3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 23, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 62:5-12
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:14-20

The story of Jonah offers several preaching possibilities, with metaphors of water, ship, fish and the act of running from God's call. In addition, a turning point in the story involves God changing God's mind and "repenting" of the evil intended.

God's call comes to Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, a notoriously wicked city which symbolizes the "other," non-chosen people. Of all places to be sent! Jonah runs the other direction. He boards a ship and sails for the other side of the world. A storm arises, and in a dramatic scene, he is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a fish, where he spends three days. He repents, and determines to go to Nineveh to carry out the initial divine call, whereupon he is spit out and cast upon the land.

The story is a dramatic setting to display the mercy of God to everyone. In the speech of chapter 2, Jonah prays from the belly of the fish, recognizing God's deliverance, and he thus repents.

Several key aspects of the story are of theological interest. "Three days" suggest the death of Jesus and his entombment. "Forty days" suggests the Noah story and Jesus' temptation, both times of testing. The theme of death and resurrection is important in the story. So, too, the nature of God's call and the irresistible effect it has on Jonah's life. Another theme is the mercy of God toward outsiders, even against the exclusive claims of the insiders.

From a Process perspective, God's willingness to change God's mind in response to Jonah's decisions, reflects a true give-and-take relationship between God and Jonah. God also changes God's response depending upon the repentance of the Ninevites. The character of God reflected in the story is not that of a passionless, remote, changeless being, but a God who is deeply involved in the unfolding of human life. It is because of the interaction in the human and divine relationship that transformation is possible.

Another preaching possibility is to focus on the metaphors of sea, storm and ship as reflecting the dynamics of life, our small life (ship) being caught in the storms of life and being oddly rescued by a fish, a symbol of sustenance, and belly of the fish symbolizing entombment. The turning point comes in the tomb (belly); therefore, Jonah's speech is an important theological realization. Other stories in the NT reflect similar metaphors: Jesus telling the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee whereupon a storm arises and they fear for their safety. Jesus is either in the boat or comes walking on the water to rescue them.

Jesus' call to repentance at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark reflects Jonah's dilemma. Repentance is a simple act: you are moving in a certain direction in life, and the call of the divine is to stop, turn around, and move in another direction, in this case, toward the Kingdom. Jonah, when hearing the initial call, runs in a direction away from God. The point comes in the story (in the belly of the fish) when Jonah decided to turn and move toward God.

The decision to repent is a true decision made in freedom. God gives the call and then waits for our response. The act of repentance implies true freedom and a true relationship with the divine. We are not simply preordained to our decisions. We are free to decide and God is free to decide. It is only in this freedom that love between us and the divine is possible; and it is in this matrix of love that transformation is possible.

1 Corinthians
Paul is concerned with the urgency of the moment. "For the form of this world is passing away." The emphasis is upon reacting to the present moment, and clearing our lives of distractions in order to react to the present. The past is dead, the future is an abstraction, and the divine call is issued in the present moment. The present moment is all we have; it is where decisions are made and true freedom exists.

Paul's sense of the fading of the present is an important part of Process Theology. The rising of actual occasions, and their resolution, leading to other actual occasions is the passage of time; the fading of the moment is one form of death. And it is in the passage from one moment to the next that the divine and the human intersect. For this reason, the urgency of repentance is paramount. Decide now, because now is where God calls! And God's call comes in every moment.

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