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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Reflection on Jonah and Nineveh Lent

The Fast of Nineveh: Bible Readings and Reflections

Jonah's Disobedience and Punishment

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai (Matay), saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me." But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

The Storm at Sea

But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up.

Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep.

So the captain came to him, and said to him, "What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish."

And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, "Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?"

So he said to them, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Jonah Thrown into the Sea

Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, "Why have you done this?" For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. 11Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?"--for the sea was growing more tempestuous.

And he said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me."

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the LORD and said, "We pray, O LORD, please do not let us perish for this man's life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O LORD, have done as it pleased You." So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows.

Jonah's Prayer and Deliverance

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah's Prayer and God's Answer

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. And he said:
"I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction,
And He answered me.
"Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the floods surrounded me;
All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.
Then I said, "I have been cast out of Your sight;
Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.'
The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;
The deep closed around me;
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
I went down to the moorings of the mountains;
The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;
Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD, my God.
"When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the LORD;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple.
"Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the LORD."

So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah Preaches at Nineveh

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day's walk. Then he cried out and said, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

The People of Nineveh Believe: Nineveh Repents

So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying,

Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

Jonah's Anger and God's Kindness

God's Lesson to Jonah

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the LORD, and said, "Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!"

Then the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah's head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, "It is better for me to die than to live."

Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?"

And he said, "It is right for me to be angry, even to death!"

But the LORD said, "You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left--and much livestock?" Book of Jonah

Readings from the New Testament

Acts 9: 1-22; Epistle of: 1 Timothy 2: 1-15

The Fast of Nineveh
A Message for Nineveh: Jonah - The disobedient

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch tradition attaches great significance to the Fast of Ninevities and three days of Jonah the prophet, which is followed by the Sunday of the departed priests and the Sunday of faithful departed before we enter the Great Lent. The story of Jonah the prophet and Nineveh people is written in this site as it is in the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament. (In fact, all we know about Jonah himself comes just from his book and a single reference to him in 2Kings 14:25.) Succinctly put, the Church sees within this book's simple story an icon of Christ symbolically represented.

The Example Of Jonah

To illustrate how deceptive this attitude of the heart can be, we find that the even the prophet Jonah was deceived by it. Jonah's Pharisaic attitude surfaced when God called him to go and preach to the Gentiles living in the city of Nineveh. To see how wrong this attitude is and how God feels about the lost, let us read what happened with Jonah, the people of Nineveh and God.

We begin by reading God's call to Jonah to go and preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah 1:1-3

The reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh was because he knew that God was merciful and compassionate, and since the people living in Nineveh (the Assyrians) were enemies of Israel, Jonah did not want to associate with them or see them saved. In other words, Jonah did not want to preach in Nineveh because not only were they not Jewish but they were also enemies of the Jewish faith.

However, God did not allow Jonah to run away from His call. Instead God caused a major storm to arise and threaten the safety of the ship. Realizing that he was the reason for the storm and not wanting the people on board to perish, Jonah insisted that he be thrown overboard. Once in the sea, God commanded a large fish to swallow Jonah. While in the belly of the fish Jonah cried out to God to save him. Hearing Jonah's cry, God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land. After Jonah's ordeal in the fish, he obeyed God's command and preached to the people living in Nineveh. Even though Jonah obeyed God, he still did not do it motivated by love or mercy for the people in Nineveh. To see this let us read what happened between Jonah and God after Jonah finished preaching in the city of Nineveh.

Let us notice the following verses, Jonah 3:10-4:11

10 Because the people of Nineveh repented as a result of Jonah's preaching, God did not bring upon them the destruction that He had threatened.

2 This was the very reason why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He knew that God would do this. In other words, even with seeing God's blessing being extended to the people of Nineveh, Jonah was still angry. He obviously went and preached in Nineveh out of pure obedience to God, that is as a sacrifice not out of love or concern for the people. Remember, to get him to go, God had a large fish swallow Jonah for three days and nights. In other words, Jonah got the message that he was to go to Nineveh, but he was not happy about it.

6 In order to teach Jonah and us of how wrong an attitude this is, God first provided Jonah a vine to shade him from the scorching wind.

7-8 Then God took the vine away so that the heat and wind would bear down upon Jonah's head. As a result, Jonah became very angry because he no longer had the comfort from the shade of the vine.

9-11 In other words, God was revealing to Jonah and us that he, Jonah, had more concern for something that provided him comfort or relief than he did for a multitude of people who were lost and about to perish. To see this, prayerfully read what our Lord said in verses 10 and 11.

How could such a "cute" story about an unwilling prophet who gets swallowed by a fish when he tries to escape doing God's will carry such a profound meaning? Unlike other prophetic books, the Book of Jonah does not contain "words of prophecy," as such, but rather it tells a tale of Jonah's personal encounter with the Lord. Using a story motif, Jonah's prophecy speaks to us not with words but with symbols as we saw. Reading these symbols spiritually, we behold the mystery of salvation in Christ exemplified in imagistic types. Indeed, it is no wonder that this book also portrays a unique instance in the Old Testament of God's love and concern not just for His own people, Israel, but for a nation of Gentiles who were actually Israel's enemies. Here again we find an archetype of Christ's mission of salvation extending beyond Israel to embrace the whole world, all the enemies of God.

"Let us recall the message arising from readings of the day. The reading from the Acts bring back our memory of the experience on the Road to Damascus. In acts the messenger, Saul, was not running away from his errand. On the other hand he was trying to run it meticulously. However he did not know that he was moving against God's plan for him. Therefore God intervened directly, as through the storm and the whale in the case of Jonah. Unlike Jonah who grieved even after the ship and whale experience Saul willingly surrendered himself to be made Paul. Jonah had preached halfheartedly as evidenced by his dialogue later, but Paul did it enthusiastically as we see from the Pauline Reading of the day (2 Corinthians 4).

The Gospel is the clear path giver in the circumstances for the Jonahs and the Sauls that we are. In Mark we hear about the response of the early disciples who left their entire world behind to follow an unknown carpenter. Something told them that here was a carpenter who could build boats for them to make them fishers of men. The Church seems to teach that whether we are like Jonah who rebelled or Saul who went against the Will of God albeit unknowingly God is out to rescue us, Jesus in search of Peters and Andrews and Jameses and Johns, and that is the promise and that is where hope finds its origin.

The crux of the message is that we shall not be judgmental in our approach. Let us concentrate on this aspect week to eliminate the tendency in us to judge others by our standards. Let God judge. Let us become conduits of his mercy and compassion, and remove from our personality whatever blocks and barricades we have erected knowingly or unknowingly which go block God's unending compassion" (Dr. D. Babu Paul)

Nineveh Fast

The Syriac Orthodox Church called this fast after Nineveh because the Ninevites were the first to practice such a fast praying for God's mercy and forgiveness. This fast used to be six days, but now is only three days starting on the third Monday which precedes Lent. The three day fast of Nineveh commemorates the three days that Prophet Jonah spent inside the fish. The Fast of Nineveh is ritualistically similar to the Fast of the Great Lent.

Historically, This fast is one of the most rigorously observed fasts in the Syriac Orthodox Church, and is unique to this Church. Began to be practiced in our Church at least towards the fourth century A.D. This can be inferred from the writings and hymns composed by St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373). Mor Dionysius Bar Salibi (+1171) states that Mor Marutha of Tikrit (+649) was the one who enjoined it on the Church of the East first in the region of Nineveh. Mor Gregorios Bar Hebraeus states that the confirmation of this fast was due to the crises the Church went through in Hirat. The Syriac people there fasted three days and three nights, praying constantly according to the demand of their bishop, and they were rescued from their ordeal by God.

Afterward, the fast of Nineveh passed to other Oriental Churches such as Coptic and Armenian. The Copts did the same during the reign of the sixty-second Patriarch of Alexandria, Anba Abram Zaraa the Syrian. The Armenians adopted this practice of the Syrians, calling it Sourp Sarkis.

This fast is highly favored among faithful. In this fast, faithful traditionally refrain from food and drink for three consecutive days, from Monday till Wednesday! Some faithful abstain from food and drink throughout the three days, receiving Holy Communion on the third day and continuing to eat fasting food until Thursday morning. The rest of the faithful abstain from having food till noon or till late afternoon and afterwards eat fasting food. The church enjoins all faithful to at least refrain from meat, fish and dairy products during the period of this fast. Prayers which are sung to melodies of Lent usually accompany this fast.

Usually the faithful who kept this fast are urged to attend the Divine Liturgy on Wednesday, and receive the Holy Qurbono (the Communion). During this fast it is mandatory that we observe the feast carry out the celebration of the Holy Liturgy in the morning as usual. The prayers of Nineveh's Fast are then said at noon. Abstinence from food ends directly after the Liturgy by eating fasting food.

Hymns from Sh'heemo (Syriac Orthodox Book of Simple Prayer)

The Ninevites trembled at the voice of Jonah, the son of Matay, and took refuge in penitence by watching, fasting and prayer; and by tears and groans the sentence of judgment pronounced by Jonah concerning the destruction of Nineveh was annulled. Blessed be the Compassionate one who turned them from evil to good. (Thursday Evening Prayer)

God, who heard the prayer of the son of Matay in the sea and commanded the mighty fish to cast him up in three days, hear our prayer and be reconciled with us and respond in your mercy to our requests; and if we have angered you, there are those who will reconcile you with us, the just who died for your love (Wednesday Morning Prayer).


See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent

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