“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!