This is the text of a sermon for third Sunday after Epiphany, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Jonah 3:1-5, 10.
How are you going, my brothers and sisters, with your New Year’s resolutions? We’re nearly at the end of January, so there’s been time, I would think, to establish new habits of behavior, and to be comfortably settled with your commitments as just part of the new normal.
Or is it just possible that in fact, New Year’s resolutions have been all but left behind? Bent a little at first – “just once,“ of course – and then gradually relinquished as you realized that the demand for change was too high, unrealistic and unsustainable in the face of everything else going on in life?
If your reality is closer to the latter, please, hear no judgement from me. As it happens, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, in part because I know that dynamic all too well!
Change is hard. It is costly. All too often – to turn the advertising slogan around – even when it does happen, it doesn’t happen overnight. Which presents us with something of a problem; because we are committed to a faith which is all about change. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and as it grows, nothing it touches is supposed to ever be the same again. Whenever we encounter God, changed hearts, changed lives and changed community are supposed to be the result.
How are we, limited humans who struggle with change, even positive and necessary change, able to engage with God’s imperative for change in ways which are going to last, to become part of us, to become our new normal?
Perhaps we can find some insight in the story of Jonah. In the snippet of it that we heard this morning, Jonah hears the word of the Lord – a second time, this is after the episode with the big fish – and sets out and goes to Nineveh, where he cries out that in forty days, the city will be overturned. The people of the city believe, and fast in sackcloth. The city is indeed overturned; not by God’s wrath, but by changed hearts and the abandoning of evil and violence.
This is, we know, not an easy thing for Jonah. He goes off to have a mighty sulk, even asking to die, apparently finding death less objectionable than having to change his attitude towards Nineveh! It is not an easy thing for the people of Nineveh either; fasting, formal shows of repentance, and – most importantly – changed behaviours would have made demands on their strength, their resilience and their egos. And – ultimately – we know it didn’t last. They weren’t destroyed in the time of Jonah, but some time later, their time was up, and in this theological reading of history, God’s patient concern for them was overtaken by his demand for justice for the victims of their cruelty (and they were a cruel people).
It strikes me that in both of these cases – Jonah, and the Ninevites – they don’t engage in the new, desired behavior because it comes from within them, from who they are. Jonah hasn’t been given much alternative! And while the Ninevites initially respond positively to his message, it’s a shallow change, one which dissipates only slightly more slowly than the threat extended over them.
Perhaps this is like our New Year’s resolutions? Things we decide to do because we know we “should,” to fit our society’s, or our family’s, or even our own ideas of what a “good” person should be; but not because the desire to be those things is burning within our hearts; not because we cannot stand to be anything else a moment longer; not because failure in these resolutions would be an unbearable lack of integrity with who we are, fundamentally, in our heart of hearts.
And what of the gap between our ideals, as a Christian community, and our reality? What about all of the times we fail in hospitality, in generosity, in kindness, in patience – all of those things? Is it possible that the gap is because we know, intellectually, that we “should” get those things right; but that knowledge hasn’t taken root so deeply in our hearts that it has moved us to genuine change?
Note: just because, this morning, I am addressing the question of change, and this means that I need to talk about the fact that there are always areas where we do need to change, I don’t want to be heard as saying that we don’t do anything right, either. We do a good many things very well. But while it is good to recognize that, it is not good to let ourselves stop there, and fail to address the rest of it.
There is a song by the Christian musician Matt Redman called “The heart of worship.” The church which produced this song was well known for its proud music tradition. It had produced many worship songs which had become popular around the world. Its musical production on any given Sunday had everything you could want in terms of band and sound system and all the rest of it. But their pastor felt that they had lost their way, lost their connection with what was most fundamental. So he decided that for a while, they would use none of it. No band. No sound system. No accomplished singers leading. And he challenged his congregation: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” That decision, and that question, were the beginning of a time of renewed and deepened worship and connection with God for the people in that place.
And after this time, one of their musicians wrote this song, which runs: “When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless your heart. I’ll bring you more than a song; for a song in itself is not what you have desired. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear; you’re looking into my heart. I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you; it’s all about you, Jesus.”
That church’s decision to do without all of the richness of their usual worship style for a while helped them to get beneath the surface and feel the need for change, feel the lack of integrity between what they proclaimed and how they lived, to long for something more faithful and more fruitful.
So here is my challenge: how do we get beneath the surface of our lives? How do we move from intellectual understanding of God’s holy demands on us, and know them burning deep within our hearts? How do we get to the point where we can’t stand still, unchanged, a moment longer? How do we create the change that is so deeply rooted that it becomes our new normal, without any desire to turn the clock back to yesterday?
We don’t want to be modern-day Jonahs, reluctant, sulking, willing to die before we let God’s new reality break in. Nor do we want to be like the Ninevites, changing in the short term but returning to our old patterns as soon as we’re not being pushed. The change that we’re called to is deeper, more real and more lasting. If we can be open to it.
How will we do that?
Special bonus for blog readers, which I couldn’t use in the sermon itself: here is a link to the song, The Heart of Worship.