January 24, 2021 / 3rd Sunday after Epiphany / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Jonah 3:1-5,10 / 2nd Reading 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 / Gospel Mark 1:14-20
Change Our Hearts
This past week we witnessed the inauguration of the new president of these United States. In many ways at this time our nation is not united but divided. Across our land many feel wounded, suspicious and resentful. The work of healing and uniting is an essential task – and by no means easy. President Joe Biden made unity the central theme of his inaugural address. Today we have heard another inaugural address – a much shorter message, yet one even more emphatic. Jesus launches his public ministry by proclaiming the good news of God. He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That’s it. An inaugural address in one sentence.
Jesus begins his ministry with a call for change. He says, in effect: Now is the time. The God you have been waiting for, hoping for, has arrived in person. You are looking at him. Ready or not, trust me, this is a good thing. Believe in the goodness God is bringing. It’s time to change your hearts and minds. It’s time for a new and abundant way of living. To change is to repent, to turn in a new direction. To repent is always hard, because we don’t like to change, because we tend to prefer the familiar old rut to an unfamiliar and untried new one. But there can be no doubt: Christ calls each of us to change, to repent and believe.
Our First Reading today from the Book of Jonah tells a story of repentance – actually several stories of repentance. Let me review the four brief chapters of this book. The Lord calls Jonah to go to the enemy city of Nineveh and cry out against their great wickedness. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians, and Jonah was well aware of both their power and their malevolence. So instead of going there, Jonah gets on a boat going in the other direction. God sends a great storm, which is only calmed when Jonah convinces the crew to throw him overboard. That’s when Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of that fish Jonah offers up a prayer of thanksgiving to God for saving him – and repenting of his defiance. When the fish spits him out on land, Jonah proceeds to Nineveh, marching through the city and announcing to all: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” To the great amazement and consternation of Jonah, all the people of Nineveh take the message to heart and they wholeheartedly repent. In response, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. God had a change of heart. God repented. Jonah is completely exasperated. He says to God: “I knew you would do this.” “That’s why I wanted no part of this.” “I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah is so angry he is ready to die. He is angry because God gives mercy instead of retribution. God’s message to Jonah – and to his people Israel, and also to us, is this: “I love the people whom you hate.” Repentance, thus, involves nothing less than learning to love people we despise – because God loves them.
This is the message of the gospel, the message Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you?” (Matthew 5:44, 46)
This is the challenge that Jesus presents right at the start: to repent, to change our ways, to love the persons we find most unlovable. The good news is that assurance that we actually can do this – by the grace of God.
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A recent poll indicates that two thirds of Americans believe our nation is going in the wrong direction. People are anxious and uncertain. What needs to change? What’s the right direction? What’s needed is a change of heart. We need to repent – both individually and collectively. We are divided by suspicions and bitter resentment. People become fearful of changes and circumstances that seem threatening to them – and fear grows into hatred of those who are deemed to be responsible. There are always differences and disagreements. But the environment becomes toxic when those with whom one disagrees are regarded as antagonists – as absolute enemies, unworthy of any respect or understanding. To vilify fellow citizens in such manner is destructive to any sense of shared community. It grieves my heart that some Christians have been among those who deliberately stoke fear and resentment – and even violence. This is surely not what Christ calls us to be and to do. It doesn’t matter whether you vilify Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump, whether you resent white supremacists or illegal immigrants. Repentance is learning to love the ones we are inclined to fear and resent.
Last Monday was a holiday commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a prophet who called on America to change, to live up to the ideals on which our nation was founded: with liberty and justice for all. I remembered his wise words:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.”
There is nothing righteous about hating the haters, any more than there is in loving only those who love us. Only love can drive out the hate that is poisoning our life as a nation.
It is our core belief as Christians that love is the most powerful force in the world. Christ’s resurrection established forever that love is stronger than sin and hatred and even death. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Because we love God, we must also learn to love all the persons in this world – even especially those we find so unlovable – because God so loved the whole world that he gave us Jesus. Here is the unavoidable truth: you and I only love God as much as the person whom we love the least. Who is that person for you? I take this challenge personally. I see my own need to grow and change. I hope you do, too.
There will be no unity until we begin to change our hearts. You and I need to become the change we hope to see: by loving the ones we fear, the ones we resent, the ones we despise. We need to love them not only in our thoughts, but in words and deeds.
Nothing short of love can heal the divisions in our families, in our communities, in our nation, in our world. The time is right for a change of heart. It’s time to stop taking offense, and to start taking time to understand. Time to stop blaming, and to start listening. Time to stop resenting, and time to start caring.
Change is not easy. Most of us would just as soon leave the repenting to others. But Jesus calls us all to change our hearts. The good news is that this is possible. It’s possible