by Rev. Markus Dünzkofer, St. Paul's Anglican Church, Vancouver, BC
The season of Epiphany is a strange little season. On the one hand, we have just moved out of the beauteous mystery, wonder, and awe of Christmas, when we celebrated the birth of God among us, God with us, and God for us. And on the other hand, we are not quite in the season of Lent: a season that many of us dread, but which reminds us of the death-defying love of our Savior Jesus Christ and his life-giving sacrifice on the hard wood of the cross.
Yet, despite the profound importance of these two seasons, both Christmas and Lent often leave us with unanswered questions. And it is not just about the historical events of the Virgin-birth and Jesus' suffering and death. It has to do with the theology truth of the Incarnation and the theological justification for the suffering and death of the One who was revealed as truly divine and truly human. These things are big ticket items. They make us scratch our heads. And they make outsiders raise an eye-brow or two about these crazy Christians.
And we cannot just skip over these reactions or our questions. And neither should we skip over the season of Epiphany.
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning "manifestation." Of course, this is grounded in God's self-manifestation in the child born of our sister Mary. Yet, it moves beyond this. In fact, what Epiphany speaks about is "revelation:" Who is this baby Jesus? What is this baby Jesus? And what thing does God do in the birth, life, mission, teaching, death, and resurrection of this Jesus?
Epiphany gives both Christmas and Lent a theological grounding. It is more than a cozy story told under a Christmas tree. And it is more than being scandalized by Good Friday. The season of Epiphany provides a link between Christmas and Lent. More importantly the season of Epiphany moves us beyond these events into contemplating their theological implications. The season of Epiphany moves us into the vision of God. And this is why our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters call this season "Theophany," the revelation of the vision of God.
Today's reading from the Book of Jonah is case in point.
Yes, the story is cute, and is a favorite in the Bible. Telling children about Jonah getting swallowed by a fish assures the attention of little ones, whose attention spans are not that great.
And it is not just children.
The early church looked at this as a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Jonah was gulped up by a fish and spat out three days later, so Jesus was swallowed up by death to break free from the bonds of death – also three days later.
However, if we narrow the Book of Jonah to this mysterious and mythical part of the story we will miss the depth of the book, and we will miss the profound revelation of God's vision offered there. If we stick to the few verses that speak of Jonah being fish-food, or the even fewer verses provided in today's reading, we indeed might miss a Theophany.
So, I am going to read the whole book to you now – all four chapters of it.
Ok, I am just kidding, but do go home and grab a Bible and read it in its entirety.
In order to get more than a few breadcrumbs of this amazing biblical book, I will, however, retell the story, which is quickly done.
Jonah, is called: to become a prophet.
In good biblical tradition, this does not mean God calls him to be a fortune-teller, but God appoints him as the divine revealer, as the one speaking truth into the reality of "that great city" of Nineveh. There is something rotten in the state of Nineveh. In fact, there is a lot rotten in Nineveh. And there needs to be a profound change of heart, otherwise the people of Nineveh will face destruction.
Jonah knows of the greatness of Nineveh – and consequently wets his pants.
Understandably, he is afraid to get killed and so he runs away by means of a boat. The sea-journey, however, does not turn out to be a gentle cruise, but God obviously is not so pleased by Jonah and sends a might storm – don't you hate it when God does that?! In the midst of the storm, Jonah reveals his identity to the sailors, who react swiftly. This is how Jonah finds himself in the belly of the fish – after having been thrown overboard.
In the fish-belly Jonah rethinks his options – and who wouldn't? He pleads with God, who then causes the fish to get sick and nauseous. Jonah is promptly vomited ashore. Thank God, there was no Pepto-Bismol around. If the fish had taken Pepto-Bismol could you image what kind of exit that would have meant for Jonah?
Anyhow, back to the story.
We pick up with today's reading from Jonah. So, I can skip over this part.
After Nineveh repents and after God's subsequent change of mind, Jonah gets pretty mad. After all he has been through – this is it? No fireworks, no mass killings, no slaughter of the citizens of the city? What? What kind of Old Testament story is this anyhow? Are we sure it wasn't slipped in by some left-wing, tree hugging, bleeding liberal?
Yep, Jonah is mad!
So, he sits down under a bush, which provides a wonderful shade in the Mediterranean heat. And he falls asleep. But God is not done with the angry fella'. God kills off the bush… and the shade is gone. This makes Jonah even madder – so mad, in fact, that he wants to die. And God responds – and since this is the punch line I will quote from the fourth chapter of Jonah:
"God says, 'You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; … And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?'"
End of story.
It is an intriguing story, right?
Even if we do not know much about the story's cultural setting, we get that it reveals something very important about God, something that can be summed up best by words quoted from this biblical book: God is "gracious … and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing."
Yet, I am not sure many of us expected this – particularly as many stereotype and misinterpret as vengeful and violent the vision of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
And there is more:
See, there is an elephant in the story (in the room). The elephant in the story, the thing that we might miss but was not missed by those who first heard the story, is this: Nineveh ain't just any city. Nineveh was synonymous with Assyria. And Assyria was a power that had rolled over its neighbors, had stomped out any other power in the region, and had occupied many a country. More horrendously, the Assyrians had employed outrageous torture, unspeakable brutality, and heinous terror to force everybody into submission. The Assyrians were anything but "gracious and merciful," anything but.
Therefore, when Jonah first refuses God's call and then gets angry with God, we should not get smug about Jonah's behavior too quickly. If retold in more contemporary times, the story would send the Jew Jonah to Berlin in the 1930s to preach repentance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. And if we stick with the story line, God would then forgive the SS, the concentration camp guards, those, who dropped bombs on innocent children in Coventry, Rotterdam, and Warsaw, and those who masterminded the Shoa, the Holocaust.
The very thought makes my stomach turn!
I'm very much with Jonah now! I am angry! How can God forgive those people? Where is the justice in this? What kind of Theophany, what kind of vision of God is this?
These questions cannot be answered easily – and neither should they be.
Yet, this is how the story becomes prophetic for us: This is how the vision of God shows us how things are not quite right in our own lives, and how God calls us back into His loving embrace.
There is no room in the life of God's people to be smug, judgemental, or righteously indignant. The vision of God revealed in our sacred texts, the vision of God revealed through the birth of a helpless child in Bethlehem, and the vision of God revealed through the torturous death of the sinless, faultless Lamb of God, these visions of God speak of God's radical mercy and they speak of God's radical offer of forgiveness even for Assyria and Nineveh, a forgiveness that is beyond our comprehension, and that leaves us speechless, and at times even angry.
But God's ability, willingness, and determination to shower mercy even on the least deserving open the door wide to our own hope, and to our own salvation. On the half-point between Christmas and Lent, today's Theophany is this: God breaks into our world to break the cycle of sin, bitterness, and violence. God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting, comes to us in Jesus to embrace us in all our fear, in all our frustration, and in all our failure, each and every one of us – so that we can experience God's mercy and forgiveness. And so that we can do likewise unto others.
[The Reverend Markus Dünzkofer delivered this sermon on January 22, 2012.]
 Jonah 1:2
 Jonah 4:10f
 Jonah 4:2
© 2012 stpaulsanglican.bc.ca.
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