, but requires more a vision of the prize worth setting our eyes on. What is the common good, and how do we best serve it? Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela determined to rebuild South Africa on the foundation of truth and reconciliation, not recrimination and partisan revenge. Our national situation is not that of South Africa, but a good strong dose of truth and reconciliation would take us far now, could build in us the skill of repentance, humble us down to hear what the cartoonist once put in the golden-tongued mouth of Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

A theme announced by all our readings today is what can happen when ordinary people recognize the urgency of the moment now. A nation can change course from destruction to rebirth. Because God is at work in our world in the person of the risen Christ, apostles are still being made out of people like you and me who hear the call “Follow me,” recognize Jesus in the call, and do what he asks.

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” So St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and sounds timely to us. Rigid boundaries between nations, cultures, races, religions, theologies, denominations must be tested to ask how they serve the common good, and be allowed to become porous, their doors and windows thrown open for light and air.

What roles will Mikayla and Isabella play to serve God’s purposes of truth and reconciliation? Will they hear the voices of the prophets forming in them a faith in the unrelenting persistent mercy of God? Will they come to believe what apostles teach, that the lovingkindness of God is poured out on each person, the divine voice saying to each what was said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased…”? What nets will they weave to catch the giftedness of people and unite them in service to God who dwells among us? Will these sweet sisters learn the wisdom of Spirit that equips them to build peace among people and nations?

Will we learn in time to show them? The people of Nineveh call to us over the millennia: Don’t wait for healthy change to trickle down from on high! Cause it from the ground up. Do not waste the precious gift of now. Conserve and steward God’s gracious and powerful creation. Practice all that you value. Find and serve the common good. Dare treat one another as equal heirs to the love of God. Recognize and exercise the powers you have to change the terms of community, even the course of history. Learn--and teach-- to do justice, love kindness, preach short, work long, and walk humbly with God.