Monday, November 9, 2020

God Sightings: Jonah

Our story today is about Jonah. Jonah was a prophet of God to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. 

Let’s just say that Jonah is not the best prophet. 

The only other place in scripture where we meet him is in 2nd Kings under the reign of Jeroboam II, one of the worst kings in the history of Israel. Here, Jonah prophecies in Jeroboam’s favor, promising that he will win a battle against the Assyrians and regain all this territory on Israel’s northern border. This is contradicted by God through the Prophet Amos, who challenges Jonah's prophecy and promises that Jeroboam will be overthrown by God because he is such a horrible king.

Let’s just say that Jonah is not the best prophet.

As today’s story opens, God is calling Jonah to go into the heart of Assyria, Israel’s enemies to the north. And to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to call the people there to repentance.

We read in Jonah, chapter 1.

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! 

He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. 

They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)

They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.”

Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. --Jonah 1:1-17 (CEB)

What the heck was Jonah thinking? That he could get away from God? We’ve talked before about the relentlessness of God. When God has a plan, there is no getting away, no escaping from God. 

Here, God has a plan. A plan of salvation. A plan to save the people - or at least to attempt to save - the people of Nineveh. That great capital of Assyria. Israel’s most hated enemy to the north. 

What the heck was Jonah thinking? 

My guess is that, in part, he was terrified of going into Assyria and of “calling out” the people of Nineveh. Telling these evil pagans to repent of their sins. 

The irony of this first chapter of Jonah is that, as Jonah is attempting to escape God’s call to convert the pagan people of Nineveh, Jonah ends up converting the pagan sailors. By the end of this chapter, they are worshipping God for what they have seen. Their God sighting has changed them.

And Jonah? The chapter has ended with him in the belly of a great fish. With time to think. By the end of the second chapter, Jonah has repented. Sort of. 

In the closing lines of his prayer of repentance at the end of chapter 2, Jonah prays, “When my endurance was weakening, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy. But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks.”

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” Remember these words. As we continue in chapter 3.

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. 

(Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)
Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.

God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. --Jonah 3:1-10 (CEB)

One day. One day is all it took for Nineveh to repent. Jonah wasn’t even able to finish his walk across the city - a three-day walk - before Nineveh repented. But it wasn’t just the people of Nineveh who repented. Their king, on hearing the word of Jonah’s prophecy, put on mourning clothes and sat in ashes - a dramatic sign of his own repentance. And leadership. Then, he issued a decree that, not only would the people repent, the animals would, too! The entire city and everything and everyone in it. This wayward prophet, this not-so-great man of God has, once again, almost unintentionally, converted an entire pagan city.

Our reading continues in chapter 4.

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?”

But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. 

He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” --Jonah 4:1-11 (CEB)

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” Remember those words? 

Although it’s hard to tell exactly from our text, it would seem that Jonah’s anger is less about the shriveled shrub and more about God’s mercy on the pagan people of Nineveh. 

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” That’s what Jonah prayed, wasn’t it? 

Don’t we pray this, too? That those people who follow other gods, who don’t think the way we do, who don’t vote the way we do, who “follow worthless things” lose their chance for mercy? 

We, in this country, have just gone through an election. Elections are, by their very nature, divisive. This one even more so. In this election period, as we, myself included, have demonized those who have different opinions than we, demeaned those who have supported a different candidate than ours, disparaged those whom we have identified as followers of "worthless things" (or candidates), aren’t we a little like Jonah? Self-righteous? Sanctimonious? Holier than thou?

Perhaps we need a leader to call our whole nation to repentance. 

We have a such a leader who calls us to repentance. Who sees the bigger picture and has a broader plan. Who has created all people in his own image. And who acts compassionately and with great patience that all people (and not just us) might receive redemption.

We have such a leader in God, whose knowledge is so far beyond us and whose acts of love extend way beyond our own imagination. Who has redeemed us through God’s very own Son, Jesus Christ.

May we follow our leader as the people of Nineveh followed theirs. May we repent of our thinking, like Jonah’s, that others are beyond God’s redemptive powers. And may we, as the church, freed in Christ, find a way to emulate the same acts of love and mercy in our deeply divided world.

May God grant this, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Preached Sunday, November 8, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 24
Readings: Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10, 4:1-11; Luke 18:13

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