Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 4:1-5
“No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, it’s never too late to turn back.” I had that proverb posted on my refrigerator, on the wall next to my computer, and on a post-it note in my calendar all during the months our congregation was trying to figure out what to do to our building to prepare for a new organ in our sanctuary. So many meetings, so many conversations, so many ideas… We selected a wonderfully creative, expansive architectural firm who spent several days with us in a creative process that was wild and fun and staggeringly expensive. We went a long way down that wrong road, so that’s when I started posting the Turkish proverb everywhere. “No matter how far down the wrong road you’ve gone, it’s never too late to turn back.” We regrouped, reviewed, re-interviewed, and started over, and the result is what you see before you, along with a hundred improvements you don’t see.
We have all been in situations that give us the nagging feeling we’ve gone too far down the wrong road. Maybe some of you are going down that wrong road right now. What we do at that moment is the stuff of interesting narratives. Some of us stubbornly push on, others of us just quit at that moment, others of us turn back. I think those are interesting stories – both in the factors that make us see we’ve made a mistake and what we do about it. In a curious way, both the stories Peter just read are about that moment – one, the story in Mark, about the decision to change everything to follow Jesus; the other, the story about Jonah’s outrage when God turned back, having gone down the wrong road toward the destruction of Ninevah. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Jonah didn’t want to go to the city of Ninevah, and his avoidance tactics took him to some interesting places. Remember the whale? Of course, Jonah felt perfectly justified avoiding God’s command – who would want to go to Ninevah, Sin City itself, populated by an evil, vicious, blasphemous vipers’ nest of inhumanity. What is most popularly known about the story of Jonah is the great length to which he went to avoid doing what God wanted him to do. But to me, the most interesting part of the story is what happened between God and Jonah once Ninevah actually repented and cleaned up its act. The people of Ninevah confessed right and left. They put on sackcloth and covered their heads with ashes. Clearly moved by this mass conversion, God relented in the judgment he had planned. At the risk of being too careless with attributing human reactions to the divine, God recognized the wrong road and turned back. Ninevah was spared and disaster was avoided. And there was Jonah, standing back and watching in amazement, disgust, self-righteousness and fury. He turned around and stomped out of the city. Pitying Jonah, God grew a large plant overnight to shield him from the burning sun, but just as Jonah was starting to enjoy the plant’s shade, God planted a little worm in it to kill it. It was, for Jonah, the last straw.
Are you so very angry about the plant Jonah? Angry enough to die! Jonah shouted back. “You pity the plant for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. Shouldn’t I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
I love this story about God and Jonah. It is funny and irreverent, two of my favorite things. But what I love most is that it tells us a little something few of us may notice or even believe. God is affected by human behavior not only for ill but also for good. And God is willing – well - willing to turn back, having gone down the wrong road.
Now let’s look at the way Jesus called a few of his disciples according to Mark. It’s another story we think we already know all there is to know about it. Jesus called common, simple workers, fishermen, to follow him and he would make them fishers of people. I’ve never really understood what that means – that the disciples were called to fish for people. Would that line have made you throw down your nets, leave your homes, and follow Jesus? But there is a little fact Mark threw in at the beginning of this story that tells us more. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.”
The stories of Jesus and John are intertwined by all the Gospel writers. Luke spent the most time describing the important relationship between them, going back to their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, describing how John was deferential to Jesus, how he understood that he himself was not the Messiah, how he, with the rest of the Jews, waited for the new King David and how he recognized the Savior, even while still in his mother’s womb. But whether there was this personal relationship between Jesus and John or not, we do know that John was popular among a segment of Jews that believed that the Jewish priests had betrayed them to be given position and power with the Romans. We know that John was a charismatic leader who lived the life of a prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming the will of God and pronouncing judgment on those Jews who had betrayed God by acquiescing to Roman rule. We know that John’s followers, like Jesus’ followers later, were a growing irritant to the Jewish chief priests, because they were drawing attention to a huge injustice. Picture the Occupy Wall Street gang who became pretty darn irritating to financial and political leaders. We know that Rome was ruling the Jews and that the chief priests compromised their responsibilities to God to get along with the Romans, even in – especially in Jerusalem, which to John meant that the Jewish priests had become collaborators with the enemies of God. Herod Antipas, a Jewish priest who was particularly detested for his duplicity, and John the Baptist, the zealous, prophetic truth-teller were on a collision course. Herod needed to quiet John’s disciples down, and, in a move that has been repeated throughout history, cut the head of the movement from the movement. He had John arrested.
The road down which the Jews were going was the wrong road. It was not God’s road. It was not the road worthy of God’s people. Jewish priests were collaborating with Rome. And John, who had been the most outspoken opponent and critic, was in jail. As national crises go, it was about as bad as it ever gets.
Our nation is not occupied by an enemy state. We are not ruled by a foreign government so that our own leaders have to decide how to get along with the oppressors. We are not a minority people ruled by a majority who look upon us as inferior chattel, cheap labor, mindless sheep. So please do not read more into what I am about to say than is there. But, from a Christian perspective, we are in something of a national moral crisis, the results of which have propelled us into deeply troubling legislation and public discourse and proposed remedies.
Crises always seem sudden and abrupt, but they are almost always the result of a complex set of circumstances that have grown increasingly serious and dire over a long period of time and for much of that time, the growing crisis has not been on the public radar at all. Have you read the history of Europe, particularly Germany, forward from the end of WWI? Were there not a hundred things that signaled the rise of Nazism, well before the world knew anything about the Nazi party? When did people of good will recognize how far down the road they had been led.
So, John was arrested. No one had heard much about Jesus yet. It was John who bore the brunt of the Jewish leaders’ ire. The Jews were going down the wrong road. In fact, they had gone quite a way down that road. Jesus saw it, and according to Mark, it was the turning point. Jesus came to Galilee and began selecting disciples. He did not deviate from what he knew he had to do. He did not go back to the wilderness for forty more days, just to be sure he’d gotten it right the first time. He called disciples into a life of sacrifice and service, on to a new road, a perilous journey straight toward Jerusalem and the cross, toward a horizon of justice that always seems to be just beyond reach.
Now here’s the thing, and I’m almost embarrassed to end this sermon with so obvious a point but, well, we probably could all use an obvious point now and then. Think about how God, who had been going down the road toward destroying the city of Ninevah, turned back from that path and forgave them. And think about Jesus, who recognized that Israel’s leaders had gone way too far down the wrong road of acquiescence to Roman oppression. Now, if God and Jesus could make a significant course correction, can’t we? Amen.