Epiphany 3, Year B: Jonah 3:1-5&10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-21
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
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. (Jonah 3:1-10)
This morning I’m going to focus in on the passage from Jonah, in part because we only have that option one other time in the entire three-year cycle of the lectionary and I want us to grab this opportunity. Also, because I think Jonah’s story has something to teach us about how we listen to and live the call to be disciples, followers of Christ which is what the gospel was about today (and most days.) Now I’m going to tell you the whole story Jonah just in case you happen to miss the next Jonah Sunday which is scheduled to land about two and a half years from now. Settle in a bit. Here we go.
You probably all know this prophet if for no other reason than Jonah is a favorite among children for his having ended up in the belly of a whale. For all of the stories that are left out of children’s curricula there is probably not one program out there that skips over Jonah. This story lends itself so easily to art, story-telling, and some good giggles (mixed with slight horror) among any group of Sunday School preschoolers.
Now remember that Jonah ended up in the wale’s belly because after he was called by God, Jonah made a run for it, a move not uncommon among prophets.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah,” this story opens, and God said to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” And Jonah’s immediate response (who could blame him,) was that he “set out to flee… He went and found a ship, paid his fare, and went on board in order to “get away from the presence of the Lord.”
Which proved to be an ultimately ridiculous thought, an impossibility in fact that “getting away from the presence of the Lord” thing. (lesson one from Jonah)
The Lord “hurled a great wind upon the sea,” the story says, “and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up and the mariners were afraid. Each cried to his god and they threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load and steady the boat.” But the storm was, as we heard, “mighty” and it was relentless (perhaps lesson two from Jonah – when someone is fleeing from the Lord and they know it, don’t help with the fleeing.)
The sailors then had a conversation with Jonah who, upon getting on board had been completely up front about his reasons for getting on the ship. And so Jonah, to his credit, offered to throw himself overboard. The sailors tried a bit longer before they took him up on his offer, but none of those measures worked, and so they “picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.” Which was good for the sailors. And good for the ship.
But what about Jonah?
Well, the Lord provided a large fish to swallow him up; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights (note the timeframe) during which Jonah sang songs of thanks and praise down in the belly of the fish.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and the fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Which leads to more giggles when someone in Sunday School asks “what does spew mean? And you explain, “the large fish vomited Jonah up on the land.”)
At which point Jonah set out to Ninevah to do the work that God had originally and was still calling him to do. Which is the point at which we entered the story this morning.
Jonah walked through the entire city of Ninevah which was an “exceedingly large city,” three days wide the story told us and as he walked, Jonah proclaimed, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” Jonah shouted about how the ways of the people had become evil and oppressive. He proclaimed their injustices and how they had separated themselves from the hopes and intentions of God. And while he walked Jonah warned them, “Soon God will act!”
And then the amazing part of the story happened (even given the part about the fish’s belly this next bitis the amazing part of the story): The people listened. They believed it – the part about them having been bad and that their badness would not lead to goodness and the people proclaimed a fast. And “everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth” which was their sign of repentance and the changing of their ways.
Even the king listened! “When the news reached the king of Nineveh,” the story says, “he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” The King, responding to Jonah’s prophetic words proclaimed that “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”
Notice that this story makes that a very clear option (the leader listening and the violence stopping.) And then this wonderful line from the King, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’” And sure enough when God saw what the people of Ninevah 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 God did not do it.” Whoa!
Now theologically there are discussions to be had here, but first I want us to find Jonah, because I think he’s key to understanding the message here. There is a theology behind all of this and we have something very important to learn from it, but I think we too can do that through Jonah. So we’ll go to him now.
When “nothing happened” (meaning that God did not destroy Ninevah,) Jonah was furious! And he let God know that this was why he hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place. Not because the work of a prophet was hard but because Jonah could not count on God to follow through with retribution. Jonah explained to the Almighty, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And then Jonah poured it on saying to God, “Please take my life from me! For it is better for me to die than to live!”
And God said to Jonah in a way that I believe is meant to unpack the reader, “Is it right for you to be angry?…Really, Jonah, now?”
And Jonah felt like the answer to that question was, “Yes.” Yes it is right. And so Jonah built a booth for himself outside the eastern wall of the City and he camped out there, “waiting to see what would become of the city” presumably thinking that via his argument recently offered, he, Jonah, could make God change God’s mind again and that surely the threatened destruction was imminent! But nothing happened, except that God grew a large bush to give Jonah some shade “to save him from his discomfort. And Jonah was “very happy about the bush.”
And then to bring the point home, God appointed a worm to attack the bush. And Jonah got angry about that too. And God gently (I just love God in this story) said, “Jonah, is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah insistent on being Jonah (I love him in this story too) replied, “Yes, angry enough to die!” I see him standing up pointing every so righteously into the sky.
Jonah then declared that he was faint and asked that he might die right then and there.
And the story then ends with God’s words. “You are concerned about the bush for which you did not labor and you did not grow…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” And that’s it. The End.
And you sort of have to smile your whole way through this whole story not only because it ends with the phrase “and also, many animals” but because of the simple truths that are so beautifully told here.
Jonah exposes us, which is what prophets are called to do. It’s not only about Jonah and Ninevah. It’s about us too. How often do we think we can flee or even subtly sidestep God’s call, as little or as large as it might be? How often do we sit and listen to the prophets walking our streets shouting about the injustices we have adopted as acceptable ways of life and we face the choice about whether or not or how to repent? How often do we do our work and then sit on the hillsides waiting for the “other side” to be destroyed, or at least damaged a little (because we’re still nice, but think they should be hit with something!) I’m guessing that we too, or many of us at least fall into the temptation of occasionally hoping that God’s retribution steps in when we believe it should. And there is occasional disappointment when it doesn’t.
We are the people called and the people who flee. We are the sailors who enable. We are the people of Ninevah who have much for which to repent. We are the prophet with much to say and with much to learn. We are this story – which is maybe why we smile when we hear it.
While we hope and pray for mercy, mercy can be hard to watch when it’s granted those whom we perceive to be undeserving of it. Perhaps because deep down, we’re not sure we deserve it ourselves.
But that’s how mercy works. It comes as a prophetic word from beyond ourselves reminding us of God’s hope for our neighbors, the strangers, this world, and us too. Mercy comes as the quieting of a storm even when we’ve caused it by our stubbornness, or our own righteousness, or our own fear. Mercy comes as the belly of wale swallowing us up and granting us safety, room to breathe and time to give thanks. It comes as another chance. Mercy comes as shade trees when we simply need a little time to cool off and work out our own stuff. Mercy comes and strips us of whatever keeps us from loving and being loved.
Because mercy comes from a God who even when we don’t know our right hand from our left loves us into new life.