Updated: Mar 7
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 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.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
This is the Old Testament reading selection for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, which is read during the Year B of the Episcopal lectionary. As a source of insight during one's personal season of Epiphany, it is important to see oneself as a Ninevite.
Human beings are born into a world that slowly overcomes a soul and turns a body of flesh towards serving all that pleases the flesh, with little concern about God or His gods. In the U.S. of A. this very moment, Americans are celebrating the overthrow of its flawed form of philosophy. Those who once ruled have fled into the mountains surrounding what Ronald Reagan made famous as a "bright, shining city on the hill" - as if Washington, D. C. is some great place where the powerful worship lesser gods and receive all the benefits of having cheated half of the people of any say in how their government should work. America is Washington D. C. and Nineveh is metaphor for all governments like the one in America today.
Americans are as corrupt as was Nineveh. Therefore, this prophecy is most important to be understood personally, seeing oneself as a Ninevite.
In this sliver of the whole story of Jonah, Jonah appears to be a dutiful prophet of the Lord. In the reality of the whole story known, Jonah had run away from his duties, no longer wanting to tell people, "God says you are going the wrong way. Change or die." His presence on a ship caused a storm to threaten to sink the ship and kill everyone on board; but the sailors figured out everything was being caused by Jonah, so they threw Jonah overboard. There a large fish, like a whale [metaphor for a submarine?] swallowed Jonah and made him sit for three days in the belly of that whale. This part of his story begins after Jonah has had an Epiphany and he was willing to go back to work for the Lord, as His Prophet.
When this part of the story ends with God showing pity on the sinners of Nineveh, who changed their evil ways, that was not what Jonah wanted God to do. He threw a hissy fit and moaned and groaned for quite a while, praying for God to destroy Nineveh. Jonah, as a prophet, knew any changes in that wicked city were nothing more than temporary. After Jonah was slapped around by God, he left Nineveh and went back to square one.
Jonah was right, however. The people of Nineveh would return to being sinful. God would send another Prophet to tell them to change. They laughed that time; so, God destroyed them. That is what awaits America in the future. Evil ways always end in destruction. It is the law of the pendulum. Once it has been set in motion, it keeps swinging back and forth, as a change one way being replaced by a change the other way. Cheat to win today, be cheated to lose tomorrow. Back and forth; and, so it goes.
On the third Sunday after the Epiphany [hump day of that season, so to speak] the whole lesson of Jonah is not read. The listeners are only told the good news. That message is, "If you change from your sinful ways, God will show mercy on your soul and not condemn your soul to hell." As bad as you know you are (deep down, on the inside), if you wash yourself clean, God will reward that effort. But, God is not going to wash your soul clean for you. God didn't wash the Ninevites clean. Jonah certainly didn't either. Jonah is like your guilty conscience showing up to say, "You filthy pig! You disgust me! Imagine how God feels!!!"
When we read, "And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth," that foretells the coming of Lent. Lent is the sackcloth and fast of a wilderness experience. Saying to yourself, "I need to change my evil ways" is only the first step. It is like an alcoholic taking the first step of a twelve step program, where admitting one is an alcoholic is headed in the right direction [all addictions fit this model, with sin the heading for them all]. The second step is self-imposed abstinence.
When you get to the end of forty days of sacrifice, God will allow Satan to come offer you a drink [or a fix, or whatever sin you love most]. Most people come out of Lent starved for that one little thing they have tried for forty days to do without. All the natural-born cheaters never give up cheating for Lent, so they substitute some minor lust - like chocolate or cigarettes - always finding the time to cheat one here and there. All while making it seem to others like they have been a good boy or girl.
Jonah knew that human nature to cheat. He did not believe the Lent Nineveh was going through was a permanent union of their heathen souls with God. He hung around to watch them feast on the sins they loved so much, once the forty days was up. He was denied seeing that failure, so he left. After he left, the people of Nineveh would fall off the wagon and binge to make up for their lost sins. That is a normal failure in mankind. It is why AA assigns helpers (sponsors); because nobody can successfully go the abstinence route alone.
The value of this reading in the middle of the Epiphany season is it offers the promise of hope. Hope is the only good thing that came out of Pandora's Box, along with all the evils that people have struggled avoiding ever since she opened that dang thing. She was known to open it. That is why Zeus sent that 'gift' to Pandora. That is why God sends Satan as a 'gift' sent to you. Satan is the one who offers the delights of the world, sent by God as your test of commitment. The only redeeming value of a world full of sin is hope; but hope must be seen as a lack of faith, and a confession of sins that says, "I cannot do this alone! Please help me!"
The hope of this reading is you have to take the first step, before you can ever get to the point of making a follow-up step. A first step is reason to celebrate, because God is watching. God knows all. God knows your heart. God knows your brain. God knows your flaws and weaknesses, better than you admit to them.
So, I expect there will be a lot of sermons preached about this message of hope. Listen to it. Then go home and feast on all the sinful things you might consider doing without for forty days. Get all the sinning out of your system, because God will let you destroy your soul if you refuse to go an eternity without sinning again.
R. T. Tippett