Third Sunday After Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Only one time in each three-year lectionary cycle do we get a chance to read the prophet Jonah (twice if you’re Episcopal or Catholic and following the lectionary). The entire story takes only 48 verses to tell, but by the time it’s done the reader has been taken on a whirlwind tour of the ancient world, explored the character of God, watched Israel wrestle with its calling to be a conduit of God’s grace for all of the nations rather than its terminus, and felt both sympathy and anger towards a self-centered prophet more concerned with his public standing as a prophet than with the destiny of an entire nation.
For Jews, the entirety of Jonah is read out publicly in the synagogue each year on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The Day of Atonement is that day when Jews gather to pray for their own lives and those of their beloved friends and family, to make personal atonement for their own sins, and is a time for making commitments to holiness in the year to come. In this context, Jonah appears to be a very strange selection even with the theme of repentance present in both places. Perhaps it is that after wrestling privately with God about the condition of their own souls, the people must repent of their failure to live into their calling to be a blessing to all nations. Perhaps it is simply that after having repented, like Jonah spat back upon the shores of Assyria, the people are then prepared to accept the yoke of heaven once more and go in God’s mission to the world.
It’s not dissimilar to the call to repentance issued by Jesus in the gospel lesson for this Sunday. As we have seen from the beginning of Scripture, the central mark of faithfulness is responsiveness: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Ninevites are only a few of those who are blessed by their willingness to respond to the call of God. The problem that Jonah faced as did most of the faithful Jews that Jesus encountered was their unwillingness to believe that their enemies and those most despised were the ones at the other end of the fishing net God placed in their hands.
As ones who have responded to Christ’s invitation to “Follow me,” Jonah is a good place to begin when considering what and to whom our mission is this Epiphany season. Though Israel was and is God’s chosen people, though the church has been grafted into that chosenness by the grace of God, God’s love and concern seem to remain throughout the tale on those who are not yet insiders. God does not save us for our own sake alone but for the sake of others. Like Jonah, we in the church are often quite content to stay comfortable with our own electedness and miss both the urgency and the scope of God’s mission.
Jonah and the four fishermen of Mark 1 are reminders to us that the call of God on our own lives might mean some suffering, a surrender of pride, and rejection by those who would keep God’s grace in a box that can be managed. I vividly remember wrestling with one of my Presbyterian friends in seminary whose ordination vows would include the question: “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” Theological differences between Christians aside, for all of us professing the Lordship of Christ, God does demand a willingness to sacrifice personal agendas and comfort, reputations, and an openness to be called into situations where the folks turning back to God will defy the hardness of our heart and expose the wideness of God’s mercy.