This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on January 24, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.
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 God’s mind about the calamity that God had said God would bring upon them; and God did not do it.
Our District Superintendent, John Farley, shared a small story with me this past week, about how our means of connecting have shifted. On a walk, he and his wife went past a family. The child saw them, and shouted ‘people’, to which the parents responded with instructions to her to keep a distance. There’s something about the almost alarming tone in which the child announced that there were people that tells us a lot about how this year has shaped us, and the ways we connect with one another.
We talk about connection a lot. We know from Genesis, that we were created to connect, and this past almost year has really challenged that connection with one another. We have been quite literally forced to stay inside our homes and not physically connect with anyone. Our church has been virtual for almost a year now, and so most certainly, our means of connecting have changed, both with each other and with God.
What is a new means of connection or way you’ve connected in the last year?
With our church, I know not all of us were a part of this congregation pre-COVID, so if that’s you, you may feel like this is normal. Or, you may have been a part of a different congregation, or a different means of worship. And for those who were worshipping in person with us pre-pandemic, we were used to certain practices, certain rituals. The walking up to the front for communion once a month, the coffee hour in the parlor after service, the creakiness of the pews when you adjusted your seat during a prayer time. While they may seem small, these practices, and others you may have connected yourself to God, they’ve changed. They no longer can exist in the same way.
When change happens, whether it be forced change like the pandemic, or more intentional change like a new strategy plan beginning, the connection that once was becomes unstable or disconnects completely, and one has to re-establish a new connection in a different location or means. This means there’s a period of instability, much like on a Zoom call when your WIFI connection becomes faint. We had to learn how to connect again with one another, through phone calls, video chats, and socially distanced gatherings. And just like with people, we had to or are still having to learn how to connect again with God.
The things that once connected us with God in a lot of ways have not been possible. The physical building hasn’t been operating. The symbols that we’ve held sacred still are sacred, but they can not be the source of God’s presence like they used to be. Our spiritual practices may have shifted from Sunday morning worship to something different, like a walk or reading the Bible with a friend over the phone. This season is one where we may have even experienced disconnection from God, where it may have felt like the God you knew before is no longer present.
The Good News, is that God never disconnected from us. We are invited again and again, just like the people of Nineveh, to reconnect with God.
Our story today is the second time the word of the Lord came to Jonah. This suggests that God was using Jonah and seeing him as a prophet. The first time, Jonah was reluctant, and prepared to not obey God, but a lot has happened since the first chapter when that happened, and now, the second time, Jonah is prepared to listen and follow through on the message God has prepared for him. Jonah was given a second chance, a second chance to reconnect.
The funny thing however, about this, is that while God was giving Jonah a second chance, Jonah himself wasn’t excited about God giving a second chance to the Ninevites, to whom God was calling Jonah to speak to. Still, Jonah followed through and journeyed to Nineveh “according to the word of the Lord”, it says.
When Jonah gets there, he proclaimed a message to the Ninevites, a message of warning, but also a message that was inviting them to reconnect with God and God’s instructions for them.
It says that he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Something to note about this message is the time that is given, forty days. This time frame gives us a hint that God doesn’t actually want to destroy the city, rather that period of time being given to get their stuff together and change their behavior is actually a sign of grace. So we can read for this message a true “come to Jesus” moment coming from God’s instructions, delivered by Jonah.
After Jonah delivers the message, a fairly direct and harsh one in tone, almost threatening in nature, he waits to see what the people of Nineveh will do in response. Our passage says that the people of Nineveh believed God. This points out a few things to us. One, that yes, they understood what was being communicated to them, and two, that they recognized the instructions were coming from God, not simply by Jonah. This is important because it shows the ways in which the Ninevites were willing to listen for God, even when God’s voice and message came through new means of connection.
The Ninevites listened, and they found their own ways to reconnect with God, as God asked of them. They fasted, put on sackcloths, and everyone was a part of it, in order to demonstrate their desire to have a relationship with God, and to adapt to this new means of relationship that was before them.
And so God saw that they were making this effort, and that they were re-connecting. The nature of God’s relationship with the Ninevites never strayed, yet they felt more closeness once they heard God’s message clearly and responded in a way that suited their needs at that time.
How has your connection to God changed? Like the Ninevites, have you felt distant from God, or searching for a more deep and meaningful connection?
I tell this story a lot, but when I became a pastor, the ways that once connected me to God now felt a little less direct, because my job was in part to do those things. There was a period there, where I felt really distant, like my relationship to God was going away. But once I began to listen more for God’s presence in areas of my life I hadn’t yet tapped into, I realized that God had never gone away. I began to see God in areas of my life that didn’t have anything to do with a church building or even a Bible, in addition to the connection I still had with God in those things.
As our circumstances change, our location, our age, our relationships, we need to re-adjust, take inventory of that connection we have with that which is bigger than ourselves, and, if necessary, find new ways to reconnect.
If you feel comfortable sharing, what is one practice, place, or thing that connects you to God in this season?
As we leave this place, may we go with the awareness of the vastness of God’s network. May we understand that like the Ninevites, we are invited to reconnect often with the God whose steadfastness is a constant. And may we find new ways to be in relationship with God, in this season, and moving forward. Amen.