Before our moment of confession, we’re going to take a moment to get you caught up on the story we’re talking about today. The story of Jonah is the tale of a prophet, not what the prophet had to say, not really the message he was given by God. This really is mostly a story about the prophet.
When the story was told or written, it was already historical fiction—the time of the story was 2—300 years before it was written down. There’s a lot of context for that, we can talk about it later. That means 2 things: 1: the scholars, Christian and Jewish, consider the story of Jonah a satire. There was a prophet named Jonah and no story written about him, so they made one up. And it’s supposed to be funny, and hyperbole, and exaggerated and absurd.
2: it was written when Israel was destroyed about a time before the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom. So yes, the Assyrians were their enemies, conquerors of their people, destroyers of the northern tribes who from this point in the story through to today are called Lost. Nineveh represented the whole of Assyria so it was no surprise Jonah heard God’s call and “peaced out” in the opposite direction. The surprising part would be that God even asked Jonah.
Jonah ran west, and must have thought that he had escaped God. He relaxed. He relaxed so much that he fell asleep below deck.
Let’s take some creative freedom in this story that has taken some creative freedom. Let’s imagine that when this whole thing started, one of the angels hands God a box and says, “ok God, improv. Explain your point to Jonah using only what’s inside this box.” And God’s like, “I got this,” and pulls out a storm.
Jonah falls asleep in the middle of a storm. The storm was so bad that the sailors were throwing cargo overboard. They were begging every God they had ever prayed or heard of to save them. And Jonah’s asleep. Have you been on a ship when the water is choppy? Even a massive cruise ship can be difficult to be calm in if the water is not calm. the captain can’t believe what he’s seeing because Jonah is asleep!
And Jonah is pretty quiet as the sailors try to solve this problem, and as they draw lots, until it’s clear it’s Jonah’s fault and he takes the most dramatic stance, throw me overboard! Let me die! Because he didn’t escape God and dying would be better than going to Nineveh.
The sailors did what they could to save this most useless member of the ship until they couldn’t, and Jonah sunk into the sea, and was saved by item 2 from God’s box: a fish, a big fish, that he lived inside for three days, while he should be offering confessions to God, he offers thanksgiving for the fish. Until he’s brought safely to the shore.
So, with Jonah, this is where we will offer our confessions, for what we have done and left undone. Will you join me in prayer…
The dramatics continue. Jonah gets to Nineveh, reluctantly. The dreaded city is so big it takes days to get from one end to another. You cannot drive through it, from above it has no end. A three day walk would be about 60 miles across and to put that in perspective, the great city of Rome at the peak of the empire was 16 miles across. But Nineveh was scary so it was MASSIVE.
Jonah walks 1/3 of the way in before he opens his mouth and what happens next forever marks Jonah as either the BEST or the worst prophet ever. Jonah says what we have translated to 8 words, “40 days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” There is no call to repentance, there’s no information on who will do the overthrowing, there’s no “Thus says the Lord God of Israel” to put things into context. Just—this is gonna happen—which might as well end with Jonah saying “I hate you, good riddance.” Which, of course, is what makes him the worst prophet. Also, he leaves the city, climbs a hill to watch, which is some next level petty.
What makes him the best is that they listen. He might be the most successful prophet or preacher of all time. EVERYONE listened and repented. Even the king repents—which is absurd because we know that guy is evil, destroyer of Israel. Even the babies repented. Even the cows and the chickens participating in the custom of wearing uncomfortable fabrics and covering themselves with ashes in repentance. Imagine the cows and the chicken in their burlaps, fasting, mooing and clucking in repentance.
I assume it was the chickens, but God relented, spared the city of Nineveh from destruction.
And Jonah is not having it. He’s furious. He had heard, he knew, that God was merciful, and the only reason God would call him here is to make sure God could be merciful, and these people didn’t deserve mercy. And he sits on the hill overlooking what he saw as a great failure, but a great prophetic success, and pouted.
Out comes items 3 and 4.
The plant grows, creates shade, and is eaten by a worm, all in 24 hours. That’s some fast growing plant. Jonah’s infuriated, why would God destroy his shade? Why couldn’t it just live? And he probably went on and on in far more than 8 words about this plant. That it would be better if he were dead than have lost his plant.
And God wonders to him, I created those people you see below. I watched them grow, saw their good and terrible, they didn’t have me or you to teach them, why wouldn’t I care about them more than you care about that plant?
The story of Jonah is told at the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur. I assume for a lot of reasons, one of which is that if God can forgive the Ninevites, the destroyers of Israel, they scattered the tribes that would never be re-assembled, that lay ruin, if God can forgive them, God can forgive us.
One of the things that’s concerning about the story, and about us, is how quickly we start to point out us and them. For the most part, there aren’t evil destructive forces in our lives that are laying ruin to nations. Although, these days, sometimes we think that there are. We decide that the left or right, the Trump supporters or Biden supporters, ANTIFA, Qanon, Black Lives Matter, Anti-maskers, Socialist, are ruining our country. And I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking they are. They are, it’s them, over there. With the fangs and red eyes and irrational ideas. How easy it is to sit on a hill and wait for their destruction.
And we’re just outside of an election where somebody won and somebody lost. And it’s been emotional and intense and a rollercoaster. But for this moment, let’s not worry about who won or who lost. God loved the Ninevites, the people that Jonah hated them most. God offered them mercy.
God loved the Ninevites,
God loved even those who destroyed God’s people
God loved the Ninevites,
God loved those that seemed the least loveable.
God loves even those who we find the least loveable, who seem to do evil, who we don’t understand, who we don’t know that we want to understand.
God loves the Trump voter and the Biden voter, those that voted for: Jorgensen, Hawkins, La Riva, De La Fuente, Blankenship, Pierce, West Carroll, Kennedy, Hammons, Collins, Hunter, Simmons, Mc Hugh, Segal, Huber, and Kopitke because there were 17 other people running for president!
God loves and offers mercy. And then calls us to love and offer mercy, not sit on a hill while we wish destruction. We might if what happened this week is something to celebrate or mourn, but we cannot be Jonah, we cannot crave destruction, we cannot point to each other as evil, we cannot diminish that each of us has been created by God, is loved by God, even when we disagree.
Sometimes, it is hard to love this world, it is hard to love our neighbor, it is hard. Sometimes it is enough to pray for those we disagree with to have a “normal day, without destruction” until we can come around to love and mercy. Sometimes we told those we disagree with as enemies, sometimes we revel in their failings. Sometimes we curse their success.
But that is what we practice here, in community, love and mercy, kindness and compassion, peace and justice. We practice here so we can try to share those in a broken world in need of love and mercy, in a world that is so good at picking out enemies, pointing fingers and praying for destruction.
Beloved community, this week has been a year, and this year has been like forever, or a minute. It has become easier to point fingers, to turn our backs, to dismiss, to ignore, it is easy to see each other as Nineveh instead of the creation of God.
What we practice here and how we live in the world are as people of a God who is slow to anger and generous in mercy, who calls each of creation to account and loves all creation anyway, and who asks us to do the same.
So that is how we move forward from this time, from this moment, from this year, from this place. With accountability, with compassion and mercy, justice and love. And we celebrate when those are present. We celebrate repentance, we celebrate compassion and mercy, justice and love. And God is present in the world and with us when we live in and proclaim compassion and mercy, justice and love. So may that be our calling, our mission, our proclamation, and our hope.