Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20 (and Theo’s baptism)
I always thought my love of the story of Jonah was it’s being one of Holy Scripture’s more inclusive ,universalist chapters. Like the Book of Ruth insisting King David’s grandmother was not an Jew, but a Moabite, …you almost have to wonder how these kinds of stories make it into the canon? I guess, they’re proof that Scripture is somehow more than just a collection of our favorite stories …or ones we use to show ourselves in a good light …what we’ve found useful or developed to justify ourselves!
You see, Jonah forces an uncomfortable point — that God’s concern extends further than we can imagine or bear …in the case of the story all the way to our enemy …or as we might say in a modern idiom: God recognizes as kin — part of the family — everyone we want to regard and encounter as “other.”
God’s concern for Nineveh and the city’s heartfelt response, these witness over against all of our self-satisfied strains, as often as we find ourselves thinking “me and mine” are somehow better than “them and those people.”
Jonah’s got a pretty well-founded personal dislike for the Assyrians — with good reason. They are after all are “the evil Empire” of his day. They are the destroyers of Israel. That brutal occupying army. So he doesn’t care for Ninevites (who were pretty much from where modern day Mosul lies). He doesn’t want them to repent. He wants to see them suffer God’s condemnation. Really, he wants to see God smite them.
But here our Scriptures insist — God’s love won’t recognize, won’t be bound by, or beholden to the same affinities, boundaries or prejudices of our hearts or even our most sacred traditions.
So let’s begin honestly today: We have some, if not exactly good, then at least humanly understandable reasons why we find it hard to love, embrace or understand certain folks.
God knows that — that’s why Jesus talked so often about “our enemies.” He even had some of his own.
Maybe literally or figuratively, “enemies” and “empires” are Bible-speak for those who — articulated or unconsciously — threaten and vanquish you OR your people, destroy your capital city AND its temple, the seat of all your religious hope AND your sense of place and safety in the world.
It’s understandable then for us somewhere down deep where we hope other people, and maybe even God can’t see, so deep, in fact, we don’t even like to admit it to ourselves,
…it’s understandable if there’s someone you hope is at least judged if not actually smited, or simply found, like you find them — to be too far beyond the pale, and needing to be left to their own mess, RATHER than turning up to matter and be of concern and helped out, cleaned up and given a fresh start, proved redeemable and saved.
But here’s the deeply religious challenge. Just because God can understand our hurt, fear, anger, even vengenance …we ought not take God’s compassion for us permission for mistaking God as on our side over against our enemies. God can, in the largesse of Divine love, with the same equanimity of countenance, embrace what we find foreign and threatening and incomprehensible (or at least the people we experience acting that way). In other words, church, God can and does love who we can’t. If ever you start to notice that God hates everyone you hate, you got a bigger problem than your enemies. you got a problem with God.
So, while I’m preaching today, think of someone you struggle with. I know, I know: it’s church, we’d like to… we feel we’re supposed to pretend we love every one. But we just plain don’t. And that’s ok. Jesus allows us enemies! If you can’t think of anyone you can’t love, look for someone you can’t forgive. It’s a good bet you don’t really love them either.
Ok, once you’ve got that person or people in mind: alongside of listening to the rest of the sermon, consider this one thought: God doesn’t have a bit of difficulty loving who you can’t, don’t, won’t. So, while I’m finishing up, give those folks who are tough for you over to God.
Doing that, it might turn out you don’t have as much beef with them either!
Which gets me to my “revelation” about why I love Jonah so much. A second reason. It’s pretty good news, reassuring actually, that we don’t have to be angels or saints.
Jonah is bigoted and hateful and petty. And God sees the good in Jonah despite himself. And still God was able to use him nonetheless.
The book of Jonah is good news. Because I can be every bit as much of a petty, vindictive jerk as he was. And, even with all that against me, God can not only stay with me, and keep faith in me, but even see me accomplishing things I can’t imagine, even use me to do greater things than I would do.
We read this morning only a short passage right in the middle of the story of Jonah: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time” Suzanne read at the beginning of our Hebrew Scripture portion. Maybe we don’t all know what happened the first time! (Really, it’s a short book, and a funny story that keeps switching back to the end: for every good thing God does, Jonah responds negatively, all the way to the end, and yet God sticks with him. You might want to go home and read it.)
The first time Jonah heard from God, the assignment was clear: “Get up and go to Ninevah. Jonah got up as fast as he could all right, to run away, west to Tarshish instead of east towards Nineveh, “away from the presence of the LORD.”
Here’s what I realize I like so much: Jonah’s no Peter, Andrew, James, or John. They meet Jesus, hear a word, leave off what they are doing, in fact leave their old lives behind, and in some split second conversion take up God’s call and are suddenly following Jesus in a whole new way.
Ok, for those of us who remember the stories of Jesus’ disciples, maybe it’s not exactly a TOTAL conversion, but at least they seem to be off to a good start. Jonah’s ambivalence and rebelliousness gets him before he’s out of the gate: he jumps the first boat going in the opposite direction — hides in the hold of the ship, like God won’t know where he is. That’d be more like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, upon encountering Jesus, jumping into their fishing boats and rowing like madmen for the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee, as far away from this crazy itinerant preacher as they could get.
Jonah tries to get as far away as he can. Runs away from God’s bizarre expectations.
But God sends a storm. The sailors are more pious than the wayward prophet, but eventually, reluctantly, they do throw him overboard. The sea calms down, and God sends a big fish, apparently more faithful and obedient than God’s prophet too, to swallow Jonah.
Jonah, totally immersed, wallowing in sea water and fish blubber, actually, finally gets out a prayer, a psalm really at this point: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.” The sea in the ancient Near East, of course, is the symbol of chaos, of danger, of wildness. I guess it’s understandable that Jonah can’t quite fathom that being eaten by a whale could be God’s salvation! But from the belly of the fish, God hears Jonah’s prayer. God speaks to the great fish, again showing itself responsive, the fish vomits the prodigal prophet out onto dry land.
Still covered in sea weed and water and fish vomit — this is the shape we find him! where Suzanne picked up — with God giving Jonah a second chance.
Jonah hearkens to God’s voice this time — what other choice could he possibly feel he had!
He walks into the city, I’m guessing begrudingly, and preaches the shortest sermon ever recorded: if Beth Davis were in church today, she’d be timing it, or just counting words: “Only 5 words in Hebrew — translated “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” — just a few seconds, Michael, and the guy converted a whole city.”
She’d probably send me a chiding text: “Two weeks ago, took you 16 minutes — and it looks like you are going longer today — and I’m not sure how much of an effect you are having on us.”
But the response to Jonah’s sermon is immediate, amazing, world-changing. The people of Nineveh believe God and declare a fast. The king, not to be outdone by his subjects, issues an executive order that human and animal alike not only fast, but put on sackcloth.
All those sackcloth-covered cows and sheep and chickens and people bellowing out their repentance to God…
And what happens?
God changes God’s mind. God repents of the punishment to be meted out on Ninevah.
That’s the third reason I love the Book of Jonah. The image of a God whose mind can be changed by people. A God who sometimes needs to repent of what was planned in order to stay closer to justice and mercy. Wow, a God who changes and can be changed on the way to greater love.
We might expect that Jonah’d be pretty proud of himself, of his influence on Ninevah and effect on God. In some sense, he’s the Bible’s only really successful prophet. He occasioned a mass conversion that makes Azusa Street Revival look small time. He got a whole city up for his altar call and down on their knees overnight.
But our imperfect disciple, Jonah, he’s not jubilant. Maybe we’re coming to expect this by now, but he’s so teed-off that he says to God: “For God’s sake, I knew this would happen, before I even left Israel. That’s why I headed west, tried to run away in the first place. I already knew you better than you know yourself. He doesn’t quite say it, but it’s clearly implied: he not only knows God, he really doesn’t like God. He complains: “you’re a God that is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah, of course, is throwing back at God a self-description in Exodus 34:6. Prophets and psalmists have repeated it throughout Israel’s history …as a plea, to remind God of God’s nature. But in Jonah’s mouth, it’s an accusation. His latest complaint about how God’s not been good enough to him personally.
Here’s the thing, beloved — what all of us have to find out about following the call of God and being God’s disciples in and through the waters. Jonathan and Aparna, as this is the sermon on the day Theo is baptized, I think it’s what you are charged with teaching him:
1) God is God and does not act as we think the Almighty should act.
2) In good faith, we are to follow where we hear God’s call, and try to be God’s disciple wherever we are, whether that’s in a city, or in some wilderness of our own making, or some strange place half way around the world. foreign and far away. Wherever we find ourselves, we are to bring God’s hope, to be God’s word in that place.
3) But if we’re paying attention, what we find out where we end up and at every point along the way — is that God is already there before us. We find out that no people and no place, not even Nineveh and our worst enemies, can properly be called “God-forsaken.”
Often those are hard lessons to learn. But God will wait on us, stay with us too.
While I’ve been preaching today (it was a long sermon), did you all keep in mind that person you struggle with? Keep him, her, them in mind so you could turn them over to God and trust God to love them even though you can’t?
That’s the good news of Jonah: God’s love covers what ours can’t. But God can use us anyway. Sheez, even God needs to change and grow in order to meet the standard of Divine mercy and justice. Amen.