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Feb. 28 - Get Behind Me, Satan” - Rev. Michael Plank

2nd Sunday in Lent
February 25th, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY

“Get Behind Me, Satan”

Text: Mark 8:33: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’”

Scripture Lesson: Mark 8:31-38

Proposition: I propose to experientially show that well-meaning people can distract us from God’s dream for us to the end that hearers will be strengthened in their conviction as they follow God’s will.

Prayer for Illumination: God of clarity, we so often get distracted and detracted from what you wish for us. Open our minds as we hear your Word this morning and set us back on your path. We pray this in your name. Amen.

Mark 8:31-38: During Jesus’ teaching, people say all kinds of things about him, including that he is the Messiah. Jesus expands on what that means and teaches his disciples about God’s plan for him. Listen for God’s Word.

I spend a lot of time working with people who are trying to get healthier. One of the most interesting things for me about that work is learning about what is difficult for those people in accomplishing their goal. It’s not the work, it’s not the commitment, it’s not the attitude. One of the most difficult things, that I hear time and again, is that their friends and family doubt them.

People who’ve been sedentary for years start working out and people who care about them don’t say, “good for you!” they say “you’d better be careful, you might hurt yourself.” People who’ve tried forever to lose weight are now committing seriously to cutting out processed foods and some of their family members don’t say “way to take charge of your health!” they say “there’s no way you can sustain a diet like that.” People are making the healthiest choices of their lives and their friends aren’t throwing them a party, they’re saying “that’s too expensive.” I work with people are picking themselves up, and others – others who are supposed to love and care for them – are trying to pull them back down.

Peter loved Jesus and cared for him. He was the first of Jesus’ disciples. He left everything he had behind him – his friends, his home, his livelihood – because he believed so deeply in what Jesus was telling him. He would do anything for Jesus. He loved him more than he loved himself. He was the first to recognize Jesus as God’s anointed one: the Messiah, the Christ. Yet when Jesus explained where he was going, Peter tried to hold him back.

Our reading this morning is one I find myself coming back to again and again. It’s the first time in Mark that Jesus admits to the disciples who he really is and what is really going to happen. He uses the phrase “Son of Man” and tells them that his teachings will lead him to great things, but that on the way there will be terrible detours. He told them that he would be kicked out of the Holy Community; that the elders and chief priests and teachers of the law would reject him. He told them that he would be arrested. And he told them that he would be killed. And he told them that at the end, he would rise from the grave, defeating death forever.

What he shared with them was unimaginable, unheard of, beyond comprehension. But he shared it so calmly, so confidently, so assured that it would come to pass. Jesus knew where he was going. He knew the cost, but he also knew the reward. He knew what had to be done and he had set his mind to do it. And Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him.

The text doesn’t say what Peter said, but we can imagine. It’s easy to imagine Peter grabbing Jesus by the arm and whispering fiercely to him, saying, “you can’t say stuff like that. They’re not ready to hear it.” Or maybe “we’ll help you run and hide in the wilderness.” Or maybe more likely, “we’ll fight for you and they’ll never take you.” He tried to talk Jesus away from this insane plan of his.

Do you think Jesus didn’t have any doubts about this plan? Of course he did. In the Garden he prayed to God for any other way, for any other plan, for any possible course of action that didn’t involve him suffering quite so much. He had doubts and fears, but he had resolved to face them and to follow where God was leading him anyway. And then Peter heaped his own doubts and fears on Jesus and tried to hold him back.

It’s curious that Peter would do that. It seems strange that the most devoted disciple would try to be a barrier. It doesn’t make perfect sense. But it is one of the most common human responses in the world. Across cultures, across languages, across history, this kind of thing happens.

Family Systems thinking talks about a concept called homeostasis. Any system – whether a group of friends, a family, a church, a company, or a nation – will achieve homeostasis. It will achieve a balance. It will arrive at a place where things are settled and everyone has his or her place. Leaders lead, workers work, happy people are happy, sad people are sad, mean people are mean, abused people are abused, unhealthy people are unhealthy. Everyone has a role assigned to them, and they play their part day in and day out.

But all hell breaks loose when a member of the system tries to step out of their assigned role. The whole system will try everything in its power to keep things from being shaken up. Any change is a threat to stability. The system reacts and from avenues expected and unexpected, sabotage will come.

People who try to get out of abusive relationships will have family members say things like “but don’t you think it’s important for a child to have two parents? How will you be able to afford to live on your own? Maybe a different therapist would help him change.” People who try to break out of poverty will have friends say things like “you’ve forgotten where you came from. You think you’re too good for us now. You turned your back on your home.” People who try to get sober will have friends say “you were more fun when you drank. Can’t you just cut loose once in a while?” And people who try to follow where God leads have disciples who say “we won’t let this happen to you.”

The people who try to hold us back rarely realize what they’re doing. We’re guilty of playing that part with others in our lives – holding them back from where they want to go. Peter loved and cared for Jesus and the Peters in our lives love and care for us. They almost can’t help what they’re doing. It’s a knee-jerk response. The stability of their system is threatened and they want that stability back at any cost. Peter the rock tried to be a stumbling block. Whenever you try to change or move in a new direction or follow where God is leading you, expect sabotage. Expect that kind of sabotage. Do not be surprised, do not be taken aback. Expect sabotage.

Sabotage is serious business. When people throw their own doubts and worries on you they become toxic. Your own doubts and worries multiply exponentially. Their anxiety becomes your anxiety. Their fear becomes your fear. Their small-mindedness becomes your small-mindedness. Sabotage can keep you abused forever. It can keep you unhealthy forever. It can keep you trapped in a cage, unable to spread your wings, forever.

And Jesus responds to Peter with the seriousness sabotage deserves and looks his first, closest disciple in the face, and says “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan is the old Hebrew word for adversary and it is a role anyone can play, even Peter, even your parents, even your siblings, even your spouse, even your friends.

“Shouldn’t a child have two parents?” “Get behind me, Satan!” “You’ve forgotten where you come from.” “Get behind me, Satan!” “You were more fun when you drank.” “Get behind me, Satan!” “Isn’t it too expensive to eat unprocessed foods?” “Get behind me, Satan!” “Isn’t it too much work to get a degree at your age?” “Get behind me, Satan!” “You do not have your mind on the things of God, but on the things of humanity.” This is the muck and the mire and the brokenness of our species, that’s what you’re thinking of, but my mind is set on God and I will not be pulled down by you. Get behind me, Satan!

Learn to recognize that role: keep your eye out for Satan, for the Adversary. Keep your ears open for that diabolical voice that tries to convince you that you can’t do what God is calling you to do. And call it out. See it for what it is and rebuke it. Raise your voice and say “Get behind me, Satan!”

Make no mistake, you will hurt feelings when you do it. You will stir up trouble. You may even damage relationships. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. If Jesus had listened to Peter, he would have avoided the cross, but we would have missed his saving resurrection. If you listen to the Peters you will remain stuck where you are. You have to call them out when they try to drag you down if you want to grow.

But the people who truly love you will heal. Peter, for all his flaws, loved Jesus fiercely to the end, becoming the foundation for the church, even dying for Jesus. Because a miracle happens when you rebuke your rebukers. Not only are you strengthened, but they are given the opportunity to recognize their own brokenness and to strengthen themselves.

It is hard. It is some of the hardest work you will ever do. Following God’s call is hard anyway, and resisting sabotage makes it harder still. But the God who calls you is the one who called Jesus to the cross and beyond it to an empty tomb. The strength you have to resist is not your strength, but God’s strength. And that is a strength that is limitless in supply.

Set your mind on God and even if you lose your life, you will save it. Even if you lose the world, you will gain your soul (Mark 8). Scripture says it like this – we read it a few weeks ago: those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength, they will rise up on wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint (Isaiah 40). It says that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1). It says if God is for us who can be against us? (Romans 8).

Rebuke your adversaries. Cast off the doubts that weigh you down. Free yourself from the chains that bind you. Shrug off the weights that pull you to the ground. Lift your heads, have courage, and walk bravely toward God’s call for you. Amen.

Feb. 21 - A Gift for Us - Elder Michael Barron

“A Gift for Us: Spiritual Disciplines”
Preached at First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls on Sunday, February 21, 2021

Prayer of Illumination: Gracious Lord, we come to this place is awe. Open our minds and our hearts to hear what you have to say to us today. Grant us peace and wisdom to understand what you have called us to witness. We pray this in your Son’s name, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Text: Mark 1: 9-15

This past Wednesday we began the season of Lent. We did this virtually. For this morning the sermon is about baptism and Lent. I am one who typically speaks about how we are all on a journey in faith, in walking with Christ. This is about our journey of life and Jesus’ journey to the cross.

In Mark, we hear of Jesus’ baptism. And Mark doesn’t mince words. Mark’s account of Jesus baptism is that everything happens very fast, “immediately,” the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks, “immediately” the Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness.

Then comes Jesus’ temptation by Satan. Jesus is tempted to deny God and rely on himself, and worship Satan. Jesus does not succumb to temptation, and he resists temptation for us.

Our journey of faith also begins in baptism, by water and the Spirit, but in contrast to Jesus journey, our journey begins with death. That is the death of the sinner, in the water and by the Word, the union of each Christen to our Savior’s death and resurrection for us. This death continues for the whole of our life until we breathe our final breath, we are then taken out of death to life.

As Christ was tempted after his baptism, so too are we. For in our sinful state, before our baptism, before we are claimed by Christ and have the gospel proclaimed to us, temptation is not a factor. For sin reigns before we are claimed by Christ. We have no regard for doing God’s will, we have no desire to resist evil, so we are free to sin without the need for temptation.

After baptism, after Christ has placed his mark on us, after we have heard the Gospel, temptation begins. Because Satan knows that he has lost another soul and wants it back.

Let us remember the petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation.”

Within our own Profession of Faith within the Baptism service, it says “We enter the covenant God has established where God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. Sometimes people get confused with this passage and mistake its intentions. Meaning this, Mark is not saying God is tempting Jesus. God leads all of us on his path of truth. Evil, the devil, Satan, whatever you wish to name it, at times the World and our own flesh tempt us to sin. We hear things like:

  • Jesus’ words are not trustworthy;

  • You don’t really believe that, do you?

  • How could one man’s life, 2000 years ago be relevant to you today?

  • You don’t deserve His gifts!

  • He doesn’t really love you;

  • It’s not a big deal, the world has changed, and that sin doesn’t matter now;

Many of us even become complacent in our faith. Satan can take a holiday. We look to the world and find in it such compelling evidence that we walk away from our Savior who suffered the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. So, after being brought to God by our Savior we walk away and follow ways of the world instead.

Others of us are so tuned in on ourselves that Satan need not do any work at all. We continue in our sin, happily breaking each and every commandment, succumbing to our own fleshy temptation and refusing ever to repent. Or we do repent with the best intentions, yet when we walk out the door, we slip right back into our sins again.

We need to return to our Savior, to our walk of faith. When we are tempted by Satan, the world or our sinful self, we must flee to our Savior. For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

We return to the Cross, for that is the task of Lent. To turn away from our own sins, temptations, or agendas, and turn back to our Savior on the cross. Lent is about repenting of our turning away from God and turning back with a good conscience granted by our Savior Jesus Christ in our baptism. The task of Lent is to repent our unbelief and lack of trust, believe that he has done all of this for us; that he has taken on our flesh, been baptized, walked through the wilderness, experienced and resisted all manner of temptations and even in the face of death did not turn his back, but turned his face to Jerusalem and followed the path all the way to the cross, all for us.

Our journey of Lent follows Jesus’ journey. We follow him through our baptism, into our temptations, right to his cross. Yet our journey doesn’t end in death – our journey ends in resurrection, as Jesus shares his own resurrection with us. We don’t receive what we deserve, that is eternal death; we receive what he deserves, eternal life with God.

As we take this journey of Lent again, as we lift our eyes to Jesus on the Cross, we must always be aware that Lent is really a condensed form of the Christian life.

Our baptism is not just relevant in Lent; our temptations are not limited to Lent; Our sin is not limited to Lent; Our spiritual disciplines are not limited to Lent.

Lent gives a chance to hone in our spiritual disciplines. They are a reminder so that we might make them a habit throughout our years and rising with each new day, new life in righteousness and service.

Sisters and brothers, as you join Jesus on his journey to the cross, you might consider how the disciplines of prayer, of fasting, and giving to the needy help you focus on Jesus during Lent. Mind you these are just a few suggestions. Fasting, for instance, helps you focus on Jesus because you have free time when you would usually eat, time that is now free so that you can read and meditate on His word. By reading the Word, you are immediately looking to him and away from yourself. You could also be free in that time to serve your neighbor with acts of service. You may also free up some money by not purchasing food and this too could help you focus on the needs of others rather than your own needs.

The spiritual disciplines were never meant to focus you on yourself; we are good enough at doing that already. Spiritual disciplines are to help make you look outside of yourself, to look to Jesus and to your neighbor, to see in Jesus Christ the pain and suffering he endured for us, the temptations he resisted, so that he could bring us to God with a pure and clean conscience. An incredible gift for us!

What discipline, as there are many to choose from, will you follow this Lenten season? Pray over it. Pray and see which Spiritual discipline the Lord wants you to hone in on.


Feb. 14 - You've Changed - Rev. Michael Plank

Transfiguration of the Lord

February 7th, 2016

Rev. Michael S. Plank

Hudson Falls, NY

“You’ve Changed”

Text: Exodus 34:29: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.”

Scripture Lesson: Exodus 34:29-35

Proposition: I propose to experientially show that we are transformed when we come into the presence of God to the end that hearers will claim their own transformation and let God’s glory shine through their new selves.

Prayer for Illumination: God of challenge and change, we are transformed by your presence. Work that transformation in us this morning, so that as we hear your Word we might leave this place as new and truer versions of the people who walked through the doors today.

Scriptural Context: After being in the wilderness with the Israelites for years, Moses came into God’s presence to receive the Law. Listen for God’s Word in what follows.

I had a couple of big moves at formative moments in my life. About a week before my 16th birthday, my family moved from a small town in the outer suburbs of Chicago to the city of Omaha, which at that time had a population of about 350,000. I stayed there through college, and then went halfway across the country to Tucson, Arizona, a city of about a million. From there I went to Chicago and seminary. And at every turn I faced a whole host of brand new experiences.

Not just because of the increase in population, though that was part of it. But because being in a new place, especially a new place so different from what I was used to, challenged me. The same thing happens to people who grow up in cities and then move out to the country. All of a sudden, all the stuff you’ve known and done to make it through life doesn’t work the same way, and so you have to figure out new ways to go through the days. Walking to the convenience store worked great when I was in small town Illinois, but not so much in sprawling Omaha. Having the neighbors over for a barbecue was easy in Tucson, but a lot more logistically difficult and awkward in Chicago.

And there were other things too. I had different opportunities in those new places. Things like zoos, and museums, sure, but also I met new people, I took up new hobbies with new friends, I learned through good experiences and bad experiences. I gained perspective that I would have missed if I had just stayed in that small town outside of Chicago. After experiences like that, do you know what happens when you go back to where you started? When you get around the people who knew you before? People say, “you’ve changed.” When you go off to college, or to the military, or to a new city, or to study abroad, you come back, and your old friends look at you and say, “you’ve changed.” And you know what? You lose friends.

Moses was a hero, he was absolutely beloved by his people, he captured their hearts and led them to freedom, and even gave them the tough love they needed to survive in the wilderness, but then something happened; and he changed. And people didn’t totally know how to relate to him anymore.

After wandering in the wilderness for decades, Moses had gone up Mount Sinai. He stayed there while the people below saw lightning and thunder and a huge, dense, terrible cloud that sat at the summit. Moses was there for weeks. People began to wonder if he had died. He had allegedly gone to talk to God, but there was nothing to indicate that he was ever coming back. And so they gave up on Moses and his god. And they made the golden calf. And then Moses did come down, and he was furious. And the tablets of the Law, that he had hand cut, he threw down in his anger and shattered.

And he stayed down in camp, keeping mainly to himself. And he steamed and fumed. People gave him space. And he almost exclusively talked to God. And finally one morning, he got up, took a hammer and chisel, pounded out new tablets, and headed back up the mountain. With his whole being you could tell that he was just daring someone to face his wrath if they followed. Back up the mountain he went.

And he was there for 40 days, the text says. Forty days while God descended in a mighty cloud and sat with him. Forty days with no food or water. Forty days while he hand-carved the 10 Commandments into solid stone… for the second time. Forty days while God made a covenant with him to do wonders for the Israelites the likes of which the world had never seen. And when Moses came down that second time, he was different. And people were terrified of him.

The text says “he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant and they were afraid to come near him” (34:29-30). He had been to the mountaintop. He had been in God’s presence. And he had been transformed so thoroughly, that everyone could see it.

There are moments in life that transform you. There are moments that define your life in terms of “before this” and “after this.” These are the moments when people say “You’ve changed” and they are absolutely right. They are moments like Moses on the mountaintop, receiving the covenant. They are moments like Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah, centuries later. But mountaintop experiences are not always positive. It was anger and grief that drove Moses to the mountaintop that second time, not devotion. Because those moments that transform you also sometimes come with grief, and pain, and struggle.

No one goes into a battle with depression and comes out of it the same. No one loses a spouse and comes to the other side of that deep grief unchanged. No nation survives a global pandemic and comes out the other side exactly like they were when they went in. Those are mountaintop experiences. Those are the moments that mark your life as before this and after this. Those moments change you. And as powerful as the struggle is, the most powerful part of that change is the moment when you decide that your life will go on.

When you’re deep in the struggle, and almost drowning; when the grief, or anger, or shame, or fear is pulling you under; when you’re not sure if you can make it even one more day, and then somehow, some way, beyond explanation, you decide that there will be more to your life than this. You decide that there will be another day after today. You decide that though this experience will be with you forever, though it may even define you, it will not be your last experience. In that moment, you will be present in the glory of God just as surely as Moses was on the mountaintop. And from that moment on, you will be changed. You will be transformed. You will be transfigured. And your face will shine with God’s glory.

And people won’t be able to handle it. They’ll be afraid. They’ll be uncomfortable around you. The radiance that comes out from you will be blinding to some people. People will be offended by it. They’ll have no idea how to handle you now that you’ve changed. And if you don’t want to lose friends, you will be tempted to do what Moses did… you will be tempted to hide your change.

Moses began to wear a veil over his face, so that people would be more comfortable around him. He would take it off when he prayed and spoke to God… he’d take it off when he felt like he was somewhere where it was ok to reveal how much he had been transformed. But he was so worried about other people’s feelings, that he would pretend that he hadn’t been completely and utterly transfigured by God’s grace, so that he could make people more comfortable.

It’s so easy to do that because it seems safe. It’s a good way not to lose people who care more about their comfort than about your transfiguration. But God doesn’t go through the trouble of sitting with you in your deepest and darkest moments, of giving you grace and courage, of transforming your life, for you to then pretend like it didn’t happen. Don’t you go through the hard and painful work of making that transformation just to pretend like it didn’t happen. Because when you do that, you smother that radiance and it starts to fade out (2 Corinthians 3:13).

God calls us always forward. To be wiser, more compassionate, more gracious, more loving. We are always called to be more, never to be less. We are always called to show God’s glory, never to hide it. We are always called to live into our transformation, never to pretend like it didn’t happen.

Take the veil off and let your radiance shine. Ball that veil up and throw it in the garbage. Claim your transfiguration, claim your transformation, claim your change, and let God’s glory shine through you. Stand tall and proud and say, “Yes, I’ve been to the mountaintop! Yes, I’ve suffered through change. Yes, I’ve seen God’s glory. And yes, I’ve been transformed! I am made new. I am a new creation. I am God’s own child. I am transfigured!” Amen.

Jan. 24 - Who Knows? God May Yet Have Compassion” - Rev. Michael Plank

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 24, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY

“Who Knows? God May Yet Have Compassion”

Text: Jonah 3:10: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

Scripture Lessons: Jonah 3:1-10

Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God has grace for us even and especially when we don’t deserve it to the end that hearers will move closer to a full understanding of the magnitude of the grace, love, and mercy of God.

Prayer for Illumination: God of grace, you are patient beyond measure. Be patient with us as we hear your Word, and yet again send your Spirit to open our limited minds to your limitless grace. We pray this in your name. Amen.

Jonah 3:1-10: Jonah was an unwilling prophet, one who took running from God’s call to the extreme before finally answering it. Listen for God’s Word here.

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Joe, is currently married to his second wife. He got married early the first time, at 20 years old, and has two children with his first wife. His first marriage came to an end when his wife, we’ll call her Andrea, had an affair with another man. It was a hard divorce. Joe ended up with primary custody of his children and lived as a single dad for a couple of years. Andrea remarried and her husband is the man with whom she had an affair, we’ll call him Brian. What complicates all this of course is that Joe and Andrea still see each other regularly as they are both responsible for parenting their two children.

Joe has a phenomenal capacity for seeing the bigger picture, and so he is committed to keeping his relationship with his ex-wife civil. But what truly amazes me is that he is also able to stay civil with the man for whom his wife left him. It of course wouldn’t be fair or reasonable for Brian to be the recipient of all of Joe’s anger, but fairness and reason are often conspicuously absent when we’re dealing with love and betrayal. And yet I’ve been at some of the family gatherings. And I’ve seen Joe shake Brian’s hand and offer him a burger from the grill. I can’t imagine the courage and the control it takes to look into the eye of someone who has wronged you so severely, someone who could even be called an enemy, and treat that person with dignity.

Jonah couldn’t either. And so when God told him to go to Nineveh and tell them the error of their ways, Jonah ran. We all know the story. He fled to Joppa and then hopped on a boat headed to Tarshish, on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to get as far away from God as he could. But God had other plans. A terrible storm erupted, and Jonah was convinced that it was because he had run from God. In guilt and fear he told the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Appalled at the idea, the men turned back toward shore and rowed with all their might, only to find that the storm became wilder and fiercer. Finally, sure they would die, the men prayed for God’s forgiveness and threw Jonah into the sea. The storm stopped as suddenly as it had started and they never saw Jonah again.

But Jonah was not lost of course. Because as soon as he had hit the water, the story goes that an enormous fish gulped him down. And for three days and three nights, Jonah was in the dark, wet, smelly gut of that fish. And there in the belly of the beast, under the waves, he prayed more fiercely than he ever had before until God made the fish spit Jonah back onto dry land. And here is where we enter the story in our text this morning.

Jonah has decided to follow God’s command and to enter the city of Nineveh and preach against it. Nineveh was a huge and powerful city. But more significant than that to our story, it was foreign – meaning it had no history of being a part of the covenant between God and God’s people – and it was renowned for its wickedness. And God wanted Jonah to go to his enemies, to a group of people that God had never promised would outnumber the stars, never rescued from Egypt, never swore to protect or brought to a Promised Land, and to show them the errors of their ways.

This was no small task. Imagine that as you finish up worship today, the Word of God comes to you and tells you to get your Covid test so you can fly, then drive to the Albany airport, fly to JFK, and then take the next plane to Syria. Then to take a bus to Al-Baghuz Fawqani, which is the last known heart of ISIL, then march up to the door and say to the most notorious terrorists today: “your actions are an offense to God.” This is what Jonah felt like was facing.

And this is why Jonah ran and got himself swallowed by a fish for three days. And this is why when Jonah got back on land and steeled himself to go into Nineveh he decided that he wasn’t going to go in calmly and speak reasonably and treat the people with dignity; he was going to bring righteous anger with God at his back. So he approached the city gates and was told that to see the city would take him three days. Not keen maybe on another three-day adventure, he gritted his teeth and started yelling the minute he stepped through the gate: “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!”

His anger felt good. He felt justified. He felt powerful. He was bringing God’s judgment on wickedness. He was bringing doom to those who deserved it. He was the fearsome angel of righteousness, warning of God’s swift and terrible justice.

Word of Jonah’s threats reached the king and you’d think he would have Jonah arrested and flogged. But instead he immediately ripped off his royal robes and threw himself to the ground in dismay. He tossed ashes on his head and he issued a decree that every man, woman, and child should dress in rags and fast and give up violence and wickedness and pray harder than they had ever prayed before to this God of Jonah. The king was desperate. So desperate that his royal decree, the official Word from the palace, ended with the most powerful man in the greatest city in the world frantically saying, “Who knows? God may yet have compassion and turn from the fierce anger Jonah promises” (v. 9).

And Jonah relished their despair. He loved watching them squirm. It was vindicating to see the powerful brought to their knees as they realized that the jig was up, that all their scheming, all their tricks, all their brutality had finally caught up with them and they would get what they deserved. And it’s right about at this point in the story that we see that the author has put in a little bit of a bait and switch. We experience the story through Jonah’s eyes, but it’s not about Jonah. It’s about Nineveh. It’s about us.

Because the fact is that we too have sinned. We have lived through and contributed to years, decades maybe, of deep division in our nation. Left or right, red or blue, liberal or conservative, most all of us have had a part to play. I know I have. And we have a new president and a new year which feels like a new start. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to reckon with our actions.

Because the fact is that we too have displeased God and displeased our neighbors. Just like the Ninevites. We’ve lashed out at others. We’ve done things under cover of darkness that we’re ashamed of. We’ve betrayed people we care for. We’ve spread lies. We’ve cheated and stolen. We’ve abused our bodies, our families, our friends, our planet. And there are people in this world holier and more righteous than us who would not bat an eye to see us get what we deserve.

The text says that the people of Nineveh had engaged in “wickedness” and that God planned to bring “wickedness” back on them. Wickedness for wickedness. Violence for violence. A taste of their own medicine. There are righteous people in the world who would see only justice if those of us who have betrayed others were betrayed ourselves. Who would see it as justice if those of us who have abused others were abused ourselves. Who would see it as justice if those of us who have been cruel received cruelty. Who would see it as justice if our wickedness was met with wickedness. Forty more days and you will be destroyed.

And when we are vulnerable enough to hear the true accusations against us in the midst of the false ones, when we are vulnerable enough to take our failings seriously, when we are vulnerable enough to meet our brokenness face to face, we may cower in fear like the Ninevites. We may put aside all our pride and pray fiercely and swear never to do wrong again and in our desperation say, “Who knows? Maybe God still has some compassion left for me.” We may weep in guilt and shame while the Jonahs stand sternly by, waiting for the punishment that we rightly deserve.

But God doesn’t destroy Nineveh. There is no retribution, no condemnation, no righteous fire or brimstone. Instead, God had compassion on the city. They deserved destruction and were given mercy. They deserved wickedness and were given kindness. They deserved death and were given life. And Jonah was furious because of how unfair it was. It was unfair. It was colossally unfair. Jonah was right. But the Jonahs do not determine whether we are ruined or whether we are saved.

The Jonahs do not decide destruction or salvation, they do not decide guilt or innocence, they do not decide punishment or mercy. Thanks be to God that only God decides that. I’ve hurt people on the other side. I’ve been callous and inconsiderate. I’ve lumped people together and dismissed them based on their beliefs or their votes. And I’ve been rightly called out for that. But I’m thankful that instead of Jonah waiting there to decide my fate, I find God. Thanks be to God that instead of an executioner, we find a refuge. Thanks be to God that instead of a storm we find shelter. Thanks be to God that instead of death we find life eternal. Our cure for what ails us, our home when all feels lost, our rock and our salvation. Amen.