Sermon on Jonah
Years ago, Priest Rick Morely raised an interesting series of questions that went something like this: “Who would you NOT want to see succeed? Or, …more to the point, who would you like to see fail?” Reframed into the wonderful old biblical words the questions are even shorter: “Who would you like to see God smite?”[i] You know – thrash, trounce, toss away? What person might you like to see move out the way? Who in your circle is at the heart of the gossip or cringe-y jokes? Who or what has to fail so your favorite can flourish?
We can hardly read the news or sit through a tv show without being drawn into the business of imaginary ‘smiting’. If our personal lists are short, many of our politicians are more than happy to encourage us into their personal smiting lists. In the great cultural divisions of our time, we practically have it honed down to an art form. In a nutshell it becomes: My family, my candidate, my religion is fine, wonderful, brilliant and attractive… and yours of course…is just the opposite.
I wish I could say we keep it local, but of course we do not. We are a global community, so we add in the negative themes and send a shout out across the shore. Our fast, loud, impulse-sell, fear-mongering theology is alive and thriving here and around the world. When we are not careful, something in us gets tangled up in it.
To our surprise, Jonah fell prey to it as well.
His dilemma is our lingering temptation. He defined the world through his personal pessimism, though he had some logical reasons for that, it seems. But buyer beware – Morley reminds us you and I are still swimming in Jonah’s moral soup. God went to Jonah and asked for help. God wanted the people of Nineveh to have lives that were fully focused on God.
And when God asked for Jonah’s help, what did he do? Jonah ran down to the shoreline and he hopped on the first boat heading in the opposite direction of Nineveh. He was doing his best to get away from God. No luck though – the storm came up – and in a peculiar way Jonah demonstrated a level of compassion that I find kind of surprising given the rest of the story. Jonah chose to save the sailors on the boat. He let them know if they would toss him overboard he was pretty sure they would all be safe; God was after him, not them. They obliged and over he went.
To his dismay, God doesn’t run away from us, so Jonah had a few more surprises to deal with. When all is said and done, Jonah and his poor attitude look and smell pretty fishy, but no worse for wear. (Oh, I’m at least a little sorry for that terrible pun, but I resisted as long as I could!) The point is that God is relentless – God picks Jonah up, brushes him off and once again, points him in the right direction. Jonah gives no sign of regret for turning away from God the first time, but this round, in spite of what his personal views may have been, Jonah followed through – albeit less than enthusiastically. He delivers God’s ultimatum to the people – their only hope for life and God’s hope.
Given all that Jonah had been through by this point, it was not much of a speech. Five words in Hebrew and only a few more in the English translation: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The narrator in the story delivers the startling news to us: "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it" (verse 10). In other words, all the people (and even the animals) believed and repented!
And there is nothing in the story to lead us to think that Jonah was anything other than royally perturbed by it. Jonah loathed it. Before we are too harsh on old Jonah though, think about it for a minute– wouldn’t you be irritated too, to say the least? Wouldn’t you be a pretty miffed too?
Go back to our earlier thought-- What if God told you to go save a group people that you despise? Those people you want to have fall off the planet if they won’t stop doing what annoys you or change ideas and ways into what you hope for….and God says – go help them anyway. Is it possible we might also be inclined to try Jonah’s way instead of God’s?
First we argue with God –present our best evidence: “God, I think you are wrong” (don’t you love it when you try this?); we watch to see if God pushes back. Then we try a second argument – “But that neighbor is not reasonable, the boss is horrible, this person doesn’t look like me or they don’t believe what I know to be true to my core…and God if you won’t listen…then fine!” And then like any good toddler, we throw a tantrum, turn our back, and stomp away, or worse…
But Jonah’s God is pretty hearty. I’ve read the Psalms. There is not much we could do that would surprise God. A little time goes by and sure enough God fishes us out of our quandary; brushes us off and once again we hear God telling us to go anyway. Go talk the people you don’t want to speak to…take care of ones you are running away from; support the poor, uplift the downtrodden and bring them back to me. And even when our efforts end up half-hearted, our speeches of deliverance are short, God’s hope can still be delivered…even through you, even through me.
So tell me, when it’s you on this treadmill, are you instantly happy about it? Are you tempted to sulk, kick the sand and find the shade of a metaphorical fig tree and bide your time? Maybe at times it is both – we resist, then go, harbor some feelings and trust those back to God for care too. I hope so.
The prophetic voice of Jonah is more, though, than just one prophet’s tale. It was easy for the people around him to have also heard Jonah’s story in reference to Assyria – an ancient time and place of violence, torture, fear and submission to enemies. We have so many such places in our world as well. Think of one of these places of brokenness—just one of these places where people wage war, enter battles, grocery shop in the market day in and day out, not knowing if a bomb will explode or if their children will be stolen and turned into soldiers…. Now, place yourself in Jonah’s sandals and imagine preaching a word of repentance and forgiveness. It is sobering -- offering even the possibility of repentance and mercy for Nineveh then—and now it seems as if only God could do such a thing. Jumping overboard…maybe doesn’t seem quite as absurd after all.
Jonah did not want to hear anything about any turnaround. He preached his words, then stomped off and became furious with God over a dying bush.
When we get started on a personal level, it may seem that offering hope to someone we don’t like is vastly different than forging our way through terrible atrocities, but at the heart of it, there are common access points. Why? Because Jonah ends up being the most the successful prophet you will find. And this happens even if he frankly didn’t want the people to repent and would rather God smite them. It happened even if Jonah didn’t want to be the one to usher in a message of repentance. It happened through Jonah, even if he gave new definition to the word “stubborn”. And this amazing story of God’s ability to work miracles of forgiveness, repentance, and new life is as possible in our personal exchanges and in our personal lives as it is on large-scale, globe-changing events.
God’s goal was for Jonah to tell people to stop their wicked ways and follow God. He was to go, speak, and trust God would do the rest. And it worked. There was city-wide redemption! What would that look like in McLean, Virginia? What would that look like in your family life? What would that look like in your neighborhood and in God’s church, here together in this particular part of the body of Christ?
How could we live with such a thing if we yielded our lives to become willing instruments of God’s peace? For one thing, we would have to come when God calls us and go where God sends us. We would also, in the end, have to work toward exhibiting aspects of holiness—in other words, aspects of God’s character—one step at a time. In essence, we would have to find a way to be "gracious… and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (4:3). This would, I admit, be a remarkable challenge. Maybe it is as absurd as being swallowed by a big fish, sitting under a dead bush, being angry that our shade is gone and complaining the sun is hot! On the other hand, … it may be worth our reconsidering…after all, if God can be merciful to them, maybe we stand a chance too.
God places us betwixt and between – up on the horns of a dilemma. First, how do we go where God leads us, when frankly, we may not want to go? And second, ‘how do we offer mercy when we are most familiar with retributive justice and less familiar with restorative justice? ‘Go where I send you’ and ‘come and follow me’ are dangerous calls – both are full of hooks and barbs. We are much more prone to long for punishment and vengeance than to hope, with everything in us, for forgiveness and grace…unless of course we are the one in need of being forgiven.
It might be easier to run away, and yet God doesn’t only call the qualified, but qualifies the called… It won’t be easy. Go anyway.
To God be all glory both now and forevermore. Amen.
God’s mercy alone breaks the cycle of shame, violence and blame, but it goes against our grain. On the other hand, when you and I engage in our closest approximation of grace and do our best to offer mercy, we let in a little more of God’s mercy to flow in our own direction. God keeps calling us to new life…and wanting us to go out and offer it to one person and to the world. Not only do we have Jonah and Jesus leading us, we have others closer in time, giving a prophetic word here, teaching others to keep atrocities from happening again, helping us find tangible ways to bring about hope and proclaim mercy: Take just a minute to think about a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, or a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or even those right here in this congregation who have committed so much of their lives to truly restorative justice.
We can say no to God. That might give us a little more time to run away from the call at hand. We can jump off the boat. That may keep those around us safer. You can get swallowed by a fish, but you’ll probably end up spat up on a shore somewhere, God still following you to get you to answer that call. Or you can choose to open your lips and speak a word of hope for a doomed people. You can choose to give up your prayers for smiting and instead seek to love and forgive even when it is difficult in your own life. God doesn’t only call the qualified, but qualifies the called… It won’t be easy. Go anyway.
To God be all glory both now and forevermore. Amen.
One of the churches that I visited in Gugulethu, South Africa during seminary offered the students of Louisville Seminary a chance to go to visit women in the village who were living with HIV/AIDS. One particular woman’s home had no plumbing, no running water, and a dirt floor, kept tidy as she could make it. She asked if it would be ok if she shared her story with us, her visitors. She spoke about how she contracted the disease, the fear of her relatives and friends- so afraid they would catch it- and of the isolation that she lived in with such a deep and divisive stigma. She spoke about the way the local church had helped her to find doctors and get her medications delivered. At the end of her story, she began to cry, and began to shake hands and thank every single person in the room for their witness to her. The students, who had not spoken for the last half hour, let alone witness to her vocally, slowly began to realize that their prophetic witness had nothing to do with speaking, but of listening. It turned out that this was the first time she had been able to tell the fullness of her story without fear of rejection, attack, or further isolation from her community. Sometimes modern day prophecy, they learned, has as much to do with listening as it does speaking, as much to do with going places where others refuse to go, and offering your time, a listening ear, and a heart full of hope whenever you have the chance. It may change someone’s life. It may change you own. “Will you come and go with me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?” as the hymn asks of us…
Will we? Will we let Jonah’s story belong to Jonah all by himself— or will we dare to speak a word of peace in the midst of violence? Will we leave all the world-changing to the Nobel Peace Price winners and their circles of friends… Or will we take the time to visit someone who has fallen off the radar of society, and give a listening ear and help them to know they are not forgotten but are loved by a God so much bigger than all of us? Will we leave it only to those with money to spare to build houses for people who need them, or will we use our hands, hearts, and voices for change? Or will we look for a boat to jump off of and pray for a fish to swallow us whole so you can get out of it-- this messy business of going where God asks-- this messy business of taking the hard road of reminding ourselves and each other that repentance is always possible, no matter how far we’ve fallen off the path of God’s Way.
We can say no to God. That might give us a little more time to run away from the call at hand. We can jump off the boat. That may keep those around us safer. You can get swallowed by a fish, but you’ll probably end up spat up on a shore somewhere, God still following you to get you to answer that call. Or you can choose to open your lips and speak a word of hope for a doomed people. You can choose to give up your prayers for smiting and instead seek to love and forgive even when it is difficult in your own life. You can choose to live your life in a way that points to God’s love and mercy, and seek to indeed be "gracious… and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (4:3).
Jumping overboard may be easier. Lamenting over a dying bush in the hot sun may seem more appealing than teaching about repentance and living into God’s forgiveness for those we disagree with or even dislike. God doesn’t only call the qualified, but qualifies the called… It won’t be easy. Go anyway.
To God be all glory both now and forevermore. Amen.