When Love Comes to Town

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves, before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a threat
Now I stand accused of the things I’ve said
When love comes to town I’m gonna jump on that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

As many of you know, since my father was a Southern Baptist minister, I literally grew up in the church. I played in the sanctuary – running my Tonka trucks down the aisle and parachuting my GI Joe dolls off the balcony. Despite all this – my family was still shocked when I came out. Go figure.

As a Southern Baptist rule though – growing up in the church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than being in a garage makes you a car. To be accepted as a Christian, you have to be able to testify. You must have a conversion story – an epiphany that you are a lowly sinner saved by God’s grace.

You have to tell about how you were a sailor, lost at sea, under the waves before God’s love rescued you. I was a teenager before I felt anything like a conversion experience. For anyone else who spent their childhood in the church – my conversion came at a familiar place – youth camp. I recall, one night at vespers – or evening prayers – for those who were lucky enough to escape the experience of youth camp – I felt a certain calmness come over me as we sang and prayed.

I left home a little Baptist heathen and came home a Jesus freak! I was in love with Jesus. I walked around singing praise songs and telling everyone who would listen – and many who wouldn’t – about Jesus and how much I loved him. I was completely obnoxious.

But, that’s how we all are when we’re in love. We can’t stop talking about our beloved – what they’re like, what we think about them, what others should think about them. Everything they do or say is fabulous! We can’t get enough of them! We want to shout from the rooftops about our love for them.

Then, over time – that kind of love fades. We begin to notice little things – the hair in the sink – the stinking trash that hasn’t been taken out – some irritating little noise they make that in the beginning was cute – but now – not so much. We may still love them, but now we’re telling our friends about how imperfect they are instead of singing their praises. I’m sad to say, my love for Jesus faded like that. All that hair in the sink – the lid on the toilet always left up – and going on an on about “repentance” and some “kingdom” thing. Yeah, it was cute in the beginning, but you begin to think, “Wow, will he ever shut up?”

Don’t get me wrong – I know folks who have been saved from drugs or alcohol, and a life of despair and certain destruction by their encounter with Christ. Some people have earth shattering testimonies to share. I don’t – and many of us may not – but that doesn’t make our love for God any less real or any less genuine.

I was lost – now I’m found – because love – in the form of Jesus came to town. That’s enough testimony for anyone.

I used to make love under a red sunset
I was making promises I would soon forget
She was pale as the lace of her wedding gown
But I left her standing before love came to town
I ran into a juke joint when I heard a guitar scream
The notes were turning blue, I was dazing in a dream
As the music played I saw my life turn around
That was the day before love came to town
When love comes to town I’m gonna jump on that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

In both of our scripture passages today – the message is about repentance.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and the prophet Nahum had some choice words for this place, calling it a “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful.” This was a place that prided itself in plundering and enslaving other nations and worshiping other gods – something Nahum calls “sorcery.” If any place needed a message of repentance, it was Nineveh.

So, love comes to town in Nineveh, in the form of a reluctant savior named Jonah. We know his story well – he ran from God’s call to preach repentance to the residents of Nineveh. He tried to sail away on a ship, but was thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish. After relenting and going to Nineveh – he gives them a half-hearted prophecy: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

That’s supposed to strike fear in the hearts of the people? That’s your message of repentance, Jonah? “You’ve got 40 days, get your act together.” Jonah would make a sad hellfire and brimstone preacher. He didn’t tell them what they’d done wrong. He didn’t preach at them about how badly they treated others or condemned them for chasing after other gods. No, he just said, “Your time’s almost up. Get moving.”

And they did. They believed God – they called a fast – they put on sackcloth and repented. From the greatest to the least – from the banker to the beggar – they believed and they repented.

What amazes me about this story is that the repentance of Nineveh was what we could call a grass roots movement. Verse six says, “When the news reached the king, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” He then sent out a decree that all should do the same as an act of repentance, but the king was behind the times. The people had already done that – they didn’t need the king to tell them to repent – they had heard for themselves and moved on their own.

Just this past week we inaugurated a new president. Many liberals – and even many conservatives – expect a lot from this man. Some even expect him to work miracles and move this nation very quickly in the direction they’d like to see it move. The story of Nineveh is a reminder that the best way to change this nation – the best way to lead our modern day Nineveh to true repentance – is by changing ourselves.

In this story God shows us that if we want change – we have to initiate it. By the time the king gets around to sending out a proclamation – it will be too late. We cannot wait for the king – or the president – to tell us what kind of changes need to take place in this world. We already know. We’ve already heard God speaking. Love has already come to town and we don’t need the president to tell us to jump that train or catch that plane. Real change – change that improves the lives of everyone from the banker to the beggar – doesn’t come from the top down. If the past eight years has taught us nothing, it should have taught us that those at the top are most concerned with those at the top. For real change to come to the least of these – the least of these must be the agents for that change.

If you want the hungry fed, feed them. If you want the homeless housed, house them. If you want equal rights, fight for them. If you want the prisoner visited, go visit them. If you want the naked clothed, clothe them. Don’t wait for a presidential decree or for Congress to pass a law. When love comes to town, the least of these understand their task – there is no “us” and “them” – it’s some of us for all of us.

Jonah’s message to Nineveh is just as urgent for us today. “Your time’s almost up. Get moving.”

When love comes to town I’m gonna jump on that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

For Simon, Andrew, James, and John, love came to town in the form of Jesus. He, too, proclaimed a message of repentance – “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Those fishermen in their boats were just like the people of Nineveh. They didn’t ask any questions. They didn’t wait for any specifics. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they left their nets. They walked away from their livelihood – they walked away from family, friends and any worldly power they may have had to follow this man. They repented of everything they may have done in the past that let God down – simply because love came to town.

Don’t think that was an easy thing for these professional fishermen. They were the equivalent of the banker today – they were the top of the heap in society. Everyone had to eat and the fishermen supplied the food. Jesus offers them the chance to keep fishing, but they’ll become the lowest of the low – despised, houseless, always on the move, called crazy for giving it all up to follow some guy just because he says so. They repented – and became part of a grass roots movement that we continue to this day. By the time the kings of this world noticed Christianity and embraced it – Christ’s message had already changed a multitude of lives.

When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

Let’s talk about that word repent for a minute. We’ve used it a lot in this sermon, but what exactly does it mean? In the Jonah story, the Hebrew word used is “naham.” In Mark, the Greek word used is “metanoia.” Both words mean “to change one’s mind.”

If you listen to the hellfire and brimstone preachers – which I don’t advise – they’ll tell you that repentance is about constantly apologizing for what at terrible sinner you are. They preach that repentance is like voting – you must do it early and often. For repentance to be real we have to beat ourselves up, constantly saying we’re sorry for our past transgressions and mistakes.

This is not what repentance is about. Author and pastor, Frederick Beuchner, says, “to repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ then to the future and saying, ‘Wow.'”

The best example of this is depicted in the Jonah story when God experiences “naham” or “repentance.” Jonah 3:10 tells us that “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Let it sink in for a moment that God repented. God repented. God changed her mind. God had intended to destroy Ninevah – but when the people changed their mind – so did God.

That’s the essence of repentance – changing our minds. Simply making the decision that the lives we’ve been leading are not the lives we want to lead. Instead, we’ve heard Jesus’ words, “Follow me!” and we decide to do so. We decided, like singer and songwriter Bob Dylan did years ago, to stop resisting Christ’s call.

Dylan said: “Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Bob, why are you resisting me?’ I said, ‘I’m not resisting you!’ He said, ‘You gonna follow me?’ I said, ‘I’ve never thought about that before!’ He said, ‘When you’re not following me, you’re resisting me.'”

Are we resisting or following God today? What areas of our life need repentance – a mind change?

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide
When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

Christ may not be with us in body anymore – but love – that amazing Holy Spirit – still comes to town every single day – and every single day, we are there to witness the crucifixion of that love. We reject love when it comes to town – especially if it makes us uncomfortable, or makes us angry, or heaven forbid, inconveniences us.

God’s prophets come to us daily, telling us that our time is short and we’d better get our act together. The kingdom of God is upon us – change your mind now – stop resisting and follow the love of Christ.

What that means is that we must be the love that comes to town – and we must embrace the love that comes to town whenever we see it. Will you be that love? Will you come to town for those who are lost and lonely? Will you come to town for those who are hungry and without shelter?

This is not the fleeting kind of love you may get from a youth retreat or even from hearing a sermon. This is the mature love of Christ that conquers the great divide. It’s a difficult kind of love that demands not just a little from us, but everything. We must be willing – like those early disciples – to walk away from anything and everything in this world if it gets in the way of us building God’s grass roots kingdom here on earth.

Can we embrace our role as God’s love coming to town or will we keep choosing to attend the daily crucifixion of that love?

Your witness for Christ can make the difference in someone’s life today. How can you let the love of Christ shine through to just one person today? An act a simple as a smile or as major as feeding the hungry means that love has come to town for someone – and they’ll do all they can to jump that train or catch that plane. They’ll change their mind about how they’ve been living in the world and they too will be the love of Christ coming to town for yet another person.

Just as Jonah called Nineveh to repentance – just as Christ called his new disciples to repentance – so, too, we – by living our lives in the light of Christ – call still others to repentance – to change their minds, to change their hearts, and follow the still speaking, still loving, and still creating God.

When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that plane
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town