Epiphany 3B Jonah 3:1-10 Psalm 62 5-12 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
+In the name of God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Jonah, we find not someone of heroic stature but a caricature of a prophet. There is certainly irony in this which may reflect something of the reasons for the disappearance of prophecy that marked this period of the history of the people of God. But it reflects a profound humility. The words of the book of Jonah turn our attention from the prophetic messengers to the One whose messengers they were, the One who can achieve his ends sometimes even despite envoys like Jonah.
The importance of the story of Jonah is not in the miracle of his short vacation in the belly of a fish. The author gives us insight into developments in the role that prophecy came to have after the time when Jeroboam II was king and dares to deal with the very mystery of God. The job that Jonah had, was to preach only what God told him, a message of doom to one of the most powerful cities in the world at that time. This was not a desirable assignment. Jonah’s only message was a brief and blunt announcement of the imminent destruction of Nineveh a large and important city and the Capital of Assyria. But from this, the story emphasises the possibility and desirability of repentance as well as the merciful and forgiving nature of God. The Assyrians flaunted their power and wickedness before God and the world, through numerous acts of heartless cruelty. So, no wonder when Jonah heard what God wanted him to do, to call the people to repentance, he ran in the opposite direction.
In Jonah we see not a stick figure nor a cardboard character but a real human being. Despite his obvious failings, he evokes a certain sympathy in his struggle to understand the God in whose service he finds himself. In Jonah’s sometimes inexplicable actions we recognize a sincere striving to reconcile the concept of a just God with the reality of God’s mercy
We are invited to view the problem through the eyes of this reluctant prophet, and we are brought close to the mystery of God.
Not only is the mercy of God highlighted in the parable story, but it is also a particular quality of that mercy. That mercy is free and unmerited, and above all, God is free to bestow it on such as the Ninevites. During this period, Israel had been the victim of the oppression of Babylon, Persia, and the Hellenistic kingdoms, successively. The legendary city of Nineveh represents all that is hateful, repugnant, and cruel in such oppressors, and the notion of a God who is willing to show compassion to such as these must have been a challenging one indeed.
The exaggeration in the story helps us to take notice. Immediately pagans are converted. The King of Nineveh plays a prominent role. There is the description of the enormous size of the city, the almost incredible suddenness and totality of the city’s conversion and the quaint and humorous picture of the animals, donning sackcloth and crying out for God’s mercy. In the telling of the story the author highlights the enormity of the change that swept over the city in contrast to the half-hearted efforts of the reluctant prophet. If we look carefully, we can find the various stages in which this conversion took place. In verse five we are told that the people of Nineveh believed in God. It was not just a matter of believing Jonah’s words of warning. The Hebrew word describing the reaction of the Ninevites means to believe and also to trust and the decree which followed in verses 7 to 8 demonstrates their belief in God and presents a model of true repentance in three stages. The first stage consists in the acknowledgment of guilt by means of outward actions, the fasting, the sackcloth and the incessant prayers. The second stage focuses on the interior, the change in attitude toward one’s fellow human beings in turning away from “evil” and “violence” The third stage involves the acknowledgment of God’s freedom in how he will respond to their repentance. The king does not expect God to act automatically to their repentance when he says “Who knows God may relent and change his mind? “It is the people of Nineveh rather than Jonah who have the extraordinary insight into the sovereign freedom of God. God acts as it pleases him which may or may not conform to human expectations or answer to prayer.
Jonah had run away from God but was given a second chance to participate in God’s work. It is possible that we may feel disqualified from serving God because of past mistakes. But Serving God is not an earned position – no one qualifies for God’s service, but God still calls us to carry out his work. It is very likely that we will have another chance to serve God and in fact many chances until we finally say yes and get going and do it. We preach a message of God’s love, and this is good news, easy to tell. Johnah was to preach only what God told him and it was not a desirable assignment.
So, what about the good news? What exactly is it for us, and what was it for the people in Jesus’ time on earth? The first words spoken by Jesus recorded in Mark’s gospel give the core of his teaching, that the long-awaited Messiah has come to break the power of sin and begin God’s personal reign on earth. Most of the people who heard this message were oppressed and poor. Jesus’ words were good news because they offered forgiveness, freedom, justice and hope. The good news came from God and had God’s action as its content and was saying: The time is fulfilled. So, when the timetable reaches its goal, then God’s kingdom was to appear. Jesus is saying that this was now occurring. The Kingdom of God has drawn near. And this will demand a reorientation of life and attitude.
We may think that the disciples were great men of faith when they met Jesus. But the disciples had to grow in their faith just as all believers do. They were fishermen, but were educated, knowing and reading the scriptures and running profitable fishing enterprises. Teams of hired men would be helping and managing the business and kept it operating so that a few years later after the Resurrection of Jesus they still had a business to return to. When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John working with their boats and nets on the lake, it was not the first and only time Jesus had called them to follow him. We heard about some of them being called last week in the Gospel according to John. In the same way, we may be called a few times, but can we follow Jesus without question and fear?
What does follow mean for us today? Sometimes it is more about being led. Being led into the community in which we live- not so much like Jonah, being called to preach a message of doom that he thought the people would not want to hear - but about telling the truth about the work of God in our own lives. It is about being called, more than once, and eventually answering the call. Now, we are beginning a new year in the life of our Cathedral parish and Community. Now is the time to follow Christ’s leading and be part of his new creation and be astonished at what can be done with our obedience. Begin today by being part of our meeting following this service to plan for the year ahead.
Can we tell our story of how God has led us, forgiven us, and shaped us into the people he wants us to be? Can we tell others how we discover that we are indeed in the place where we were meant to be? Can we find ourselves answering God’s call to discipleship, living a life of peace, grace and inexplicable joy, which reflects God’s good news into the broken world of the Community in which we live and work? Amen
The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan tssf
Canon Pastor Grafton Cathedral.