Jonah was a stubborn guy. In order to avoid being the messenger to the people of Nineveh, he booked a cruise heading the opposite direction of the place where God called him. When a storm kicked up, and the cruise staff were convinced that there was someone on their three-hour tour that was responsible for this storm, the entire boatload of people drew straws, and unsurprisingly, Jonah was discovered with the short straw. So he walked the plank and was eaten by a big fish. When the fish realized his personality tasted as badly as his aftershave, the big fish spit Jonah out at Nineveh. And reluctantly, Jonah agreed to send the message from God to the people he already wished would be wiped off the face of the planet.
So he took a day’s long walk into the middle of this bustling city, and there he delivered the news: In 40 days, Nineveh will be overthrown! He delivered this message with a biting tone, confident that God hated these people as much as Jonah did. He was so confident; he didn’t even tell the people what to do to get themselves right. He just declared that the overthrow was imminent.
And just like that, the people of Nineveh and the animals of Nineveh repented. They immediately turned around, changed their ways. They declared a fast, they put on their best — most itchy — bag-shaped dresses.
This was not what Jonah had in mind. He did not expect the people to repent, to turn around. And he certainly did not expect God to change God’s mind.
We have another story of immediate change, in the calling of the disciples found in the gospel of Mark. Now, Mark is a big fan of this word — immediately — and he uses it a lot. He also is not one to embellish a story. He tells it plainly. Mark says that after John the baptizer was imprisoned, Jesus immediately began to preach the good news. The reign of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. (That reminds me of the words of Jonah. Another short message. Another call to turn and transform.) And then Jesus is in Galilee calling the disciples. He just walked up to them, said follow me, and immediately they dropped their nets and followed.
Mark doesn’t set the scene at all. Because it’s not about the scene. It’s about the pace. This is all happening very quickly. Because there is urgency here. The reign of God is near. Let’s go!
I hear a lot of folks quoting Martin Luther King Jr. (who actually quoted someone else), who said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.” I hear a lot of us say things like, “Progress is slow.” “Be patient.” “We have to make compromises.” But here in these texts, we hear a lot of immediately. There are calls to turn, to repent, and the disciples and the people of Nineveh do repent — immediately. Jesus called the disciples to follow, and they drop everything and leave their family, immediately. In fact, in most of the stories from Jesus, healing happens immediately. People turn, repent immediately.
The only person upset by the immediate repentance of the people of Nineveh was the self-righteous messenger himself — Jonah — who delivered the message, but really hoped these Ninevites would be annihilated by the anger and wrath of God. So the immediacy of the transformation of this whole city really twisted up the messenger of God.
Pastor Juan, my friend and fellow Philadelphia Anabaptist minister, told me a story recently that involved a lot of immediatelys. He and some of the folks from his congregation, Christ Centered Church in Fairhill, were in the basement of their newly renovated church, and they noticed that a lot of water was coming into their basement. And they were upset. They quickly realized it was coming from their neighbor’s house, and not from the street, so they went over to the neighbor’s house to see what was going on.
Now this is a neighbor that they have struggled to reach out to, but she’d rebuffed their overtures every time. So they were a little hesitant to bang on the door of a mom and her two daughters. Would they be angry or defensive?
But they did it anyway — their basement was flooding, after all. And when the neighbor answered the door, they saw the problem. There was water leaking from the ceiling, down the walls and through the window sashes. This family was in big trouble. In the frigid temperatures of the latest cold snap, their pipes had burst.
Alex and Ed immediately ran down into the basement and waded into knee-deep water. They didn’t put on waders or wonder if there was electricity flowing through that water; they just went in, looking to turn off the water and protect the house from further damage.
They learned that mom had been crying and praying to God for someone to save them. The family had been without heat for months. The waitlist for help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and other bureaucracies was months long, and they couldn’t find support elsewhere for help. The pipes freezing was another expensive indignity after suffering in the cold.
Juan, Alex and Ed told their neighbor not to worry. They’d replace her broken heater. They’d fix up the house from the water damage. These guys made an immediate commitment to their neighbor — an immediate expensive, labor-intensive commitment, without knowing where all the money was coming from — and they are transforming their neighbors’ lives as they are themselves experiencing the immediate transformation of repentance, of turning. As they turn their lives to God, to new life, to discipleship, just like those in Nineveh did, their neighborhood and city are transformed, too.
I’m thinking about how I’d respond to an immediately situation like the ones Juan and the folks at Christ Centered Church faced. And I have to admit, my first thought is, “Who else can help? What is the program available for a problem like this?” I don’t immediately turn toward the problem, I turn toward someone else to fix it.
That has been a sobering thought to me this week. My instinct, and maybe yours, is not to immediately turn toward the difficulty of a stranger, it is to turn toward a government structure, or a program to help. My instinct is to turn toward bureaucracy and institutions to help.
I’ve been trained that way, social work being my first job out of college. I’ve been trained to look for a program to handle that, a system to refer someone to. But the bureaucratization of services means that we believe we can wash our hands of problems right in front of us, problems that we can immediately turn toward with our resources and skills.
Bureaucracy has become our own protection from immediately turning towards the problems. Bureaucracy has become something that protects people of privilege from getting directly involved in people’s lives, from turning immediately toward our own salvation, and the salvation of others. Bureaucracy is one of many ways that we are buffered from true repentance and change.
These systems are designed to give just a little bit of help, but ultimately keep folks in terrible poverty. They are not designed for immediate, transformative aid. They are not designed to repent of the structures that have kept some poor, and others rich. They are not systems that are saving and turning toward life.
Bureaucracy is not bad. The systems and institutions that have been created in this country protect millions of people with health care, housing, job support, education, etc. But bureaucracy can also become the crutch people of privilege lean on to protect ourselves and our wealth. We don’t have to turn immediately because someone else is taking care of it.
But, friends, we find ourselves in a position where others are not taking care of things. We find ourselves understanding these systems and bureaucracies we’d come to have faith in were never really taking care of things to begin with.
We live in brokenness. God is calling us to repent. To turn. To follow. To seek after wholeness and shalom. Immediately.
Can we let that message sink in, through all of the protections we have — through the good health insurance policies some of us have, through the nest eggs we’ve created, the 401ks we’ve been working on, the home equity, the family systems and structures we are born into, the safety we enjoy? Can we let that need for repentance seep through all of that institutional protection that we enjoy, and take hold of our hearts?
Friends, the reign of God is at hand. The reign of God is calling us to repentance. Immediate repentance.
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is a sermon she gave based on Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20, first posted on Stories from the Red Tent.