Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

The other week Deborah and I went to the movies. We wanted to see the new film, “The Post.” If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s the story about Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, who, on the death of her husband, took over the management. To say the least, it was a difficult job, because she had previously spent her life in the traditional role of a faithful wife and mother raising her children and supporting various charitable organizations. In spite of her lack of business experience, she grew into her new responsibilities, successfully making it in a world dominated by powerful men. That’s one theme of the film.

The other theme has to do with freedom of the press. The Pentagon Papers—copies of dozens and dozens of reports about Southeast Asia written between the late 1940s and 1960s—showed what a fool’s errand it would be and was to fight a war in Vietnam. But each president continued to pursue that very policy. And to leave Vietnam without a decisive victory would be humiliating. As some of you recall, those papers were leaked in 1971.Although a federal judge prohibited the New York Times from publishing stories about it, Ms. Graham and the chief editor of the Post took a chance, deciding that the paper would begin publishing its own stories.

It was fascinating to watch the entire process unfolding in the wee hours of the morning:

·        The reporter plunking away on his old-fashioned typewriter.

·        His article being placed in a pneumatic tube and sent down to the printing press.

·        A worker inserting typeset into the machines.

·        All the papers then rolling off the press onto conveyor belts near the end of which men tied them up into bundles.

·        Then both men and boys throwing them into the backs of trucks so they could be delivered to stores and dispensers.

·        And, finally, people scooping up copies to read the front-stage story about the secret the government had been keeping for so many years.

One part of that process—shown very briefly in the film—was that of a man at a desk who had received the original article. Before sending it onto the next person, he took it and began crossing out words here and there, sometimes substituting others, sometimes deleting entire phrases. Then it dawned on me who he was—the copy editor. It was his jobto “clean up” the article, that is, correct grammatical errors and misspellings,  improving the style and flow, and, of course, shortening it.

That last part—shortening the story, getting rid of repetitions, making it more “efficient” so it would take up less space in the paper—in an odd way it made me think of the writer of the Gospel of Mark doing the very same thing. What I mean is this: Of the four gospels, Mark is by far the shortest. Matthew has 28 chapters, Luke 24, John 21. Does anyone know or want to venture a guess about Mark?...It has just 16 chapters.

It’s as if an editor came along and cut out large pieces of the other gospels, especially Matthew and Luke. The birth narratives of Jesus? In Mark, nothing at all about them. Nothing either about the genealogy of Jesus. And the Spirit taking Jesus out into the desert? In Mark no details whatsoever. All that we read is this:“ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”[i] That’s it. And while Matthew and Luke almost read like short novels,  Mark resembles something more like an adventure story. Some of you may be aware that the word “immediately” often appears in Mark, twice in just today’s passage. First, with Peter and Andrew: “‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” The same with James and John: “Immediately he called them; and they left their father…” That word occurs no less than 40 times in Mark. That gospel is so fast-paced that there have been those who have memorized it, then reciting it as a dramatic reading in just one setting. That’s how quickly it can move along.[ii] Along with this quick pace is the directness of Mark. Like John the Baptist before him, Jesus starts out his preaching ministry in much the same way: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[iii] Short and simple.

It’s basically the same in today’s first lesson—in the Book of Jonah:

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people

of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone,

great and small [even cattle, goats, and sheep], 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 would bring…

and…did not do it.[iv]

A much smaller piece than Mark—just four chapters—Jonah is not only brief and, in some parts, rather direct, but also has a profound message. Adventure stories, so to speak, are not always simply all action and no substance. They also can express truths that are very deep, even profound. Mark is like that. And so is Jonah. And, in both, that message is about love and forgiveness. A big difference is that Jesus is thrilled when people hear his message and repent, and their lives are changed. Not so with Jonah. So I want to spend the remainder of the time addressing how we Christians are sometimes more like Jonah than Jesus and what we might be able to do to change that.

As you probably know, Jonah is not too keen about visiting Nineveh in the first place, to the point that when God gives him his marching orders, he commences to go in the opposite direction—even boarding a boat going out to sea. After all that business with the storm and three days in the belly of the great fish and so on, when God tells him again to go to Nineveh, Jonah decides to toe the line.

As mentioned earlier, on entering the city, he gives a very brief warning to the people and, lo and behold, they listen to him. What is not included in today’s lesson is the very last chapter of the book—when Jonah leaves the city for some high ground to wait and see what will happen. We know the outcome: God spares the people—and the animals, too. And Jonah is angry.

He’s as resentful as can be. And for good reason. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, a nation that has invaded and plundered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then turning it into a vassal state. The citizens of Nineveh are the archenemy of God’s people. Why, then, has God even given the Assyrians the opportunity to repent at all? God should have just blown them off the face of the earth! Right?

Sad to say, that’s how I sometimes feel. And that’s living in a land that’s not even under the thumb of another nation. True, since 9/11we’ve had a handful of small attacks or at least attempts by foreign terrorists. And we’ve had saber rattling from others, most noticeably North Korea. So I do have some animosity toward such individuals and governments. Yet not only toward enemies without, but also those within—fellow citizens whose hatred, prejudice, even greed—may threaten to undermine freedoms we hold so dear. I know I should pray for such persons, for such groups—that God might move their hearts, help them change their ways not only for their own sake, but for the welfare of all. Yet too often I am like Jonah, wishing that God would just give them what they deserve (so that I may even rejoice in their downfall).

Like the prophet sitting on high ground, I am sometimes obsessed with the whole situation, waiting to see what I hope will happen to them.

So I must pray not only for a change of heart in those I fear, resent, maybe even despise, but more so for a change of heart within myself. For Jesus promises to bring good news into the lives of those around him. Not all of them listen—then or now. And throughout the centuries, some of them have done him and his followers great harm, even complicit in bringing about his death and those who love him. But he has not hated them for it. If anything, he has felt sorrow.

In turn, I—all of us—must remember not to allow the negative words and actions of others to control how we ourselves will respond, dominating our thoughts, our words, our emotions. That’s not to say we should accept, should let pass, what our enemies say or do. But opposing them and wishing them ill are not the same thing. And it’s important to remember the difference.

Knowing the good news of Jesus Christ—the new life he holds out for us and others. We must ask ourselves: “What answer shall we then give to God’s question at the end of the Book of Jonah?” On the death and shriveling up of a bush that has shielded Jonah from the hot sun, he first mourns its passing and then becomes bitter about it. God said to him:

“Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough

to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did

not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in

a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there

are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[v]

Shall we ourselves answer this question with hatred in our hearts, or with love? Amen.


[i] Mark 1:12-13.

[ii] David Rhoads, professor emeritus of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is among those who have popularized this practice.

[iii] Mark 1:15.

[iv] Jonah 3:4b-5, 10.

[v] Jonah 4:9-11.