“Journey with Jonah, part II” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 27th, 2020
I think it is appropriate as we come back together today to conclude our journey with Jonah, that we begin with some name play. After all, the Book of Jonah is a satire and so the authors inserted purposeful names that we can have to guide us through! For instance, Jonah means “dove” and we all know what doves mean as metaphors. Doves stand for hope, for peace, for love; and as we will see Jonah portrays the exact opposite of these. Also, when Jonah is called, he is called the sin of Amittai. Well Amittai means “faith,” and we have already seen what little faith Jonah had/has and we will see again how that bears out. And so, for us to keep these concepts in mind the ideas of dovely hope, peace, and love; and the idea of faithfulness are important. For while Jonah, being the character he is, does not necessarily demonstrate these virtues in person, what we are presented with is that God is a God of hope, peace, and love; and God is forever faithful to all of creation!
So let us begin our final steps with Jonah as we journey into chapter 3. The word of God once again comes to Jonah, a second time (remember God has faith!) and calls Jonah to go and proclaim the message that God has for the people of Nineveh. Well Nineveh is a long walk from where the belly of the deep spit Jonah out and so Jonah now begins a pilgrimage of three days. Did you catch it here again? his walk across the desert and wilderness to reach Nineveh will take him three more days, three more days of dying to himself, or perhaps murmuring under his breath how mad he is at God; but nevertheless, three more days of journeying before he even gets to the city of Nineveh.
Important side note here: We are shown time and again that our ancestors had to journey in their faith, had to journey through the wilderness, had to journey along knowing that some destination was in store for them. And so it is for us that we must also journey; sometimes through storms on the sea, sometimes across wildernesses, but always with a goal in the end; the faith-filled end of our journey where God’s purpose will be revealed!
Let us not get too far ahead of ourselves here though, for Jonah reaches Nineveh and Nineveh is a massive city; three days journey across! I am sure I do not have to tell you that the ancient city of Nineveh was not 60 miles wide or even 30 miles wide, and so would not be a three-day journey. In fact, it was more like 3.5 miles wide; but what is more important here is the allegorical and representative number of 3. That God’s world was going to be completed in a city that was a journey from death to life, that the journey for Jonah was from death to life. That the city would be saved from death and given life through the complete tri-fold love of God.
And so, as Jonah enters the city, he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people immediately believed God, proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth. This must have been a people who were in need of God’s word, because Jonah only speaks a few words about Nineveh being overthrown and the people immediately knew it was a message from God. In fact it spread so fast and far that before Jonah could go more than a day’s walk news already reached the king and the entire city was ordered to fast, cover with sackcloth, and “cry mightily” to God. Everyone was told to repent of their evil ways and turn form the violence in their hearts in the hope that God might turn away his wrath. And when God saw how open-armed they embraced this prophecy; God indeed changed course and did not bring calamity upon Nineveh.
Wow, was Jonah a prophet or what! How many great prophets of past have gone into a city only one-third of the way, spoken a vague sentence about repentance that does not even mention the wrath of God, or God reigning down fire, or plagues and problems, or you name it…and the people immediately repent? This again is the satirical nature of this Book of Jonah, that Jonah tried to do the least possible thing, he tried to accomplish and please God in the least possible way, and yet, he ended up saving this entire city! What we don’t get until our next chapter is the reason why Jonah wanted to run away, the reason why Jonah gave the least amount of effort possible, and why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh at all.
And here we go, the chapter we have been waiting for, the conclusion to our journey with Jonah! So, Jonah goes on this trial from death to life and brings the message of repentance to Nineveh and the city is saved and the first thing we hear in chapter four is that this displeased Jonah! In fact Jonah says to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This 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.”
Wow! Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he wanted the Ninevites, the Assyrians, to die. Who, in terms of the historical significance of this account, were until the Babylonians come along, the most hated people that Israel would know. Nineveh being an Assyrian city was the prime number one enemy of Judah and Israel. This is why Jonah ran away, this is why Jonah only went into the city one day, and this is why Jonah now asks for God to kill him…he is angry that the Ninevites were saved by God. He was trying to run away all this time for he knew that God was merciful and just and would turn away calamity if the Ninevites indeed repented.
And when God confronts Jonah about this, Jonah sulks outside the city and makes a booth for himself to watch over Nineveh, perhaps still hoping that God will bring wrath and flame upon these non-Israelite people. But as Jonah is sulking outside the city, God decides to hammer home the point once more, and appointed a bush to give Jonah shade from the noonday sun, which made Jonah happy. But the next day when God made the bush wither away and die, Jonah was angry and asked to be killed again…needless to say, Jonah is a great satirical character who is over-the-top dramatic! God again confronts Jonah asking if it is right for him to be angry. And when Jonah, like a child throwing a temper-tantrum responds, we get the moral of the entire story when we hear God say to Jonah:
“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. And 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?”
God is concerned about all creation; whether they are smart enough to know their right hand from their left or not, whether they are animals or not, whether they are Israelites, Ninevites, Jews, Greek, American, or not. And if there is hope for Nineveh, there is hope for anyone…even Jonah!
Here is the moral for us in our world. How stubborn are we when it comes to who we think should be given God’s love? Who do we pray for God to hold back grace and love from? Who do we actively delineate and hate and put in the category of “other?” Who in our lives do we consider like Jonah considered the Assyrians; the enemy, the hated, the despised, the ones that if God wiped them from the earth, we would consider that a good thing?
And yet, God loves all creation! God will save anyone who repents and turns toward God! God longs for all the children to run toward and be embraced by their Creator! God is not in the business of killing, murdering, destroying, and damning. God is, as Jonah himself acknowledged and we would too if we only trusted, “merciful, slow to anger, loving, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Thus, we can find ourselves in so many parts of this narrative. We are the person running away from the life lived in love God is calling us to; a life where we love all God’s people, even those who are not of our denomination, faith, country, political party, gender, skin-color, you name it. We are the prophet who is being called to spread the Good News and is running away because God’s wisdom seems foolish to our human minds. We are the person in need of dying to our own desires and wishes so that we may fulfill God’s call to the world. We are the city who needs saving and the people who are longing to hear God’s Word. We are the prophet who has voice, who has power, who has privilege and yet we hold back our love, we hold back our wealth, we hold back the knowledge to save others because we do not want to lose our ivory towers or our white palaces. And we are the people who praise God when good things happen to us and bad things happen to our enemies, instead of praying that God would save us all.
And in this respect and all the others that we have mentioned during this journey, this makes Jonah indeed the greatest prophet of all. Yes, he saved a city of over 120,000 people and animals to boot, but his greatest act is the mirror he holds up to our faces. This is why Jonah is placed among the prophetic books, this is why we must not forget the lesson of God’s hope, peace, and love in the dove called Jonah. This is why we must not forget that God is eternally faithful in the son of Amittai and us. This is why we need to hear Jonah now more than ever. That we might heal our broken ways, that we could die to the sins of segregation, separation, schism and fear, that we could love as God loves, hope as God hopes, and live as God calls us to live. And in this respect, our journey with Jonah is indeed not ending, but just beginning, Amen!
“Journey with Jonah, part I” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 20th, 2020
Our journey with Jonah must begin with a little context because Jonah is unlike any of the other prophetic books we encounter, and yet is smack dab in between Obadiah and Micah in biblical order. All of the other prophetic books are written as prophesy that the called prophets would give to the world, and subsequently ours. Jonah actually only speaks one sentence of prophesy to Nineveh and is perhaps the most successful prophet in the history of the known world for the whole town repents and is saved; not something that can be said for Isaiah, Jeremiah, or the other prophets who wrote volumes of prophesy. Instead, Jonah is written more as a biography or historical account than prophesy. And so, one must ponder what the reason is to include it in the prophetic part of our Biblical canon. The reason being that Jonah does end up being quite prophetic, is that the prophesy comes through the life lived and the actions which occur as a mirror for us to reflect on our lives in turn.
In this vein, Jonah is then written as satire, a Biblical adventure in overwhelming odds, a character who does not want anything to do with any of it, and as Conrad Hyers states in his book, And God Created Laughter, “a comic portrayal of the Biblical theme of human wisdom and divine foolishness.” By the way, if you are struggling with understanding satire, that last phrase is satire in writing, for it is humanity who thinks themselves wise and God’s ways foolish; while the truth is the reverse.
So, with a little context, we can now begin our Journey with Jonah! Jonah begins as most prophetic books do, with a call from God. God speaks to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” And like so many prophets do at first, Jonah does not immediately answer. But Jonah takes it even further, he tries to escape God and escape the call that God is placing on his heart. Not only that, but he tries to escape to the farthest possible place he could go, Tarshish, which most scholars agree is a reference to a port in Spain all the way cross the Mediterranean Sea.
There are underlying themes here, which are important for us to bring up, as they will surface again and again as we journey with Jonah. One is the fact that Jonah is forgetting that the God he worships is not just the God of the physical land of Israel, but is the God of every time and place and people. God is the creator of all the lands and seas, and so, if Jonah thinks he can escape God by running off to the farthest away place he knows then he is vastly mistaken. For as it says in Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Which again alludes to concept of how we often think that our human wisdom is greater than God’s and that we can indeed outrun God.
Nevertheless, Jonah does board a ship and begins his voyage to flee from where God is calling him. As the boat was journeying, a great storm comes up and all the “pagan” sailors on board begin praying to their gods. Jonah sleeping soundly in the hull of the ship is awoken to pray to his God too and perhaps the calamity will end. Ultimately, they cast lots and it falls on Jonah to explain why everything is happening. At this point, Jonah says that he worships the Lord who made the sea and all the lands and the sailors get even more worried, for now they know that this man they took on as cargo is fleeing the presence of God and even these “pagans” knew better than to do that.
Jonah, being prophetic, remember God did speak directly to him, then knows that what the sailors must do is to toss him over the side of the boat and into the sea in order to make the storm stop. But an interesting thing happens, the “pagan” sailors, the sailors who were not of the God of Israel, who have already tossed cargo over and are at the brink of dying in the sea, try to row back to dry land to drop Jonah off instead of tossing him into the brink. And when they could not, they pray out loud for mercy as they throw Jonah to his seeming death, because they knew it was not right to kill another. Foreigners who had their own gods knew more about the moral right not to kill innocents than Jonah did, ahem foreshadowing! But here we reach the point where Jonah is now thrown into the sea and a large fish or whale or whatever suits your imagination swallows Jonah up.
Before we move any further, let us make some connections for our day and age and let us ask the prophetic questions that we are being presented with in this first chapter of Jonah. What are we fleeing from right now? What is it that we are ignoring and trying to run away from? What are we failing to do and thinking that our own human wisdom can keep us from God’s sight, or our own human technology and advancements can keep us from being seen? What is it that in this moment, today, we are being called to cry out for God; what wickedness are we being called to speak God’s truth to?
We all have our own personal answers, but here is what God is always calling us to do: Spread the message of love throughout the world! Spread the message of repentance and forgiveness! Spread the message of God’s hope that no matter what and no matter where God is present and is part of our lives and will be forever! Spread the message that God never leaves us, even when we might want to be left alone, and God is always by our side!
And if we are honest about our world right now, do we see a world filled with hope? Do we see a people who are loving their neighbors? Do we see a world which cares so much for one another that everyone is willing to do what they must to protect one another? If we are honest with ourselves, our answers to these questions present us with a wake-up call from God who is saying to our broken and divisive world, “ENOUGH!” Now is the time we are called to love again as in days of old. Now is the time we are called to imagine a world where no one is longing for the hope we have in Jesus. Now is the time we are being called to stop running away from God and start running towards God. Now is the time we are being thrown into the sea, being tossed about, and have been swallowed by the large fish. And now is the time we learn why!
Which brings us to our next part of Jonah, chapter 2. There is an interesting thought I had about the idea of Jonah being in the belly of the large fish for three days and three nights; this is the amount of time according to Israelite ways that would mean someone was truly dead. Someone was officially dead after they had died for three days and three nights. And this part of historical Scriptural language is important, which is why Jesus when he died was dead for…you got it three days and three nights! The idea is that we must truly die to something in order for God to resurrect us to something new.
In Jonah’s case, as we will see, Jonah had to die to himself and his selfish ways in order to truly understand what he was being called to do and still fights it till the end. I present this point right now as we begin this chapter which is a prayer from Jonah from the belly of the fish, or what I deem to be the depths of darkness and death, because as we journey through this, think to yourself, what is it that I need to die to in order to truly repent and turn toward God? What is it in my life that I am holding onto so tightly and will not let go of thinking that my own human understanding is better than God’s wisdom? What is my belief that is not in line with God’s teaching that is preventing me from truly living my life? For as we will see Jonah must almost die in order to be reborn!
This is not an easy process though, and Jonah makes it even more difficult because he is the adequate representation of ourselves; a stubborn human! But as he is in the belly of Sheol, which is the dark gray area we can think of as death, he cries out to God and God hears him. Jonah is not done though being a stubborn human, for he initially blames God for throwing him into this place. He blames God for calling him and casting him into the sea. He blames God for his lot in life and wonders when he will ever look upon God’s holy temple, perhaps meaning Israel, ever again. And as his life was slowly fading, it seems like he is awoken to the fact that he must indeed do what God is calling him to, and go to Nineveh. For at that moment, Jonah says that deliverance belongs to the Lord and the deep spits Jonah back out onto dry land, Israel, once more!
Jonah at this point is still not fully convicted, and we should not think that this death and rebirth has completed the process of opening his eyes to what God has in store for him, Nineveh, and the world, but as with most things in life; and especially, our life lived in faith…it is a journey. This brings us to the end of chapter 2 and I cannot wait to continue this journey with Jonah with you next Sunday! Until then, spend this week thinking about where God is calling you, to whom God is calling you, what you need to let go of, and how God is speaking in your life. God Bless, Amen!
“Proclaim Love” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 6th, 2020
Some of you already know this story because I am sure I have shared it in small groups before; but it is a good one, so bear with me. When I was little, I grew up in an area of Winona, MN that was close to train tracks and the river and industrial areas with trucks and everything. Well, my mother used to tell me that I was not to play on the train tracks or near the factories and all that dangerous stuff. Inevitably, one day I came home from doing the exact opposite and playing where I was not supposed to and she told me, “I know you were playing on the train tracks and you are in big trouble!” I was astonished because I was all alone and no one saw me or could have called and let her know. So, naturally I asked, “How did you know?!” And she told me something that would forever change my ability to contradict my mother for years to come, as she said “Jesus told me!” And while I did not comprehend what this truly meant until I was much older, it was in that moment I realized I would never be able to get away with anything ever again, for Jesus was there watching over me!
So what does this have to do with proclaiming love, or with our Gospel passage about reproving a fellow worshipper? Well, in this Gospel passage that is seemingly a lesson on conflict management, we hear the ways in which we are called to confront and be present with others and how Jesus is there watching over us in those moments. We know this because God tells us in Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” We know this because Jesus tells us in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And we know this because we are reminded by Paul that “any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” God does not want us to forever remain wicked, lost, broken, and quarreling. God longs for us to come together, to confront wickedness, to reconcile if at all possible, to forgive, and to do all of this through the love of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the lesson we can extrapolate for our community and our world is that we must proclaim love and conflict within our congregation and community in order to make sure that no one is outside of the holy law of God, that no one is disparaged or going counter to the community, and that whatever we bind on earth or loose on earth will be the same in heaven. Which means that the ultimate goal of this confrontation is not to make sure I am right and you are wrong, it is not to shun or shame, it is to correct, reprove, and repent, as we heal and forgive and become stronger through working through our conflicts, not burying them and letting them fester and rot.
Moreover, the way we go about this though is where we find our purpose for proclaiming love. Because, the purpose for confrontation is not to win an argument or to make sure everyone knows who is, or is not, smarter; rather, the tool we are called to use to confront one another is love. Not wickedness which leads us down paths of jealousy, greed, or earthly desires. But God’s love which we experience through reconciliation and forgiveness. Which is why we get the concept of wherever two or three gather in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there; and when we gather in Jesus’ name, when we gather and call ourselves Christians, we must do so in love.
This is so very important for us to understand in our broken world today. That when we gather and call ourselves Christians, when we use the adjective of our Lord’s name, we must do so as if Jesus is present. How differently would we treat our neighbors if we knew Jesus was standing right there? How differently would we talk to one another and hold one another if we knew Jesus was right there with us? How much wonderful could our world be if when we were in the middle of confrontation whether we are calling someone else out or we ourselves are being called out if we knew Jesus was right there with us?
The truth is our world would be a completely different place because of the eternal love of God that would be constantly on our mind. We would not want to disappoint Jesus standing there and be reproved by our Savior for not loving enough would we! We would not want to use words that we know are foul and offensive because our Savior is right there with us! We would purposefully seek to listen and understand one another for we know that is what Jesus calls us to and He is right there! We would love one another so much more for we know that our Savior is Love Incarnate and he is right there!
So why are we so wicked Israel? Why must we die? We have every piece of information we need to proclaim love. We have all the lessons of Jesus we need to go out and treat one another with respect, as if Jesus were right there with us. We even get the lessons and instructions of how to approach someone who has wronged us and work toward forgiveness. And yet, we are still wicked and stray from proclaiming love to one another, to holding one another in love.
We focus on the law and how the law says we must treat one another and we forget that the fulfillment of the law is love. We focus on what sexuality someone is, what nationality someone is, what color someone is, what gender someone is, what religion someone is, what “you name it” someone is; and we lift up commandments as examples of laws they are breaking. Or worse yet, we create laws to make them stumble and fall.
And all along, we are the wicked ones preventing love from being proclaimed. We are the ones who need to be brought up on charges of not loving enough. We are the ones who need to be reminded of how much we are loved and that love is not just for us. We need to be reminded that Jesus is right there longing for us to proclaim love.
Nothing, no law, no rule, no nothing at all is more important than this. No “yes, but what about this…” No, “well Jesus meant this…” No, “well historically this means this…” Nothing is more important than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Not because the law is not important and should not be followed. Rather, through loving our neighbors, through proclaiming love to one another, through loving someone so much as to confront wickedness with love; the law is fulfilled, God’s law of love is fulfilled.
And when all seems lost and the world seems bleak, and we do not know how we should do this or what we should do; or if we even have the power and ability to do any proclaiming of love, we get this great verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans,
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Hear those words in your heart: the armor of light, the love of Jesus, the proclamation to the world that wickedness and hate and evil and violence and darkness is not what will conquer us; but light and forgiveness and mercy and love.
I shared that memory of my mother using Jesus as my protector and guardian (and apparent tattle-teller!) at the beginning of today because the truth is that Jesus is not only with us whenever two or three are gathered, but is with us all the time and every where we go. God is always with us and that is why we can put on the armor of light. It does not have to be our strength, our spirit, our armor; it is God’s Holy Spirit in and through us proclaiming love, it is the love of Jesus Christ poured out for us that pours through us. And when we turn away from wickedness, when we turn toward our God, that light shines on us and we see anew like a fresh morning sun. So, let us fulfill all of God’s laws. Let us turn from darkness, let us confront the wickedness within and without, and let us bind one another in the proclamation of God’s love, of the grace of Jesus Christ, and in the light of the Holy Spirit; as we gather forever in the presence of Jesus, let us be fulfilled in proclaiming love. For Jesus is with us, always and forever, Amen!