“Sermon 7/11/10: Jonah Pursued!”

7/11/10; Jonah chapter 1
Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC
(preached at University Baptist Church)

Jonah and the Whale, by He Qi

Get up! Go! Go at once! God’s call to Jonah is not gentle or subtle. It’s sudden, demanding, even violent. Who can blame Jonah for running in the other direction? Hoping to escape both God and God’s assignment, Jonah makes a beeline for Tarshish, which seems to be a significant location only because it lies in the exact opposite direction from Ninveh.

God’s voice grates like a blaring alarm clock, “get up”! But instead Jonah goes down. The Hebrew root that describes this downward motion appears in the text again and again, with various shades of meaning. Jonah goes down geographically, to Joppa, then literally, he climbs down into the hold of the ship. In body and spirit, he descends into sleep. (The Hebrew here is subtle but crucial. Jonah’s sleep is no ordinary slumber, but the coma-like state the Creator provided for Adam, as God plucked a rib from his body.) Not even a wild storm can disturb this kind of repose.

Jonah’s downward journey culminates as the sailors hurl him overboard into the sea. In ancient mythology, the sea symbolized the forces of chaos that fight to undo God’s life-giving order of creation. According to biblical cosmology, the sea was also a “lower abyss” that provided a gateway to Sheol, the land of the dead.

I had a Jonah-moment this week, as I returned to the intensity of life and work here after a lovely, restful vacation, at Holden Village, in the Cascade mountains of Washington State. About Wednesday, I was tempted to join Jonah in fleeing. Why hadn’t somebody seen the coming storm and just thrown me over the side of the boat as it sliced through the waters of Lake Chelan toward civilization? I longed to return to the restful pace of that refuge,
to precious time with family; to lounging and reading on the sunny porches ringed by snowy peaks; to eating and hiking and eating some more!

We all need rest and renewal, life-giving periods of Sabbath and reflection. But the temptation is join Jonah in his downward spiral, to turn away from the real, rich life God desires for us, and escape into deep, deathly slumber. The truth us, we can find endless ways to flee and sleep: even constant work can be means by which we escape. God’s call to set our faces toward Nineveh is a call to be conscious, to invest our hearts in this world, with all its beauty and brokenness; to let the struggles and gifts of others move us, and change us, and challenge us; to be present to the critical needs and vital questions of our day.

The book of Jonah is full of irony, paradox, strange humor. Its genre is hard to pinpoint, but perhaps the most crucial point is that it does not belong in the “non fiction” section of the library. It is a story, not history. It is a parody, not a straightforward tale. It is full of hyperbole and symbol.

Enter the great fish, star of many children’s stories and playful musical numbers, fertile food for the imagination. Otherwise (though not entirely accurately) known as the whale.

“And God ‘provided’ a great fish swallow Jonah…” How very kind of God! Let’s see: Jonah’s plan was to run from God, and God’s call. And when God pursued him, he was willing to be hurled to his death in the sea rather than ask the sailors to turn the boat toward Nineveh. Did Jonah want to be saved? Did he welcome the rescue fish? I doubt it!

Bear with me for a little biblical history – The tale of Jonah is set in the time when the Jewish nation was divided, separated into two Kingdoms – the northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Jonah is a prophet of the north, in the years right before the Assyrians conquered and basically destroyed this part of the nation. And, oh– Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Later, the Babylonians came and defeated the Assyrians. They occupied the land and captured many of the Jewish people, and took them into exile in Babylon.

Why did Jonah to run so fast and so far? Why did he welcome without regret the coma of sleep, the waves of death? Jonah lived under deadly threat anyway. He was a prophet to a nation in decline and despair, a people who lived in the shadow of their conquerors. When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, God sent Jonah into the very heart of his enemy, the very seat of his enemy’s power.

Go to Nineveh? It’s as if God commanded an Iraqi prophet to step onto US soil
in the early 2000s, to shout words of judgment at the crowds rallying for war
to warn the politicians and generals as they prepared to invade, to tell us this war is unwise, wrong, even sinful. It’s as if God instructed the abused woman to rise, confront and challenge her abuser. It’s as if God commanded an immigrant without papers to get up, go picket ICE headquarters.

Really, God, are you nuts? You want us to march straight into the arms of our enemies? You want us to proclaim judgement in that place, or hear it from those to those people? That would mean we care what happens to them and they care what happens to us. I know what you’re up to – I know that your judgment is an act of love, an invitation to change in such a way that we return to life-giving relationship with each other and you. I know what else you’re up to. You think we might all find some healing and some power in that place.

It’s important to note that the author of Jonah likely lived in a different time, a later time, than the time in which the book is set. This story is set as the Assyrians prepare to invade Israel, but it was composed long after the burning, pillaging, and subjugation. This tale came to be after the people returned home from the period of exile. The Babylonians fell to the Persians, and the Persion King, Cyrus, allowed the people to come home to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The parable of Jonah was told even as green shoots rose from the ashes, once wounds had begun to heal, amid the restoration of the people’s shattered sense of identity.

During this time of renewal, a theological debate sprung up: Is God’s concern only for Israel and Judah, or does God care for all nations? Is Israel chosen for its own sake, or for the sake of the whole world?

David Lillegard puts it this way, “Jonah stands between the period of exclusive covenantal prophecy, where the message to the nation looked forward to her restoration, and the universalism of the later prophets, who looked forward, like Jeremiah, to a new covenant. On the way to this new world, the chosen people pass through the tragic destruction of Israel. This Jonah cannot accept. Thus he flees. Yet the word of YHWH pursues him and drags him reluctantly toward the future.” (article at kerux.com)

We who are followers of Jesus know many such fish stories! Do we not?
Tales that give flesh to the outrageous, scandalous, reconciling ways of God,
parables that point toward a new way to be human, for Ninevites, Israelites, Americans and Iraqis alike. Loaves and fishes, Good Samaritans, lost and found coins and sheep and children, cradle and cross and grave and garden.
These stories sketch images of a fresh new world, a world in which wounds heal, chaos and death know truth and redemption; homes are restored in peace and safety.

This new reality does not belong to us or come from us. It is God’s alone to give, and to create. But we can participate in it. Let us go rather than flee
Let us rise from sleep and engage the stranger, the neighbor, the alien, the loved one, the enemy. Let us shake off the coma of life measured only according to comfort, so that we may live in Jesus’ way, as fully and honestly and freely as possible.