Saturday, January 21, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany: A Fishy Tale

Scripture reading for this Sunday:  Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time[i],”
A second time?  What happened the first time?

Let’s go back to the beginning of Jonah’s story.
God speaks to Jonah:  “Go to Nineveh and tell the people there that I have seen just how sinful they are.  Tell them to repent.”

And Jonah gets up and goes – in the opposite direction!
Jonah has absolutely no desire to go to Nineveh.  Nineveh was notorious for its vices – a real Sin City.  Plus it was the capital of Assyria.  The Assyrians were a bad lot – they had marched through Israel and defeated the Northern Kingdom.  Ten tribes of Israel were taken into exile, never to be heard from again.  But the Assyrians were only getting started.  They conquered a good chunk of what we now call the Middle East, as well as parts of Egypt.  They were constantly warring with Judah. 

No wonder Jonah goes in the opposite direction.  He has no desire to preach repentance to Nineveh.  If he does, there’s the remote chance that Nineveh will actually repent, and God, being gracious and merciful, will forgive them. 
Forgive them?  The enemies of Israel and Judah?  Never!

So Jonah goes to Joppa, and gets on a boat heading to Tarshish – in what we now call Spain.  That’s about as far away as he can get from Nineveh (which is located near modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq).
But God isn’t done with Jonah.  He discovers the hard way that you can run from God, but you can’t hide.

Once the ship is out at sea, a huge storm blows up, a boat-tossing, ship-wrecking kind of storm.  The sailors toss over their cargo in an effort to save their lives, but it doesn’t help.  It occurs to the sailors that such a bad storm might indicate that God was displeased.  They wake up Jonah, who was sleeping through the storm, and say, ‘Hey, you better get praying to your God – we’re going to die in this storm.  Ask your God to save us!”
The situation is dire and the sailors decide that they need to figure out who made God mad.  So they cast lots to see, and the lot fell to Jonah.

They start questioning him:  "Who are you and where do you come from?  What is your business in Tarshish?"
Jonah tells them the whole story – how God wanted him to go to Nineveh but he went the opposite direction.  Now the sailors know what the problem is – it’s having Jonah on board.  Jonah tells them to toss him overboard so that they will be safe.

The sailors don’t want to just throw Jonah in the water – they don’t want his certain death on THEIR hands.  But they do want him off their boat, right now!  They try to row to the closest shore, so they can leave Jonah behind, but the waves are so big and the wind so strong they just can’t make any headway.
They have only once chance.  “Ok, Jonah’s God – you want him off our boat, then we’ll toss him off.  Just don’t be angry with us for doing this!” 

Once Jonah sinks beneath the waves, the storm stops and the sailors go on their way.
It’s not the end of Jonah however.  God sends a big fish (the Bible never says it’s a whale) to swallow Jonah. 

For three days, Jonah sits in the belly of the fish, having a gigantic pity party.  “Woe is me. I’m stuck here in this fish. Life is so unfair!”  Finally, Jonah asks God for deliverance and God tells the fish to spit Jonah up on land.
At this point, sitting on the beach, blinking in the sunlight, and grateful to be on dry land, Jonah hears God call again – Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.

Jonah gets up and goes - grudgingly. 
He gets to Nineveh, walks a third of the way across the city and yells “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 

It’s the most effective sermon ever preached!  The entire city from the king all the way to the animals fasts and puts on sackcloth and ashes and cries out to God for forgiveness. 

God forgives them.

Jonah sulks.

After his brief sermon, Jonah turned around, stalked out of the city and settled down on a hilltop, ready to enjoy the coming destruction of his neighbors.  No destruction came.  Instead of cries of terror and anguish coming from the city, he hears weeping and repentance.
Jonah’s worst fears are realized:  God indeed is merciful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

Jonah yells at God. “I knew it!  I knew it!  I knew if I went to Nineveh and preached to them and if they repented, you would forgive them!  Them!  Our sworn enemies, our oppressors, the very ones who destroyed our country.  That’s why I wanted to go to Tarshish in the first place – I know how you are.  You sound all ready to judge, but as soon as someone repents, you rush to forgive them!  Arrrgh!  They don’t deserve your forgiveness – they deserve for you to smite them!  Just kill me now – I don’t want to live if you’re going to forgive them.”
God doesn’t kill him.

Jonah decides to stay on that hill top awhile – just maybe the Ninevites’ repentance will be short lived and God will smite them after all.  He builds a little shelter and hunkers down.

God uses this time to teach Jonah a little lesson.  So God plants a bush by Jonah’s shelter - it grows really fast and Jonah has this wonderful bush to shade him from the sun.  The next day, God sends a worm to eat the bush and all the leaves fall off and the bush dies immediately, leaving Jonah sweltering in the sun.  To top it off, God sends a hot wind to really make Jonah bake.
Jonah sulks:  “I can’t get a break here!  First God forgives the Ninevites, then this bush dies and I’m left roasting in the sun!  All this on top of those miserable three days in that fish!  Arrrgh!  Just kill me now!”

God says, “Really?  You’re THAT angry about that bush?”
Jonah says, “Yes.  Angry enough to die!”

God says, “That bush was nothing to you.  You didn’t plant it or water it or care for it in any way. But you liked it and that’s enough for you to be mad that it’s gone?  And yet you don’t understand that I care deeply for this city full of people, whom I created and love.  I don’t want to see them destroyed – I want them to turn to me.”

And that’s where the story ends.  We aren’t told what happens next.
We’re left to ponder and think about the point of this little story.

Here's what I came up with:

Point 1:  God is a faithful God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Point 2:  God’s love is for everyone – seriously everyone, even those people we are sure as so bad that they are beyond God’s love.  Even people we hate.  Even people who have done wrong to us.  Even people we are sure don’t deserve God’s love.

Point 3: God will do whatever it takes to show God’s love to people – send a reluctant prophet to the belly of a whale for three days, send God’s own son to the cross and grave for three days.
Point 4:  God calls those who love him – that’s us - to carry the good news of Point #1 to those in Point #2, trusting God to do Point 3.

[i] Jonah 3:1  

1 comment:

  1. I very much like your telling of the story and especially "God will do what it takes." Amen!