Epiphany 3B Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Mark 1:14-20
In the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of movies centered around superheroes. I’m not sure that this genre of storytelling ever really goes out of fashion, but lately there has been a significant interest in these kinds of characters. Spiderman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Watchmen, the upcoming Avengers and Wonder Woman movies, the X-Men and, my personal favorite, Batman, are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sociologists and psychologists say that we humans are hard wired to look for something to adore, to worship. We instinctively look for heroes. A great and mighty person to follow, one who can do all the things we are not strong enough to accomplish or are incapable of doing ourselves. A god. One created in our own image. One to save us from our enemies and lift us up high where we belong—or at least where we think we belong. But what happens when our heroes fail? What happens when they are not who we thought they were? What happens when they do not do what we want them to do? What happens when our heroes do not act like heroes at all?
Jonah struggled with this very issue. In our text for today, we hear Jonah’s brief sermon to the people of Nineveh, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Now that is a short preacher! We probably all remember the story of his trying to avoid this ministry. Plenty of prophets have protested when God called them to go deliver his message to someone, but he is the only one in the bible who chose to run the complete opposite direction. Of course, he ends up being swallowed by the great big fish but, thankfully, God gives him a second chance. Today’s part of the story picks up then and Jonah has finally given in and walks the streets of Nineveh delivering God’s message to the people. Thanks to his brief but crystal clear sermon, the entire city, including all the animals, repents and they avoid punishment.
If we read on in the story, we’d see that Jonah, surprisingly, is not at all happy about this! His angry response to God: I KNEW this would happen and that is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place!! It is not like you were really going to do anything to them. Sure, we all hear the stories about how mighty and righteous you are, but I see what you’re really like. You are gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I knew you’d forgive them!
Jonah wanted God to do what he said he was going to do in the first place. In some ways, it was not an unfair expectation, really. The people of Nineveh had lived very sinful lives and had done many wicked things, so God would have been right to punish them. Jonah knew God to be a just God, a righteous God, and a mighty God. But God is also, just as Jonah said, gracious, merciful and loving. Jonah is so angry, so disappointed in God and his response to the repenting people of Nineveh that he tells God he does not even want to live anymore.
In our Gospel lesson, we see a little piece of Jesus’ early ministry, including another brief but clear sermon. It is a compact telling of Jesus’ primary message as told by the writer of Mark and the calling of his first disciples.
First, we hear this simple and clear message from Jesus: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. We could say that this is the whole point of this gospel—the Thesis statement, so to speak. The Kingdom of God has come near—is right in front of you—and this is, indeed, good news! Then, an amazing thing happens. Jesus walks up to Peter, Andrew, James and John, all fishermen hard at work, and just says “follow me” and they do it!! That is just amazing! If he were an ordinary man, we would say he had fantastic charisma.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry he gathers many followers. Some who believe in him so much that they just know if they even touch the fringe of his robe they would be healed of any ailment. Truly, he does do amazing things. He heals, calms storms, walks on water, knows what people are thinking without their even speaking it. People start to believe that he is the messiah—the hero promised to Israel by God who will come and redeem them. The Israelites at that time lived in a society that significantly oppressed them and there was poverty, disease and other things that made life hard. This messiah—their Hero—would change all that! The messiah would defeat the enemies and bring back the good life.
The heroes of Israel’s past were great and mighty indeed! Some of the Judges who ruled all Israel in the early years, like Samson and Deborah, were mighty and strong heroes or wise tacticians in battle. Abraham, who was looked upon as the father of all the Israelites, and Moses were seen as iconic heroes who founded a nation and led them from slavery to freedom. David was the great King, the heroic warrior leader that all others were measured against. So now, this Jesus could be their Messiah. The hero of heroes! The great mighty one that God would send to free them and lead them into all peace and prosperity just as he had promised over and over. A king more powerful than David, stronger than Samson, wiser than Deborah, and even more of a leader than Abraham or Moses. This Jesus could be the one. He could be their hero.
Who could blame them for expecting this? Don’t we want just the same thing? Theologians agree with those sociologists and psychologists—we were made to seek for God. Saint Augustine said that our human hearts are restless our whole lives through until they rest in God. It is in our nature, not just psychologically but in our very essence, to look for God and to seek to worship him. But sin, as always, gets in our way. It distorts our ability to see God and it makes things that are most assuredly not God look like they could be worthy of worship. It also makes our understanding of God blurry as well. We often end up making God in our image rather than the other way around. In order to be God, he has to live up to OUR standards and expectations.
So the Israelites, just like the Romans of the time, just like us, just like all humans really, looked for mighty leaders—strong protectors—because that is what makes a hero worthy of worship. Might is what makes a hero.
But what if the mightiest thing is love?
The poet Elizabeth Alexander once wrote: “We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider reconsider…. Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance.”
In one month we will begin our Lenten journey together. The journey to the cross of Christ. The journey we make with Jesus; the journey we must make to get to Easter. On that journey we will hear of Jesus’ weakness, not his power. We will hear of his mercy, not his wrath. We will hear of his suffering, not his celebration. We will hear of his love, not his vengeance. We will hear that he is gracious, merciful and full of steadfast love. We will also hear of the disciples and virtually all of his followers’ disillusionment with Jesus as their hero. We will hear how he did not fight back when he was taken away, how he did not call down armies of angels to free himself from the cross. We will, instead, hear how he wept. How he was abandoned. How he was doubted. How he did not live up to expectations. How, in the eyes of all those who thought he was their hero, he failed.
But what if the mightiest thing…. the mightiest word is Love? What if real power is in mercy? What if true strength lies in grace? What if God’s greatest power is in things like his forgiving the people of Nineveh? Like his forgiving each and every one of us this morning when we began worship? What if his grace, given to us to free us from the grip of sin, is God’s greatest strength?
What if the real might of God is in love? The kind of love that does not return abuse and gives itself freely. That humbles itself to be a servant and wash filthy feet. That eats and talks with the lowest of the low and the highest of the high and everyone in between. That goes to the cross and bleeds every last drop of blood for those who betray him and no longer believe him to be a hero.
The mightiest word is Love. It is the might that rolled away a stone. It is the might that death could not defeat. It is the might that fills up the Kingdom of God about which Jesus preached. The Kingdom of God that IS Jesus. It is the true might of Love that has continued to draw people to Jesus. It is the stuff that the real hero is made of—for he is Gracious and Merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast Love.