3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 26, 2003
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 62:5-12
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:14-20

“Even when we don’t desire it, God is ripening.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“In our limitations are our possibilities.” – Alfred North Whitehead

One of the oldest and greatest cities of Mesopotamia, Nineveh was at one time considered the most powerful city in the world. It was a modern day Washington D.C. Instructed by God, the reluctant prophet Jonah shouts down its streets, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” warning its inhabitants of impending doom. The passive voice of the Hebrew verb extends a primary meaning of being “over turned,” turned around or transformed. While possibly perceived by those who heard it as personally ominous, the prophet is clearly preaching transformation. Their response to the word of God may create something new and unexpected or bring even the most powerful city of its time to its knees.

In its brevity, the story only tells us that the people of Nineveh immediately repent and believe. No doubt, they debated the feasibility of a change of heart, pondering its economic, social and military impact on the city and its inhabitants. Would the changes lessen Nineveh ’s status as the “sole superpower” of the region? Would they threaten the “Nineven way of life?” Would they put “national security” at risk? Despite arguments from any and all sides, Nineveh is a town transformed…its inhabitants indeed “turned around.” This actuated prophecy curiously explained by a Holy consequent simply stated: “God changed his mind.” As if God’s intentionality towards Nineveh was somehow amended by the effects of Nineveh ’s sincere intentionality towards the Holy – Nineveh’s change of heart opens the door for a Divine change of heart.

In Nineveh ’s response, we are reminded that God’s lure is always “the best for the impasse.” Perhaps, God is awakening Nineveh to the consequences of its current values and political and economic actions. God’s threat may seem harsh at first glance, but it may also reflect the reality that, despite the movements of grace, we often reap what we sow. Actions have consequences in foreign policy, educational budgeting, parenting, and personal relationships. As process thinkers John Cobb and Jay McDaniel note, our economic and ecological decisions are a matter of life and death – first, for the non-human world and the most vulnerable among us and, then, quite possibly for ourselves through global warming, ecological collapse, and violent insurrection in the developing nations and in the Middle East. While transformation does not insure safety for those who experience a change of heart and lifestyle, it may open the door to novel creative possibilities for partnership not only with God, but also with former enemies.

Evoking another side of the Holy, the constant care of the Divine even in times of chaos and upheaval, Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry conveys the quiet ubiquitous sense of God's love:

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of the stars I enfold your cities made by time.

Bringing a New Testament image of the Holy to a reading of Jonah, one could sense the Creator calling not for punitive destruction, but for the best from Nineveh, patiently waiting for the community to awaken and claim its divine possibilities for justice and peace. With Rilke, we, too can discover “a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world,” when, like Nineveh, we commit ourselves to the risk of creative transformation.

God is constantly calling each of us to grow in stature to contain the Great Care that is found in our lives. “With each disclosure You encompass more,” Rilke writes, referring to the role of the Holy in the individual process of spiritual growth, “and she stretches beyond what limits her, to hold you.” Increasing our spiritual stature is always a stretch.

Changes of heart involve a letting-go, as growth in stature, creative transformation, often includes the destruction of old ways or dangerous behaviors. But, the letting go of the ‘old’ is requisite to create room for the re-creation and healing that follow. And we can let go…we can follow new ways because we are always grounded in the Holy. Christ is Creation’s constant. God has a dream for all persons and nations. Inspired by the Divine dream of Shalom, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “I have a dream” of “the beloved community” that embraces all persons with justice and compassion. In claiming that dream for ourselves and for God’s world, like Nineveh we become actors with our families and communities.

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.
– Emily Dickinson

Such a rising can transform both persons and nations as they approximate the Divine dream of Shalom. 

“Repent and believe,” encourages Jesus in Galilee . Jesus’ peripatetic journey through Judea recalls Jonah’s perambulation through Nineveh, each step heralding a new transformation. “Follow me,” he says to Simon, Andrew, James and John. And immediately, they all follow Jesus, just as everyone in Nineveh left their old ways and followed Jonah’s words from God, and their lives were transformed.

The words “follow me” are spoken to us well – while we boot up the computer, negotiate child care with our spouses, visit a sick friend, or make decisions on the job or at our churches. Each moment is a moment of decision, a moment of illumination, in which the Divine epiphany addresses us anew.

Whitehead notes that one of life’s greatest evils is the reality of “perpetual perishing,” the fact that we must constantly let go of every passing moment, even the most joyful. “The present form of this world is passing away,” Paul notes to the church at Corinth. Everything’s passing away, writes Paul, what we own and what we do, and those to whom we have pledged ourselves…everything and everyone of this world is ultimately transitory and temporal…finite and precious. Due to such finitude, we are always experiencing change, and change pulls at our heart strings.

As we compare the wrinkle lines on our high school graduation pictures with our current physiognomy, we may feel dismay at the impact of the years. But, we may also be inspired by life’s beauty and wonder. The ‘ontological shock of non-being’ can challenge us to ‘put first things first’ – to seize the passing moment for love, service, and joy, to open our hearts to God’s larger vision rather than any small self-interested plans.

For in reality, the most beautiful things are momentary – whether that moment be the day in the life of a butterfly, our child’s evolution from toddler to high school and college and parenting herself, or the awe-filled intimacy of a marriage or holy friendship. The complex web of multiple interactions in any urban area, like a river’s flow, is beautiful for its unique momentary nature. On some level, it is never the same city twice. Viewed from that perspective, a city truly comes alive as the great life-throb that it is…with its awe-inspiring series of infinite heart changes massed in one location.

“Awe enables us to perceive in the world imitations of the divine,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” Each passing thing is a wonder, flowing forth from Divine Creativity, tugging at our heart strings…revealing God’s invitation to life in all its abundance.

Psalm 62 reminds us that silence is not just the absence of sound, but a mindful awareness of God’s presence in the midst of a life of challenge, busy-ness, and transformation. In silent awareness, we discover something we miss when we focus entirely on our own projects – God’s utter faithfulness and steadfast Love that surrounds us from the womb to eternity. We are born with our heartstrings tied to God. With Emerson, we rejoice at such moments of silence that “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

With Antoine de Saint-Exupery, we remember that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” But, from that invisible love – our love and God’s – “the Word is made f lesh” to turn us from destruction and awaken us to changes in our hearts that open us and the world to Holy renewal and rebirth.