Sunday, January 21, 2023

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
“Fisher’s of People”
—Rev. Brent Gundlah

Jonah 3:1-5, NRSVUE and Mark 1:14-20, NRSVUE.

Is there anyone who would actually want to be judged purely on the basis of how they behaved on their worst days? I know I wouldn’t. We all get frustrated and angry and impatient from time to time, we all can be jealous and intolerant and petty every now and again, but there’s more to us than that. Thankfully, God is all about second chances, and today’s first reading about that unlikely prophet named Jonah illustrates that.

These verses drop us into the story midstream, without any context. As our passage begins, we’re told that, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

It would be tough to understand all that’s going on here if this one verse — or even all of today’s verses — were all that you knew of Jonah’s story. I mean, if God came and spoke to Jonah a second time, God must have come and spoken to Jonah a first time. And let’s just say the first time didn’t go particularly well (we’ll come back to that in a few minutes). But, like I said earlier, God is generous with do-overs.      

The Bible is full of stories about prophets and, after you’ve read a few of them, you realize they’re all similar and predictable. A prophet, often someone who lives on society’s margins, receives orders from God to go and set the people straight. Your garden-variety prophet typically does this by giving long, angry speeches, which makes the prophet even less popular than they were before. The people mostly ignore what the prophet says and bad stuff happens. “I told you so,” the prophet declares, which makes the prophet even less popular still. And so the story ends.

But the repetitive simplicity of these stories masks the prophets’ inner conflict. No one — and I mean absolutely no one — would volunteer for this job; God has to seek out and command people to do it, and the prophets generally try to find every reason they can not to. Moses wanted out because he wasn’t a good public speaker, Jeremiah said he was too young, and Isaiah complained that the work was taking too long.

Their excuses (and their whining) nothwithstanding, these prophets somehow manage to hang in there — because their love for God (and for God’s people) is that strong. Ultimately, they’re willing to stand in that very lonely space between God and us, begging the people to repent and pleading with God to show mercy. Sometimes they actually do persuade God to take it easy on the people, but none of them is very successful in changing peoples’ minds — except for Jonah, that is.

There are just six verses from Jonah’s third chapter in today’s reading, but in order to understand what’s happening here, it is important to consider the whole story. It’s only four chapters long (about three pages in most Bibles), so it’s a quick read. And while most people know Jonah as the guy who is swallowed-up by a big fish there’s more to the story than that (and, contrary to what we may have learned, it never says that it’s a whale). Here’s how it goes.

God orders Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh, which was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire — Nineveh lies just outside of what is now the city of Mosul in Iraq. The Ninevites were infamous for their cruelty towards those they conquered (which would soon include the Israelites). God has heard about the city’s wickedness and believes that its people need to repent, so God summons Jonah and tells him to go and encourage them to change their evil ways.

But Jonah doesn’t exactly hop to it and get to work; in fact, he does the opposite — he turns and runs away from God (which, for the record, is never a good idea). Jonah flees to the port of Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish, a city in present-day Spain that was the Western edge of the known world back then. The point here is that Jonah does as far as he possibly can in order to escape God’s call.

Jonah thinks this is a solid idea because the God of Israel would never go to Tarshish in order to find him — it’s really far away and besides, the people there, as in Nineveh, are foreigners who don’t even believe in his God. This plan doesn’t exactly work out for Jonah, though, because God is everywhere.

A storm sent by God threatens to destroy the ship on which Jonah is hiding, and the other sailors on board cry out to their own gods to save them, to no avail. The crew casts lots to determine who on board is responsible for bringing this terrible misfortune upon them and Jonah draws the short straw.

Jonah confesses to his shipmates that, because he’s running away from his God, the storm is likely his fault. He volunteers to save them by being tossed overboard (in Jonah’s twisted reasoning this has the added benefit of allowing him to get away from God once and for all). The sailors continue trying to save the ship, but eventually they take Jonah up on his offer and throw him into the sea. As soon as he lands in the waters, they immediately grow calm and the grateful sailors offer a sacrifice to Jonah’s God.

Poor Jonah is eaten by a humongous fish, which he spends three days inside of contemplating his poor life choices. He recites a long rambling prayer to let God know that he’s changed his mind, that he’s repented. At God’s request, the fish then spews Jonah upon dry land (honestly, the fish was probably happy to do this because it had grown weary of listening to Jonah’s complaining).

At this point Jonah gets a second chance: God tells him again to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message — and this time he does it. In what is the Bible’s shortest sermon, Jonah tells the Ninevites about what God has in store for them: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he declares. 

And even though Jonah’s preaching ain’t all that great, the people of Nineveh actually repent — which makes sense because it was always more about God than it was about Jonah. They cry out mightily; they fast and put on sackcloth; strangely enough, they make their animals cry and fast and put on sackcloth too (I have no idea why). And when God sees the Ninevites turning from their terrible ways, God chooses to spare them; God actually changes God’s mind. 

At this point, we learn what Jonah’s issue with his assignment from God has been all along: He hates the people of Nineveh and doesn’t believe they are worthy of being saved. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he fears that God will open their hearts and save them.

He actually hoped that God would destroy the Ninevites — and he certainly didn’t want any part in their salvation. Jonah is an absolutely awful prophet who ends up being one of the most successful (fun fact: the list of prophets who actually get the people to repent is a short one), and Jonah does this in spite of himself.

After complaining to God, Jonah goes to the outskirts of town to pout and hides from the burning sun under the cover of a bush that God has kindly provided. God then sends a worm to eat the plant, depriving Jonah of his newfound shade in order to teach him a lesson. And Jonah is exasperated.

God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush? You were concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left..?”

The point is that God’s mysterious grace is available to everyone because God loves everyone — not just the Israelites, not just the people we like or the people we agree with or the people we deem worthy. For all their faults and shortcomings, God is still willing to give the Ninevites a second chance because they are God’s beloved too; and, if God is willing to do this, who are we to question God?

But that’s exactly what Jonah does; he runs away from God’s call because he just can’t bear the idea of loving the people that God loves; he simply can’t understand why God would choose to love such people.

When given his own second chance, Jonah does what God asks, but he still doesn’t seem to get it. In the final line of his speech from inside the fish, Jonah declares that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” but he hasn’t really thought through the implications of this statement. You see, Jonah is okay with deliverance belonging to God, so long as God plays by the same rules that Jonah does — but that’s not the way God works.

After God gives Jonah a good talking-to as he sits underneath that dead shrub, the story abruptly ends. Jonah disappears from the Bible, never to be heard from again; and we’re left to imagine what might have happened to him next.

I, for one, can’t help but think that God gave Jonah all the chances he needed in order to get it right because God’s grace is always available to everyone — Ninevites and reluctant prophets and you and me — and there is nothing we can say or do to change that. It often takes some time and effort for that grace to break through and take root and do it’s work within us, but it’s always there.

The word of God came to Jonah a second time because ours is the God of second chances.

And for that, we should give thanks.