July 25, 2010
A sermon preached at First Congregational Church, by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley, pastor of University Baptist Church.
I think it’s safe to say that Jane McBride and I have had some fun looking at the story of Jonah. Like most of you, I grew up with just one aspect of the story. It was the whale a tale. In junior high, I sang a solo in our church production of “Oh Jonah”. It went something like this:
When Jonah sank into the sea he closed his eyes and prayed, “O Lord I’m very sorry that you’re word I’ve disobeyed, if you will only come and save me I will do as you command. Instead of treading water let me tread upon the land.”
Chorus: Go down, Jonah. Deep in the ocean. Go down, Jonah. Far from the shore.”
And after swimming very hard for three days if not four, the whale came near to Nineveh and landed on the shore where at it gave a little shudder and its jaws were widely flung. And Jonah came a strollin’ out upon its mighty tongue.
But of course, this is more than a fishy tale. It is a metaphoric story that is not meant to be taken literally. I mean, three days in a fish? A really high fallutin’ and pretentious prayer? A town that takes three days to cross? Some people say that it must be a 60-mile wide city—as in from here to Rochester. It’s like the 12-foot pearl or the gold-glass floor in Revelation. Jonah contains the shortest and worst sermon on record having the most dramatic conversion experience. Even the cattle repent. And to top it off, even God repents. Who needs seminary to come up with that?
Let’s face it, the book of Jonah is just plain odd. It’s listed as a prophetic book, but it reads more like a cartoon. It ends with a question. It actually contains an intriguing reflection upon anger. We’ll look at that next week, same bat time, same bat channel. What is up with this Jonah character? His name is even a joke. In Hebrew, Jonah is Noah spelled sideways. Why do his shipmates seem more righteous than pathetic Jonah? Did he really get a dose of sustaining humble inside the sea creature? He spends the entire book outraged.
I actually think Jonah is an honest character. He’s the ultimate anti-prophet. He hates his mission and does a really bad job at it. He spends his life running away from God and his responsibilities. He holds grudges for a really long time. Does that sound familiar?
And yet, God doesn’t give up on him or the people of Nineveh. Jonah gives up on himself. At least twice, he asks to be killed. But God and the people and cattle of Nineveh conspire to save his life.
Think of those who have relentlessly pushed you to be better. Who in your life has that been: a parent, a child, a colleague, a mentor, a pastor, a coach? Who has been you advocate and has not given up on you?
Jesus used parables to get people thinking. The writer of Jonah uses this fishy tall tale to get us thinking about the nature of God, love of enemies, and the nature of repentance. Like Job, Jonah gets a real bum wrap. He gets digested by a fish for 3 days. Imagine what he looked like when he emerged—a shadow of his former self. Maybe that’s why he when he preached it seemed like he didn’t really give it the old college try.
So in today’s scripture, Jonah emerges from the fish and still has to do God’s bidding. He sees the great Assyrian capital Nineveh. Enemy territory. A place where they kill people who upset the status quo. Where they are suspicious of outsiders. But God pushes him into enemy territory with not a word of hope, but a word of destruction. He didn’t really embrace the nonviolent lessons that love is more powerful than hate and that even our worst enemies have tremendous potential for change.
Half-digested Jonah says the appointed words, “Yet forty days and the city will be overthrown.” Then he waited for the onslaught, the jeers, the fighting. This had been what he feared. He didn’t like to tell people bad news. They tend to shoot the messenger. He braced himself. Or, did he welcome the oncoming persecution—ending his life like he tried to before?
Nineveh is present-day Mosul in Iraq. It might just as well be Darfur or Rwanda, of Kinshasa or Chiapas or Kabul or Washington. What if a foreigner said, you have five and a half weeks until your city is destroyed. Would this engender a turning to our way, or would it instigate a fight?
But what did he get? The scripture says that the people of Nineveh believed in God, they put on sackcloth and ashes—everyone, believing in this foreign God. Even the King declared a universal fast for the people and the animals. Everyone was to cry to God and maybe God would change the divine mind. It worked. God repented and chose not to do evil to them.
This is reminiscent of the 18th chapter of Genesis when Abraham asks God to spare the people of Sodom whom God has declared deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth for their lack of hospitality and their greed. Abraham comically talked God into sparing the city if 50 people were righteous. Then he got God to agree to save the town if 40 were righteous and so on down to 10. God changed the divine mind because of the actions, the prayers and the pushing of the people.
But this messes with our concept of the power of God, doesn’t it? How do you explain that bad things happen to good people who pray fervently and do all good deeds? Why can’t God change the divine mind and spare the innocents as much as God spares the foreign capital of our enemies? This is never adequately addressed in scripture. It remains a concern and a conundrum for me as a Christian. It’s not going to stop me from praying, though. Clarence Jordan said that faith is not hope in spite of the evidence. It is action in spite of the consequences.
The real issue at hand in this chapter is not the Ninevites repentance. It’s God’s repentance. God changes the divine mind throughout the story.
So, can we push God to do what we want? Does God answer our fervent prayers? Does God really favor one nation over another? How do we deal with our enemies?
All of these questions, and so few answers. Maybe that’s the point. We encounter people and places and situations that demand our attention. The task always seems too daunting. We’re too small and insignificant to really effect change. Our church needs to deal with its roof before we can try on a new ministry. We know everything we need to know about our enemies; please don’t confuse us with their humanity, their potential for change, their struggles.
God pushes Jonah into this place of terror. He does not want his task. He does not want to be the all-powerful truth-teller. But telling the truth is what needs to happen. No matter how far away poor Jonah tries to go, he is confronted by the truth.
How do you know you are being called by God to do a task? My friend Andy Loving, an activist from Louisville Kentucky said there are three ways you know: 1. The task seems impossible. 2. There is a high probability of failure. 3. It is incredibly good news. It’s that Good News part that keeps us up at night and won’t let us go.
Jonah is pushed to tell the truth to the Ninevites. It is good news, if they see it as such. Luckily for them they do.
As the sage Oogway says in the film King Fu Panda, “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”
What are you trying to avoid?
Often, we can avoid something for a while, but it will often come back to us. Jonah is pushed by God into a task he didn’t want. And then pushes God away again. He’s the ultimate superhero preacher who doesn’t like his job.
But like Ezekiel, he says the word is bittersweet. It’s bitter and he cannot avoid it. It’s because the sweetness carries the good news.
What truth do you know in your gut that won’t let you go? It might be the good news that someone desperately needs to hear: That our enemies have a great capacity for change? That God still cares about each of us? That the long arc of history bends toward justice? That even though the job market, family and crisis overwhelm us, we are not alone? Jonah is pushed to live into his truth. The people by their actions push God to show mercy. I have to believe that if the truth is really good news, then it cannot help but set us free. It may take some pushing and pulling. But it will unbind us from our old ways.
So do you need a little nudge, like Jonah?
The good news is that God promises to not leave us alone to face the consequences. And if there is a congregation or two committed to truth, then the possibilities expand.
Jonah is pushed by God, just like we are. Like Jonah, we have a choice of whether or not to respond. Our response to God’s push makes all the difference.
Here’s the other good news of Jonah: God doesn’t give up on even the worst of us. Jonah is the worst. And God would be justified to leave him alone. But God is relentless in her pushing and pulling. God pulls the truth out of poor Jonah and saves not only him, but a whole nation of outsiders. If that’s not good news, then I don’t know what is.
Our task is to relentlessly cling to and witness to the truth. God will not leave us. God will continue to push us and pull us, relentlessly. That is good news and so is our response to God’s push. May it be so. Amen.