The Hope of Jonah & Jesus

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

Since last Sunday, many of us have gone from fear and worry, to fireworks and relief.  After the violent storming of the US Capitol a few weeks ago, we weren’t sure what might happen on the day of the Inauguration of a new president. But it was peaceful, joyful, and reassuringly normal.  As if that were not enough, we’ve also been riding an emotional rollercoaster around the COVID-19 pandemic. Though rates are increasing in many areas, right here, people are being careful and it seems to show in the infection rates.  We all got excited as people we know and love have been getting vaccinated or getting appointments, and now, it seems the excitement was a little premature, and the process is slower.

We notice good news and try to hold on to it. But no sooner do we process it, that someone tells us of something they have heard, or something they have read, or something that “everyone” knows.

Those first followers of Jesus must have felt like they were on an emotional rollercoaster. John the Baptist had been arrested, and it would not be long before he would be executed. People knew the risk of doing or saying anything that might cause the Jewish establishment or the Roman occupation to get nervous.  A wise person would lay low for a while, or maybe just play it safe. But here Jesus is, continuing where John left off.  Jesus preaches a message of repentance, like John’s, but Jesus goes on to fill in the rest of the promise and he preaches, teachers, heals, and embodies what he calls Good News. 

Good News is an almost literal translation of the Greek word, evangelium.  That Greek work is formed of two words:  one meaning “good,” or “well,” and the other like angel, meaning “messenger.” A literal but clunky translation might have Jesus say, “Believe in the Well-Message.” Believe in the Good News. 

But, what’s the Good News?  And how do we believe in it when there’s so much bad news all around?

Well, the Good News is that God loves us so much that God came into the world in the form of Jesus—to be like us, to be beside us, and offer healing and love and show us how to be more deeply connected to God.  What’s more, the Good News keeps getting better as we watch Jesus be put to death, but then brought back to life, and so the Great News is that his Way of Love can carry us through death and into new life.  And that means death with a big “D” as well as all the smaller worries, and trials, and problems that feel like little deaths to our spirit.

In Matthew’s Gospel, some of the religious folks of the day ask Jesus to give them some sign that he is, in fact, from God.  Jesus tells them, “The only sign you’ll be given is the sign of Jonah.”  Most people assume that Jesus is pointing to the story around our first scripture reading that involves Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale before being spit out for a new lease on life, and surely, that’s a part of what Jesus is referring to.  But if you read the entire book of Jonah (which is short), there are some other ways that Jesus embodies the sign of Jonah. 

And for me, the Sign of Jonah, has to do with God’s love for God’s people.  It ends up being a sign “for” Jonah, a sign “to” Jonah, and a sign almost in spite of Jonah.

God tells the Prophet Jonah to go to Ninevah and prophesy. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He thinks the Ninevites are wicked and deserve God’s wrath, and that they won’t listen to him anyway, so he grumbles.  Then he runs from God, and it’s during his attempted getaway that he’s thrown off a ship and swallowed by a big fish. After being spit up, he finally goes to Ninevah, and prophesies.  And guess what?

The people of Ninevah repent.  They tell God they’re sorry and that they’ll change their ways, and they seem to make an honest start of doing just that.  And so, we get those amazing words from scripture that too many people overlook when they disparage the Old Testament:  ‘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.” (Jonah 3:10).

The Sign of Jonah, for me, has to do with God’s love for us.  God is on our side:  against sin, against evil, against anything that would take us away from ourselves, from the ones we love, and from God who is the source of all love.   The Sign of Jonah is God’s hope for US, God’s hope IN us. That really is Good News.

Jesus embodies that Good News as he continues to preach and teach about love, and justice, and people being fed, the weak gaining strength, and the sick made well.  All of those are aspects of God’s movement in our world that we can continue to believe in, look for, and hope for.

We all know that we are still in a pandemic and we’re told that some aspects will get worse before they get better.  Political leaders, even if they’re good and mean well, will disappoint us. Programs, policies, and efforts will sometimes fail and sometimes succeed.  But through it all, we have God’s hope in us.  We have Christ’s presence among us—moving and loving and praying and serving one another.  And we have the Holy Spirit’s renewing life to help us stand again after we fall, to strengthen us when we’re tired, and even when we’re doubtful, to fill us with hope again.

May the Sign of Jonah and the love of Christ be with us all, this day and always. Amen.


About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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