FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME, January 24, 2021:
“When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn't always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours.”
These are the words of a young woman, Amanda Gorman, from perhaps the most stunning moment this week as our nation went through it’s every-four-year moment of civic liturgy with the peaceful transition of power. I think one of the things I always find moving about inauguration is that it brings all of our nation together – it doesn’t matter who you voted for, or what side of the various arguments you find yourself on – this is a day to celebrate America, to celebrate democracy, to be united – even if that union is brief.
As always, I am in awe once again as our Scriptures today speak so powerfully to the moment in time we find ourselves in. Amanda mentioned braving the belly of the beast, a reference to the story of Jonah in our first reading today. I think Jonah is a good prophet for our times, for this moment, even though, when you look at the story, Jonah was not a good prophet. He was an angry one, who did not want to bring God’s message of mercy to his enemy.
As a child, I had one of those illustrated children’s Bible’s that I’m sure many of you had. In particular, I can still vividly remember the engaging and dramatic illustrations that helped the stories come to life. I think of the image of Noah’s Arc being tossed by the storm. Or the dramatic scene from Mark’s gospel of the man being lowered through the roof of the house by his friends so that Jesus could heal him. And, of course, I remember Jonah with the dramatic picture of him being coughed onto the beach from the belly of the whale, the belly of the beast, which brought him to Nineveh.
Our passage today picks begins right after that moment. It’s an understatement to say that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. In fact, that is the whole point of the whale. God came into Jonah’s life and gave him this great mission – to be His prophet and to proclaim a message of healing, unity, and mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah did not want to do this. For Jonah, the Ninevites were his greatest enemy. This was the capital of the empire that had conquered Israel. The city itself was a den of iniquity – full of godlessness, immorality, and corruption. He would have gladly brought them a message of doom – “The end is near; soon you will be punished.” But mercy? Never. In fact, Jonah ran the other way trying to get as far away from this task as he could. But God would not relent – He sent a storm to topple the ship Jonah was fleeing on, and then a great fish to swallow him up and bring him back to Nineveh.
Jonah eventually complies with God’s request – but barely. The great surprise to Jonah is that as soon as these “godforsaken” people heard his message of repentance, they received it with eagerness, they repented with sincerity – from the King to the most lowly – and they regained God’s mercy and forgiveness. They found God in their lives again. Happy ending, right? Not for Jonah. After his enemy repents, Jonah is angrier than he was in the beginning. We’re told, “This greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry…[He said], ‘O Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.’ Jonah left the city, built himself a hut, and waited under the shade, to see what would happen.” Jonah’s heart was full of hatred for his enemy; and it blinded him to what God wanted to do.
And this is why I think Jonah is a helpful prophet for our times. His story shows us, as Scripture often does, that nothing is impossible for God. God can change the hearts of even the most godless people, and if we preach His message, we can be part of that change, we can be a partner with God in bringing forth goodness, healing, mercy, and forgiveness. But, how often are we more like Jonah? We don’t want what’s best for our enemies, or those we disagree with, we want their destruction. Our victory can only come through their defeat.
But God is calling us to something better; something bigger; something holier. When we look at those with whom we struggle – can we wish what’s best for them? Can we hope for their goodness? Can we pray for their holiness and conversion of heart? Can we help them to change? Or do we only wish their defeat.
My friends, the message for us today is that what God asked of Jonah, He asks of us. God wants each one of us to be His witnesses, His servants, His messengers. He wants us to deliver His message that no one is beyond His love, no one is beyond His forgiveness; no one is beyond the ability to be changed from darkness into light, from sorrow to joy, from even sin into glory – all by the loving mercy of our God. And this should be our deepest wish for our enemies; not their destruction, but their reception of all that God promises.
My brothers and sisters, God is still sending each of us on mission to Nineveh. He wants us to bring His Word to all of the places where it is missing; even to the places that seem the farthest away from Him; even to those we might consider an enemy, or unworthy of that call. God invites us to be the Good News spoken to unimaginable places and impossible situations. The good news for us is that these hopeless cases are not hopeless after all. For if even Nineveh could turn back to God so can any situation we encounter in life. Nothing – no difficulty, no hurt or pain, no illness, no broken relationship, no sin, no division or disagreement – nothing, is beyond the power of God to heal, to change, to turn into glory.
Let us pledge to be missionaries of God’s loving and merciful message; and in doing so be the instruments of peace and unity that our world so desperately needs right now. Let me end as I began, with some of the words of Amanda Gorman:
“When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it
And yet, the dawn is ours.”
May the Lord give you peace.
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