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Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 25, 2015

It has been said that you’ll know you’ve remade God in your own image when he hates the same people you do. True enough. Which brings us to the cautionary tale that is today’s lesson.

Every so often, we have to revisit one of the really tough sins…the stupid, stupid mistake of thinking we are God, so that we get to pass judgment on other people. Nope. Not our job. Not our area of expertise. Not, not, not.

We don’t have to go very far to find opportunities for reflection on all this wickedness…right there it is, in the funny little book of Jonah. And, yes, it is both funny and little…about four long paragraphs, in my Bible it takes only two pages. Please, read the whole thing.

Why is it funny? Well, Jonah is an idiot…check out the big fish that vomits or the shady place with the worm if you doubt it. And the teller of the story knows you’ll get the punchline...which is, just for the record: Not, not, not.

However, Jonah is also a prophet. First shot out of the box, we learn that an idiot can also be a prophet. Explains a lot in the news, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back over the story briefly, just to refresh our memory. The people of Nineveh are behaving very, very badly…sin abounds there. God says to his prophet Jonah: Go to Nineveh, tell the people they are doing evil, and I’m going to destroy them. Jonah says, in effect, “Nuh-uh,…I need me a sea voyage right now.”  Look it up on a map…say this is Jonah right here, and this is Nineveh up here, and Jonah the Stupid gets on a boat and heads across the Mediterranean all the way to here.

Well, truth to tell, he never actually gets all the way here, because – let’s face it, trying to run away from God is, um, an ill-considered strategy. Do not try this at home, children.

The boat’s in trouble, the crew’s in trouble, and Jonah?!?! Well, that’s when we find Jonah drowning at the bottom of the sea, praying like crazy and suddenly ready to listen to God, who sends a big honkin’ fish to swallow him up and vomit him out onto the beach. And God, in God’s kindly and gentle fashion, shouts at Jonah: “I meant it when I said for you to go tell those nasty Ninevites to stop sinning!”

Jonah the Stupid is not done, however. “Okay,” he says, “I’ll tell them, but I know you…you’re a God of mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, ready to relent from punishing. In my judgment, they deserve punishing…but, sure as anything, you’ll just forgive them.  That’s how you are.”

Now that, my beloved friends, is why I think the theology of the Book of Jonah is some of the richest in the Bible. You see, Jonah does know God personally; he knows what God is really like. As Marcus Borg and Verna Dozier of blessed memory used to say, God is not just in love with us, God is besotted with us. We may be stupid enough to be judgmental, to try holding onto grudges and ill will for other people, but God? God can forgive anything.

God’s love is so huge and so encompassing, it can embrace anyone. Jesus reminds us that God sends his rain on the just and the unjust….he tells us not to fret ourselves about who’s good and who’s bad, just gather ALL the grain and God will sort out the weeds, haul in ALL the fish and God will handle the one that are less than perfect, welcome ALL the nations to your table and God will work on the hearts that are hardened. “Just feed them,” he taught…YOU feed them.”

And we are commanded to love as God loves. Inclusively.

Now I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what that means in your life. If you’re of one political party; it means that God loves people in the opposing party, and you are meant to love them also, not pass judgment on them. It means not passing judgment on people whose skin color or ethnicity is different from ours, whose taste in music or art or body piercing or whatever is outside what we consider orthodox. This theology means living with ambiguity sometimes, and living with complexity always. It means, and let us be very clear that it means this most of all, we are not God. Judging is God’s job.

We live in a world of many voices, including lots of voices loudly proclaiming that this person, or that country, or some philosophy, or whatever,..is bad. If you doubt me, listen to talk radio. Against that, listen to the entire tradition of Judaism and Christianity, teaching the same thing: We are not to pass judgments on other people; that is God’s job, and God can forgive anything. Anything, done by anyone. Including bad stuff done by us.

So, what’s the best part of the story of Jonah? In my view, it may be the line that is omitted from the lectionary materials…the King of Nineveh says: “Yes, we are all engaged in evil, and there is violence in our hands, but we can turn away from that. We deserve punishment, but we can change, and – who knows? – God may change his mind!”

Is that not the most wonderful expression of hope? Whatever you or I have done, and however much we deserve to be punished: Who knows? God may change his mind. Is that not the central focus of prayer?  Who knows? God may change his mind. God has created a world in which death comes to everyone, but is this not the teaching of Jesus’ Resurrection?  Who knows? God may change his mind! As you ponder these things, remember also the line from Jeremiah that Jesus kept quoting his whole life: “Nothing is impossible for God.” Nothing.

Go fish for people. We mustn’t look only to those who are like us, or those who like us…we must look also to those who make us cranky and offended and contemptuous and, well, judgmental. Then, even if we know in our heart of hearts that they deserve punishment, God’s gonna get ‘em and roast ‘em in hell…think about this:

Who knows? God may change his mind. 

Amen.

     - Prof. Patricia G. Bleicher