Sunday, 24 January 2021
A difficult tale to swallow
when it comes to the depth
of God’s love for all
Sunday 24 January 2021
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Epiphany III).
10 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist
The Readings: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 5-12; Mark 1: 14-20.
There is a direct link to the readings HERE.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the connection or links between Baptism, Call, following and Discipleship.
The themes in this morning’s readings continue to reflect on God’s call, repentance, belief and following.
The first reading (Jonah 3: 1-5, 10) tells us of the call of Jonah, and the Gospel reading (Mark 1: 14-20) tells the story of the call of Andrew and Peter, James and John.
This first reading is the only reading in the Lectionary, over the space of three years, from the Book of Jonah.
Jonah is also one of the best-known characters in the Bible. Many of us associate him with the whale. Who does not have memories of Sunday school stories about him being swallowed by a whale?
Yes, the Gospel reading includes stories of fishermen who are called to be ‘fishers of men.’ But there is no mention of the big fish in this one reading we hear from the Book of Jonah.
Jonah is one of the ‘Minor Prophets,’ and one of the brief prophets too: the Book of Jonah is a mere 48 verses, the tenth shortest book in the Bible and shorter than many chapters or psalms.
Jonah is the archetypal reluctant prophet. Earlier, God calls him to ‘Go at once to Nineveh … and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’ (Jonah 1: 2). But Jonah tries to escape by sailing to the ends of the earth.
But God is not going to let go of Jonah; and God now calls him a second time. This time, Jonah obeys, and he goes to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. But it seems Jonah is easily distracted and happy with half measures. He goes to the city, but after a day he has only got half-way into Nineveh. Even then, God works through Jonah. The people of Nineveh react positively: they believe, they acknowledge their godlessness, and later in this chapter the king repents.
For many commentators too, Jonah stands alongside Isaiah and Ezekiel, and his Hebrew name, יונה (Yonah) means ‘Dove,’ bringing some Jewish commentators to find a word association with the dove of Noah’s Ark, and so with the waters of the flood.
In Jewish tradition, Jonah is the son of the widow who nursed Elijah and who is revived by Elijah (see I Kings 17); other traditions identify Jonah with the prophet who joined Jehu and told him about the Lord’s promise to maintain on the throne of Israel four generation of his heirs.
Unlike other prophets, Jonah’s mission is not to the kingdoms of Judah or Israel. Jeremiah warns of the impending Babylonian captivity; Isaiah speaks of the suffering servant and the suffering people; Hosea condemns the cults of Baal and Asherah; Joel laments the invasions of grasshoppers; Haggai and Zechariah plead for the rebuilding of the Temple; Malachi condemns the prevailing, cold spiritless, formalism; Micah announces a coming Messiah; Zephaniah invites the Kingdom of Judah to acknowledge its faults. But Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
Nineveh is a large and sinful, powerful city, and Jonah is called to go there and call the people to repentance so that Nineveh is not punished.
But Nineveh is no mere capital among many foreign capitals: it is the city, indeed the great city. It stood on the banks of the Tigris, close to present-day Mosul, and was famed for its splendid palaces and impregnable walls; it was a city of artists and artisans, and its library was one of the richest in the world, with tens of thousands of tablets devoted to astronomy, poetry, history, medicine and agriculture, as well as the arts or crafts of divination and exorcism.
The Midrash emphasises time and again that there never was a city as great as Nineveh.
However, Nineveh was also the most corrupt, depraved and decadent city of the day. More than 120,000 people lived there, and they could not tell the true from the false, the good from the evil, ‘their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4: 11).
For generations, Nineveh had been one of the great enemies, and is now waiting and watching the internecine feud between Judah and Israel, waiting to destroy the northern and southern kingdoms. It was a greater threat than Egypt or Babylon might ever be.
Why would any right-thinking person in Israel or Judah want to save Nineveh from divine wrath and certain destruction? Surely Nineveh’s destruction would save the people from war, defeat and exile? And, surely, any prophet who ventured into Nineveh, declaiming both king and people, would face certain death?
Jonah’s reluctance to respond to this call is wholly understandable. Other prophets were reluctant too: Moses questioned his eloquence; Jeremiah believed he was too young, Isaiah thought himself impure; even Ezekiel was sent into exile, yet still had to fulfil his mission.
The survival of Jonah’s people hangs in the balance, and, in the social and political climate of the day, he would prefer that God rained down destruction on his enemies and their city. He is torn between his loyalties to God and to his people. His dialogue is not just with God but also with his inner self.
Carried away by this inner torment, Jonah heads off – but in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, which is identified with the Straits of Gibraltar. But God frustrates his plans to flee, a great storm blows up, the ship is close to sinking, and finally he is thrown overboard by the crew in a bid to save their own lives, and is swallowed by a ‘large fish.’
Nowhere in the text is the word ‘whale’ used; the Hebrew text uses the word tannin, meaning a ‘big fish’; in the Greek text of the Septuagint, it becomes a ‘sea dragon.’ Jonah is swallowed up for three days, inevitably drawing comparisons from later Christian commentators with Christ’s three days in the grave (see Matthew 12: 39-41).
But Jonah does not wallow in being swallowed; instead, he prays for deliverance in words that echo the psalms.
When Jonah is thrown up on dry land, God calls him once again; it is a call on the shore, and it is a call that is not going to go away. So, Jonah sets out, and it takes him three days from arriving at Nineveh to walk through the city – once again, the three-day period is significant.
Jonah serves 40 days’ notice on the city. These are the years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, the days and nights Moses spends on Mount Sinai, the days the spies spend in the land of Canaan, the days Ezekiel spends repenting for the sins of Judah, the days Elijah spends without food or water on his way to Mount Horeb, the days Jesus spends fasting in the wilderness, the days between the Resurrection and the Ascension …
To Jonah’s dismay, the people of Nineveh take his words to heart; even the king puts on sackcloth and ashes and prays for God’s redemption. They turn from their evil ways, and God changes his mind about the calamity they had faced.
But, instead of being pleased with a mission accomplished, Jonah is not only displeased but is angry. He is convinced that the king and the city are not sincere about their repentance. Is he fearful that, having survived, they are now going to turn their attention to his people? This is the Jonah who, only some time earlier, had faced drowning and being devoured, but now he is so angry he would prefer to be dead. And when he survives, he goes away, separating himself from God and people, and sulks.
Even then, when he might have been saved from the harsh weather and climate only to find his shelters destroyed, he is angry with God yet again.
The story of Jonah ends not with an answer to Jonah’s complaints, or a solution to Israel’s conflict with Assyria, or even an indication of whether the king and people of Nineveh remain faithful, but with a question from God: should God not be concerned for the lives of people – even their animals – no matter how immoral or sinful I may see them as being, not knowing their right hand from their left?
It is a salutary lesson for the Church when we think at times that we think we have heard God’s word, think we are following God’s ways, but are reluctant to share with others – whether they are outside our parish, outside our society or culture, outside our country.
Are there times when I limit God’s salvation to those I want to be counted in?
Are there times when I resent calls to recognise that God loves others beyond my circle or circles of faith, family or friends?
No matter how threatening I see outsiders to be, does this justify putting limits on reaching out to them, on my compassion for them?
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 (NRSVA):
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3 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. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10 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.
Mark 1: 14-20 (NRSVA):
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Liturgical colour: White.
The Penitential Kyries:
God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
The Collect of the Day:
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Introduction to the Peace:
Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (Isaiah 9: 6, 7)
For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:
The Post-Communion Prayer:
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
May your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped,
and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:
381, God has spoken - by his prophets (CD 23)
584, Jesus calls us! O'er the tumult (CD 33)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.