[This sermon was delivered on January 21, 2018, at the Community of the Savior in Rochester, NY. The main text was Jonah 3.]
Certain Bible stories invoke warm, fuzzy images. What do you think of first when I mention Noah? What do you think of first when I mention Jonah? Neither of those stories is warm and fuzzy. The story of Noah and the ark is dark with destruction and judgment. The story of Jonah and the great fish doesn’t have a Disney ending.
It is always a danger in religion and among people of faith that we divide the world into us vs. them. It is equally a danger in national and global politics. When I was a child in Los Angeles, people were building bomb shelters in their back yards. Soviet missiles were pointed at us. Survivalists were selling kits of water and freeze-dried foods to carry through the apocalypse that was imminent. Five decades later I was in Russia for the first time on a teaching and preaching mission. On one trip we were flown to a city halfway from Moscow to Siberia. It was deep winter, colder and snowier than we have in western NY. On a bitter cold night, we flew on a crowded Soviet era plane to Perm. Our host packed our team into two little cars and directly took us to a park. We saw these long tubes reaching into the early morning sky. Our host told us that these are now used by children as slides. But once they were missile silos aimed at the United States. “Twenty-five minutes,” he said, “and those missiles would have reached your major cities. And now children have fun climbing ladders and sliding down them.”
The way I felt toward the Soviets as a child may have been how Jonah felt about the city of Nineveh in the great power of Assyria. But while his issue wasn’t weapons of mass destruction, his issue may have been greater. Those Assyrians were the godless enemy of Israel. When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh with a word from God, God was asking Jonah to cross a chasm of cosmic dimensions, with global implications.
The book of Jonah is four short chapters, a total of just 48 verses. It includes a psalm of praise, but no classic prophetic utterance. All the other prophetic books primarily address Israel; Jonah does not. Rather, Jonah is a narrative, a story in four movements. I can tell it in one minute.
God calls Jonah to bring a word from God to Nineveh to the northeast. Jonah goes the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship to Tarshish, which is at the western edge of his world. God brings a violent storm, which endangers the ship and its Gentile crew. All the pagan sailors are praying, while Jonah is sleeping. They wake him and ask him to pray. Nothing helps. They draw lots and the short lot is drawn by Jonah, so into the sea he goes. A great fish swallows him and after three days spits him up on an Israeli beach. Jonah praises God. God gives Jonah a second chance. Jonah goes to Nineveh, speaks God’s word, and Nineveh repents. God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh, while Jonah rages with anger at God for being gracious to his enemies. Jonah sulks, filled with self-pity for being God’s person bringing good news to the wrong people. God sends an object lesson which is lost on Jonah and the book ends with Jonah sulking. It is the only book in the Bible that ends with a question. “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Jonah is both a reluctant prophet and a religious nationalist. He doesn’t want God to be gracious and merciful to the wrong people. Nineveh is an Assyrian city and good Jews should hate all Assyrians. It is us vs. them. Again. With a religious subtext. Israel first! There are limits, it seems to Jonah, as to when and on whom God may show mercy. Jonah hears God’s call and runs the other way. God rescues him, probably to Jonah’s chagrin (how heroic he would have been if he died in the mouth of that great fish). Let’s admit it: this kind of thinking is alive today, both in the Church and outside of it. There is something reassuring about knowing that we are the right people and those not with us are the wrong people.
We seem to forget that God originally made a covenant of blessing with Abraham that extended far beyond Abraham’s tribe: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) The biblical story of redemption is one of ever-widening circles of grace and inclusion. Psalm 145 exhorts us, “They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.”
Christmas and Epiphany remind us of the scope of God’s redemptive mission. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes four women, one of which was a Moabite, another country not liked by Israel. When the baby Jesus was taken to the Temple to be dedicated to God, the old man Simeon held him and said, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32) And there were the Magi, pagan visitors from a pagan land, that traveled all the way to Bethlehem to worship Jesus and give him lavish gifts.
There are some parallels between the story of Jonah and the story of the Magi. In Jonah, the pagan Gentile sailors are more ready to honor the God of Israel than Jonah is. And then king of Nineveh declares a city wide fast, while Jonah sulks. The pagan king trusts the God of Israel to be gracious to Nineveh, while Jonah pouts. When the Magi reach Jerusalem, Herod, whose title was king of the Jews, himself a convert to Judaism, is filled with fear. His little kingdom is threatened by a toddler in Bethlehem. He calls on the religious leaders to find out from scripture where the Messiah was to be born. They find in Micah that he is to be born in Bethlehem. Little Bethlehem is five miles away from Jerusalem. Neither Herod nor his high-ranking religious counselors make the five-mile trip to see Jesus for themselves. Yet the pagan Magi go all the way to Bethlehem to find and worship Jesus, still a toddler. When their Epiphany party ends and they leave for home, God’s angel tells Joseph to gather Mary and the young child and go to Egypt, for Herod will be unleashing his jealous fury on the boy children of Bethlehem. So the holy family becomes a refugee family and seeks and finds refuge in Egypt, another country the Israelites didn’t much like.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time….” Isn’t that good news? God gives us second chances, second opportunities. We are in no place to condemn Jonah, for God has granted all of us second chances when we have failed to be faithful the first time. Who of us ever gets anything totally right the first time? (I have even messed up with Ikea furniture assembly instructions!) “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time….” Jonah did the right thing the second time, but, alas, without the right heart. His hope was that his eight-word sermon would result in the destruction of his enemies. In the Hebrew language that sermon was five words: my paraphrase: “In 40 days, you’re toast.” I am always for doing the right thing, but with the right heart. Without the right heart, our right deeds are empty. God looks on the heart. “And if I have prophetic powers,… but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)
The call to repent is good news, whether from Jonah, John the Baptist, or Jesus himself. It means God hasn’t given up on us. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God; and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” The call to repent, to turn from our old ways to God’s new ways, is always good news. God hasn’t given up on us; God is giving us second chances. And third chances.
Last week Edwin Hawkins died. A black gospel singer and arranger, he is best remembered for the recording he had the Edwin Hawkins Singers make of “O Happy Day.” I love that song. “O, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away….” That day Nineveh repented and received mercy from God, Jonah may have been singing, “O Happy Day.” Instead of sulking at the abundant mercies of God, like Jonah, we can be singing, “O, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away…. He taught me how to watch and pray, and live rejoicing every day. O happy day!”