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The Third Sunday after Epiphany

[Jonah 3:1-5,10] Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And 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. . . .

10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.


A Matter of Urgency

Some things are a matter of urgency, and sometimes when the window of opportunity is missed, it matters forever. On the other hand, the benefits of addressing an urgent matter can be enjoyed forever.

Jonah the prophet was called by God to an urgent matter. Jonah is a prophet in Israel, among the Israelites – God’s people of the Old Testament. Unlike the other prophets, Jonah is called to go outside Israel and Judah to preach to gentiles.

Jonah is called to preach God’s Word in Nineveh. Nineveh was a great city of the Assyrians – great in size, wealth, and power. Great but not good. Nineveh was a city in love with violence and every kind of immoral lifestyle.

Jonah’s call to proclaim God’s Word to Nineveh was urgent because Nineveh was reaching the end of God’s patience – patience which sometimes lasts years or centuries, but when it ends, ends abruptly. And this can be a permanent end.

Judgment – destruction for the city; condemnation for individuals – is the natural consequence of their behavior – the wrongs they’ve done; the wrong they’ve been; and those right things they’ve failed to do.  

“Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”, warns Jonah. God’s judgment is right and just; yet it’s also not what God wants for these people.

Jonah was sent so that, at least at this last minute, the Ninevites might turn and God might relent of the disaster He had for them and instead show them His steadfast love and mercy. The Ninevites did not know God, yet God already drew near to them and desired this better outcome for them.

It was a matter of urgency. Yet it was a matter that Jonah the prophet ran away from.

One of the marks of the Bible’s authenticity is that the Bible doesn’t shy away from the flaws of its heroes. In the first verses of the book of Jonah, when the Word of God comes to Jonah and calls him to go to Nineveh, Jonah straightaway devises another plan and flees – attempting even to flee from God’s presence.

The prophet Jonah boards a ship heading far from Nineveh. But God sends a storm that assaults this ship on the sea. It will soon sink – the sailors are calling out to their various false gods – Jonah, surprisingly, is found sleeping in the inner part of the ship.

However, the captain awakens him. The sailors inquire of him. Jonah admits the storm is for him – that he was on that ship to flee God’s presence, God who made the sea and the dry land.

Jonah even tells the sailors that if they pick him up, carry him to the edge, and cast him into the sea, the storm will stop its raging and their lives will be spared. Jonah thus sacrifices himself for their lives. The storm was for him after all.

They cast Jonah in. The storm turns quiet and calm. And then – this is the part you remember – God had appointed a great fish for Jonah, to swallow him up. Jonah then prays a prayer of great faith and thanksgiving to God within the belly of that fish [Jonah 2:1-10].

That fish was Jonah’s deliverance. God commands and it coughs Jonah up where Jonah belongs – on dry land en route to Nineveh. To Nineveh Jonah finally goes.

That is now where today’s reading begins – “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 goes. Nineveh would take about three days for a thorough visit. Jonah travels one day in the city and shouts out what we’ve heard, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

The people of Nineveh, who long sat in darkness – blind to what is good and what is evil – blind to true knowledge of God – they hear, and they believe. “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.”

And, “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation… call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” [Jonah 3:5-9]

That city which was ripe for judgment was finally ready for salvation. Those people who sat in darkness for so long saw Light easily. They were more ready and turned out in greater number than God’s own people ever did at the preaching of the other prophets.

“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, and He did not do it.” In that very day, God gave His steadfast love and mercy to Nineveh.

And that is why the prophet Jonah didn’t want to go. “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.’” [Jonah 4:1-2]

In our Gospel reading today [Mark 1:14-20], not a mere Jonah, but the Lord Himself, Jesus, the Messiah, comes “proclaiming the gospel of God” saying, “The time is fulfilled – the urgent time has come – and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”

Jesus then calls some of His first disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” – a call which still extends to His whole church in every city.   

The whole body of Christ – each of you individually – in the various ways you can serve and support the Gospel of God – and by speaking to and being a light of Jesus Christ to the people your life reaches – you have all received the call to be fishers of men.

You are each instruments through which Jesus desires to cast His net to others to gather them out of darkness into His light.

The urgent matter is heaven or hell; salvation or judgment; eternal joy or everlasting darkness – for you, it’s the urgent matter in your life – and for people in your reach. You are called to the urgent matter of showing them Jesus and what He has done for them – and to the urgent matter of delivering God’s gifts to those in your reach of influence or care.  

Why do we run from this call? We don’t understand or believe salvation is an urgent matter. Our life is taken up by many responsibilities or focused on enjoyment and leisure. (Good things; but we do need to make this urgent matter first. Let the rest be second and third.)

Do you neglect this call because there are those to whom you don’t really want God’s steadfast love and mercy to come, just as Jonah didn’t want God’s mercy to come to Nineveh?

Do we neglect the call to be fishers of men because we are overwhelmed by the darkness we see and don’t believe the light of the gospel of Jesus can overcome it?

We have to repent of that kind of unbelief. Jesus the Savior, His work on the cross, and the Holy Spirit who works faith in the heart, are almighty in their power and can change any heart.

 Jonah is the best prophet because, though he wasn’t up to the task – likely in many of the same ways we haven’t been up to the task – he was still God’s man. God still used him for the task and worked mightily through him.

Even on that boat on which Jonah was fleeing from God’s purpose, God fulfilled His purpose. After the storm was calmed by Jonah being cast in, it says those sailors then believed in the one true God and called upon Him [Jonah 1:16].

And, though the prophet Jonah did not meet the measure of a dedicated, fiery servant of God like some of the other prophets, Jesus still was not ashamed to compare Himself to 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.” [Matthew 12:40]

Just as Jonah was cast into the storm that was due for him, Jesus has already cast Himself into the storm that was due for you. The storm of God’s judgment was ready against our sins. Jesus, the only innocent one, cast Himself into that storm on the cross and quieted it for each of us – and for each person who needs to be reached, who doesn’t yet know this.

Jesus is “the propitiation – the atoning sacrifice – for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” [1 John 2:2]. Let’s not run from the call to be fishers of men, but let’s seek ways to carry it out – trusting that, since Jesus has died for each person, He desires and is able to do this work through us. Amen.

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