January 25, 2015 | The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

One of the great tragedies of our lectionary
is the fact that we only hear from Jonah twice every 3 years;
thankfully, today is one of those two days
(the next time we hear from him is September 24, 2017).

I adore Jonah, really:
The entire story is practically a farce, really:
God says to Jonah,
“I’d like you to go tell the people of Nineveh
that I’m upset with them,
and I’m going to destroy them.”

Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria,
built on the Tigris;
the modern city that stands there today is called Mosul,
in northern Iraq.

It was the largest city in the world for about fifty years,
until it was sacked
by a coalition of former subjects of Assyria;
turns out the oppressed had had enough,
and weren’t going to take it any more.

And instead of heading Nineveh,
Jonah instead heads to Joppa,
which is north of Tel Aviv, on the ocean,
and gets on a boat to run away from God.

You have to admire Jonah’s moxie for running,
but choosing a boat was a bad idea,
because it was inundated in a storm,
and the sailors on the boat were terrified,
and Jonah admitted that it was he that God was after,
so he said, “Throw me into the sea;
then the storm will stop.”

And they did,
and he was swallowed by a gigantic fish.

The story has now become truly ridiculous,
and I love it all the more for it.

Jonah prays a beautiful prayer,
and God spoke to the fist,
so the fish “vomited Jonah upon the dry land.”
(That according to the King James version, anyway).

So God tries again, which is where our reading today starts:
Jonah, how about going to Nineveh?
And Jonah replies, Right. Nineveh. Got it.

Jonah goes to there, and it’s an enormous city
(not to mention hundreds of miles from where he was),
and he tells them,
“Forty days and this city will be overthrown!”

Notice he doesn’t even mention God;
just tells them that they’re going to be overthrown.

And those jerks in Nineveh actually listened,
which made Jonah so mad he could spit nails.

Everyone heard him, and believed him,
and they changed their ways.

Which is the worst,
since Jonah pretty much hated them.

But then something even more awful happened:
God appreciated their change in attitude,
and listened to them,
and spared them.

This made Jonah so mad he was breathing fire,
because Jonah was a prophet of Israel,
and Nineveh was not Israel.

God had the audacity to care for Nineveh,
and then Nineveh CARED BACK.

What is the world coming to?

It actually sets up some of the best sarcasm in the Bible,
which we sadly didn’t read today,
so I’ll just give it to you now.

Jonah is whinging in response to what God did, and says:
“O LORD!
Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;
for 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 now, O LORD, please take my life from me,
for it is better for me to die than to live.”

This is all in response to God not destroying Nineveh.

It’s tough when you think you have everything figured out,
and then God doesn’t do what you think God ought to,
but instead does what God actually ought to do.

After all,
we believe in a God whose love is big enough for everyone,
and who created the whole world in God’s own image;
so how could God not also care for Nineveh,
even if God also cared for Israel?

Admittedly, we have the benefit of hindsight on this,
so we can see more clearly than Jonah could
that God is actually being God in this,
the God that created us in God’s image,
as opposed to the God Jonah might have preferred,
a God created in Jonah’s image…

But thankfully we got the God we did,
the one who does care for Nineveh,
the one who cares for the whole world,
even the parts that we don’t care for so much.

That’s the first significant point we see in this story:
God cares for the other, too;
but we also see something else that’s pretty remarkable:
Nineveh believes right away.

Jonah doesn’t even mention God:
he just says, “Okay, this place is history in a month.”

And the whole city,
big enough that it takes 3 days to walk across,
the biggest city in the world,
says, “Geez, good thing you came and told us!
What do we have to do?”

Let’s just compare and contrast that with Jonah for a moment.

Jonah, the prophet, the preacher,
heard God and says “I’m outta here.”
He then encounters a storm,
and getting SWALLOWED BY A FISH,
and finally says, “Okay, Nineveh. Got it.”

He then also has the cheek to get angry with God
because God is merciful,
and falls into histrionics,
saying “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

This prophet gets it wrong at almost every step,
and still God’s work is done,
and Nineveh is saved.

And the parallel in the Gospel is Christ’s disciples,
who hear just a word,
just “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people,”
and they say, “Right. Awesome. Let’s do this.”

Just like the Ninevites. They hear the word, and they go.

Now, the thing that is most compelling about this
is that Jesus is saying that
“The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Literally the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth in Mark’s Gospel
is telling us that the Kingdom of God has come near,
that it’s not something to wait for eventually,
or something that we should be focused on seeing
once we get to heaven;
the kingdom of God has come near now,
and we are invited to repent and believe the Good News.

And we see from both Jonah and Paul this morning
what that Good News is:
God created the whole world,
and even though we’re not capable
of loving everyone,
God is.

God’s love is so big, in fact,
that even our enemies (like Nineveh, for instance)
are embraced by it,
even though it may rankle us,
or terrify us (like it did for Jonah).

And God’s kingdom,
the reign of God,
is here, and now,
for everyone, everywhere,
like Jesus said in the Gospel.

So as his disciples,
called to follow just like Peter, and Andrew,
and James, and John,
we are to live in God’s kingdom,
and make God’s kingdom known throughout the world.

That’s one way to look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today:
the present form of the world is passing away,
because Christians throughout the world
are making the Kingdom of God known,
instead of the kingdom of humanity.

While that may not be exactly what Paul meant
(since it sure seems like he was saying
that Jesus was going to be back next Tuesday,
so don’t get too comfortable),
we can, at the same time,
see how the old is passing away
as we continue to work for the Kingdom of God
here and now,
making Christ known to the world
and following him as best we can,
with God’s grace and love to support and sustain us,
since we all make mistakes,
even though we wish we didn’t
(this is the “repent” part that Jesus was talking about).

And we will all get it wrong some of the time:
we each make mistakes,
with our spouses,
with our children,
with our coworkers,
with our friends,
with our families,
with strangers,
with our fellow church members:
we are all afforded opportunities to repent,
every day of our lives.

But we also keep working at it,
and keep on being supported
by grace, and love,
and hope, and faith,
and wisdom, and counsel,
and understanding, and fortitude,
and knowledge, and piety, and holy fear,
and all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit
that support us in our daily lives,
in the moments when we’re aware of it,
and in the moments when we’re not aware of it,
and even in the moments when
we wish we were just about anywhere else
(like Jonah, poor guy).

Thanks be to God,
who doesn’t give up on us,
and who supports each of us
through our toughest moments,
even when we’re in the belly of a fish,
and gives us enough grace and love
to accomplish things that seem impossible,
like Jonah.