This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel reading was Matthew 5:21-37, the third consecutive reading from the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon presupposes two things: first, that you just heard the gospel reading. (Well, they all presuppose that, but this one more than most. So click here and read it.) Second, during the “Confession and Forgiveness” time at the beginning of worship, I did not actually pronounce forgiveness on the congregation. I left them hanging, having confessed their sins.
Jonah was a prophet. A man who spoke God’s Word. God sent Jonah on a mission to go to Nineveh, a city in the east. Jonah, however, chose not to accept this mission, and boarded the first boat heading west. Jonah turned away from following God.
I mention Jonah today because of a sermon I preached six years ago. As I’m sure you remember, the last time I preached on this gospel text was six years ago, and I began that sermon with these words: “We need to remember something. We need to remember where we started, or this will swallow us whole.” I was concerned that we would hear these words of Christ in today’s gospel text, and be swallowed up in anxiety and guilt. I wanted to protect you from being swallowed up. But I think I may have missed the point that day.
Jonah sailed as far as he could, away from God. But God followed, and God’s wrath came in the form of a storm, a great storm that swamped the ship. Jonah dove off the ship, and the storm calmed. And Jonah was swallowed up by a whale. Jonah turned away from God, and was swallowed whole.
What might swallow us?
Jesus said, “You know that it was said: You shall not murder.” That’s the fifth commandment. How many of you have broken that commandment lately? Then Jesus said, “I tell you, if you are angry with someone, if you insult someone, if you call someone a fool, you are just as guilty as if you murdered them.” Again, how many of you have broken this commandment lately?
Jesus said, “So when you are coming to the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, stop right there, and go reconcile with your brother or sister first, and then come back to the altar.” And so, if you have any broken relationships in your life, if you have any grudges, if you have any anger you cannot let go of, then take care of it now, right now, before you come up for communion.
How does that feel? Do you feel like you’re being swallowed up?
Jesus continued: “You have heard that it was said: You shall not commit adultery.” The sixth commandment. Who’s broken this one lately? Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in heart.” And Jesus us the remedy for this one. He said, “If your eye is causing you to sin, tear it out. And if your hand is causing you to sin, cut it off.”
How are you feeling now? Swallowed up yet?
And then Jesus talked about divorce. “If you divorce someone, you are committing adultery. If you marry a divorced person, you are committing adultery.” I know that many of you have been divorced. And I know that many of you are now in a more loving relationship with your current spouse than you ever were with your first.
Swallowed up yet?
If these things are what God demands of us, then we will never fulfill them. The storm has come, we have been thrown off the boat, we have been swallowed whole by the whale.
But the belly of the whale was not the place of Jonah’s death. It was the place of Jonah’s rebirth, like a cocoon preparing him to reemerge as something new. God does not desire to inflict punishment or revenge on us. When we are swallowed up by God’s law, it does not destroy us. It leads us to remember. Remember who God is. Remember who we are.
Inside the belly of the whale, Jonah remembered that God was the god who comes to people in their distress, the god who hears us. Jonah remembered that he himself was called to be God’s prophet in the world. And he called to God, proclaiming, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Inside the belly of our whale, we remember who God is. We remember what we’ve heard Jesus say over the past two weeks. We remember his words, words that come just before today’s reading from Matthew.
Words like these: You are the light of the world.
Words like these: Blessed are you.
These words tell us who God is, the god of light and the god of blessings. And they tell us who we are: the blessed of God, the people through whom God shines light on the world. And how did we become these things? Not through anything we’ve done. But because Christ came to us, and touched us, and healed us, and made us his own, and he is still doing it today. God’s not finished with you yet. A wise woman once told me, “God loves me so much that he accepts me exactly as I am. But he also loves me too much to let me stay that way.”
I’m going to say that again. “God loves me so much that he accepts me exactly as I am. But he also loves me too much to let me stay that way.”
The belly of the whale is God’s way of not letting us stay that way. These words, these words in Matthew’s gospel, are the way God does that. These demands are what Christ is building in us. These laws are what Christ is writing on our hearts.
These demands tell us that the way we act and speak when we are angry matters to God. That the way we treat others, particularly women, matters to God. When we view women as objects for conquest instead of as people, that matters to God. That the way we make decisions about divorce is important to God. These things are very important to God, but they are not the last word.
Here is the last word. This is the word I did not tell you during the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship:
Beloved of God, you have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, poured out for you in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Receive the promise of baptism: You are God’s child; + your sins are forgiven. Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the reign of heaven.
And the whale spit Jonah onto the dry land.
And Jonah, renewed and forgiven, filled and overflowing, if a bit stinky, went to Nineveh and did God’s will more fully and more faithfully than ever before.
You are sinners. You break God’s commandments over and over and over again. God notices, and God swallows you whole. Swallows you whole to heal you and improve you and forgive you and make you the blessing you were meant to be. You were swallowed whole by the waters of baptism that swirled around you, and still do. And you are swallowed whole anew when you swallow the gift of Christ’s body and blood. And you become God’s blessing. You become the light of the world. And God spits you out into that world.
So go and be that blessing. Control your tongue when it is angry. Treat people, all people, with the respect they deserve as God’s children. And come back here when you have failed again. The font of forgiveness will be here. The bread and wine of life will be here. The Word of God that swallows us and makes us holy will be here.