Epiphany 3

Imagine that you get a text on your phone that says, “BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND, SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

First I would be surprised that that message ended with a period. I think, if any sentence deserves to end with an exclamation mark it is this one. The style manuals say you should never use more than one exclamation mark. I say, if the missiles are in the air, screw it, use as many exclamation marks as you want. I suppose the punctuation is meant to promote calm… But I would also be struck by how little useful actionable information this message contains. Profound implications…minimal instructions. At least include a punchy little acronym like KYAG (you figure it out).

This is precisely what the people of Nineveh experienced through the prophetic warning of Jonah. Well, maybe not precisely…but practically, right? Jonah, who hated Ninevah (s-hole nation?), was commissioned by God to warn that city that unless they got their act together God would destroy their wicked city and wipe them from the face of the earth. Jonah absolutely does not want to carry out this commission, he desperately desired Nineveh to be destroyed, and the last thing he wanted to do was be instrumental in their repenting of their wicked ways and being spared by God. So Jonah tried to flee in the opposite direction so he could not even accidentally play a part in God’s planned redemption. His return to the shores of Nineveh is arranged by the Yahweh Travel Agency via shipwreck and great fish.

Jonah discovered that he could not flee from God’s appointed task. But he decided to be as ineffective as possible. So he traveled a day’s walk into a city described as being three days walk across and said only, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It’s essentially a tweet. At least this sentence ends with an exclamation mark. But this message is effectively the same as the ballistic missile one, monumental in scope and miniscule in instruction. But for Jonah this was intentional. Jonah then climbed a hill outside Nineveh, grabbed some popcorn, and waited for the firework show he was sure would follow.

But Jonah’s hopes for a nice Ninevite apocalypse were foiled. Even with his minimalistic message the people of Nineveh went into full repentance mode. Even the poodles were draped in sackcloth. Jonah took it hard.

Paul also believed there wasn’t much time before the imminent end of the world as it was then known. Paul very much believed that Jesus would return at any moment and bring about the consummation of God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, he gave instructions not to worry too much about the mundane, daily matters of concern. This is why he decided not to instruct slaveholders to free their slaves, people shouldn’t worry about marrying, mourners shouldn’t mourn, rejoicers shouldn’t rejoice. Since the present form of the world was passing away there was no sense getting overly mixed up in its institutions. I believe Paul might issue some different instructions if he knew, 2000 years later, that we’d still be waiting.

Like the people of Nineveh, the disciples responded to Jesus’ call with minimal instructions. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately some ditched their nets and others abandoned their boats and their dear old papa to follow the Messiah who called with Jonahesque brevity. Perhaps brevity is the key to capturing people’s attention and their interest.

But brevity is more than a strategy for the writer of Mark’s gospel it is central to his story of Jesus. Mark also loves the word Immediately. He used the word at least 40 times in his 16 chapter book. Mark also is known for what is called the Messianic Secret. Mark’s Jesus is constantly telling those who figure out who he is not to tell anybody. Did Mark’s Jesus keep it low key because of what happened to John the Baptist who was not quiet about his message? Seems realistic but not really in keeping with Jesus’ character. He don’t scare easy I something I think it is important to say about Jesus.

Reflecting on brevity, messaging and exclamations marks might be a worthwhile exercise for this week. Perhaps, in light of recent experience, we might think about what we would actually do if we got a Ballistic Missile – This is not a drill message. OR if a prophet called us to a vital and radical change using only a very few words.


  1. Joy Gerhart

    I’ve often said you can get a lot done if you have a gun to your head. Necessity, pressure, threats tend to get results. I feel for the Hawaiian people who were issued a disaster warning by mistake. It takes a lot to get our attention and get us to change.

    I wonder if Jonah felt any fear in trying to escape from God’s mission given to him. He sure showed real reluctance to follow through on what God requested. I think sometimes people don’t want to know what God wants them to do because then they feel the obligation to do it. It’s hard for me to imagine someone would hate a group of people so much that they wouldn’t want God to save them, but I guess that was a big part of it.

    Immediately. What motivation gets us to move immediately? Positive or negative. What would I drop everything to do because it was something I wanted. What would I drop everything to do because I was afraid?

    In 1984 I was asked to write a week of devotions for a Fortress devotional book. One of the passages was Paul’s “stay as you are” passage, similar to this week’s second lesson if not the same one. I was engaged at the time, and though I interpreted it mainly as ironic, it did make me wonder if someone was trying to tell me something. When you are married you do have to concern yourself with your spouse and family, which is not the same as if you are not married. I got married anyway. I do wonder how Paul would have acted if he knew Jesus would not return in his lifetime.

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