January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Our second scripture reading today comes from the Old Testament parable about the prophet Jonah as he brings God’s message to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Listen for God’s Word as it speaks to you today.
READ Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Now I feel pretty certain that this reading from Jonah is supposed to reinforce our gospel message Meg read earlier… “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In Mark’s gospel this message is the core of Jesus’ ministry. I call it the thesis statement of that gospel. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. So here in Jonah we have a few sentences that show the people of Nineveh repenting after hearing the prophet Jonah’s message. And I mean really repenting. Going through the whole rigamaroo of Old Testament repentance. A fast is proclaimed. Sackcloth is put on. In the verses we skipped over the king of Nineveh throws on his sackcloth and sits in ashes. He extends the fast beyond the people of Nineveh to even the animals of Nineveh. I mean that is repenting done right. And their repentance works. God relents from punishing Nineveh. No fire and brimstone will rain down from the sky upon their heads. No plagues will come upon them. None of that good and surefire Old Testament cataclysmic divine judgment will happen to the people of Nineveh. God changes God’s mind. And that’s that.
So every three years this is the message we get from our one reading from Jonah. From our childhood we remember the whole being swallowed by a fish bit that is a part of Jonah’s story. But that’s it for Jonah. That’s all we might take away. Which… every three years… is very unsatisfying to me because this parable isn’t about the Ninevites or even about their repentance. Not to take anything away from them… but it just isn’t. There’s so much more here than a big fish and people putting some sackcloth on their cat.
Jonah is a story about a prophet who knows the true character of God… who believes in the good news of God… and when the time comes… when he is called to act… when he must live out his beliefs in the world around him… Jonah turns his back on God because he doesn’t want God’s news to be good for these people of Nineveh. Jonah is looking for a certain outcome and he can’t risk that outcome on a loving and gracious God who has been known to change his mind. The God Jonah knows is not the God Jonah wants in this moment. That’s the conflict of this parable.
At the beginning of this story, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh to cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before God. Now that message… that message should be one that Jonah should be happy to deliver. Nineveh was the enemy… a deeply hated enemy. Jonah’s heart should be glad that God’s judgment is about to be unleashed… all that Old Testament kaboom judgment. Other Old Testament prophets got to bring that message. Read Nahum. That’s the prophet Jonah wants to be. Nahum. Jonah would love nothing more than to see Nineveh reduced to rubble. Or better yet, just a black stain left on the earth. Rubble would be too good for them. Having rubble might be interpreted as a sign of mercy. Jonah the prophet hates Nineveh with his whole being. And when God gives him his orders, Jonah boards a boat and goes in the opposite direction to ensure that God’s message never gets to the people of Nineveh. Jonah knows the good news of God. Jonah knows God as God has revealed himself. God has called Jonah to service. Jonah rejects God’s call because it doesn’t serve himself and what Jonah wants. Jonah wants Nineveh to suffer, but the God who has been revealed to Jonah… the God who has called Jonah… well, to use Jonah’s own angry words at the end of the parable… “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country: That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah knows God… and that is why he doesn’t want the Ninevites to hear God’s message. That is why he boards that boat heading in the opposite direction. That is why when a storm blows up and threatens to sink the boat, Jonah is only too happy to tell the sailors to throw him overboard. Not only will it save them from the storm… a storm he is sure is being caused by his own disobedience… but Jonah will drown ensuring God’s message will never get to the ears of the Ninevites… sealing their fate. Jonah would rather die than to let God be the God God has revealed himself to be. That’s the exaggerated, jaw dropping moment of this parable… an angry Jonah… I mean imagine this scene… an angry Jonah his face red and scowling in prayer… angrily accusing God of being gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Talk about uncomfortable truth telling.
This parable does what parables do best… holding up that deep dark truthful mirror. It would be like adding a few extra verses to Mark’s story of Jesus walking along the lakeshore and calling these fishermen to follow him and he gets to Fisherman Fred who says, “Follow you, huh? Tell me Jesus, you’re not going to tell me to love people are you? You’re not trying to call me to service to the least of these… to work for the common good are you? Cause if you are, you can count me out. I’m not really interested in all that gracious merciful steadfast love stuff. If you’ve got some judging and condemning for me to do, I might consider it. We could start with my neighbor Biff. Talk about someone who needs to get what’s coming to him, it’s Biff.”
Jesus says, “Sorry. I was just going to ask if you could point me towards the sons of Zebedee. Do you know where their boat is?”
God reveals who God is. God calls us to follow. We follow the God God has revealed himself to be. We believe that Christ reveals God fully. We follow Christ all the time. Not setting him aside when we need a bit of Old Testament fire and brimstone to rain down from the sky to destroy our enemies instead of risking what loving our enemies might look like… what it might mean and create if we lived into God’s good news. We don’t get to grab the top of the cross and use it for a sword for our own ends… planting it back in the ground when we’re done so it can then become the cross of Christ again. Gracious and merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. Ready to relent from punishing. These are characteristics of God deserving our praise, not our resentment. But our actions… our actions too often reveal the true nature of our discipleship… and just what we are really following.
Jonah gets thrown in the storm ravaged choppy waters… opening his mouth wide… ready to take in and fill his lungs with the waters of chaos… and greet death. Enter the giant fish… or the whale… or whatever you want to imagine… who comes up and swallows Jonah. For three days Jonah sits in darkness waiting for death to come while the fish takes him to where God wants him to go… vomiting Jonah up on the shore outside Nineveh. God tells him a second time what God wants him to do. This time Jonah follows God… but not even enough to call it half-hearted. When he makes his proclamation to the city, there isn’t even the usual prophet introduction, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Jonah says the minimum of what he is supposed to say and stomps off like an angry toddler. Not the most shining example of a prophet of God.
Jonah knows God as God has revealed himself. God has called Jonah by name to follow him. Jonah accepts God’s call as prophet and when his time comes to give God glory through his gifted role… he disobeys because the God he knows isn’t the God he wants… when he does finally obey… he puts in little effort… and then Jonah goes off angry that he ended up having to do what God wanted him to do with the results he knew would happen because he knows who God has revealed God to be. Isn’t it amazing how well that describes the inconvenienced disciple of today? We know who God is. We know this gracious, merciful, loving God. We hear God’s story over and over again. It’s not for lack of knowledge. It really isn’t. That’s not what impedes our discipleship. It’s three words we say over and over again. Gracious. Merciful. Loving. That’s not the issue. It’s that when the time comes. When we’re called up to bat, so to speak. In that moment when it matters… convenience gets in the way. Is this going to be convenient to me? Is this going to bring me what I’m looking to get out of it? Is this going to interfere with the other lords I’m following? What’s the minimum effort I can put into discipleship and it still get the job done? Can’t God make a feast out of the scraps I provide? God can do anything. When it comes time to step up to faithfully serve… we step aside. Now sometimes… sometimes the big fish comes along and we’re taken to where God intends us to go whether we want to go there or not. Other times we just drown in the waters of chaos. Maybe it’s time to make more non-Jonah like choices if we are going to repent and believe in the good news.
Saints… clear… consistent… discipleship… that reflects the God who is as revealed through Christ. That’s it. That’s all its ever been. Amen.