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Sermon Ideas For Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Part 1

Theological quandaries lurk in the book of Jonah. While the church has often treated Jonah as a shallow morality tale, there are challenging issues to examine. Chief among them is the claim that God's mind is changed (v. 10) after the people of Nineveh respond to Jonah's message and "believed God" (v. 5). It is a reversal of the Exodus image where God hardens the Pharaoh's heart. In Jonah, the king leads the city of Nineveh in a proclamation and in public acts of repentance that then leads to a transformation in God's response.
At stake, also, is a radical claim that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also the God of Nineveh. The extension and inclusion of heathens into God's plan challenges the assumptions of both the prophet Jonah and the Jewish tradition. As the capital city of Assyria, Nineveh was responsible for the destruction of Samaria. Not only is Nineveh a city of heathens, it is also the political center for the enemy. It is particularly striking that the king as political leader of this city takes leadership in the fast and proclamation (vv. 6-9). The message that comes from God transcends religious and political divisions and carries the potential of tearing down the barriers of the past. The book of Jonah locates the reluctance on behalf of the prophet.
As a whole, the book of Jonah challenges the parochial claims of the church by asserting the sovereignty of God to include outsiders (even historic enemies) in the realm of God's grace. It is an understanding of God's sovereignty that is articulated not as a theological doctrine for analysis and refinement by the church, but as a radical experience that challenges ecclesiastical assumptions and prejudices. The call to Jonah to go a "second time" to Nineveh is a call to the church to renew a commitment to proclaiming the good news of the Gospel and to be open to the possibility that this good news may radically change not only those whom we see as outsiders, but may bring about change both in the divine plan as well as in the life of the church.
Jonah's message of forthcoming judgment is couched in the highly significant time frame of forty days. Connections are possible to the flood story, the temptation narratives in the Gospel and the Lenten tradition as preparation for the Easter season.
The Gospel reading connects the theme of repentance to the call of Jesus to follow him. Simon, Andrew, James and John leave their nets in response to the invitation by Jesus. This call is linked to the prophetic tradition of judgment through the connection between John the Baptist and Jesus both in baptismal narrative as well as the onset of Jesus' ministry (vv. 14-15). The tie to the prophetic tradition is further deepened by the call to "fish for people" (v. 17) that may draw from the images in Jeremiah (16:16), Amos (4:2), and Ezekiel (29:4). In this tradition, fishing is a metaphor for judgment and for a prophetic call to change. The epistle reading adds a further sense of urgency with its eschatological claim that "the present form of this world is passing away." Together the readings present a claim for the way in which God's presence brings about the end of the world as we know it.1
Paul Galbreath
NOTES
1. For insight into the links to the prophetic tradition in conjunction with an eschatological reading of this nature in the Gospel of Mark, see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Mary Knoll: Obis Books, 1988), esp. pp. 131-33.