Sunday, January 28, 2018
Jonah: Prophecy 101 (Sermon)
“Jonah: Prophecy 101”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
When convinced of the idea of God, one usually credits God with a certain degree of competence, like knowing whom to call to particular work. And while scripture illustrates God’s competence repeatedly, the story of Jonah seems to muddy the water.
Today’s reading is Chapter 4, the ending of Jonah’s story. Because the whole story is important, let’s review Chapters 1 through 3 first.
The story opens with “the word of the Lord” coming to Jonah and calling him to Nineveh. God chooses Jonah to enter “that great city” and let them know that they’re missing the mark. Jonah’s first response is to head for Joppa where he boards a boat for Tarshish. Tarshish is for Jonah what Emmaus is for the disciples after Jesus’ death. It’s Jonah’s destination of escape and evasion.
Running away from God, Jonah runs headlong into a terrible storm, which he interprets as judgment against his him. As the boat is about to sink, Jonah tells the crew, Um, fellas. I think this mess is my fault. Throw me overboard, and you might survive. (One notices that Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard, not to jump.)
In a subtle but profoundly revealing moment, the crew shows tremendous restraint and compassion. They’re terrified, but they keep rowing. They try to get to shore where everyone will be safe. Only when the storm proves stronger than their efforts do they throw Jonah overboard. Remember that. We’re coming back to it.
Next comes the archetypal metaphor: The Big Fish. Jonah’s three-day sojourn inside the beast becomes a tomb from which he will be resurrected, like Jesus’ from his tomb. It becomes a prayer-closet, like Paul’s blindness, or his prison cell. Inside the fish, under the water, Jonah reflects on God’s call to him. Chapter 2 is Jonah’s fish-belly prayer. While of the prayer is lament, it ends this way: “But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you, what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9) With that, the fish regurgitates Jonah onto dry land.
If you want an evocative image of repentance, look no further than Jonah standing in a big puddle of whale vomit – and liking it!
Chapter 3 begins almost identically to Chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” This time Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims God’s message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Hearing in Jonah’s words God’s call to repentance, the Ninevites declare a fast. Nothing shall eat, neither human nor animal. There isn’t even a time limit, only this prayerful hope: “Who knows? God may relent.”
God does not destroy Nineveh. This is where Chapter 4 begins.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.
He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
10Then the Lord said, “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.
“11And 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?”
Jonah’s prophecy is to be an eye-opener, a call to repentance. What the Ninevites do with that summons is their business – more specifically, it’s not Jonah’s business. But when God spares Nineveh, Jonah is displeased. Bless his heart.
What do you know? God really is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And that is Jonah’s grievance. God asks him to pronounce judgment, and God doesn’t follow through with wrath. It seems that Jonah understands taking personal responsibility, but he cannot comprehend divine grace.
Let’s return to the storm threatening Jonah’s boat. The prophet tells the crew that if they’ll make him walk the plank, things will settle down. But at first, they refuse to serve as Jonah’s executioners, even if his unfaithfulness is the cause of their peril. Only when there seems no other alternative, and only after praying that their actions are not selfish and murderous, and seeing Jonah’s willingness to be sacrificed, does the crew heave Jonah into the sea.
Interestingly, Jonah doesn’t get the comeuppance he expects. He gets another chance. In the midst of Jonah’s deliberate attempt to escape, God gives the prophet an opportunity to experience grace.
Why, then, does Jonah expect and even want to sit back and watch Nineveh go down in flames? Why does he associate righteousness and justice with deadly wrath? It seems that Jonah, like many people of faith throughout history, confuses the retributive justice of humankind and the restorative justice of God. And that means he fails to understand the heart of God.
The closing line of the story is a beautiful, God-heart-revealing question. “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh,” says God, “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?”
Shirley Guthrie was one of the most beloved professors ever to sit on the faculty of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA. Of all Dr. Guthrie’s memorable teachings, one that lingers in my heart is when he said that “God’s love is always just. And God’s justice is always loving.”
Jonah needed to have heard that. Jonah needed to know that the purpose of his ministry was not to condemn Nineveh, but that Nineveh might experience salvation through the grace of a prophetic call to return to justice and righteousness.
Does that sound familiar? “Indeed,” writes John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Salvation means living lives of justice and righteousness, lives of gratitude and generosity, lives of compassion for and service to all Creation. And that means allowing our lives to be forever haunted by God’s question: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,” all those people, and all those animals?
The answer to that open-ended question is an emphatic Yes. God is always concerned for all cities, all countries, all peoples, all animals, and all things. And faithfulness to God means acting and speaking as signs of God’s redeeming love.
Jonah’s story is a kind of training manual for prophets. It illustrates how being entrusted with prophetic authority presents us with some temptations – specifically, the temptation to think that the authority is ours. True prophets of God declare the authority of God’s unconditional love. Prophets help communities to see that the fear that blinds them, the greed that drives them, the pride that weakens them, the anger that consumes them – all such things hinder the work of grace. That says to me that destruction is never the will of a God of restorative justice. We are the wrathful and destructive ones, not God.
The book of Jonah is Prophecy 101. Prophecy is not about condemning sinners. It’s not about predicting future events. And prophecy is perverted when used to manipulate people through fear.
Our prophetic work, as individuals and as the Church, is to bear witness to a new way of life, a kingdom of heaven life, a life of loving justice and just love. We proclaim that life by doing our best to live it. Here and now. In the name of Jesus. On behalf of all humankind, of all creatures, and of the very earth itself. We commit to this new life because God so loves the world.
All of it.