The Not-So-Excellent Adventure

(sermon 1/21/18)

cow in sackcloth

Jonah 3:1-10

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.

Jonah Sedaris (sermon 1/25/15)

The boy eats a zephyr

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 God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

         – Jonah 3:1-5, 10


The author David Sedaris once wrote a short essay about his family moving from small-town upstate New York to small-town North Carolina when he was a young boy. In the essay, he talks about a neighbor family who was just a little bit different from his family and the surrounding neighbors, because they didn’t have a television – not because they couldn’t afford one, but just because they didn’t “believe in it,” as the father would say. Sedaris says that he felt sorry for the family’s two children because of all the cultural literacy that they were being deprived of without the benefit of TV. And while he didn’t really do anything concrete to be their friend, he said he got some sense of fulfillment, or a sense of goodness or pleasure just out of thinking nicely about them in a kind of superior way, as though they were benefiting from some unspoken favor he was doing for them.

Apparently, their strangeness went beyond just the TV issue though. One year, Halloween fell on a Saturday and the family was out of town that weekend, but rather than miss trick-or-treating, the kids just dressed in their costumes and went door to door on the following Monday evening. Sedaris said that was just odd, and too much of a stretch for him to accept. Making things all the worse, of course, the family didn’t actually have any Halloween candy to give to them, so his mother made him go to his room and get some of his own Halloween candy just to solve the embarrassing situation. He wrote that he’d gotten a lot of chocolate bars, which he didn’t even really like – in fact, they made him sick – but he still knew that people considered chocolate bars to be the cream of the crop when it came to Halloween candy. So rather than allow them to be given to the neighbor kids, and in a sense, rewarding their weirdness, he started cramming all the chocolate bars into his mouth and eating them, just to spite the neighbors, to keep them from benefiting. He wrote that in that moment, he’d decided that from then on instead of getting pleasure from feeling kindly toward them, he’d get pleasure out of hating them.

At that young age, he’d veered into a great truth. We can get great personal pleasure out of hating someone else. The reality is that hatred is kind of like a narcotic, making us feel good in the moment but ultimately harming us – but that’s easy to disregard when it feels so good to wallow in the hatred at the moment.

The prophet Jonah understood this same truth. That’s why he reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh and to speak God’s word to the Assyrians living there. The Assyrians were the people who all the Israelites loved to hate. The Assyrians had overrun and wiped out two-thirds of their country; they were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, and Nineveh was their capital city. Everybody hated the Assyrians; you were supposed to hate the Assyrians; it was pretty much your patriotic duty to hate them.

So on the surface, Jonah should have been happy to give them God’s message of “Forty Days, and your city will be no more!” But we learn in the story that Jonah doesn’t want any part of it, which is why he tries to run away from God, to ignore God’s call to him. But like so many people who’d come before him, and so many who came afterward, Jonah learned that there really wasn’t any future in trying to run away from something God is calling you to.

In today’s passage, we heard that when Jonah relays this message to the despised Assyrians, unbelievably, miraculously, they actually repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And as a result, the story says, God changed his mind and didn’t destroy them.

And that was Jonah’s whole problem. In the verses immediately following what we read today, Jonah shakes his bony finger at God and says, “I knew you were going to do this! That’s why I didn’t want to do this in the first place! I knew that you were a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and that you wouldn’t really wipe them out. You’re a flip-flopper! You’re all love and mercy and not enough justice! You’ll let them off without getting what they deserve, and I’ll end up looking like a fool!” And while he’s mad at God, he tells God to just kill him now, so he wouldn’t have to see these people he hates be shown God’s love and acceptance. Jonah wants to wallow in the mud of his comfortable and familiar hatred, cramming his face with chocolate bars that will make him sick just to keep the goodies from his enemies.

The Book of Jonah was originally written shortly after the Jews had returned home from their time of slavery and captivity in Babylon. As they were trying to rebuild their kingdom and their culture, there was a major push for religious, racial, and ethnic purity in their land. If you ever read the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you’ll read about the kinds of things that were going on then. It even went so far that if a man had married a non-Jewish woman, he would be forced to divorce her and have her deported to her own country.

The story of Jonah was written at this same time, as a rejection of that extremist kind of hatred and exclusion. It was meant to be a strong witness to the message that God loves even those we consider our worst enemies.

Is there a message in there for us? Of course there is, when, whether it’s in the realm of global politics or our own personal lives, so often we’re being taught to fear and hate the “other” – and the funny thing is, we never seem to run out of “others.” Have you ever noticed that? As soon as one “other” disappears, we find another other to hate. And oddly, just like with Jonah and young David Sedaris, we know that what we’re doing is really hurting ourselves – we *know* it! But we still don’t want to accept it, because hating those others makes us feel so good.

So much of the way we think and talk about the gospel deals with our salvation in the sense of getting into heaven; a kind of golden ticket to the ultimate chocolate factory of all eternity. But I think a more immediate part of the gospel is salvation in the sense of the healing of our own souls in the here and now, and in a way that’s every bit as real as if we’d been healed from blindness or some dreadful disease. It’s a healing of the heart, made possible for us when we really grasp Christ’s message of the healing power of love, forgiveness, and acceptance – even for those who have hurt us deeply. There’s an incredible lightening of our souls, the removal of an incredible burden sitting on our shoulders when we just let all those hatreds and hurts go. When we stop eating the chocolate bars, and we allow ourselves to accept that degree of love that God has for all of us that’s all but impossible for us to even comprehend.

Yes, we learn from Jonah that it’s really impossible to run away or hide from God, or to try to ignore a call from God when you hear it, even if you don’t like where you know it’s going to lead. But I think this other message, about learning just how loving and merciful God really is, and how willing to forgive even the worst of people, is even more important. So this week, let’s ask ourselves what judgmentalism, what bias, what hatred we’re holding onto that we could ask God to help us let go of. Let’s ask God to help us learn the lesson of getting pleasure from loving people, rather than from hating them.

Thanks be to God.