Called to Follow – Jan. 24, 2021

Called to Follow

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Jonah 3:1-5,10 (whole book really)

January 24, 2021

Main Idea:  God calls us

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

The past few weeks have been intense as we have been forced to confront the serious divisions in our society.  We have grappled with how to live out a life of faith.  We are exhausted by the pandemic and by the political chaos of the past year. So today, we have a bit of a respite with the delightful story of Jonah.

The book of Jonah is an amazing and humorous tale which confronts us with important and poignant truths.  To really understand it, one needs to experience the story as a whole rather than just a small snippet.  So this morning we are going to explore this story and see that it’s truths, written so long ago, are vital for us to understand and live out, especially now.  The book of Jonah requires us to confront our assumptions about who God loves, and who God calls, and what God requires of each one of us.  

Before we get to the story here is a bit of background.  The great city of Nineveh to which Jonah is called to preach was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  The Assyrians had brutally conquered and occupied Israel and Judah.  They were the ultimate enemy of the Hebrew people.   So, whoever you see as your ultimate enemy, they are them.  The ancient city of Nineveh is today the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was claimed by ISIS as the capital of their Islamic State from 2014-17.  Like Jonah, we would probably do anything to avoid having to go to Mosul and preach against its leaders.

Another thing we should know is that the Book of Jonah was probably written after the Exile and the return from Babylon.  This was a difficult time as those who returned to Jerusalem came in conflict with those who had remained, as they all tried to rebuild the Temple and Judean society.  These were the days of Ezra and Nehemiah who insisted on strict nationalism (Judah first!) as a way to rebuild their society.  Intermarriage was outlawed and all non-Jews were deemed second class and outside of God’s concern.  This was when the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans began.  This “narrow nationalism” and demonizing of those outside the “true people of God” forms the background of Jonah’s story.

And, we should know that the Jewish people read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day when they confess their sins against God and others.  This simple, humorous story functions as a parable, revealing truths to comfort and to challenge.

So, with these lenses, let’s hear what the story of Jonah has to say to us today. 

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out in the opposite direction to flee from the presence of the LORD. He went down to the coast and found a ship bound for Tarshish; he paid his fare and went on board, to get as far away as he could from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:1-3)

But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. The sailors were desperately afraid, and each cried to his own god. They threw all of the cargo into the sea, in hopes that the ship would stay afloat. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down.  Remarkably, he was fast asleep. The captain came and woke him up, saying, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, and call upon your god! Perhaps your god will spare us a thought so that we all do not perish.’ (1:4-6)

The sailors on deck decided to cast lots, to roll dice, in order to determine on whose account this calamity had come upon them. They rolled the dice, and the dice picked Jonah. The sailors said to him, ‘Tell us why this is happening. Where do you come from? And who are your people?’ Jonah replied ‘I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the sailors were even more afraid, because he told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD. (1:7-10)

The sailors said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, so that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. Jonah said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then it will quiet down; I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ The sailors did not want to throw him overboard so they rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not reach the shore, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Finally, they cried out to Jonah’s god, the LORD, ‘Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us die because of this man’s life. We do not want to be guilty of his death, but if this is what is needed, here he is.’  And they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and immediately the sea was calm. Then the sailors feared the LORD even more, and they worshipped and made vows to the LORD.(1:11-16)

As Jonah sank beneath the waves, the LORD sent a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, asking for deliverance from the deep and promising to do as the LORD had asked.  When Jonah had finished his prayer, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon dry land. (1:17-2:10)

As Jonah sat on the beach, covered in fish vomit, The LORD spoke to him a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ “Fine” Jonah said.  Wet, smelly, but alive, he set out and went to Nineveh, as the LORD had directed him. Now Nineveh was an enormous city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah cautiously entered the city, and walked for one day.  He was frightened to be in the city of his enemies and despite his promise, he was still reluctant to say anything. At the end of that day he stood on a street corner and quickly cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ The shortest sermon ever recorded in Scripture!  He was certain that he would be arrested or attacked by the people around him, the best he could hope for was to be ignored, but instead, the people of Nineveh believed him.  They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth, the clothing of repentance and mourning.(3:1-5) It was the most complete and astonishing response to any sermon ever!  The whole city listened and repented.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, the king of Assyria, the enemy of Judah, he got up from his throne.  He removed his luxurious robe to cover himself with sackcloth, and he sat down in ashes as a sign of his own personal repentance.  He had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no cows, or goats or chickens, shall eat anything; no food and no water. All people and all animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall all cry mightily to God. Everyone shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows?” the king said, ‘God may relent and change God’s mind about us.  God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ (3:6-9).  Whereas Jonah had run away from God, this pagan king took responsibility for his actions and was hopeful that God would be merciful to him and to his people.

When God saw what the Ninevites had done, how they had turned from their evil ways and how completely they had repented and changed, God changed God’s mind.  God repented about the calamity that was to be brought upon them; and God did not bring destruction to the city. (3:10)

Now, you would think that Jonah would be happy that his five word sermon had had its intended affect.  He was the most successful prophet in all of Scripture! But no, Jonah was not happy.  He was livid.  The Hebrew reads roughly, ‘it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” (Beth Tanner, Jonah prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! This is what I said while I was still in my own country! This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place; 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. (4:1-2) I knew you would forgive them despite all they have done so why did I have to bother coming here?” Jonah took the gracious description of God on which the people of Israel depended and used it as an accusation.  “How dare you God, care for them as you care for us?!  It is not right and it is not fair!” 

“And now, O Lord,” said Jonah, “please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  The LORD gently said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ But Jonah made no answer. He went out of the city and made a booth for himself on a hill. He sat there, sulking, as he waited to see what would become of the city, hoping that God would change God’s mind about changing God’s mind and zap Nineveh as they deserved. (4:3-5)

While Jonah sat in a huff, the LORD caused a bush to grow up over him; to give shade over his head and to keep him comfortable; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God caused a worm to attack the bush, so that it withered away. When the sun rose, God caused a hot east wind to blow on Jonah, and the sun beat down on his head so that he was faint and he asked again that he might die. He said, ‘I am so miserable that it would be better for me to die than to keep on living.’ (4:6-8)

And God said to Jonah, ‘Really?  You are angry about the bush?’ And Jonah said, ‘Yes, I am angry enough to die.’ And then the Lord said, “Well then, you are ridiculous.” ‘You are upset about the bush, for which you did nothing; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand children and also many animals?’ (4:9-11)

And with this question from God, the book of Jonah ends.  We are left to decide how Jonah will respond; how we will respond.  So, what do you think?    What does this story say to you, today, on January 24, 2021?

This story lets us know that God calls us and calls us until we answer the call.   Jonah thinks that he can ignore God and escape God’s plan but wherever he goes, God is there with him. In fact, the farther away Jonah tries to go, the greater is God’s presence.  In the ocean storm, in the faith of the sailors, and the belly of the fish.  Even after this miraculous deliverance, Jonah isn’t happy.  He is rude and disrespectful to God but God stays with him and continues to call him. God does not abandon him.  Instead, God works to change Jonah’s mind and widen his perspective about who God is and who God loves.

This story also lets us know that God’s love and concern extend far beyond our own.  “There is a wildness to God’s compassion and a freedom in divine mercy which is irrational, in the sense that it goes beyond the bounds of what people expect or deserve.” (Bernard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament p. 607) It is important that we recognize that Jonah did not want to preach to the Ninevites because he did not want them to be saved.  They were his enemy.  He was afraid of them and he wanted them to pay for the suffering they had caused.   The book of Jonah reminds us that “Salvation is pure gift and grace and … we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish.  God will be forgiving because that is the very heart of God.” (Beth Tanner, God’s nature is steadfast love that extends to all of creation.

We live in a time when the walls of fear and distrust have widened the distance between us and “those people”, whoever your present day Ninevites are.  Our enemies are not only international terrorists and bad guys.  There are deep divisions within our nation. There are factions within our communities that see other Americans as the enemy.  We are quick to claim that God is on our side and we must confess that we are sometimes hesitant to extend mercy and understanding to those whom we fear or with whom we disagree. 

Jonah, and we, are not called to “preach to the choir”, to have our views reinforced by those who share them.  We are called to reach out to those with whom we disagree, to speak the truth to those we fear, to offer repentance and redemption to those who have harmed us and our people. This is hard!!! It is no wonder that Jonah tried to run away!

For us to heal the wounds of our communities, our nation, and our world, we must take the story of Jonah to heart.  We must heed God’s call.  We must speak the truth to each other and work together to bring true accountability and healing to our communities.  We must not paper over differences, or claim a false unity by forgetting past injuries.  We must offer real opportunities for connection and reconciliation.  The story of Jonah reminds us that God loves us no matter what and God loves them too, no matter what.  God’s grace and mercy cannot be contained by us.  And this is a great blessing for the world.

Let us pray,

God of Jonah and of Nineveh, we pray for those who scare us and for those who are scared by us.  Help us to extend our welcome and love to all those whom you love, that is, all of creation.  Amen.