The story of Jonah would rank pretty high if we created a Top 10 most familiar of Bible stories. We can probably outline it together in a handful of bullet points, in fact:
- Jonah is called to take God’s word to the people of Ninevah
- Jonah defies God, and heads the opposite direction by sea.
- A storm threatens to swamp the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.
- Jonah is then swallowed by a whale, where he stays for 3 days.
- Jonah is spit out on shore and goes to Ninevah
- In Ninevah, the people repent and are saved, and Jonah is not impressed.
That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.
The lesson we tend to take away from this fish story? If you don’t go where God tells you to go, you might very well end up smelling of fish guts.
That’s not a bad lesson, to be honest, but I want to take a little closer look, starting with chapter 1:1-17
Honestly, I think we relate to Jonah much in the same way we can relate to the prodigal son.
Even if we never followed through on it, most of us have spent time plotting an escape… an opportunity to run away from God or family or other rule-makers and start fresh someplace else.
I can remember clearly the afternoon I spent gathering up a few days worth of clothes, counting my meager collection of birthday money and coins, writing down the phone numbers I might need (this was way before cell phones)… all so that I could run away to my grandmother’s house.
I didn’t leave… because there was no peanut butter in the pantry, and couldn’t imagine what else might sustain an eight-year-old runaway on the road to Oklahoma.
I can also distinctly remember telling God at 17 that I might be willing to be a pastor someday, but it seemed like an awfully boring way to spend one’s life. (If I only knew then…)
I don’t know that I literally went the opposite direction like Jonah, but I certainly chose another path. And I definitely found myself in some awfully stinky circumstances as a result.
Thing is, that flippant “no thank you” to God was about me – my wants, my misconceptions about ministry, my lack of maturity. It had nothing to do with the people God was calling me to serve.
For Jonah, the people – THOSE PEOPLE – were a huge problem.
You see, Ninevah was proud of killing Judeans. Among the antiquities you can see at the British Museum in London are carved reliefs that depict scenes from the Assyrian sieges. One of these elaborate carvings is called The Siege of Lachish, and it shows images of Judeans being impaled and stacks of heads that were counted by the Assyrian scribes.It seems that the Assyrian soldiers may well have been paid according to the number of Hebrews that they were credited for decapitating. This particular relief was discovered in Sennacherib’s palace near modern day Mosul, Iraq.
Which is to say – in Ninevah.
Yes – that Ninevah.
So God wants the king and the people of Ninevah to repent.
And God wants Jonah to be the one to tell them.
And it’s no wonder he headed out to Joppa. Joppa was a port city, located in Tel Aviv. It was and still is in many ways a gateway to the west. It was a natural way to get as far away from Ninevah as possible. He was headed in the opposite direction.
Funny to recall in this moment that repentance is all about turning around and walking directly away from your sin. Literally – turning and going in the opposite direction toward God.
Anyway… at this point, Jonah is all about getting as far as possible as quickly as possible – from where God wanted him to be. And on the boat, he found himself among the only people in history more superstitious than baseball fans… even more superstitious than Cubs fans.
To be fair, sailing was fraught with peril. Still is, really. Even with our modern equipment and technology, making one’s living on the sea is dangerous. While these ancient mariners would have been familiar with waves, currents and the severe weather that is common in the region, they didn’t have our scientific knowledge to understand the why’s. They attributed what looked like fickle weather and angry seas to capricious and irritable dieties.
When Jonah spoke up claiming his identity as a Hebrew, it made absolute sense to attribute the storm to the Lord’s disfavor – even without knowing anything about Jonah’s God.
What they did know was that God required some sort of action, some kind of attention from them and/or Jonah in order to calm the seas. Even when Jonah suggested throwing him overboard, the men tried rowing and praying to this strange God. All to no avail.
And so into the water with Jonah, Into the water and into the belly of the great fish. For three days. And then, as oddly or miraculously as when the fish appeared, the fish drew near enough to dry land to spit Jonah out and swim away.
The whale or fish or whatever the creature was – it has sure gotten a ton of press over the millenia. Their story has been told and retold across the generations. Jonah and the whale… they are inseparable.
But the book of Jonah is not primarily about his time in a fish/whale. Here’s how we know this is true:
The book of Jonah mentions “fish” exactly twice.
Meanwhile “God” is used 14 times;
“LORD” is used 21 times.
Which ought to lead us to ask less what the book teaches us about nature or human nature… and MORE about what the book of Jonah teaches us about God
The first thing we learn through Jonah’s story is that God calls us to surprising – maybe even ridiculous things. In our human terms – it is no surprise Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah. It is much more surprising that God would send Jonah into a place that is so hostile to God and God’s chosen people.
God has something in mind that is beyond Jonah’s understanding. Beyond our understanding. Listen to what happens when Jonah finally answers that surprising, ridiculous call, starting back up in chapter 3, verses 1-10.
Once again we see that God is faithful to journey with us, even in our rebellion, our stiff-neckedness. God speaks again to Jonah, in spite of his rebellion… and Jonah goes.
Honestly, God could have left Jonah to his own devices on several occasions:
God might have allowed Jonah to keep wandering westward, alone and without purpose.
God might have let Jonah drown, accepting him as a sacrifice from the captain and crew.
God might have left him high and drying out in silence on the beach, refusing to entrust this life-saving message to an unfaithful prophet and choosing someone else.
But our merciful God extended compassion to Jonah, just as God extended compassion to the people of Ninevah.
Just like Jonah knew would happen. God actually extended grace and mercy to THOSE PEOPLE.
That is really the calculus that did Jonah in from the beginning.
How could God ask him to go there?
To talk to THOSE people?
He knew God’s nature because Jonah knew God’s history, God’s habit of keeping promises
If they repented, Jonah reasoned, God would surely forgive them save them, love them, adopt them, fold them into the family. And how is that supposed to be ok when THOSE PEOPLE have been so very evil?
But God is merciful.
God extended mercy to the sailors who cried out to him and then did as God commanded – even though it seemed wrong to toss this man into the sea.
God extended mercy to Jonah.
And then, God extended mercy to the Ninevites. Not just the King, not just the people, but the animals, too
All called to repent.
All in sackcloth and ashes
All granted life
When vengeance would have been understandable, When reaffirming God’s version of Law and order justice would have been much more appealing to Jonah and his friends back home…
God extended mercy.
And Jonah responded in a way that rings very true to me…
The start of chapter 4 is often titled, Jonah’s Anger.
What isn’t captured there at the end is what must be a long… holy… exasperated sigh.
I know it makes me sigh. Surely God did, too. Oh, Jonah…
This is not the ending we want in a story. Especially since we tend to place ourselves in the story by way of Jonah. We want justice – maybe vengeance – for the Judeans that the Ninevites had killed
We want Jonah to be proved right.
To be a hero.
To be the strong voice of a strong God who is mightier than any other God
But here’s the thing… God’s desire to see reconciliation is greater than our need for retaliation, our tendency toward oppression, subjugation, dehumanization.
God’s promises are true for the Hebrew people, and for the gentiles… the widow and her son that took in Jeremiah, the Ninevites, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the unwanted, unclean and unclaimed who came to see that same compassion in the person of Jesus.
And God’s promises are true for us.
God’s mercy and lovingkindness extends to us. Even when we would withhold compassion and hope from others, intentionally or as collateral damage.
You know, if we see God’s compassion to Nineveh as surprising, we should probably view his offering a second chance to Jonah as equally surprising. And God’s second, third, fourth, fiftieth chances for us even more so.
None of us… not one of us, now or ever, has deserved God’s mercy.
It’s an interesting time to think about the abundance and wideness of God’s grace and mercy,
This week started with All Saints Day, a time to remember all the saints who have come before, that great cloud of witnesses. And the truth is that if we were to see an accounting of all those saints, there would be almost certainly be more than one or two who would surprise us. There are probably a lot of THOSE people in that cloud, and not just the Ninevites.
We come together today to welcome our new members and gather at table with friends and strangers, a beautiful reminder of our deep connections by faith, not just with God but with other people.
And on Tuesday, our nation will finally vote to complete what is the most divisive election I can remember… And I am a political junkie who usually enjoys debates and platform building and the work of making these important decisions together.
But this year, I’ve mostly turned the TV off. It has not been fun. Nor has it been particularly edifying.
And yet, I am not overly worried about Tuesday. I suspect that we will be fine as people go to polling places,
I’m not worried about Tuesday night as votes are counted, though I’m a little leery about how the talking heads will spin it.
I am much more worried about Wednesday
And the days, weeks months and years to come.
I’ll confess, it scares me to think about how people will react. Because of the language and rhetoric unleashed this year?
It’s been ugly.
It’s been mean-spirited.
It has done anything but Unite the States.
More than ever, we have been talking in disparaging terms about THOSE PEOPLE who support that candidate.
And they talk about THOSE PEOPLE who support the other candidate in ways that are equally hateful and hurtful
And Lord help THOSE PEOPLE who are in that third camp or THOSE PEOPLE who have decided they’d rather sit this one out. Because THOSE PEOPLE are even more likely to be told what a waste of time and space they are.
These are scary times, church.
If we are ever to reclaim the United in “USA” in any real sense, there is a lot of work to be done. And people aren’t going to be very interested in setting aside all their fear and anger to do the hard work of reconciling with co-workers, neighbors and even family members.
But even still… These are exciting times, church.
Because we are in the Family business.
The business of reconciliation.
The business of calling people to confession and repentance
We are in the business of making bigger and bigger “us-es” and fewer and smaller “thems”
We are in the business of tearing down the walls that divide us, by offering to the world all the love and grace and mercy that the Holy Spirit drives deep into our hearts the moment we say YES to following God.
We are in the business of going where God has called us, no matter how surprising and ridiculous it seems, to say to THOSE people that we love them.
And that is true in this room, in this congregation. For you and for me.
No matter how you mark your ballot or what party you support, I have to love you.
No, let me amend that.
No matter how you mark your ballot, I GET to love you.
And you get to love me back.
Because this isn’t the work of pastors.
Well, again, I’ll back up.
This isn’t work that is ONLY for pastors.
Every follower of God, every follower of Jesus is invited into and expected to be a part of this holy and difficult work of loving ALL. And when we do the work, our God, who is faithful and just, who keeps promises and loves wildly, will show up, in us, through us, and among us.