The book of Jonah is short – just four chapters – and it follows a single, concentrated storyline.
Most sources say it was written as an allegory, as a work of narrative fiction – and included in the Bible as such. It lacks some of the specific details and the characteristic framing of the other books of the prophets.
No matter how we regard it, this book packs packs a lot of meaning into those four chapters, those 48 verses.
It begins with God calling Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to tell the people there to change their wicked ways.
What does Jonah do?
He makes a run for it.
Anybody ever have much luck running from your calling?
You can try to hide from God, but that doesn’t work very well, now does it?
We can try to turn away from doing what we know we need to do.
We can reject sitting with the uncomfortable periods of discernment when discernment is what we need.
We can argue with God.
I have. Believe me. I have.
Argue with God, but know that God can be relentless when there’s a good reason.
God is relentless with Jonah – and that doesn’t turn out so well for Jonah.
Jonah goes as far as he can as fast as he can. He ends up on a ship that’s beset by a terrible storm. Then Jonah finds himself in the sea and in the belly of a great fish (which we commonly assume was a whale) for 3 days and 3 nights.
Credit to Jonah that he puts that time to good use – he prays, he laments, and he comes to term with what he needs to do. And with that, the fish spits him up onto dry land.
God reminds Jonah of what he’s supposed to do and then off Jonah goes to Nineveh.
Now Nineveh is a large city in the Assyrian empire (interestingly, it’s located quite near the site of the modern northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which has suffered so from war in recent years) – keep in mind that it belongs to the conquerors – so it’s hard to know how they are going to take this call to repent of their evil doing.
Jonah wanders this huge city, day in and day out and delivers his warning to its people and their leaders.
As it turns out, they listen. The king and the people fast and put on sackcloth and ashes – and they turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
God is merciful.
You can tell why I like this story –
you have this reluctant prophet in place of some traditional hero basking in glory.
you have God’s call to justice, to turn away from harm and violence – and people heeding it.
you have mercy. God’s great example of mercy and the enduring promise of redemption.
But part of what makes this story so great is that the story doesn’t stop here. We have this 4th chapter, where the story turns back to Jonah and his struggles.
Jonah’s upset. He’s like “WHAT??? ALL THAT and now nothing?”
Jonah sulks. He’s finally summoned up the courage and commitment to do what God calls him to do – and it doesn’t turn out the way he thinks it will.
‘Fine God, I’ll live up to what you are asking me to do. I’ll be the prophet and then we’ll have the fire and brimstone and all the excitement.’
But no – while Jonah must be counted as one of the notably successful prophets among these stories in scripture, he doesn’t get the thrill of seeing the city of Nineveh smited. He’s like ‘I KNEW this was going to happen. I knew it. I knew it That’s why I fled. And just look . . . All that work . . .’
I love Jonah for his perfectly imperfect humanity. He makes the mistake that we so often make. First he tries to make it all about him. ‘LOOK, I DID ALL THIS WORK AND then God you go and spare them . . .’
We want to be the heroes of the story. We look up to celebrity and talk about how we develop our personal brands.
From Joel Osteen to Jake Paul as examples to our own road rage when we’re stuck in traffic, we put personality – theirs, ours – at the center of the story.
We make it about celebrity – and we are the celebrities of our own stories.
We are going to see the world from our own perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s our own gift of being human. But if that’s the gift of being human, then narcissism is its curse.
The beauty of this story though is exactly that: it’s not all about us.
God needs Jonah to following God’s call on Jonah’s life.
It saves the entire population of a city, 120,000 people. Jonah faithfully, humbly (even if reluctantly) does what needs to be done and the outcome is beautiful.
But since Jonah is a little slow to catch the point, he thinks his work was unnecessary. He thinks God was wasting his time. Yet Jonah, reluctantly, faithfully, humbly, has done what God asked of him.
It’s not about him. It’s about God’s love and God’s hope for justice in the world and the hope that we might all live good and decent lives caring for our neighbor, showing mercy.
Jonah’s also upset because he figured those folks deserved to get punished – and he was deprived of that pleasure.
We can understand that, can’t we? There’s that thrill that comes of seeing the bad guys go down.
As Christians, however, we know that we are called to a more nuanced ethic than that. We are not called to tolerate evil, but we’re not supposed to be bloodthirsty.
We may live in a society obsessed with punishment, with vengeance, and with people getting what WE think they deserve, but I would argue that’s not how we are called to live as a community of the faithful.
Jonah’s looking for the vindication and the celebration of the righteous – and instead he gets the mirror turned back on him. We talked before about what it means to be judgmental, didn’t we?
Part of Jonah’s irritation is that God’s divine judgment, which has a heart for mercy and for love, has overruled his own human judgment, with its taste for punishment and retribution.
We may not be able to stop our gut reaction, but we can control what we do with it.
This is about our reactions as individuals and it has to do with our actions as a society.
God has a great faith in Jonah’s capacity to learn.
In this story Jonah learns to follow God’s call. Jonah learns that he can do what needs to be done, even when he is uncertain or fearful, when he doesn’t feel up to the task, when he just doesn’t want to do it.
Jonah learns that God’s mercy is far more abundant than he realized. He obviously had a clue, but it’s in this final confrontation between God and Jonah that we see the enduring quality of God’s mercy.
For in the midst of all of this, God comes back to Jonah to – on the whole rather gently, in that Jonah is never left worse off than he was to begin with – a final lesson in love and mercy.
God says, Okay, Jonah, let me show you how this works. Let me show you how I work. That’s the lesson I’m trying to teach, Jonah.
The lesson is one of walking in your calling, of trust, of faithfulness, of witness, of justice and of mercy.
The message is meant to apply to us as individuals but it is also given to us a whole people – as an entire angry, vengeful world much more interested in power than in love.
It’s a reminder that what we have control over is the faithful walk in our calling. We do not control the outcome.
And we are able to walk in grace – or at least we’re called to do so – regardless of our specific vocational calling and how it evolves.
Let’s look at the end for the moment –
Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
We end this with God’s question, God’s question to us with all of our human answers and our human judgments of others.
Why would there be a limit to God’s love and mercy? And how do we understand that as an example in our own lives?
I told some people downstairs before the service that I needed to work on the end of this sermon. I didn’t quite have an end.
Then I realized that the end should be this question –
‘And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Why would we think there would be a limit to God’s love and mercy? And how are we called to understand that as an example in our own lives?
Image is a relief sculpture of ‘Jonah under a Bush outside of Ninevah’ from the Cathedrale d’Amiens, France, retrieved from http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29299