2020-01-24 Epiphany 3
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Epiphany. The season of light. Light is probably the most amazing thing in our earthly existence. It’s the very first thing that God created. “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3) He spoke. It’s the absolutely most-needed, critical feature for life. Everything living on our entire planet is dependent on it. Where would all the vegetarians be without plants and photosynthesis?! No salad bars at Bonanza! What a travesty! Remember your high school physics classes? Is it a particle? Is it a wave? It’s fascinating stuff. It’s really amazing stuff. Just think, when you open a door in a room with the light on, darkness doesn’t fall into the lit room. Light spews out and illuminates the darkness! We’ve all experienced this but we don’t give it a second thought.
So, if we say that God’s Word and message of the Gospel is light, how does it make its way out into the darkness? Preachers.Prophets.Apostles.Messengers. People who have been called by God to be the light-bearers. Jesus calls the first disciples, the people who would be filled with the light of God’s Kingdom and then sent out boldly to preach and proclaim that the Messiah has come! We don’t need to stumble around in the darkness of sin and death any longer. The crucified and risen Saviour has come and brought life and immortality to light to all who believe. St. Paul makes this point in Romans 10: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”" (14-15).
Enter Jonah. The Old Testament Prophet. We know him from every children’s bible ever as the prophet who had a ‘whale of a time!’ But when we read the book of Jonah we quickly see the story of an unwilling light-bearer. God asks him to go to a place called Nineveh. It was a great and massive city, something like modern day super cities like Vancouver or Toronto that keep getting bigger and gobbling up the surrounding areas. Nineveh was in modern day Iraq, just north of Baghdad. And, it had an even more notorious reputation than Moose Jaw if such a thing was possible!
The local Assyrian cable TV channel featured “The Brutal Bunch” instead of the Brady Bunch! They were bad news. Worse than Winnipeg even. All joking aside, they were nasty. There were these quotes discovered by scholars and archaeologists on their monuments that said “I cut off their heads and formed them into pillars.” “Bubo, son of Buba, I flayed in the city of Arbela and spread his skin upon the city wall!” “3000 captives I burned with fire.” “I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, I bound their heads to posts round the city!”
Talk about a vacation destination hot spot! Can you imagine the marketing at the tourism department?! “Come and see our human torches as they illuminate the city walls!” “Admire our enemy-skin tapestries while you stroll through our grand collection of severed heads!” That’s messed up! That’s nasty stuff. And what does God tell Jonah to do? Go there. Go there to Nineveh and tell those wicked people that the nasty stuff they are doing is wrong! And … now we see why Jonah hightails it in the opposite direction across the Mediterranean Sea towards Tarshish (Spain). No light for that darkness! Jonah tucks his tail between his legs and he’s gone! Maybe I’d feel the same way if I knew there was a good chance they would make a “Reverend Skin Rug” out of me too!
This is where the fish story begins. Some people have said that its a whopper at best! Jonah is cast overboard from the ship he is on and gets swallowed by a gigantic fish. And for three days he is in there, marinating in gastric juices and seaweed! We see immediately that there is a parallel to our Lord Jesus Who spends three days in the tomb after He was crucified. We key into this connection in Matthew’s Gospel: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (MT 12:38-41).
When it comes to Jonah, after his three day wild ride in the belly of the fish, he is literally barfed up on a beach! And after this attitude-adjusting-adventure, we finally arrive at our reading for today: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:1-2). And this time, Jonah goes. He will bear the light of God’s Kingdom into the very depth of Nineveh’s darkness and despair. He goes into the city a day’s journey and he proclaims the message God sent. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them"(3:4-5). How’s that for results?! Not bad for an 8-word sermon!
The evil, sick and twisted suckers repent! Every last one of them, greatest to least. Sackcloth, like burlap made from camel or goat hide, is worn by all as a visible sign of their repentance. They fast from eating food. They pray for God’s mercy! The people of Nineveh, locked in deep darkness, respond to the simple light of God’s Kingdom. They turn from their evil and embrace the light. The Word of the Lord is powerful stuff. It makes amazing things happen, even that which we think is impossible! Even the most heinous sinners realize that the darkness of their evil and wicked ways leads to destruction. The light of God’s Word makes them realize that they aren’t alive. Rather, they’ve been dead in sin! They’ve been mulling around in the valley of the shadow of death being angry and holding grudges. They live lives paralyzed by fear. The darkness has so blinded them that they don’t know they can have life and have it abundantly in Christ the Messiah. His radiant light is given to all who will, like the Ninehvites, repent and embrace the Good News.
So, it should be hap, hap, happily ever after for Jonah and his new friends in Nineveh, right? Hollywood ending with hugs and snugs all round. But Jonah isn’t rejoicing. He’s not happy. He is utterly disappointed. He’s much like the proud-hearted older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (LK 15:11-32). He doesn’t rejoice that this prodigal city that once will filled with darkness has finally seen the light. Jonah wishes that Nineveh would have been wiped out and destroyed for their iniquity! He wanted God to give them what those suckers deserved for their sin and wickedness! He wanted the Divine Hammer of God’s Wrath to fall!
The end of the story of Jonah seems kind of weird to us. God sends a plant, a gourd to grow up quickly and give Jonah some shade from the hot sun whilst he is contemplating all that just took place. This plant makes Jonah very happy! He rejoices that he has some relief from his struggles. But then, God sends a worm and it wriggles its way into the gourd plant and kills it. The plant withers and dies. This makes Jonah go ballistic! He is exceedingly grieved to the point of death!
This plant episode is a snapshot of Jonah’s dark attitude. He should be filled with light but instead he isn’t. He thinks that God’s grace and mercy is only for certain people. It’s like saying God can only forgive redeemable people. Recyclable people. Re-usable people. The “good” sinners … you know the type. The upwardly-mobile people who might have overdue library books - certainly NOT the methhead with 7 illegitimate children who just robbed a 7/11 convenience store as fun family outing!
But this is the crazy part of God’s mercy. The light of His Kingdom is for everyone - everyone who will receive it and repent of their darkness. For Jonah, his darkness was prideful arrogance, thinking he was a person of the light. But if he isn’t willing to share the light and give it away, well, then you don’t have the light. It becomes a question for us too. What darkness are we still holding on to?
The story of Jonah ends with an odd question from God. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11). The light must pursue the darkness. It must dispel it. It must reveal and illuminate it. The promise of the light of Christ our Lord must shine into all the world. Sins forgiven! Grace bestowed. Virtues pursued! The question is, will we learn from Jonah? Will we bear the light of Christ that all may hear and believe? Amen!