Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany: The Book of Jonah

Reluctantly Sent to the Whole World

Today is the only day in the entire three-year lectionary cycle that we will hear a reading from the Book of Jonah. And since Jonah is my favourite book of the Bible, I can’t resist the urge to preach on this text today!

But I’m not just going to preach on the little passage from chapter three that we heard as our first reading, because we need to remind ourselves of the whole story of Jonah to be able to get the force of the message of this book. And this isn’t just a pretty children’s story about a guy who got swallowed by a fish and then got burped up alive three days later. This is a story about a God who loves his enemies, about a missionary who was told to go and spread God’s word and who chickened out and ran in the other direction instead, and who was angry later when his enemies repented because he was looking forward to seeing God wipe them out. I think you’ll agree that these themes are rather relevant to our world, and also to our own congregation as we think about how we help our neighbours experience the love of God in Christ.

There’s one question I’m going to set aside right at the beginning, and that’s the question of whether or not this story actually happened. This can be quite controversial and people who are interested in the Bible often have strong feelings one way or the other. On the one hand, people point out that it’s impossible for a fish to swallow a human being and for them to stay alive for three days inside its belly. They also point out that there’s no historical record that the people of Ninevah ever turned wholesale to the God of Israel as this story says they did, nor is it true that Ninevah was a city that was so big it took three days to go from one side to the other. This story, they say, reads like a folk tale, and a folk tale is what it is.

On the other hand, those who believe the story is literally true point out that if God can raise Jesus from the dead he can certainly make it possible for Jonah to stay alive in the belly of a fish for three days. They also point out that Jesus talks about Jonah in such a way as to give the impression he believed Jonah was a historical character.

I’m not going to take a position on this issue today, because I don’t think it affects the total message of the story. After all, we all know that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was a parable and never actually happened, but it can still speak powerfully to us about what God is like and what the Gospel is. And if it turns out that Jonah is also a parable, this still leaves us with the question of why this parable is included in our Scriptures; what is the Holy Spirit saying to us through it? So I will take the story as it stands in our Scriptures, leaving aside the question of historicity, and simply ask what God wants to say to us through it.

We don’t know very much about Jonah son of Amittai and we certainly don’t know how God communicated with him. The only thing we know is that God told him to leave Israel, go hundreds of miles to the northeast to the great Gentile city of Ninevah and try to drum up a revival by telling the people, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4). Ninevah, by the way, was not just another Gentile city; it was the capital city of Assyria, one of Israel’s deadliest enemies. Assyria was the nation that eventually destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and took its people into captivity. Imagine God sending a prophet from occupied France to Berlin in 1941 with the message that if the people there didn’t repent, God would overthrow their city – that’s the sort of commission that God gives to Jonah.

Well, Jonah left Israel all right, but he went in the opposite direction – he took a ship across the Mediterranean Sea for Spain, trying to put as much distance between God and himself as he could. Apparently he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the call to be an overseas missionary. But God got a little stubborn and sent a storm to slow the ship down. Eventually the storm got so bad that the sailors began to talk about religion: “Whose god have we upset?” They did a little survey of the passengers and crew to find out about everyone’s religion, and when they got to Jonah and discovered that he worshipped Yahweh, who he claimed was the one who created heaven and earth, they got really nervous. “What have you done to annoy him so badly?” they asked, and Jonah told them he was running away from God’s call to be a missionary.

The sailors were pretty decent and they really didn’t want to kill Jonah, so they went back to their oars and tried hard to fight the storm, but when it became obvious that they were losing they came back and asked him what they should do. “Pick me up and throw me overboard”, Jonah replied; “It’s me he’s after, not you”. So they did, and down Jonah sank into an increasingly quiet ocean. That’s the last we hear of the ship and the sailors.

Jonah probably thought it was the last of him, too, and when he saw an enormous fish approaching he must have been even more sure that this was the end of the story. “This is it, God; I’ve disobeyed you, and now I’m going to get what I deserve”. But in the next few hours Jonah discovered an amazing new truth about God: God didn’t want his death, he wanted his obedience. And somehow, in an entirely supernatural way, in the belly of a fish, God saved Jonah for one reason and one reason only: so that he could have a second chance at the job he’d run away from the first time.

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish and we can imagine that he did a lot of praying there. His prayers are summarised for us in chapter two of the book, and by the way, they consist almost entirely of quotations from the psalms. Say what you like about our Anglican habit of praying the psalms a lot, it’s useful to have these things memorised if you ever find yourself in the belly of a great fish! The writer of the book makes it clear that God was in control of how long Jonah stayed in that dark and unpleasant place; presumably he waited until he was sure that Jonah’s repentance was genuine, but at the end of chapter two we read that ‘the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land’ (2:10).

We can imagine how happy Jonah was to see the light of day again, but we can only guess at his feelings when the word of the Lord came to him a second time: ‘Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’ (Jonah 3:2). No running away from God’s call, Jonah! But by this time he had learned a thing or two about God and so off he went to Ninevah, walked up and down in the streets and called out “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4) - rather like those people you see walking up and down the streets with placards saying ‘The end of the world is nigh’.

Then an amazing thing happened: instead of lynching Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and they repented and turned to God. The king ordered everyone to fast and pray and wear sackcloth and even the animals had to join in the fast - involuntarily, no doubt! And the Bible says that ‘when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’ (3:10).

Now comes the funniest part of the whole book. Was Jonah pleased that the Ninevites had believed his message? He was not. He went off in a huff. “I knew this would happen!” he railed at God. “You’re such a wimp! You always come out with these big threats but then as soon as people say they’re sorry and turn from their sins you turn into a big cream puff! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish in the first place; I knew you’d make a liar out of me!” And Jonah sat down on a hill outside Ninevah with his nose in the air.

After a while it got very hot sitting there in dignified disapproval, and so God (who was no doubt watching and having difficulty controlling his laughter) made a bush grow up to give Jonah some shade. Jonah was happy about that and eventually he had a good night’s sleep under the bush. But the next day God sent along a worm to eat the roots and the bush died. When Jonah complained about what had happened to the bush God spoke to him again. “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 Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons...?” (4:11).

And that’s the question with which the book ends. Should God be concerned with Ninevah, Israel’s deadliest enemy and the city that had killed many of Israel’s sons? Should God give Ninevah the chance to repent, or should he just wipe them out and get it over with, because after all, that’s what they deserve, isn’t it? You see, Jonah may be one of the quaintest and funniest books in the Bible, but the truths it teaches us are hard-hitting and highly relevant for us today.

The book of Jonah talks about a God who is concerned about everyone on the earth, even his enemies. We might not think of that as such a revolutionary idea, but to the Jews of Jonah’s day it certainly was. At the very beginning, way back in the book of Genesis, when God first chose Abraham, he said to him ‘ you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). It was God’s plan to teach Abraham and his descendants his law and his ways, so that they in their turn could pass this knowledge on to others. Unfortunately, by the time of Jonah the people had become very inward looking and had forgotten all about God’s call to them to become missionaries. They had come to believe that God cared for the Jews and the Jews only, and that he had created the Gentiles for the express purpose of feeding the fires of hell. That’s why, when Jesus sent his apostles out as missionaries to preach the Good News, they had such a difficult time with the idea that it wasn’t only for the Jewish people. The Gentiles, especially the Romans, were still the enemy and the oppressor.

Luke tells a significant story about how that attitude changed in Acts chapters ten and eleven. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had become a believer in the God of Israel and had begun to practice the commandments, but had not gone the whole way of circumcision. One day he was praying in his room when an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa for a man called Simon Peter who would tell him what to do next. At the same time, Peter was having a nap on the roof of a house in Joppa. In his sleep, God sent him a dream which directed him not to call anything unclean when God had made it clean. Immediately afterwards, the messengers from the Gentile Cornelius appeared, and Peter concluded that the dream meant he was to go with them, back to Cornelius’ house.

This was a brave step for Peter to take – he was going to the house of the enemy and the oppressor, and he was doing so, not with the hand of judgement and death, but with the gospel message of Jesus and his love. When he got to Cornelius’ house he began to share the gospel message, but almost immediately the Holy Spirit filled the Romans who were listening, just as he had filled the Jewish disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter and the others were amazed, but Peter said, “I guess we’d better baptize them, then!” And so the gospel crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile, and you and I can be thankful for that, because if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be Christians today.

God sent Jonah across the barrier between Israel and Assyria to preach to the people of Ninevah. God sent Peter across the barrier between Jews and Romans, to share the gospel with Cornelius and his family. And I believe that today God is still calling us to cross barriers and build bridges across the divides between people so that we can share the gospel story. I wonder which barrier he’s calling you and me to cross today? Is it a racial barrier? Is it a barrier between warring political ideologies – left and right or, as our American friends would say, red states and blue states? Is it about gay or straight, or rich or poor, or white collar and blue collar?

Let me close with one of the most dramatic stories I’ve ever heard of crossing a barrier to share the love of Christ. I read it in the book A Culture of Peace, by Alan and Ellie Kreider and Paulus Widjaja.

A Christian pastor in Indonesia saw an opportunity to do something risky. Through the local Association of Radio Broadcasting, he decided to approach the commander of a radical Muslim group, Hisbullah Shabillilah (which means ‘the Soldiers of God’), in the city where both the pastor and the commander lived. When the pastor first visited the headquarters of the Islamic group, he saw that on the walls were lots of swords and banners, with ‘No Compromise!’ written in big letters. But the pastor took time to befriend the commander of the soldiers and his followers, and to have dialogue with them about peacemaking.

On one of his visits he noticed that something symbolic had happened: the swords and banners had been taken off the walls. And the Muslim commander promised to send his members to attend the training on peacebuilding and conflict transformation that the pastor was organizing. Not long after this came the tsunami of December 26th 2004, and the Muslim commander was eager to work together with the pastor and a local Peace Centre in a relief and trauma healing project in their area of Indonesia.

One day the commander told the pastor, “If only I had known you four years ago, I would not have had to lose fifty of my people who died in a war between Muslims and Christians. I used to think that spilling the blood of the Gentiles and the Chinese was permissible, but why is it different now? Is there something strange within me since I have learned to know you?”

I have no idea how that pastor felt the first time he visited the headquarters of the radical Muslim group, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t feel some fear. We’re not told why he went; maybe, like Jonah, he felt that it was something God was calling him to do, and maybe he struggled against it for a while, wondering what the soldiers would do, wondering if he’d come out of that place alive. But he stepped out in courage and faith, and the result was that the name of Jesus was honoured as people came together in understanding and respect.

So let’s not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones and cross barriers to share the love of Christ. In the kingdom of God, all those barriers will be gone. But you and I are called to live into that kingdom now, building bridges, loving our neighbours and our enemies, and sharing the gospel with them, knowing that every single one of them was made in the image of God and is loved by God. And we might just be surprised at what happens as a result of our obedience to God’s call!

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