Jonah–Whenever I hear Jonah’s name, my mind immediately thinks of one thingThe whale. And as a child, that was a pretty magnificent part of Jonah’s story to learn. It’s not every day that a person is chucked into the sea, swallowed by a whale, somehow lives for three days, and then is spit out on a beach seemingly unharmed, but probably smelling like an old can of tuna. But even that summary misses some of the important parts that led to where we met Jonah today in our first reading.
Jonah, like the other prophets we have recently encountered–Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah–was given a word from God to share with the people living in Nineveh. Jonah was told that Nineveh was a wicked city, and was to act as a mirror and reflect back to them the error in their ways–a wickedness that in the book of Nahum results in Nineveh being described as “a bloody city” and “full of lies.”
We can remember that prophets in the Hebrew Bible were tasked, not of telling what the future would be, but of what the future could be.
But TWO verses into the book of Jonah, right after God telling him about his prophetic call, Jonah shows himself to be different from the other prophets we have learned from–different from Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah– because two verses in, he turns tail and runs away. And this isn’t just making a left or right turn away from God’s call, but this is a complete, 180 from where he should go. I am reminded of a scene from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail where after encountering a killer rabbit, King Arthur and his men yell “Run Away, run away” and make a b-line out of there. I imagine Jonah had a similar reaction.
And so, he got on a boat and began heading towards modern day Spain, which would have been almost the end of the world at that time. On the journey there was a storm though, and Jonah volunteered to be thrown into the sea to still the storm, and once in the sea he was swallowed up by a whale. Inside that whale he said a prayer and was spit up on a beach three days later.
After that ordeal, God came to Jonah again and told him to prophecy to those in Nineveh, and this time Jonah listened.
He went to Nineveh and said to the people, “Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And immediately, the people of this “bloody city, a city full of lies,” they believed Jonah! And the king ordered that the human beings and the animals be covered with sackcloth as a sign of repentance–and we can know this repentance was real because I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to dress up the chickens, and sheep and goats and horses in sackcloth if you didn’t really feel sorry for what you had done.
Through turning from their evil ways, the king desired that God would turn from God’s fierce anger so they would not perish. And this is where we entered the story in our first reading, with God changing God’s own mind and not bringing destruction upon Nineveh!
What an amazing turn of events. God desired repentance, and when the people of evil Nineveh repented from their evil ways, God was merciful to them! That is a story which should elicit joy from any who hear it.
But Jonah, wasn’t filled with joy. In fact, he was angry that God has been merciful to those in Nineveh. He even went out of the city, and pouted. He sat down and watched from outside the city to see just when the Ninevites would return to their evil ways.
God then causes a bush to grow to provide shade for Jonah, and then in a plot twist, makes the same bush wither and die.
Just as Jonah was angry that God would spare Nineveh, he was also angry that his shade had been taken away. And the reading concludes with a question from God. A question that serves as a rather abrupt ending to this short, four chapter long, book of the bible. It ends with God asking, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor 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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
That is the conclusion of the story of Jonah in our bible. He was a prophet–reluctantly–who when his prophecy resulted in saving more than 120,000 human and animal lives, was angry about that success.
When thinking of the story of Jonah’s prophetic ministry, it can be natural to place ourselves in the story–And I don’t mean simply asking if we could survive three days in the belly of a whale. Just as with Jesus’ parables, we can think of ourselves as represented by one character or people, and place others in opposition to us. For example, it seems natural to perceive the story of Jonah, and place ourself in the sandals of the prophet. To imagine that god calls us to name the evils in the world, and that even though we might be reluctant to fill that call, even though we might run away from it for a time, God will remain with us and will empower us to speak truth.
But what if, rather than imagining ourselves as the prophet, imagine ourselves as Nineveh? How does it change our understanding of the story if we are not those proclaiming truth, but rather are those who need to receive it?
What might the good news in Jonah’s story be for us as the Ninevites? Pastor and professor Barbara Rossing suggests that there are three distinct pieces of good news for us:
First, if we are in the place of Nineveh, we can rejoice that God loves Nineveh! Nineveh, the wicked city, the place Jonah was so reluctant to initially go that he got swallowed by a whale, that is a place that God loves.
God desires that this place be open to change and so God sent a messenger to Nineveh to show them the error in their ways, and help them to recognize God’s goodness.
Even though humanity on its own has brought about ways to better the world, everything that we have been done is tainted by sin and as such does not lead to the prospering of all creation. Thinking about the creation that God called good, humanity continues to contribute its destruction especially as we have been witnessing in the increasingly devastating natural disasters that have been amplified by global warming.
In spite of this working against God, God still loves us and has a word of truth for us, just as God had a word of truth for Nineveh.
Second, because of the messenger Jonah who God sent to Nineveh, all of the people were able to repent. They were able to turn from their ways that were wicked and were open to the message of God.
In a world that is increasingly divided, in which people are less and less willing to recognize and accept their own misunderstandings, the idea that there can still be change is a source of incredible hope. And the fact that in Nineveh the change was initiated by the common people–who then inspired their king–is encouragement for all people to boldly follow the call of the prophets among us and set an example that our leaders can then follow.
A beautiful example of this happened exactly one year ago today, as millions of people across the world joined together, mostly led by students and children, to demand action be taken by the leaders of the world during the Global Climate Action.
Finally, even though Jonah was frustrated, the disaster was averted, and Nineveh was not destroyed. God demonstrated how the psalmist was correct in saying that “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
As human beings who, like the Ninevites are prone to following our own path and not being open to the calls of the prophets, thanks be to God that our Lord is abounding in steadfast love far beyond what we are capable of, and definitely beyond what Jonah was capable of himself. In a world that is headed quickly toward climate disaster for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, we can have hope that we can still make a difference for our world, and not fear that it is already too late.
Dear people, as followers of Christ we know that God doesn’t follow our human understanding of rewarding people with what they “deserve” or have “earned.” Rather, God’s generosity is a grace that abounds and overflows for any who would desire it. Like the for the Ninevites, God’s good news for us is that:
- God Loves us. No matter what.
- That there is hope that we can change and repent of the ways we work counter to God’s will for the world.
- And finally, that through God’s love and our ability to repent and turn around, that disaster can be averted.
For Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised! There is no end to God’s greatness. Amen.