|Jonah 3:1-5, 10
|1 Corinthians 7:29-31
By Bruce G. Epperly
Today’s lectionary readings highlight change – divine and human. Many “orthodox” people see God as impassible – any possibility of change taints divine purity and holiness. What makes God is the absolute discontinuity between God and us: we wither and perish but God endures, always complete in knowledge and power. Before the earth was created, God determined everything without our consultation. Even our turning from evil – or refusal to follow God’s path – is somehow known in advance and since God’s knowledge is always active, determined in advance. Any change on God’s part, such “orthodoxy” maintains, would put in doubt God’s fidelity. But, such changeless visions of God are bought at a price – God is aloof from our world, insensitive to our pain, and – much worse – the likely source of the evils we experience.
Jonah no doubt expected hell-fire and brimstone to rain down on Nineveh. He preached doom and gloom as the natural – or divinely ordained – consequence of their wickedness. I suspect Jonah believed that humans don’t change – once evil always evil, once corrupt always corrupt. Although the scripture telescopes this ancient story, the only words from Jonah’s mouth are “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Repentance and moral reformation aren’t even part of his message. But, the people change their ways, perhaps hoping to avert disaster. Regardless of their motivation, they are saved. As the story goes, because they change, “God changed God’s mind” and the city was spared.
Two key theological points emerge. First, this passage describes the vision of a changing God, who not only calls but also responds. In the dance of relationship, when we change, God also changes. God is not bound by God’s past eternal or temporal decisions. God is free to act creatively in relationship to our creativity. Second, this vision begs the question: does God choose to destroy cities and nations, or is there a dynamic synergy of acts and consequences which leads to certain results to which even God must respond? The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead takes the latter viewpoint: God’s aim or vision for each moment is the “best for that impasse.”
Always contextual, God’s movements in our lives respect our autonomy. Just as unbelief in Jesus’ hometown limits his healing power – he could no great work, but some small acts of transformation – our thoughts and actions shape and may limit the extent of God’s work in the world. Sometimes the best God can do in certain situations is to attempt to place boundaries on pain and evil-doing, rather than achieving something of great beauty. God never gives up – in relationship to Nineveh or us – but must respond creatively to our actions.
The Psalm invites us to contemplate God’s faithfulness and loving power. When we pause amid the storm and stress of life, we will see a pattern of divine fidelity. The affairs of life are seen for what they are – temporary in light of God’s enduring love. This perspective enables us to be active in the world without becoming overly attached to the results of our actions. This enables us to be committed to justice without polarizing and to seek transformation without succumbing to the culture wars.
The passage from I Corinthians highlights the perpetual perishing character of life. All flesh is grass. Only God endures. Accordingly, we must take our commitments seriously but not urgently. The key to a spiritually centered life is to affirm our current commitments, yet experience freedom in relationship to them. Relationships change and grow, mourning passes, possessions fade away, and rejoicing turns to sorrow. There is something Taoist about Paul’s words. When we experience the flow of life without clinging to what eventually passes, we experience the peace that passes all understanding.
The Gospel reading describes Jesus’ inaugural message. “The realm of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Divine intimacy challenges us to change. In changing our ways, we open the door to hearing the good news. We believe ourselves into transformed actions and we act our way into transformed beliefs. The good news is that you can be changed – as Paul asserts in Romans 12:2, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
In the Epiphany season of divine revealing, we challenged to ask: Where do we need to be transformed? What changes do we and our institutions need to make to be faithful to God? We can change and in our changing, we are responding to God and enable God to do new and innovating things in our lives and the world.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.