The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that they were to have brought upon them; and God did not do it.
The Book of Jonah is short, but powerful. It’s only some forty-odd verses long, but in its few short words, it manages to give us some of the most memorable imagery in the entire Bible. Each one of its four short chapters tells what could be a fascinating little story on its own, while still weaving together to form the whole.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book, but part of what we do know is that it was intended to be a response against an extreme, exclusionary, nativist mindset that had taken hold in society, and that had caused great turmoil by causing the forced breakup of families, where Jews had married foreign non-Jews, and requiring that all people from different places and who had different religions had to leave. The Book of Jonah is meant as a protest against all that, by telling a story to emphasize that God is the God of all people, and the God loves and cares for all people – even, the story makes clear, the despised Assyrians living in the enemy’s capital city of Nineveh.
The book makes its point by telling a story of this poor shlub, Jonah, who really just wanted to be left alone, who didn’t want any part of what God was telling him to do, and as we know, who was willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to run away from it. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he’s afraid that as soon as he’d enter the city and start proclaiming their impending doom, the Ninevites would attack him, or throw him in prison, or worse. And near the end of Jonah’s story, in the last chapter, we also learn that he didn’t want to do it because he suspected that after Jonah put his own life and reputation on the line, foretelling the Ninevites’ doom, before that would happen, God would go all wobbly on him, and have mercy and compassion on them, and not wipe them out, leaving his enemies off the hook and leaving Jonah to look like a fool on top of it. Jonah wants God to take a harder line against his enemies than he trusts God will actually take.
Of course, for his part in this protest story, Jonah represents the political and religious leaders of the time, who, the author is saying, want to take a harder line about who are supposedly the people of God, and who aren’t, than God would take.
So we do have this social/political commentary going on in Jonah, along with all of the great imagery, and even some comic aspects. Just imagine: smelly, seaweed- and gastric-juice-covered Jonah getting barfed up onto the beach, much to the surprise of the fisherman and the sunbathers. The Ninevites being so convicted of their sin, and being so repentant, that they don’t just cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes in the traditional sign of repentance, but they have all of their livestock do the same – which wasn’t some quaint religious tradition of the time; it would have seemed as bizarre and comical to see back then as it would be today. Taken together, it all makes Jonah one of the truly amazing books of the Bible.
But what does it mean for us today? What about it speaks to us, in our own lives? Well, it does pretty clearly offer a word of protest against the similar kind of extreme anti-foreigner, nationalist mindset seen in so much of our current government policies and in the words of so many people. It’s important to know that, and to take that message to heart, but honestly, that’s another day’s sermon. Today, I want to think more about how Jonah’s story resonates with our own personal lives – how we personally hear and respond to God’s call.
Last Sunday, and again today, we heard gospel accounts of disciples who essentially dropped whatever they were doing and immediately followed Jesus, seemingly without question or hesitation. Jonah is the opposite of that. He hears God’s call, and is worried and afraid and not at all happy about where he sees it all going, and he tries to run away from it all. Even when he finally gives in, and he sets off on his not-so-excellent adventure, he enters Nineveh, but he still only does it in half-measures. The author of the story tells us Nineveh was a three-day walk from one end to the other – but Jonah packs it in and leaves town after going just one day’s distance into it.
I know that I’m supposed to be more like Jesus’ trusting and unquestioning disciples. But the truth is, I see much more of myself in Jonah, and the way he responds to God’s call. In all of his crankiness and doubt and self-interest and his wanting God to hate all the same people he hated, I have to say that Jonah seems much more human, much more real, to me, personally, than those disciples who seem to have just dropped their nets and walked away with Jesus without even asking if the job came with health insurance and a dental plan.
Jonah’s relationship with God is messy, and that resonates with me because I know that my own relationship with God can sometimes be messy. I’ve been known to be a pretty reluctant follower of where God seemed to be calling me. Just as was the case with Jonah, part of that reluctance was that I wasn’t sure I liked what the likely outcome would be for myself. Also like Jonah, I’ve tried to run away from God’s call, and also like him, I’ve found myself in the belly of the whale, as it were, before I learned that there really wasn’t much future in trying to run away from God. Thankfully, I also eventually learned that by following where God was leading, even with doubt and reluctance, God always had something better in store that I could have ever imagined.
Maybe some of you have felt the same kind of feelings as Jonah, too. Have you? Have you ever sensed that God was drawing you to do something that you were less than enthusiastic about? Maybe you’re even experiencing something like that now. Do you sense God drawing you to make some change in your life? To take a turn in some new and unexpected direction, maybe one that promised to take you well out of your comfort zone? Maybe it was, or is, a school choice or a job choice. Maybe it’s some family or business decision that promises to take you into new, uncharted waters. Maybe it’s starting, or breaking off, a relationship. Maybe it involves a change in where you call home. Maybe it’s being called to some new understanding, something that’s different from what you’d always been taught before, something that opens up some new understanding about God that isn’t necessarily in line with what you’ve thought and believed up till now, as was the case with Jonah. The possibilities are endless where and how God may be calling you.
But if you do find yourself being called by God to something new, called to follow God in some different direction you didn’t really expect and frankly may not be excited about, remember Jonah’s story. Even though he went into Nineveh giving it only partial effort, God made something amazing happen. Even with Jonah’s doubt-filled and half-hearted willingness to follow, God still blessed those actions, and through Jonah, God’s will was achieved. And through all of it, if you know how the Book of Jonah ends, you also know that God kept looking out for Jonah – grumbling, self-centered Jonah, the same Jonah with all the doubts and fears and presuppositions and stubborn, bull-headed stances that only end up hurting himself. Until the very end of the story, God continued to work on Jonah’s heart so he could see and understand God in a richer, fuller, truer way – and in the process, so Jonah could see and understand more about himself in a richer, fuller, truer way.
Jonah is you. Jonah is me. And because we worship, and sometimes follow, a God who loves the Jonahs, we can all say
Thanks be to God.