Third Sunday after Epiphany _ Jonah 3:10-4:11 January 21, 2018
This past Wednesday at Confirmation I introduced the Prophets to our students.
Specifically, we considered the role of prophets in the Old Testament and we looked at Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. As a part of the study I had them look at some selected texts and consider the following questions:
1. Who is the text directed toward?
2. What is the central issue or concern?
3. What does this tell you about God?
In essence we covered the core questions of any Bible Study. In the coming weeks we will look at Elijah and Jonah.
I have to admit, it is the Jonah story that I get pretty jazzed by because if we are honest, it’s a rather bizarre story. It is also an often misunderstood story. And because it is misunderstood, many will point to it as evidence that all this God talk and Bible talk is a lot of bunk. A lot of silly talk of someone being swallowed by a whale. And that is unfortunate because there is some really good stuff in this story that tells us more about God and nothing about whales.
With that in mind, let’s set the stage. Let’s start with the Assyrians. Assyria was a nation that had a nasty habit of invading other countries. And after invading a country they would drive out and deport the local residents to places other than their homes, thus creating refugees seeking sanctuary elsewhere. And then they would lay siege to the land, destroying everything in sight including the lives of those still lingering in their path.
Think of the Assyrians as the equivalent of a human hurricane, they were mean, nasty, brutish, violent and oppressive. Assyria was the bully of the Middle East. And here is the important part; the Israelites were the prime target of the Assyrians. They loved stealing the lunch money of the Israelites and then beating them up and humiliating them in front of the other kids on the playground.
And then there was Jonah, an Israelite, who much like all his other Israelites hated and despised the Assyrians with a passion. But unlike his fellow Israelites, God has a call for Jonah, a call that involved Jonah going to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria and bringing a message to the people, a message from God. The message was somewhat simple, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” In other words: Repent or be destroyed.
Now put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. He is the bearer of a message to his worst enemy, a message that gives the Assyrians an option—to live or die. For Jonah the options were simple, let them die, destroy them. Wipe them off the map. Show no mercy. Destroy them once and for all. But here is the problem, Jonah was suspicious that God would not demonstrate the justice he felt the Assyrians deserved. He was fearful that God would be merciful and gracious and forgiving. And Jonah wanted none of it.
So what does he do? Well, when he should have gone one direction toward Nineveh, he catches a boat and heads the exact opposite direction. And this is where the story gets weird. While on a boat filled with pagan sailors a huge storm comes up. The pagans are busy praying to their gods, praying for a reprieve, all the while Jonah is sleeping.
Eventually the sailors recognize that Jonah is missing and they assume that he might be the cause of the angry gods, so they throw him overboard, as a sacrifice, hoping to appease their gods. While being tossed about in the ocean we are told he is swallowed by a huge fish—it should be noted that there is no mention of a whale—which is OK, because the story is not about the fish, it’s about God. Finally, Jonah starts to pray and this prompts God to have the fish puke Jonah up on the shores of Assyria—who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?
Being resigned to his fate, Jonah reluctantly schlepps through the great city of Nineveh--a city so large it was a three-day walk and the whole time Jonah is reluctantly mumbling some message about repenting or dying. And despite the less than enthusiastic effort, even before he gets half way across the city--the word gets out and the king declares a national day of fasting and repentance and everyone covers themselves with ashes, wears sackcloth as a sign of their repentance and we are told the entire country participated in this display of remorse, even the animals.
With this, Jonah’s greatest fear is realized, the Assyrians are forgiven their wickedness and Jonah is angry. In the final chapters of this strange story we find Jonah pouting outside the city and angry with God, even going so far as to pleading with God to simply take his miserable life. And that is pretty much where the story ends.
So what are we to make of this bizarre story? A story where none of the characters do what you’d expect them to do? And why is this an important story? What does it tell us about God?
Here are a couple responses.
First of all, the story is in part about Jonah, it is also in part about Israel and whether Israel can forgive Assyria? If Jonah is angry, how do you suppose Israel is doing, do you suppose that they too are a bit angry and/or disappointed in God? As I read this story I love the fact that God doesn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger. And this is the important part of the story because us tells us more about God. Instead of being irritated with Jonah, God playfully attempts to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah will see the Assyrians as God sees them. For while they might be everything Jonah believes them to be, they are also more. They are a “great city”, but they are broken and lost. They are people, God says, “who don’t know their right hand from their left.” Most importantly of all, they are God’s—as in they too are children of God. Just as the big fish, the weed, the worm, and the wind in Jonah’s story belong to God, so do the Assyrians themselves. They are his creations—his to plant, his to tend, his to uproot. Should God not care for his own? Is it right for Jonah to be angry?
Our story from Jonah ends with this hard question unanswered. We are left with Jonah still sulking, sitting outside the city and waiting to see what will happen to a people he hates and God loves. And so we, too, are left to wrestle with the scandalous goodness of God, a goodness that insist we become instruments of God’s grace even to our worst enemies. A goodness that asks us why we so often prefer vindication to rehabilitation.
Why we crave punishment for the lost and broken, instead of healing and hope. Why we happily grab every second chance God gives us, even when we deny second chances to others. Why we nurse envy and bitterness in our hearts, refusing to see the complexity God sees in the faces of those who wish us harm. De we have a right to be angry? God leaves us to decide.
Here is a second response worth considering.
This story demands what is called non-dual awareness. What do I mean by that? Consider this, there are many who see the world in dualistic terms, terms in which there are the good people and the bad people, the sinners and the saints, us and them. A world in which people stay true to the labels, categories and preconceived prejudices we’ve placed them in.
This strange story wants none of that. It blasts to pieces our biases and labels with the declaration that God is on everyone’s side, extending grace and compassion to everyone—especially those we have most strongly decided are not on God’s side.
Sadly, religious people have been very good over the years at seeing themselves as us and seeing people who aren’t a part of their group as them. But in this story, the guy who sees himself as us is furious because of how chummy God and them have become. He’s so furious; he’d rather die than live with the tension and disappointment.
Today’s story from Jonah reminds us of God’s grace, and it reminds us despite our assumption that we deserve this grace while others don’t—is simply not true. Jonah didn’t deserve God’s grace; he ran and hid instead of following God’s will. And yet, God extends grace to each of us sinners while also being merciful to the people of Nineveh.
This bizarre story of God’s grace is a reminder that God is slow to anger even when we are angry with God. We are reminded that God wishes for us to enlarge our circle, to broaden our horizons so that we might see that even those who we might despise--that they too are children of God and to be honest as our society becomes more and more polarized—we need to hear this, we need to acknowledge the goodness of God extends beyond our community, tribe, party, ideology and whatever other wall we have erected to keep others out.
This bizarre story also reminds us that in God’s eyes there are no good guys or bad guys, that the kingdom of God does not have a line in the sand separating us from them. In short, to claim that we have God on our side is the first sign that maybe God is leaning toward those who we would prefer to reject—which was a lesson the kids on Wednesday learned—God has a special place in his heart for the underdogs, the marginalized, the poor, and downtrodden, those who live in the black holes of the world. Which when it comes right down to it, is just as shocking as God’s decision to spare the people of Nineveh—and--all their many animals. Amen
[In the spirit of footnotes, a shout out to Rob Bell and his book, What is the Bible, and the chapter on Jonah entitled, “Fish”.]
Pastor Stephen Blenkush
Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353
Love like Jesus!