Sermon
January 26, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

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.

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Sermon: The End of an Era

As mentioned earlier, this afternoon at 2:00 we will have another meeting of the group that is seeking to provide shelter for those who are homeless in these cold winter months. We have been meeting in the evening, but today we decided to move the meeting up in deference to a cultural ritual which now dominates this day. Of course, I’m talking about the Super Bowl, a sacred cow on steroids, an overblown spectacle which stands as a symbol of an era of sports hero worship married to media hype and advertising opportunity.

It may interest you to know that the birth of this era can be traced back almost 70 years to December 17, 1933, when the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears met in the first NFL championship game. The big attraction of the game was the presence on the Bears side of the legendary Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, the Wheaton Ice Man. But Grange later said - “the (players) regarded the game as just another pay day for we were paid by the game. Our big incentive to win was the fact that the winner got more money.”

Chicago won the game, and another Bears player recalled: We got about $70 more than the Giants - $210.36 to $140.22; neither my teammates nor I ever dreamed this game would become what it has.

Those old timers were present at the birth of an era, but they didn’t know it. To them it was just another pay day during the hard times of the depression.

The fact is that sometimes it’s hard to know about endings and beginnings when you are in the middle of them. Sometimes they catch us by surprise or pass by completely unnoticed; sometimes the final scene of a bygone era takes generations to accomplish.

We definitely feel it is the end of an era when someone we love passes from this world. We may know or not know to expect that day, but the feelings that accompany the loss, the way in which the world changes and becomes a different place, the way we experience ourselves in this new and different world - all this often comes as a surprise or even a revelation.

Yesterday we had a funeral here for one of our long time members, Helen Nicholas. Helen and her husband were in business in this town, they raised their family in this church; Helen was a presence in many different circles of service and friendship in our community. Of course for her family, but also for an amazing number of people, Helen’s passing marked the end of an era - things will never be quite the same; the world will be a different place without her.

Her son Bob and I spent some time together in the Intensive care unit waiting room at the hospital after Helen had a stroke last Sunday. One of the things we talked about was how the birth of your first child changes your perceptions of your world and especially of your own parents - certainly you know things will be different, but the way the birth of that baby puts a new color to everything is impossible to anticipate and hard to explain.

In my own case I never understood my parents until I became a parent myself. I was in the dark about how you could love another with that complete acceptance that binds parent and child. I did not understand how even the birth of other children did not diminish in any way that love - it would always be complete in itself and undivided and given with something that went beyond any question of judgment or comparison between siblings. It was definitely the dawn of a new era in my life.

It kind of goes without saying that birth and death in your immediate family marks the seasons of our lives, but when you start stepping out of that inner circle things become more subtle and it might take more time and perspective to really pick out the characters and occasions which bring about the end of one era and the opening of another.

In the Bible narrative Jonah was a person who marked this dividing line of transition between eras.

Jonah is an unusual character in the scriptures. Apart from the book that bears his name he is mentioned only once in the Old Testament - In the second book of Kings we read that he was a prophet who supported the expansion of the Israel through the military campaigns of the king. This king, Jeroboam II, who ruled for 41 years over Israel in the eighth century BC, brought prosperity to Israel, but mostly for wealthy landowners. Jeroboam’s redistribution of land and money increased the number of poor people in the land and created a class of servants and slaves, who were exploited by the rich. These social and economic abuses provoked sharp judgment from another prophet, Amos, who warned that unless the nation changed its ways, it was headed for destruction. So Jonah does not start out with a good reputation.

The Jonah we read about in the Book of Jonah, the Jonah in the belly of the whale, the Jonah who preaches to the city of Nineveh, this Jonah seems to belong to a different time and place. And the book of Jonah is different from the other prophetic books in the Bible - all the others recount at length the words of the prophet and depict the prophet’s struggles and suffering as a consequence of their faithfulness to God’s word in an unfaithful world. But in Jonah it is the prophet who is unfaithful and his trials and suffering are a consequence of his trying to run away from God and his disagreement with God over who is worth saving.

One writer said that the book of Jonah is more like a work by Charles Dickens - a historical novel that is intended as a protest against prevailing social attitudes and prejudices of its day. Jonah seems to come from a time when the people of Israel were looking very much inward, when there was great prejudice against marriage with non-Jews and a general fear and loathing of the foreigner - a time when the country was obsessed with a narrow nationalism that saw all the world in terms of us against them.

God tells Jonah to go and proclaim a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh is not within the bounds of Israel - it is in Assyria. Nineveh was at one time the most powerful city in the most powerful nation on the face of the earth - and the animosity between the nation of Israel and the nation of Assyria was shaped over many generations of political domination - Israel under the Assyrian thumb.

So Jonah has no use for the people of Nineveh and cannot understand why God would lift a finger to save them. Nineveh, in a sense, stands for all the people and places we reject as unworthy. - Whether found in the other or in the self.

But the storyteller wants us to know that God’s love does not recognize this boundary between nations, cultures, or religions - between the worthy and unworthy. God’s saving word is not a possession of the people of the covenant - something they own for their own sake. God is in covenant with them so that they might serve God’s grander purpose. God was doing a new thing in Jonah - God was bringing one era to an end and giving birth to a new era. Jonah was the midwife of that birth, and in spite of all his resistance, God kept him on task. God pursued him and turned him around and got him to do the thing that needed to be done.

Eventually, what Jonah resists, Jesus carries to the cross - the message of God’s love that knows no people outside its boundaries, no circumstances where it does not seek to save, no thoughts or deeds so dark to overcome the light of grace, no animosity so great that it loses hope for peace and reconciliation.

Have we really managed to hear this message of God’s love for us as a parent loves a child - a message not just for us but for all people? Has the knowledge of that love broken down the barriers that separate us from one another - family from family, race from race, nation from nation? Have we brought the era of Jonah to an end or are we still resisting God’s call to go to Nineveh, to go to all the places and people that are different, distrusted, despised and rejected - to go to the very ends of the earth and the darkest depths of the heart and proclaim in faith that: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”    
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