Monday, February 13, 2017

Jonah: God Loves Us Anyways

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Jonah 3:1-10:

Last week in our series on the 12 Minor Prophets, we heard from Obadiah, probably the least known, and definitely the least read of the minor prophets, and a reminder that the term minor here does not have anything to do with importance, but instead with the lengths of the books as compared to the Minor prophets. This week we move on to probably the best known of the minor prophets, Jonah. Even if we don’t have any idea what Jonah actually says, or what the book is about, at the very least we remember the story of Jonah and the whale, except that it’s not actually a whale. The book of Jonah is unique in many ways. The first is that he is the only minor prophet mentioned by Jesus. But more importantly, he is the only one of the minor prophets in which we are not really given any prophetic statements or oracles from God, but instead the book consists of a series of stories about Jonah.

At the beginning of the book, we are told that Jonah is the son of Amittai, which doesn’t tell us much now, nor is there any king listed to give us the time Jonah was living. But, in 2 Kings 14:25, we are told of a prophet by the name of Jonah, the son of Amatti, who was from the town of Gath-Hepher, which is a small town in Galilee, about 3 miles from Nazareth, and was prophesying under king Jeroboam of Israel. There are some problems with that dating, however, because Nineveh was not yet a “great city” as it is described in the book of Jonah, so there are arguments that take place amongst scholars about dating, but it’s not probably ultimately important, because the story can be told and interpreted without knowing fully what was going on at the time, or at least the minute details, because the overarching point is that is that Jonah is told to get up and go to Nineveh, which is the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the most important and powerful city in the ancient-near east at the height of Assyrian power, and he is to cry out against the city because, God says, “their wickedness has come before me.” What exactly this wickedness that God has taken notice of is never mentioned, but we can make some guesses because we do know that the Assyrians were hated by nearly everyone.

So, God calls on Jonah to go at once to Nineveh, which here is called “that great city.” Now this stands in contrast to what we hear in other places, in particular in the prophet Nahum, who also prophesies against Nineveh, but Nahum calls it “a bloody city” that practices “endless cruelty.” So right at the start we are getting a different perspective about what is going to happen, and Jonah does indeed immediately get up and go, but he doesn’t go to Nineveh, instead he flees to Tarshish. While there are several mentions of Tarshish in scripture, we actually don’t know where it was located, some speculate Spain, but when it was used it was someplace far away, so it’s possible it was a figure of speech, like us saying something is in Timbuktu, but rather than go to Nineveh, that is where Jonah seeks to go instead, and thus comes the famous story of Jonah that we know. He sets out on a ship, which then encounters a brutal storm and the sailors cast lots to see who has caused this storm to rage up against them, and the lots indicate it is Jonah, who then tells them as much. Jonah the begs the men to through him overboard, perhaps to save the ship, but also maybe he thinks that killing himself is better than having to go to Nineveh. At first the sailors refuse, but then, asking God to forgive them, do as Jonah asks, and immediately the sea stops raging, and a large fish, not a whale, swallows Jonah and he is in the fish for three days and three nights, before the fish spews him out onto the shore.

Then, God says to him a second time, which is where the passage we heard this morning starts, get up and go to Nineveh and deliver the message that God will give to him. At this point, it’s not clear why Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh, but the fact that he is willing to be killed rather than do it has to tell us something. To perhaps give some perspective on this, the modern day city of Nineveh, is known as Mosul, which is in Iraq, and until an offensive begun last October, known as operation “We are coming Nineveh” the city has been held by ISIS since 2014. So imagine that God had called you and said God to Mosul, into the heart of an enemy, and proclaim to them what God has said about them. Would you be willing to go? Probably not. But this second time he is called, perhaps realizing that he can’t actually flee from God, that God is, in fact, everywhere and God is pretty darn persistent, Jonah goes to Nineveh. Again we are told that Nineveh is a great city, and given the specifics that it is a three day walk across, which means it’s about 60 miles across. To give you some perspective. It’s 63 miles from right here to the Santa Fe plaza, so this might be a little hyperbole that’s taking place, and there is lots of humor found in the story of Jonah, although we lose lots of it in the translation from Hebrew to English.

But regardless of the size, Jonah sets out and we are told that he cries out “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Now what is striking about this message is that first we are never told that this is what God told Jonah to say to the Ninevites, and second, he does not being it with the normal prophetic claim that “Thus says the Lord,” or “God says.” It also does not say why the city will be overthrown. In other prophetic utterances, the reason for their punishment, or what they are doing wrong is very clearly stipulated, but that is not the case here. Is Jonah making this statement specifically ambiguous so that the Ninevites won’t know what to do in response? It’s possible, but maybe this is another trick that God is pulling on Jonah, because the Hebrew word used here that is translated as overthrown sometimes has a meaning of being destroyed, that is Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days. But, it can also have a positive connotation meaning deliverance, that is Nineveh will be delivered, or saved, in 40 days. Quite a different meaning depending on how we want to translate it, and it appears that it is this very ambiguity that the Ninevites hold onto to because their response is not acts of despair, but instead acts of repentance and we are told that they “Believed God.”

Now in this, Jonah has to be the most successful preacher and prophet of all time. He says just 8 words, none of which is actually that the people should repent, none of them actually mention God, and yet the people believe in God and do what God wants them to do. He does this while not even having to go all three days in the city, he only goes for one day. He does this while not even speaking the language of the people, as Jonah speaks Hebrew and the Ninevites spoke Assyrian, which is the oldest known extant language. That’s why I also imagine that he was not really very enthusiastic in his crying out of this message. Now on scouting Sunday, we remember that obedience is one of the scout laws, and on the surface Jonah is being obedient, but it’s really true obedience, it’s more of an acquiescence. He’s going through the motions on the outside of what God has asked him, but on the inside he’s fighting it all along. And yet, he is wildly successful, and the Ninevites, from the king all the way down, repent of their ways. Now we might think that this would make Jonah happy, but in fact the exact opposite happens; he’s mad at God and it is then that we find out why he has not wanted to carry out this mission all along.

In Exodus, we first hear a passage that becomes plentiful in the Hebrew scriptures and that is that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exod 34:6-7) That becomes one of the creedal statement of Judaism, and it is often found in the other prophets as a message of hope and of comfort. But, here Jonah uses it with exactly the opposite intent.  He turns what had been a praise of God into a complaint about God. Jonah doesn’t want mercy and hope to be offered to the Ninevites, he wants them destroyed and the very reason he didn’t want to do what God wanted was because he knew that God was merciful and loving and that he would spare the Ninevites, and he doesn’t want that to happen. His fear is that God will relent and not punish them and he would rather die himself, and he will keep asking God just to strike him down, rather than having to live with the fact that he helped his enemy from escaping punishment, that he turned God’s wrath away from them, that he allowed God’s mercy to come out, which is exactly what he doesn’t want. Jonah hates the Ninevites, there is nothing redeeming about them and if God would just hold true to God’s word and destroy them then everything would be right with the world. They would get what was coming to them, and Jonah could go home happy knowing they had been destroyed. Jonah wants vengeance, and God wants to give mercy. This is a story contrasting human desires with God’s will, human sin, or brokenness and God’s desire for mercy. Jonah does not want any hope for the Ninevites, but God is going to offer it anyways, and from that Jonah cannot escape.

In that, Jonah is not any different from any of us. It’s human nature to want bad things to happen to people who want bad things to happen to us. We want some guarantees in life, and one of those is that bad things will happen to bad people and good things will happen to good people, and there’s not grey area there, it’s black and white, and we want God to agree with that, and hold to it, and also agree with us on who is good and bad, and clearly we are amongst the good. We want mercy given to us, because we deserve it, but do not give mercy to those people over there, because they don’t deserve it.  It’s like the scout oath, scouts say that they will be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Now some of those are individual characteristics, but some of them are done in relationship with others. Now it’s been more than 30 years since I received my Eagle scout, but I don’t think that I believed those communal attributed applied to everyone. They clearly applied to the people I liked, but to others that I didn’t like, especially those that I didn’t know, but knew I didn’t like them? I’d have to say I was Jonah.  But that’s not who God is, and it’s part of the mystery of God. That’s what Jonah, and we, are missing is the mystery of God.

When the prophet Nahum, who we will encounter in two weeks, is told to prophesy about Nineveh and to say that they will be destroyed, he is not only happy to, but revels in the destruction of the city, he gloats about it to harken back to last week’s message from Obadiah.  Jonah wants to be able to do the same. But, whereas some prophets shrank from preaching God’s word because they saw no hope in the message, Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he knows there is hope. He knows that there is always the possibility that God will relent, because, as he says, God is merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love.  Jonah protests the love of God, and he doesn’t want God’s love to be universal, and certainly not cover and apply to the Ninevites. The writer Anne Lamott has said, “You can safely assume that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

At Jonah’s call, the people put on sackcloth, a sign of repentance, which means they are admitting that they have done wrong, although we are not told again what that is, and that they are going to stop doing that and doing something else. Repentance literally means to turn-around. So, it’s not just saying you’re sorry, it’s also saying that you’re not going to do it again. After the people put on sackcloth, the word reaches the king and he too reacts, and it’s important to pay attention to the sequence.  He stands up from his throne, removes his cloak, puts on sackcloth and then sits in ashes. That is he takes himself from a position of prominence and authority, sitting on the throne, to a position of repentance and humility, sitting on the floor in ashes. Jonah’s words have already come true, because normality in Nineveh has been overthrown. Then the king issues a decree that everyone and everything in the kingdom shall also participate in this time of repentance, that no human or animal shall eat or drink and that all humans and animals should be covered in sackcloth and stop their evil and violence. Now, this is a good executive order in principle, but I find it hard to believe because we own cats, and first I know they are never going to let me, or anyone else, put them in sackcloth, and second I don’t think cats feel guilty about anything and so to get them to stop their evil and violent ways just doesn’t seem possible.

After their acts of repentance, we find Jonah sitting outside the gates of Nineveh pouting, we are told that God made a bush quickly to grow over Jonah to provide him shade. But the next day, God has a worm attack the bush so that it withers and dies, and the fact that now Jonah has to sit in the sun, he gets even madder, and God asks Jonah “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” and Jonah answers, probably a little impetuously “Yes!” and God replies “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow… and should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons,” (Jonah 4:9-11) people with whom God is intimately connected? Jonah is not concerned about the people of Nineveh, because as it turns out he is only concerned about himself and the people he likes. To paraphrase Pogo, We have met Jonah, and Jonah is all too often us.

In the prophet Isaiah we hear that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,” God says, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8-9)  God has concerns for every person in the world, God has love for every person in the world, even the ones we don’t like, even the ones who might seek to harm us and that we might want to harm, like Jonah and the Ninevites. But, we should be grateful that God might show mercy and grace and even steadfast love to them, because what it also means is that God shows the same thing to us.  Rev. William Campbell was a white, southern Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, and he was once asked by a friend who was the editor of a newspaper, and also an aetheist, to explain his understanding of God and the God he worshipped and also that member of the KKK who could lynch a black man on Saturday night and then be in church on Sunday for worship feeling justified in what they did.  What is the gospel message, and to say it in ten words or less, and Rev. William Campbell said the gospel message is “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyhow.”

Our place is not to judge others, to claim whether they are good or evil, our job is love our neighbor as ourself, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us, not because it makes us feel superior, but because it should instead humble us, to make us realize, like the Ninevites, the ways we have gone astray, the relationships we have broken, the people who may be praying for us in exactly the same way, so that our lives are overturned, not in destruction, but in deliverance, a deliverance found in Jesus Christ who, we are told, was not sent by God to condemn the world, but to redeem it, because God so loved the world, that God loved the Ninevites and God even loved poor old Jonah who instead of seeing God’s love and mercy as a blessing in that it was poured out for everyone, instead saw it as a curse, because he could not understand the true message of hope in his message, that there is nothing which can separate us from the love of God.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “
in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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