Toorak Uniting Church

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Leaving the Familiar for "New Lands"

Jonah 3:1 – 5, 10 and Mark 1:14 20
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Epiphany 3
25 January 2015

The local Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru. This word has no further particular meaning in the Pitjantjatjara language, although it is used as a local family name by the senior Traditional Owners of Uluru.

The history of the Bible, and the history of the world for that matter, is the history of migration. No one, no people seems to stay in the same place for ever. From the mythic journey from the Garden of Eden into the world of pain and struggle; from the migration of Abraham from Ur to the new world; the rich narrative of the Hebrew people’s journey from Egypt to the land that flowed with milk and honey. And of course the Christian tradition begins with the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby back to Egypt for safety from King Herod and then the remarkable journeys through Asia Minor by Paul of Tarsus… Nobody seemed to stay in the same place for very long.

Of course this is the history of humanity. Migration is what has made this world what it is, for better or for worse. Sadly, much migration and global movement results in genocide. The new arrivals, if they are more technologically sophisticated, can take possession of the new land and subjugate the original inhabitants, who nevertheless came from somewhere else and possibly did the same thing.

There are many reasons for migration. It may be adventure; famine in one’s homeland; war and pestilence; or religious persecution. Or just to make a better life for oneself and one’s family. Regardless of the reasons, migration is woven into our very nature; and regardless of our allegiances to sovereign borders, it will continue for generations to come.

We celebrate Australia Day tomorrow. Or, as a friend of mine continues to call it, "invasion day." Our unique beginnings as a sovereign nation will always be controversial for two reasons. First, it happened in recent history. The Celts, Romans, Angles and Saxons also invaded what we now call Great Britain. But that happened a long while ago. But secondly and perhaps most importantly, the indigenous people of this land have never really found a solid and grounded place in this nation we call Australia.

Of course we are not the only nation where this has occurred. In North America and Africa the devastating effects of colonisation have never really been addressed. And there are a myriad reasons for this outcome. My hope is that the next generation will have the humility and the willingness to learn from the wisdom of our first people and to make this an even greater nation.

From the Familiar to a New Land
I have often been enthralled with the travels of Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook. We may think that James Cook’s greatest achievement was discovering Australia (which had been discovered by the Dutch some time earlier); like Darwin, Cook gave the people of his day a new way to think about the world. The capacity to move from the familiar to the new land or the new thought takes both courage and conviction.

The two passages read earlier in this service are examples of this process. I love the parable of Jonah. And it is a parable - a story - told to stir the imaginations of the hearers. But this morning I want to just focus of Jonah’s movement from the familiar to a new land. Now, in the parable this was really a challenge. "Leave the comforts of home and travel to a foreign and distant land and declare to them my condemnation of their lifestyle". Not an unusual missionary call. It has been the motivation of missionaries throughout the ages.

"Go to these ungodly people and convert them: convince them that their ways are wrong and they must repent, turn around and follow this new way…. My way, your way."

Reluctantly, and you know the story, Jonah follows the program. But strangely he didn’t think his message would actually be effective and change the minds of the people and take them into a new place. But it did and so we read one of the most intriguing sentences in the Bible, "And so God changed his mind…"

"From the familiar to a new land." I was raised on the idea/belief that God, the master of the universe, was omnipotent, all-powerful; omniscient, all-knowing; omnipresent – all-pervading; and immutable – never changing. And here in this wonder parable is the notion that God can move from the familiar to a new way. That God can change God’s mind.

Well, this wasn’t what Jonah wanted to hear. He had just told the city that they would be destroyed in 40 days. And now he looks like a bit of a heel. Well, the story goes on and Jonah does not end up in a happy place.

What happened to Nineveh?…. Well, we will never know but this parable leads us to the view that nothing, not even God, is immutable. Life is always in flux and the old familiar ways can find new expressions.

Following the unmade Path
I don’t usually do this but I would like to connect the Jonah story, the story from Mark’s gospel and a modern story. When Monash University was built, the architect decided not to put walkways between the buildings. They waited a few months and then they placed the paths where the students had trodden. Rather than saying, "This is the right path," they allowed the students the freedom to find the best way between the buildings.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little further he saw James son of Zebedee with his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Jesus called to them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed Jesus.

Did you notice that the call came without any pre-instruction? No doubt they had had a formal or informal introduction to the Jewish faith, but Jesus called them not because they knew the well-worn path, but because they knew life and were open to the new way.

"Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Unfortunately, we are more interested in making people Christian, or church- goers. But doesn’t it really mean that we are all called to leave the old familiar ways that we are not walking and follow a new way of love, compassion, hope, joy and meaning? There is a new land waiting for all of us if we have the conviction and courage to embrace it.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2015

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