Jan 24/24 2015 Sermon
Don’t Want to Go There, God
It is often said that the Bible contains a little bit of everything—theology, sure. But it also contains epic stories, philosophy, miracle stories, family feuds, wars, plagues, palace intrigue, illicit sex, and brotherly love. However, we seldom think of satire—but that is certainly what we have today.
Today’s story from the short book of Jonah is not your typical story of prophecy. Let’s set the stage: the beginning of a story of prophecy is often introduced by the words: “the word of the LORD came to ________________________[fill in the blank with the name of the prophet]”. The scripture goes on to describe what the prophet is to do and say that God has set in front of them.
Jonah, on the other hand, heard from God “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh, an ancient city in far northern Iraq was the capital of the Assyrian empire. With a populations of over 100,000, Nineveh was the largest city in the world for over fifty years. A beautiful irrigated oasis in the desert, its ruins are sited on the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from modern-day Mosul. The Assyrians were also a powerful empire, and in Jonah’s time their warriors were the world’s best, and they were known for ferocity and being very harsh to those they conquered.
When “the word of the LORD” came to Jonah and told him to proclaim God’s coming punishment on the Assyrians, Jonah was reluctant. So much so, that instead of marching from his hometown northeast overland toward Nineveh, he immediately went straight west on a boat toward Spain. In other words, he did not want to go, and was intentionally running from God. Why?
All signs point to God’s mercy. Repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures, we have heard that God became angry with human actions, promised punishment, and yet, when the people changed their ways, God relented and changed God’s mind about the punishment. Jonah knew the Ninevites—how mean and cruel they were. He hated the Assyrians. He hated what they had done and were doing to his people. He wanted God to punish them. Served them right, the sapsuckers! The last thing he wanted to see was God’s mercy toward them. What if Jonah went to them, gave them God’s warning, and they repented of their ways? Jonah knew God’s tolerance. And if he were to be the instrument of their salvation, well… It was just more than he could stand.
As he fled, the boat he was on encountered heavy seas, and he was thrown overboard because the crew knew the storm was directed at Jonah. From the frothy seas, he was eaten by a large fish, and laid inside for three days. Three days inside a stinky fish should be enough to change anyone’s mind. Jonah remembered to pray to God for his life, and sure enough the fish spit him out.
Not one to miss an opportunity, God repeats his demand of Jonah. As we see in today’s passage, God calls Jonah a second time: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (3:2) Jonah had to be thinking, “Dang! I can’t get away from that guy. Why can’t God just leave well-enough alone? Why can’t they be punished like everyone else? After all, it is an eye-for-an-eye isn’t it? Jonah was pissy, snarky, and sulky. You can imagine him muttering under his breath and kicking up sand all the way to Nineveh. “Stupid God! Don’t deserve mercy. Hurt my people, killed my friends. Who do they think they are? Why is God sending me? I don’t want to go!”
As we know, go he did, repent they did (even the animals, really?), saved they were. Now Jonah was really pissy. And that’s where we leave the story. You’ll have to read the rest of Jonah to hear what happens after that.
But it does tell us a lot about prophets, God and the mass of humanity. Prophets aren’t all pure, and without motivations of their own. And humans still make stupid, and often calculating, errors of judgment. And most importantly of all, God continues to be merciful even when we decide that he should not be. As we see from today’s passage, God’s mercy extends much farther than we can expect or imagine. And that can be jolting and disappointing to us.
Hearing the story of Jonah, we might look for parallels in our own lives. Isaiah 55:8 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Are there times when that seems to ring true for us? Maybe we long for God to do things our way, to make decisions that are more along the lines of our perspectives. I wonder sometimes if we don’t want to use God’s wrath to meet out our justice. Have we ever been hurt, or felt slighted? I bet we can all say ‘Yes’ to that. What, then, do we do with that? Being at odds with God’s mercy is something we all confront.
Contrast those images with the calling of the disciples from today’s passage from Mark’s gospel. Through Mark’s telling, it seems Jesus is casually walking along the seashore and calling disciples as easily as he might pluck tall grass or toss a stone into the water. Just nothing to it. “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:18) God bless Mark. But I’m not at all sure it’s that easy for us. Our humanity gets in the way so easily.
That’s when it becomes a matter of FOLLOWING Jesus. We are called to not stand in front of him and proclaim our ways and our penchants. Being disciples is about walking behind, and watching Jesus for our cues. It is about giving up self—the negatives, the shortcomings, the insecurities. Our joy comes it living as close to God’s ideals as we can, pouring out ourselves, leaving our corrupted natures behind. As 1 John says “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (4:20).
Whether satirical or not, Jonah and Mark provide us with good fodder. At first glance, it seems following Jesus is and is not easy. Perhaps it’s that the following is easy, but the ability to trust Jesus as being worthy of our giving up our shortcomings enough to follow is the hard part. If that is the question, then we have to ask ourselves how serious are we about being Christians at all.