3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
The Book of Jonah is one of the most puzzling and entertaining books in all of scripture. It is one of the shortest, too, only four little chapters, and it is the only one of the prophetic books that does not refer specifically to its subject as a prophet. When speaking of the book of Jonah, preachers often talk a lot about the fish story: how Jonah is thrown overboard by terrified and superstitious sailors and is then swallowed by what would have to have been a rather large fish, I mean, one of those “I once caught a fish this big” kind of fish. He spends three days – often invoked when Christ is mentioned as having been in the tomb for three days like Jonah was in the fish for three days – in the belly, the insides of a fish. Talk about a strong fish smell; did Jonah ever NOT smell fishy after that? He is “spewed” up onto the shore, at God’s command. The fish swallows Jonah, at God’s command, and the storm is raised by God’s command. Jonah, as a book, has several strong things and one is about the power of God, God’s intervention in the universe and our lives, and His overpowering desire to save all of us; not one is to be lost.
Eventually, Jonah gets up, after the fish story, and decides to answer God’s call to go to Nineveh after all and to proclaim to them: repent or face God’s judgement. So, the fishy Jonah trudges a great distance to the gigantic city of Nineveh (not quite as big as the biblical legend attests) and does as God has told him: I proclaim to you “Repent or you will be destroyed!” Well, lo, and behold, the people of Nineveh do repent, and they – even the king - sit in ashes, dump ashes over their heads, and cover themselves with sackcloth, a scratchy material that makes them itch but is the ancient sign of repentance and mourning.
Nineveh - the capital of the Assyrian Empire who would overthrow the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and take the people away prisoner - is seen as being more faithful than the wayward northern kingdom to whom the prophet Amos would also call to repentance. When they are called to repent -the “Ninevinians,” if you will - they do. Jonah, afterwards, would humorously grumble that he knew God would be gracious, forgive the people, and spare them, and that is why he didn’t want to go in the first place: not because he was afraid but because he knew God would repent Himself by turning away from what he planned to do to Assyria – God is merciful but Jonah resents it.
Jonah, as I understand it, is most likely modeled on an ancient prophet but much license is taken by the author: fish swallowing people, Jonah giving thanks to God inside the fish’s belly … Jonah is a comical character who doesn’t think or sound much like a prophet. He thinks of himself, his own reputation, and does not care for God’s merciful treatment of non-Jews, even though the people do in fact repent, and turn to God. The Book of Jonah highlights the wideness of God’s mercy, the persistence of God’s love, even for those WE MAY THINK do not deserve that love and forgiveness. We are asked to repent and return to the Lord, to turn, to pivot and see God’s blessing as a gift. God’s grace is ever before us, complete, mysterious, life-giving and all-saving. No one is excluded but all are called to turn back to, into that grace of God. Otherwise, how do we ever feel, see, or experience the hope of God’s call on our lives and His impossible love. And why, because only God may know, would we not want our neighbor - no matter how mean, different, or hard to love – to experience God’s blessing?
Mark’s Gospel tells us the story of the call of the first four disciples, as Jesus comes into Galilee, post-execution of John the Baptist, and preaches repentance, for the people to turn to and trust in God, not themselves, nor their leaders or rulers. Today I am brought to the moment of how we are all called into the reality of God’s love, purchased by Jesus at the Cross, in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ final moments. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus forgives one of the criminals crucified beside Him, a man who has probably not lived a reputable, Godly life but who, at the end, sees Jesus for who and what He is: Messiah, Lifegiver, Savior of the world and of humanity.
Jesus calls us not merely into service, into discipleship, but into a new awareness that though God’s love grace is unearned and undeserved, it blesses us entirely anyway, all humankind. We are called into the truth and reality of that Love. We don’t have to be perfect, and we do not have to be any particular kind of person. Christ’s saving love calls us to repent of our reliance on ourselves alone, how we have left good things undone and done what we should not have done, and thereby wounded the heart of Jesus. Repentance is a promise: that by turning to God we will see His glory, be blessed, and our sin, brokenness, and heartache will fall away. Like Nineveh, like the criminal on the Cross, turning to God shows us the way to blessing. And when one turns who has been set against God, indifferent to suffering, unaware of God’s blessing, heaven rejoices.
WE are approaching the season of Lent, now less than three and a half weeks away. Jonah’s story, while most likely apocryphal, tells us important truths about God’s intervention in the world. We are loved by God and God desires for us to turn fully to His love and blessing. God is merciful, engaged in the world, active in our lives, and that reality can, should inspire hope, never despair, anger, or disobedience. Turning to God can heal our divisions, too, no matter how deep or seemingly insurmountable. God merely needs disciples, and maybe a prophet or two, to show the world who the true Christ of blessing is: unrelenting forgiveness and love available for all with hearts and minds to turn.