The Third Sunday after the Epiphany - 22 January 2012

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
I Corinthians 7:29-31
St. Mark 1:14-20

Background: Nineveh

Our first knowledge of this ancient city dates from ca. 1800 BCE, but it is not until the ninth century, that the city acquires the splendor and power that makes it notable in biblical literature.  The kings that attract the Bible’s attention are Tiglath-Pileser III, and Sargon II, both of whom made massive incursions into modern day Syria and upper Palestine.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell ca. 720 BCE, and it inhabitants were forcibly resettled in other regions of the Assyrian Empire (thus the “lost 10 tribes” of Israel).  In addition, attempts were made to conquer the Southern Kingdom as well with its King Hezekiah. This history earned for Assyria and its capital Nineveh a harsh place in the Israelite and Judean memory.  Thus it is no surprise that many of the prophets rail against it: Isaiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and others.  It is in the Book of Jonah, however, that we get a different view of the city.  In this “sermon” the author sees the call of a reluctant prophet (Jonah) to speak against the greatest city of the time (Nineveh).  Writing within the midst of the eighth century, the author is able to see the full power of this aggressive empire and city.  Its ultimate conversion and repentance becomes a powerful symbol of the Israelite reliance on the word of the Lord, and the power that this word yields.  By the end of the seventh century, the city was defeated by the Babylonians and Medes, and the site of Nineveh was destroyed and abandoned.

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.

The book of Jonah was probably not written by the eighth century prophet that is mentioned in II Kings, but was more likely written much later, following the Exile, and the destruction of Nineveh in the seventh century.  As a piece (many have suggested that it is “sermon-like” with a psalm inappropriately placed in the middle) it is divided into two “missions”.  In the first mission, Jonah runs away from Yahweh’s call, encountering the large fish along the way.  In the second mission (which is where our reading begins) we have an engaging story about being sent to Nineveh to preach repentance.  The proclamation of Jonah is remarkably successful, and ultimately unsatisfying to him.  The end is a bit of a morality tale, but perhaps gives the best explanation as to its purpose and goal.  Written perhaps in in the fourth century, the book may be an attempt to reconcile Israelite faith with the geo-politic of its time.  That such a great enemy should hear God’s word and repent would speak well of a universalism that we find in older and contemporary prophets.  Jonah bears resentment to the salvation of Nineveh, and Nineveh acquiesces to the demands of Israel’s God.  It is these two opposing forces that reflect the dialogue of the times, and provides grist for the author’s mill.

Breaking open Jonah
  1. Have you ever run away from a difficult task? 
  2. Have you ever run away from something asked of you by God?
  3. How did it turn out?  What did you learn?

Psalm 62:6-14 Nonne Deo?

For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
truly, my hope is in him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

In God is my safety and my honor; *
God is my strong rock and my refuge.

Put your trust in him always, O people, *
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, *
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

On the scales they are lighter than a breath, *
all of them together.

Put no trust in extortion;
in robbery take no empty pride; *
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, *
that power belongs to God.

Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, *
for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

In this psalm on the trust, namely trust of the Creator by the created, the author uses an astounding image, namely that of breath.  The human essence is the breath that fills the lungs.  In an image perhaps borrowed from the Egyptian judgment after death, when the soul is measured on the scales with the feather of Ma’at (order, righteousness, and goodness), the psalmist proposes a similar measurement in verse 11, “on the sales they are light than a breath.”  The question is one of wonder – “who are we, and of what are we made?”  The psalmist finds us to be lightweights when compared to the graces with which God meets us.

Breaking open Psalm 62
  1. Think of all those around you in whom you have trust.  Can you name them?
  2. What does it mean to have trust?
  3. What does it mean to have trust in God?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Here we see Paul, hopeful and vigilant for the parousia the second coming of Christ.  His advice is one of “detachment”, thus he advises those who are married to think as though they had no wives.  This is not misogyny so much as it is a parallel word to both men and women to wait for the Lord, and in focusing on him, to be separated from the world.  Here we can see foundations for the ascetic life of the religious.  But what does it mean for us?

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. For what do you hope?
  2. Is it a hope that will find fruition in the world?
  3. How do those close to you either hinder or help your hopefulness?

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

In this Gospel we see the exact antithesis to the Prophet Jonah.  The older prophet runs away from the mission to which God has called him.  (And lest we be too hard on Jonah, we need to remember the resistance of other prophets, such as Jeremiah).  Jesus however is speaking about a new time, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”  In this new time, Peter (Simon), Andres, James, and John think nothing of abandoning their livelihood to follow Jesus.  Although the second lesson was not chosen for its thematic relationship with the first reading and the gospel, it strangely fits.  Paul argues for detachment, Jesus expects it, and the first of the disciples comply without complaint.  We are, all of us, caught between Jonah and John. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you understand by Jesus’ saying that “the time is fulfilled?”
  2. How were you called into Christianity?
  3. How do you continue to be called?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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