A Second Time
Sermon preached at Enmore, Third Sunday after Epiphany, 21st January 2018
Bible Readings: Jonah 3: 1–5,10. Mark 1: 14–20. 1 Cor. 7:29–31
If anyone tells you that there is no humour in the Bible, then they haven’t read the Book of Jonah. Jonah is a comic figure, who does nearly everything wrong and gets into a terrible mess. We love to laugh at him, this reluctant prophet who does his best to avoid doing the one thing God asks him to do and then gets depressed because he ends up being successful. Everything in the story is exaggerated and extreme. God tells Jonah to go east to Nineveh but he goes as far west as he possibly can heading for Tarshish which may have been on the Spanish coast. The storm that God sends is a mighty one, the fish that swallows the hapless prophet is a very big one. The city of Nineveh is exceedingly large, so large that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other. The response to Jonah’s preaching is extraordinary, evoking such deep repentance that even the animals wear sackcloth and ashes. Jonah may be a comic/tragic figure and the narrative may border on the absurd but this is a book with a serious message which remains just as relevant today as it was when first composed probably around the fifth or sixth century B.C.
The lectionary takes us into the story when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh that great city.” I suspect most of us know what happened to Jonah when the word of the Lord came to him the first time. Told to go and preach a message of repentance to the wicked city of Nineveh, Jonah runs away in the opposite direction buying passage on a ship sailing to the other end of the Mediterranean Sea. He is attempting to get away ‘from the presence of the Lord.’ Jonah has good reasons for disobeying God’s call. Nineveh was the capital city of the dreaded Assyrian Empire. This Empire was noted for its cruelty and acts of torture designed to create fear and submission among its enemies, Israel being one of them. For Jonah to walk into Nineveh calling on them to repent would be like asking a Jewish man to walk into Berlin in 1939 and call on them to lay down their arms.
While Jonah sleeps below decks, a huge storm brews and the ship is soon threatened by the turbulent seas. With the ship about to founder, Jonah confesses that he is responsible for this calamity as he has disobeyed his God. He asks to be thrown overboard and is then swallowed by a giant fish. In the belly of the fish Jonah reflects on his situation and calls out to the Lord to be delivered. God hears his cry and causes the fish to vomit out Jonah onto dry land. God then calls Jonah a second time and this time he is obedient. Jonah enters the city of Nineveh and cries out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It’s not a complicated message but it gets a remarkable response. The people of Nineveh heed the words of Jonah and believe that their lives are in peril because of Israel’s God. Their King demands that they all turn from their evil ways, fast and put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance. As a consequence, God changes his mind and refrains from punishing the people of Nineveh. He accepts their repentance and forgives them.
But that is not the end of the story. Jonah is not happy. In fact he is very angry. He is angry because God has been merciful and his anger is directed at God’s character. Jonah declares: “This 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.” Jonah wanted God’s justice to be visited on Nineveh, not his mercy. Before we condemn Jonah we have to ask the question, “Are we not like Jonah?” Most of us have people we love to hate. It may be a politician, or a particular world leader or perhaps it’s someone closer to home. Some people are really hard to love.
Learning how to love one’s enemies has challenged peace makers throughout history. In a sermon preached at Christmas in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said that African Americans could not win people to their cause through hatred. He said he felt fortunate that Jesus had not told us to like our enemies because there were some people he could not possibly like. He declared: “I can’t like anyone who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out.” But remarkably King could love them and in church basement gatherings in the 1960’s African Americans with some white Americans came together to repent of their anger and hatred and to commit themselves to nonviolent change. King understood what Jonah had trouble accepting namely that God’s love and mercy embraces everyone who is willing to receive it. The Jonah story reminds us of God’s ability to do the unthinkable, to extend mercy to the most undeserving and it is that ability which opens the door to our own hope. For we are all in need of mercy.
Matthew and Luke both tell us that on one occasion in Jesus’ ministry he was asked by the Scribes and Pharisees to give them a sign that he was really from God. Jesus’ response was to say, “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” What did Jesus mean? Jesus himself was the sign of Jonah because he was a sign in the same way Jonah was. Jonah offered Nineveh no sign but himself. He did no miracles and had little to say but the people of Nineveh believed that Jonah’s warning was from God himself. The religious leaders who questioned Jesus, failed to understand that Jesus himself was God’s sign. No other sign was needed and their insistence on a sign in the face of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry of healing was evidence of their determined unbelief.
If we look at the Jonah story as a call narrative, then our Gospel for the day gives us a very sharp contrast. Mark’s account of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew and then calling James and John is startling in its brevity. Jesus sees, Jesus calls and the fishermen follow, immediately. Immediately is one of Mark’s favourite words and he uses it frequently throughout his Gospel but it has particular force in this passage. What was it about Jesus that led those tough fishermen to give up their job, leave their families and embrace an itinerant life without any security. Commenting on this account, Bonhoeffer wrote: “This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Because it is Jesus who calls they obey. Nor do they understand any particular content to that obedience other than simply following.” The contrast between Jonah’s response to God’s call and the fishermen’s response to Jesus’ call could not be more striking. Jesus continues to call all sorts of unlikely people to be his followers, including people like you and me. When we say yes to that call we embark on a journey which may not be as challenging as that faced by Jonah or the disciples but it will be life changing. To follow Jesus means being willing to be made like him and that will not always be easy. But we have his promise that he will never leave us forsake us.
Finally a very brief word about the epistle reading from 1 Corinthians which cries out for some explanation. 1 Corinthians is one of Paul’s early letters and was written at a time when Paul believed that Christ was to return very soon. This is what he means by the expression: “the appointed time has grown short.” Given this belief Paul argues that Christians should spend most of their time and energies preparing for that event. All other aspects of life, family, work, recreation etc. should become of secondary importance. Paul later came to understand that Christ’s return was not going to be happening any day soon and that Christians should get on with their lives, working for the building of Christ’s kingdom on earth. He did not abandon the future hope of Christ’s return but he no longer expected it in his lifetime. So the reading we had from 1 Corinthians this morning should be read with that context in mind. I’m reminded of a story about Francis of Assisi who on one occasion was busy sweeping dust and dirt from the friary when one of the brothers came to him and asked what he would do if he knew that Christ was to return that very day. Francis paused for a moment and then replied that he thought he would get on with his sweeping. Perhaps Francis recalled the words of Jesus, ‘Happy is the one whom his master will find at work when he arrives.’ (Matt. 24.46)