May 1, 2016 Easter 6C
Did you ever try to run away from home when you were a kid? Do you remember why you wanted to run away? I remember the time I got so angry at my mother that I decided I just had to leave. I think I was about eight years old.
I had some vague notion in my head that people who ran away from home had to tie up all their belongings in a bundle and hang it on the end of a stick. But I didn’t have a stick, and I didn’t know how to make a bundle, so I settled for the next best thing: A plastic doll case. I couldn’t squeeze very much into it, so I took just the essentials: a favorite stuffed toy, some socks, a comb, a small box of raisins in case I got hungry … that was about all that would fit.
As I made my way across the back yard, I ran into our neighbor, Mr. Perry. “Where are you going?” he asked me.
“I’m running away.”
“Oh, well I was hoping maybe you could help me crank the ice cream.”
Mr. Perry made peach ice cream that was to die for. As I turned the crank on the ice cream freezer, we talked. To this day, I do not remember what had made me mad enough that I thought I had to run away from home, but by the time Mr. Perry took the paddle out of the ice cream and handed it to me to lick, I wasn’t mad anymore. I took my plastic doll case back up to my room and unpacked it.
My mother never even knew I’d left the house.
Like my eight year old self, Jonah got so mad, he decided to run away. I really was surprised when I realized that the story of Jonah was missing from our 31-week walk through the Bible. How can you skip Jonah? It’s a universal story. Every known religion has some version of the Jonah story in its mythology.
The hero who runs away from being a hero, who spends three days buried or swallowed or deep in a cave, who repents and is given a second chance – how can you not include this famous fish story in The Story? But they didn’t. So we did. We added the four chapters of Jonah to this week’s Wednesday Family Night curriculum, and I hope you will come join the discussion.
Maybe you remember Jonah from the Sunday School of your childhood. God sends Jonah to Nineveh to preach repentance. But Jonah gets mad at God and runs away. He jumps on a ship headed toward Tarshish, in the opposite direction of Nineveh. A storm comes up, and the sailors are afraid for their lives. Jonah convinces them to throw him overboard, and as soon as they do, the wind dies down and they are safe.
But Jonah doesn’t have a nice neighbor like Mr. Perry, and there is no peach ice cream waiting for him. Instead, a large fish swallows Jonah and he stays there for three days. While he is in the belly of the fish, he prays to the Lord God a prayer of repentance and a song of deliverance. So the fish vomits Jonah out onto the beach.
There’s a break in the story here, in every old Hebrew manuscript that carries it. An extra line of blank space separates getting upchucked on the beach by a fish from what happens next in the story. It’s an intentional pause, and this is where we pick up the story of Jonah.
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)
When God says, “Get up and go,” God means it.
The first time he sent Jonah to Nineveh, God said, “Get up and go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). This time, the command starts out the same way – “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city,” – but now, instead of crying out against it because of its wickedness, Jonah is told to “proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” It seems like a small difference, but I think it’s significant.
The first time God sent Jonah, God gave him the message up front. “Cry out against it; I’ve heard how wicked it is.” But this time, God waits to give Jonah the message he is to proclaim until he obeys the first part of the command: Get up and go.
See, that’s where Jonah had trouble the first time. He got up and went, but it was in the wrong direction. I wonder if God was waiting to see whether Jonah would go where he was supposed to go this time, before giving him the message he was supposed to deliver. Because – even though he’d just spent three days floating in the digestive juices of a giant fish – Jonah still thought God was making a big mistake to send him to Nineveh.
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on theses accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views … cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s life.” According to Mark Twain, Jonah just hadn’t traveled enough, because Jonah was holding on tightly to his prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness about the people of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the greatest city in the world at that time. It was the capital of Assyria, a nation that would eventually conquer Babylon and overtake Israel. To be clear, these were Gentiles. And Jonah had no use for Gentiles.
Jonah’s bigotry toward Gentiles ties in with last week’s look at Peter and Cornelius, the sheet full of unclean animals, and the message to spread the good news to Gentiles. Remember how confused Peter was by this message?
Jonah wasn’t just confused, he was offended. As far as Jonah was concerned, the Ninevites didn’t deserve fair warning. They were wicked, they did wicked things, and the sooner God destroyed them, the better.
But the thing that really bothered Jonah wasn’t the Ninevites. What really bothered Jonah was what he knew God would do. He’d seen it before – God would send a prophet to cry out destruction, the people would repent, and God would relent. Instead of judgment, God would show mercy. Every. Time.
Even so, Jonah went a third of the way into the city of Nineveh and preached a sermon that was short, but not too sweet. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Not a very encouraging message. No mention of God at all, and certainly no attempt to get the people of Nineveh to repent of their wicked ways. He gives them 40 days to prepare for destruction, period. Maybe Jonah was hoping for “something like the flood, when the people did not repent and God wiped them out in forty days.” After all, Jonah’s name in Hebrew is Noah’s name turned inside out.
Imagine Jonah’s great disappointment when his brief announcement of judgment actually works, and the people, the king, and even the cattle repent and turn to God. The people of Nineveh repented, even when their messenger did not.
This whole story is about repentance, and the grace God shows to anyone who turns to him. Everything and everyone in this story experiences a change of direction – and that’s the definition of repentance, “to turn, to change direction”:
- Jonah – turns away from Nineveh, then toward Nineveh
- The sailors turn away from calling on their ineffective gods to calling on the Lord
- The sea turns from storm to calm (remind you of anything?)
- The fish turns from a full stomach to vomiting Jonah out on the beach
- The king, the people, and even the cattle of Nineveh, turn away from their wickedness to call on the name of the Lord.
- God turns from destruction to mercy. Even God repents, but whenever he does, it’s always to show mercy, instead of wrath.
God is persistent and will not let his good creation go. As we have heard throughout this season of following The Story, God wants us back, to live in friendship with him. Through his Son, Jesus Christ, God continues to pursue us. The English poet Francis Thompson calls him “The Hound of Heaven.”
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat–and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet–
“Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?”
Our God is a God of second chances. Jonah didn’t understand that we don’t get to tell God whom God should love. It’s God’s nature to love, and that means showing grace and favor to all people, not just the Jews, not just the people who think and believe as we do, not just the people who look and act and dress like us. And because God loves us, God is eager to forgive us for turning away from him. God wants to forgive you. So, …
Will you repent of every form of bigotry? The dictionary defines bigotry as “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” (dictionary.com)
Will you repent of pride, that sense that I am somehow better than someone else?
Will you repent of disobedience, and using whatever argument you can to justify your refusal to do what God calls you toward?
Will you repent of worshiping what isn’t God? That means devoting your time and energy and resources in ways that please you, instead of using them in ways that please God.
Will you repent of running away from your calling to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ?
Forgiveness and grace are waiting for you. So come.
 Lawrence Wood, Feasting On The Word, 269.