Jonah… Running from God

January 24th, 2021

The story of Jonah, who is sometimes called the reluctant prophet, is a story told to make a point.  It is kind of like the tall tales that are told around the campfire, passed on from generation to generation.  Maybe it could even be called a long parable.  It is full of humor and satire, both tools that writers can use to get a lesson across.  It perhaps dates from the post exilic period (during the 5th or 4th century BCE) when the people of Israel had already been run over by the powerful Assyrians to the north.  It is a message about the wideness of God’s mercy and compassion stemming perhaps from the descriptive words of praise repeated in various places in the Old Testament, first found way back in Exodus.  Listen to the ancient credal statement from Exodus chapter 34: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity ad transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”  Please note that the people of Israel long assumed that this God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love exclusively toward them!  The story of Jonah puts a question front and center for the people of Israel and for us:  Just how far can God’s mercy and grace extend?

Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, described elsewhere in the Old Testament as a wicked, violent place; an enemy of Israel, often threatening to overpower them, ultimately doing so in 722 BCE, forcing the Israelites into exile.  It was a very large city.  When God told Jonah to carry a message to the people of Ninevah, calling on them to repent of their wicked ways, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. He hopped on a boat and God hurled a great wind, whipping up the waves and threatening the ship with an extremely likely wreck followed by death to its passengers and crew.  Jonah seemed unaware of the threat.  Listen:

Read:  1:5b-12

The sailors did not want to be responsible for the death of Jonah, so they did their bests to get the ship to the shore.  The sea grew more and more stormy until they finally asked the Lord to not blame them for Jonah’s death and threw him overboard. The sea calmed.  Amazed at the power of Jonah’s God, the Gentile sailors turned to the Lord, offering their praise and commitment to God.

As you likely know, Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish.  What a laugh this part of the story would have gotten as it was told around the campfire at night.  What?  A human swallowed whole by a fish?  A human who could pray from inside the belly of the fish?  Anyone can see God’s humor here.  I hope you also see God’s mercy toward Jonah in this rescue.

Jonah’s prayer seems to alternate between blaming God for his current situation and seeking God’s rescue.  Listen: 

Read:  2:2-10 

God’s response to Jonah’s prayer is equally funny.  The Lord spoke to the fish and it spewed (maybe vomited?) Jonah onto dry land.  What a sight on the beach!  Soaking wet with seaweed wrapped around his head.  Smelly contents of a fish stomach covering his body. 

God comes a second time to Jonah with the same request as before:  Go to Ninevah with the message I will tell you.  God is clearly a God of mercy, giving Jonah a second chance to obey God’s instructions.  This time Jonah listens.  He heads to Ninevah and only gets about 1/3 of the way into the very large city, crying out “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”  No mention of God, no mention of a possibility of changing their behavior or their attitude and getting a reprieve from certain destruction.  It is only a short, terse message of judgment.  You have no hope, Ninevah.  Only 40 days left.

First the people of Ninevah and then even the king of Ninevah react in a way similar to the sailors—they turn to God, seeking forgiveness with the traditional acts of contrition—putting on sackcloth and ashes and asking for grace from God. 

Now the laughter really gets loud.  Listen to what the king says: 

Read 3:6-10

The livestock are dressed in sackcloth?  The livestock are forced to fast?  What?  How could the cows and the sheep and the goats have been accused of following evil ways, of performing acts of violence?  This points out in hilarious hyperbole how deep the repentance of their evil ways went!

Jonah is not happy.  He knew what kind of God he was dealing with, and that was why he ran the other direction in the first place.  Neither he nor the people of Israel as a whole would have ever thought granting mercy to the Assyrians would be a good idea.  Listen:

Read 4:1-4

God is challenging Jonah’s mindset here.  This story of Jonah is challenging the mindset of any of us who would lump our enemies into the bucket of those who do not deserve mercy from God.  God’s mercy is too much for Jonah’s taste.  Here a third time in this short story God shows mercy to Jonah, providing a very quick growing plant big enough to shade the sulking prophet as he stews over the merciful, gracious work of a God who abounds in steadfast love even for Ninevites.  Then just as quickly as the bush appeared, it disappeared the next day, leaving Jonah baking in the hot desert sun, hopefully trying to understand what God is attempting to teach him!  I wonder if we can begin to see our own grudges against groups or individuals as we listen to this tale.  Can we remember the people we have written off as undeserving of mercy?  The humor continues with Jonah’s repetition of the same dour statement:  “It is better for me to die than to live.”  The “kill me now” joke is a foundation of much modern Jewish humor as well.  God is not finished with Jonah and has no intention of killing him.  The message is too important.  Listen to the words of God at the close of this story:

Read 4:9-11

Don’t forget the animals!  God’s concern for the city of Ninevah is broad and inclusive.  The residents have been counted.  God includes all of them who had been wandering around in the dark and their livestock.  Must be the same livestock who put on sackcloth and ashes as an act of repentance after Jonah’s message!  If God chooses to care about the whole city, Jonah has no room to complain.  It is God’s choice to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Jonah knew it the whole time.  We know it too.  Thanks be to God. 

God Calls. Are you Listening?

   1 Samuel 3:1-11, John 1:43-51

It is easy to get confused, to be unclear, even to be suspicious, when God communicates with us.  We are not too sure if it is really God speaking or is it our vivid imagination?  Is it a word from the Lord or a word from that TV preacher?   Not many of us have experienced an actual conversation with God, but God certainly speaks to us in a variety of ways, inviting us, calling us, connecting with us as God’s children called to follow Jesus.  This morning we heard about two people who clearly did not understand at first, but then were led to believe that it was God speaking to them, calling them to something new, something so different that it would make both of their ears tingle!  They are Samuel, an Israelite boy who lived about 1000 years before Jesus was born,  and Nathanael, a Palestinian Jew who was a contemporary of Jesus.

Let’s take a look at Samuel first.  He is a boy, left at the temple to help Eli the aging priest because his mother, Hannah, was so, so grateful to God for allowing her to have a child.  This is the same Samuel who ends up being the bridge between the days of the Judges, which did not work out so well for the people of Israel, and the days of the monarchy, which the people of Israel clamored for so that they could be just like the other nations around them.  Samuel can be understood as a prophet-judge.  The equipment he uses are his ears and his mouth, listening to God and speaking to the people as well as listening to the people and speaking to God.

            Samuel’s name—Sam-u-el–means “God has heard”.  What has God heard?  There is often a message in the names of those who have important roles in the history of Israel.  Perhaps God has heard about the current situation in Israel, where it has become obvious that the priestly tradition is no longer providing effective leadership as it had in the days of Aaron in throughout wilderness wanderings. It seems very clear that God has heard about the sins of the sons of Eli.  God has heard and is now breaking into the life of Israel to start something new, to move them forward in a new way.  The name of the elderly priest Eli means “my God”.  Eli did not see well physically nor could he seem to see the Godless, sinful behavior of his two sons.  If he did see it, he did nothing to stop it.  Samuel heard the voice calling him in the night, but did not understand—he mistook God’s voice for Eli’s voice.  God has heard, Sam-u-el.  Eli, “my God” directs Samuel to understand what is happening here.  God is unexpectedly speaking in the temple — interesting that no one expected God’s voice in the temple, the place of worship!  We are told that the Lord’s word was rare in that time, and visions were not widely known.  No one would  have been expecting this kind of inbreaking into the life of the people of Israel, much less to a kid!  This “vision” is words and hearing only, but it is finally understood to be God’s voice, first by the wise old priest, who then leads Samuel to understand and respond appropriately to God.

Now we jump a thousand years to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospel of John.  Nathanael is invited by Philip to come and see this man named Jesus, who Philip was sure was the one Moses had written about so long ago, the one who was anticipated in the writings of the Law and Prophets.  He is the son of Joseph from a little village of 200-400 people called Nazareth.   Nathanael is skeptical, suspicious, unable to fathom that anyone so important, so special, could come from such an unimportant place.  He makes assumptions about Jesus before he meets him, just based on his hometown. 

It reminds me of a conversation I had in the kitchen of a homeless ministry in Atlanta called The Open Door.  We were cutting vegetables for the noontime meal that would be served to anyone who wanted it.  I was only there for a short number of days (it was during my first sabbatical experience some years ago).  I had never met the man I was working with, so I was seeking to get to know him a little bit as we worked.  We exchanged names, and then I asked him where he was from.  He could have been a homeless person who was now volunteering, or a volunteer from another state, or maybe lived in Atlanta and supported The Open Door when he could.  His response took me off guard.  Clearly my question offended him.  He said, “What does it matter where I am from?  If I tell you where I am from, you will make a judgement about me and not really be open to getting to know who I am.”  He was not going to share that information.  I was silenced.  The conversation turned to the kinds of things we enjoyed doing, cooking, etc.  No more probing questions that might be perceived as judgemental. 

Nathanael definitely made a quick judgement about Jesus from Nazareth.  Surely he did not know Joseph, but that did not seem to matter.  It was the small village that he made a judgement about, assuming that a country bumpkin could never be the long awaited Messiah.  Philip insists he come and see for himself, that he not make an assumption but get to know Jesus for who he really was.  At least Nathanael is willing to do that!

When Jesus identifies Nathanael as an Israelite who is genuine, who has no deceit in him, who is honest and faithful, Nathanael becomes suspicious.  “How do you know me?” he asks.  Jesus tells him that he had seen him under the fig tree before Philip called him, and apparently he already knew all about him.  We can see how that would have been unnerving, definitely unusual and unexpected.  Nathanael’s response is faith.  He calls Jesus a Rabbi, God’s Son, and the king of Israel, for now he sees Jesus clearly for who he was– the Messiah sent by God.  Jesus promises that Nathanael will see even greater things ahead.  The fact that Jesus identified Nathanael’s inner self from afar is nothing compared to what will happen as they enter this new adventure of ministry together. 

Being called by God is often unclear.  We might not hear correctly.  We might not see clearly.  Often our own “stuff” clouds our vision and stops up our ears.  The stuff we are worried about, the energy we spend on an unhealthy relationship, the feelings of being frazzled or bored or stressed to the max.   Or sometimes it is the “stuff” happening all around us that clouds our vision and stops up our ears.  How can we listen for God’s word in the noise of a crowd full of angry people purposely storms the US capitol?  When Washington DC is barricaded and shut down like a war zone?  When state capitals around the country are on high alert due to threats on social media.  Where is God anyway?  How can this be happening?  It is easy to feel abandoned by God.  It seems that the word of the Lord is getting rare and visions are not widely known.  What has happened to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?  This week a church member shared with me a video prepared by the Poor People’s Campaign which offers the view of a split screen so you can compare the treatment of non-violent protestors in various places who are seeking justice for all people and the treatment by police officers of a riotous crowd breaking into the capitol. It is effective and stark, it is depressing and overwhelming to see the ongoing disparities between the way people of different color skin are treated in this country.  What happened to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Where is the word of the Lord for us today?

Just as Samuel and Nathanael were called by God into service as a new thing was beginning, I believe each of us is called by God into service.  Could it be that a new thing is beginning as more of our country wakes up to what is happening?  To understand the intense anger and hurt?  To understand the centuries old repression and violence toward people of African descent?  Perhaps we begin to hear the word of the Lord as we listen to one another.  Perhaps we begin to see something new on the horizon as we listen to one another.  Just perhaps, God is calling US into a new way of being, relating, serving and loving.  Yes, indeed.  My ears are tingling.  How about yours?  Amen.