The Lectionary Readings Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

The season of Epiphany in the church, exclusively focus on God’s call to ministry through story of Jonah and the disciples of Jesus.

Whenever I read John Mc Crae ’s famous poem which we traditionally use during our national Remembrance Day observances, “In Flanders Fields”, I feel amazingly absorbed by an extraordinary dimension of an enduring invitation,

“To you from failing hands we (the dead)
throw the torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies
Grow in Flanders Fields”.

We meet an odd and kind of curious character in our Hebrew lesson in the Book of Jonah, who refused to hold the torch high. Jonah being swallowed up by a whale and I suspect that over the years we might have forgotten why it happened at all! God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh in order to tell them that if the people of that troubled city repent, God will not destroy them as they are in need of second chances. Our God is a God of second chances and we all are with heartaches and concerns; with joys and sorrows and we are grateful for the many second chances God has given us. Jonah is not unlike most of us as he assumes that the people of Nineveh deserve whatever they get. He pouts and frets and plans to take off—he takes the ship to run away from God. Like Jonah we, stubbornly, ignore God’s promptings and go on our own. But there are always storms to overcome and when the storms of life show up, we wonder where God is! The ancient mariners, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would describe them, in their desperation, tosses Jonah into the raging sea and a giant fish swallows him. Jonah prays to the Lord for three long days –what a place to call upon God! — And God orders the fish to regurgitate or throw up, well, in a more dignified language, to deposit Jonah on dry ground.

Jonah—a strangely placid name for a man of God—means ‘dove’; to me it is kind of a man with no backbone, a drifting ditherer with no sense of duty. Why would God choose a week-kneed, laidback guy to proclaim God’s plan of destruction and salvation? Take a look at the characters in this drama: God ( or Adonai) , Jonah, sailors and the people of Nineveh. Is it a cruel joke? A parody of prophecy? A story of reluctant preacher? A satire on those of us who are called preach the Good News of Jesus Christ week after week? Certainly some read Jonah’s story as if it were solemn sacred history of the people of Israel, literally true and factual. Others consider this not necessarily as a history book. Jonah’s story is the definitely the most famous parable in the Hebrew literature. It reminds me that we are the harbingers of hope and bearers of grace to our enemies. The metanoia, the transformation we hope for others in God’s realm is not only for others but for us as well.

Nineveh, the lost city to which God sends an unwilling prophet Jonah with the message of doom and gloom is not any city; it is the capital city of the Assyrian empire---the avatar of everything that is evil. I remember my visit to Moscow in the early 1970s; it wasn’t easy to freely travel as I have traveled across Europe, Asia and North America. It was more than the capital of the former Soviet Union and journalists and politicians described Moscow as, to use the fatal words of the late US president Ronald Reagan, “an evil empire”, or to use the current President’s jargon coined by his Canadian speech writer, “an axis of evil….a symbol of everything that is xenophobic, strange and evil! All this leads to a kind of simplistic theological equation: “our enemies are God’s enemies.” Read the Book of Psalms where the psalmist speaks of hating his enemies with ‘a perfect hatred’. ‘Un-theological’ as it is, it is good news when God decides to destroy our enemy. There is one subtle catch though. God wants Jonah, and add your name, to go and tell them that they are to be destroyed. Jonah wants to get even and he objects and departs in the opposite direction toward Spain.

Take a moment to note a funny thing here. God calls a prophet; God commands a storm; God provides a giant fish; God appoints a plant; God finds a worm; and God brings in a wind. All of the above, the storm, the fish, the plant, the worm and the wind obey God, except God’s prophet. Not a chance. When a prophet will not obey God, a tsunami and the great fish will. As the story develops, the reluctant preacher trudges along into the great city of Nineveh; he stands in the street corner and shouts: “ Forty days—smarten up folks or else!” It reminds me the long-bearded librarian with the unique stature of Zacchaeus in the Department of English at the University College, Trivandrum , Kerala who used to preach with remarkable enthusiasm to the street crowd in the 1960s. And Jonah announces doom and destruction with no conditions, no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, or ‘unless’; he is shrewd and he offers the people no terms of reconciliation. This is far from God’s agenda. This is not quite the sermon god wants him to preach. A sermon with no hope is no sermon at all. Jonah proclaims an ultimatum for an utter destruction. A strange thing happens—the people listen and believe. Therefore, there is hope even in a poorly preached sermon! And the king issues a royal decree for repentance. Not only the people of the whole city of Nineveh but the cattle, the street dogs, stray cats,…..imagine these animals joining in unison saying a prayer of confession! It in fact reminds of our dog that never barked at people on Sundays, as she knew they were coming in to worship but she would scare them during the week with a passion. Her ecumenical spirit was not generous when the Jehovah’s witnesses showed up the door!

The Bible tells us that all prophets were failures whose words were unheeded by kings and their subjects alike. We read that the prophets were right and their words true but nobody took them seriously. Well, that is not quite true at least in this story. The people change their ways. Even God changes plans. God decides not to destroy the city. And our grumpy prophet was upset and annoyed at God’s mercy. God tricks to tickle an uptight Jonah into a chuckle. God grows a plant in order to provide shade for the tired old prophet. Jonah swears and sweats for nothing. Suddenly a worm attacks the plant and kills it. Jonah, the righteous judge, feels sorry for the plant. And the story ends there.

Jonah would not laugh. In fact he does not laugh, as he doesn’t understand that the joke is on him. You know the truth…the joke is on us. You and me. We need to learn to laugh at our foolishness, our idiosyncrasies, our so-called enmities, our prejudices, our tunnel vision of God’s grand plans and purposes. We take ourselves too seriously. We do not laugh enough. We are like the angry parishioner who refused to laugh at a joke in the church; she confessed that she would go home and laugh alone! On a personal note, since my one-week long stay in the hospital not too long ago, I have learned to lighten up. My teenage- son used to call me “old man”. I got used to that. Now he calls me, “crazy old man”. As gullible as I am, I am beginning to believe that I am both crazy and old. If I ever dared to call my father crazy or old, I would have spent the rest of my life in the doghouse.

Mark Twain tried an experiment. He writes, ”So I built a cage and in it I put a dog and a cat. And with a little training I got the dog and the cat to the point where they lived peaceably together. Then I introduced a pig, then a goat, a kangaroo, some birds and a monkey. After a few adjustments they all learned to live in harmony. So encouraged was I by such successes that I added a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Jew, a Muslim from Turkey and a Buddhist from China along with a Baptist missionary that captured on the same trip. And in a very short while, there wasn’t a single living thing left in the cage! Not a single living thing! Remember, this week is the Week for Prayer for Unity among Christians!

Like Jonah, we might enjoy the destruction of those who oppose us. Jesus said, ’Love your enemies’. Mark Twain went further when he said, “love your enemies and it will scare the hell out of them”. To be blunt and honest, most of us are partial prophets, part-time disciples. The demons hold us back and we act out our job descriptions only part of the time—demons of apathy, indifference, fears, doubts, insecurities etc. We see Simon Peter, Andrew, John and James, the imperfect disciples in the Gospel lesson today. At times they seem dense and inadequate. What joy and sorrow lay ahead for the first blessed disciples of Jesus? What blessings and pain they experience as they walked that bumpy road with Jesus? What success and failure would they endure as they carried the Good News all across the world? In some ways their story is much the same as ours, a daily walk with God, never certain of what tomorrow might bring but certain that God walks with us as God’s ‘ goodness and mercy’ shall follow us all the days of our life. So there we are—it’s a fish story and perhaps a fishy sermon—either you choose to be swallowed by the fish or continue your call to ‘fish for people’.

Poem: In Flanders Fields, John McCrae (1874-1918) The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English page 61
*Sermon: Freedom, Choice and Commitment by Peter J. Gomes, Pulpit Digest, July/August 1995 pages 19-24
Sermon: Like the Words You Speak by Derek Penwell, Biblical Preaching Journal Winter-2006 pages 11-12
Sermon: More than s Fish Story by Patrick J. Wilson, Biblical Preaching Journal-Winter 2003 pages 11-12

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