When was the last time you heard an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon? How long has it been since a preacher with fire in his eyes and smoke coming out of his nostrils let loose with a hell-and-damnation tirade that blistered the ears and trembled the hearts of his hearers? How long has it been?
Well, according to my timing it was only five minutes ago! We heard such a sermon, not from yours truly, but from that pulpit-pounding, rafter-raiser, window-rattling prophet of the Old Testament: Jonah. As the preacher in our first reading today, Jonah has one point in his favour: he is brief and to the point. With just eight words Jonah delivers his warning to the people of Nineveh: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” No ands, ifs or buts about it. No maybes or perhapses. This is it! Forty days more – and THE END!
Jonah’s eight words turn out to be more productive of a genuine conversion that all the paragraphs and pages of other Old Testament prophets. Other prophets preached, cajoled, warned, pleaded, thundered, encouraged and condemned their listeners with powerful and poignant pronouncements. But for all their rhetorical skills the effect on their hard-hearted and stiff-necked hearers was practically nil.
But not so with Jonah; he must have been the envy of every other prophet. He spoke and the people believed that God spoke through him and they turned away from their evil ways. Their hearts had been changed and so God’s mind had to be changed as well: “He repented of the evil that he had threatened to do them.” So even though Jonah’s eight-word prophecy didn’t actually prove true, there’s no denying the positive impact of his fire-and-brimstone sermon.
We have to read the rest of Jonah’s story to discover the effect that his success had on this prophet. Rather than rejoice at the conversion of the people of Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry, so angry that he thinks it’s better for him to die than to live. Why was he so angry? Well, Jonah had really wanted his prophecy to be fulfilled rather than to be successful. He wanted these evil people to be destroyed, not saved. But he also knew that he was dealing not with a vicious, violent, vindictive, fire-and-brimstone God, but with a “gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in mercy and loath to punish.” Fortunately, this loving, forgiving God has the last say in Jonah’s prophecy.
In the gospel today, Our Lord picks up where the God of Jonah left off. Today we hear the very first words that the Lord Jesus speaks in St. Mark’s Gospel. And these are the words we must remember Sunday after Sunday, indeed, day after day throughout the whole of our lives. Because these are the words that form the agenda and set the tone of Our Lord’s preaching and teaching. He says: ‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’
Now we can listen in vain for thunder and look in vain for fire and brimstone in Our Lord’s first sermon. And yet his words resound and glow with the warmth of that everlasting compassion and mercy of God’s message. Our Lord speaks of “the time of fulfilment,” the time of filling out and filling up God’s plan of salvation, the time of completing and perfecting what the God of the Old Testament had begun when God created the world and saw how good this world is. In the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord came “not to abolish but to fulfil.” And in the words of St. John’s Gospel, Our Lord came not to condemn the world but to save it, so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
Our Lord announces: “The reign of God is at hand.” We don’t even have to wait forty days to see if that ‘reign’ is a deluge of destruction or a kingdom of kindness where we are constantly drenched with God’s forgiveness, peace and joy. So close, so intimate, so personal is Our Lord’s presence with us and within us that we might even say: “The reign of God is at heart.”
And what begins with the heart must inevitably permeate and infiltrate our entire lives. Just as the heart enlivens every member of the body by pumping blood to it, so does Our Lord enliven our whole existence. So it is he says, “Reform your lives.” When the Lord Jesus comes into our lives we begin to change. We change our attitudes and our actions and our words. We change our priorities and our principles. We change our agenda. To reform our lives means to commit and attach ourselves to Our Lord just as his first disciples “abandoned their nets and became his followers.” Today’s gospel tells us they “went off in his company.” And that’s just it. To reform our lives simply means we start keeping company with the Lord Jesus. He is our constant companion. Even though he is our Lord and God, we are able to walk with him, and we talk with him as friend to friend.
Now, the more we walk and the more we talk with Jesus, the more we “believe in the Good News.” We believe that Our Lord’s message is essentially and intrinsically good news, not sad news or bad news or mad news. Mind you, this isn’t to say that Our Lord never preaches hard things to us. Indeed, there will be many times during the coming months when we will be tempted to say what so many of Our Lord’s disciples said after his famous Bread of Life Discourse in John chapter 6: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
We must always try to see beneath the hard shell of some of Our Lord’s sayings the challenges that he keeps giving us to grow in love, in faith and in hope. Nor can we forget his words: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” The burden is easy and light only because Our Lord is always with us and within us to help and support us. When we feel the weight of the Cross on our shoulders begin to lighten it’s because the Lord himself is carrying the Cross with us. And so, if anyone is still hankering for an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon, remember that it was Our Lord who sent the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples at Pentecost. Therefore, let our prayer today and every day be: “Enkindle in us, O Lord, the fire of your love!”