Third Sunday After Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
My guess is that most of us are familiar with the Old Testament lesson presented to us this morning. We are still in the season of Epiphany where we anticipate the light of God shining in on us. Though these passages are ancient they still have something new and fresh if we look closely enough. Many of us probably remember the story from Sunday school and the details are so outlandish that its essence, if not the facts, have remained with us: Jonah and the whale.
In a way, I think we need stories like this: fanatical and outrageous; almost a comedy in real time. “Other.”
You may recall the outrageous details: God calls the prophet Jonah to go preach to an unbelieving country, Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria. It is an incredible assignment because the Ninevite people were a hard, cruel, and wicked bunch. They were enemies to the nation of Israel and their indifference and inhumanity had come before God as wickedness. They represented the dominant culture in their day; and they had the power to do whatever they wanted to do. To speak out against them took more than a little bit of courage; it was risky to say the least and of course there was always that rare possibility, that they might actually listen and change their ways.
God called to Jonah and said basically: Go. Cry out against these people. Tell them to change or else. But Jonah did not want to go. He did not want to stand up to the people; the king, the leader and say change your ways. Jonah set out in the opposite direction for a town called Joppa and found a boat there headed for Tarshish – some 2,000 miles in the opposite direction.
You remember what happened, don’t you? According to the tale, and it is a tale – can you imagine? A great wind arose so tempestuous that the ship began to fall apart. All of the sailors on board were frightened and began to cry out to their god. In a state of panic and desperation, they threw overboard all of the cargo so the ship would be lighter – all the while Jonah was fast asleep down below – totally oblivious of anything at all.
The captain of the ship came to him in a panic. The others had tried their god without much avail and now, they need Jonah to call on his god just in case. The sailors cast lots and it was determined that Jonah was the cause of their trouble. And so, at his own request, they threw him overboard so that the winds might cease and they would be saved. And the sea calmed down. You see what happens when people get desperate? They are more than willing to throw you overboard in order to save themselves.
Jonah ends up in the belly of a great fish fully alive; without hurt or harm and able to carry on a conversation. For three days and three nights, he prays and laments; seeks God’s face and repents. And of course, God has mercy because that’s what God does. God speaks to the fish and the fish up-chucks Jonah onto dry ground. And Jonah is saved.
Who hasn’t been like Jonah, filled with contradictions? On the one hand, he is a prophet, a righteous person endeavoring to do good and to be good. And at other times he has his own agenda; wants things his way. At times the task is too much; too daunting. He wants to decide who and what and when and where. Jonah is conflicted and frustrated; not so willing.
We might admit that like Jonah, there are times when we attempt to resolve matters from our own perspective; our own way only to discover that God’s view is far more radical than anything we could have imagined.
We are told that God called Jonah a second time. God wasn’t so ready to give up on Jonah and I’m glad that God doesn’t give up on any of us so easily. God called Jonah a second time and this time, Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches a one sentence sermon for 40 days; the same thing over and over again. Repent. Change. Turn. Stop. It’s not right.
And just as he had imagined, these cruel, hard people repent under the prophetic voice; they change and the city is changed. And since this is a tale worth telling, the author says that everybody; every person – every man, woman, child – they are all bought into it – even the animals – more than 120,000 people put on sackcloth, called a fast and begin to worship God.
They see the error of their ways; perhaps because they are desperate too. They hear because someone dares to speak. Someone cries aloud. And they are changed because they have a heart to do so.
And the change huge; demonstrative; visible. And get this: God changes God’s own mind and reverses the intended punishment. God spares them from the consequences they so rightly deserve. Even these cruel people receive God’s mercy.
A fast is proclaimed and everyone – great and small put on sackcloth” and when the news reached the king, he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat down in ashes. And he made a decree that all should turn from their wicked ways and from the violence that was is in their hands. And who knows? God might very well relent from God’s fierce anger so that we do not perish.”
It’s a story right? But we can have hope that when we speak up and speak out, change can happen. What are those places and spaces that are calling to you? In large ways and small, do we dare not make the witness of our faith known in ways that truly matter?
And it’s scary and risky; and might not make any sense at all. But this is our great hope: that in so doing, change emerges. Someone with some consciousness might hear. Somehow by God’s good grace, truth might prevail.
But Jonah clings to his hatred – justified as it may have seemed. He clings to it and doesn’t want to let go. He is angry and bitter because he knows what the Ninevites deserve. He does not appear like a faithful disciple. In our day, we would most likely, taken him off the Jesus-list. Searched for others more willing; more conciliatory. More like Andrew and Simon; James and John whom we find in the gospel. Mark tells us that when Jesus was passing along he saw them and simply called to them. They were casting their nets into the sea and mending them – for they were fishermen and they were doing what fisher-people. And Jesus said, “Follow me”…and immediately they all dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus.
Mark’s gospel always puts emphasis on that word immediately to emphasize the urgency of the matter; the lack of hesitation; with haste – they did what Jesus asked. There is no further commentary provided; no kicking or screaming, no reservations whatsoever; no questions asked. There is no running away; no going home and asking wife or parent; no community decision or consensus needed; no second guessing. No initiation into the work expected. They drop everything and follow. Perhaps as simply as that; I don’t know.
But we know that they struggled too, don’t we? They did not always get it right. We know that like Jonah, there were times when they also ran away like we want to run away. Like Jonah, they needed something dramatic – like crucifixion and resurrection in order for their eyes to be opened; in order for them to see. Like we sometimes need something dramatic – “otherly” – in order to be drawn in. Saved.
Jesus said to the disciples and to us: Come and follow. I will make you fishers of people. I will make you fish for people. I will make you catch people’s heart and mind; and imagination. I’ll make you catch their hopes and dreams; the essence of who they are. Fishers of justice, truth, and freedom. I will make you fish for people.