January 21, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jonah is a “what if?” story. It’s told as though it is a story of a real historical prophet, but as the story develops we can understand that it is instead an imaginary exploration of what might happen if a prophet tried to escape God’s call.
Jonah gets a message from God. Great city Nineveh is evil.
Jonah gets on a boat to go toward Tarshish – the other end of the map. Nineveh east. He goes west.
Why? We don’t get the answer until later in the story.
While Jonah is on the ship great storm comes up. Sailors terrified. Each calls out to his god.
Meanwhile Jonah is asleep below decks. Captain goes down to wake him up. Pray to your God as well.
Sailors assume that someone on board has provoked the gods and they cast lots. Determine that it is Jonah.
Hurl me into the sea, Jonah instructs them.
They don’t want to do that. They try to row to shore.
That doesn’t work. And so, they pray and throw Jonah overboard. The sea quiets down and they offered sacrifice and worshipped Jonah’s God with gratitude.
But God isn’t done with Jonah yet, so a big fish swallows Jonah, holds him for three days and three nights.
Then the big fish spits Jonah up on land.
That’s where our passage this morning picks up:
Again, God’s word comes to Jonah. A second time: Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you. And Jonah got up and went.
The fight has been knocked out of him. He does not want to warn Nineveh, but he comes to feel that there is no alternative.
Why not go warn Nineveh? Well, keep in mind that Nineveh was the capital of Babylon.
The Babylonians had destroyed Israel’s holy city of Jerusalem and demolished the temple and carried the people into exile.
Honor his homeland by not warning the people of Nineveh. Jonah carried a grudge. His deeper loyalty was not to God, but rather to his tribe, his country, his people.
But it seems that he realizes that he must carry out his mission. He goes to Nineveh and through the three days that it takes to walk from one end of the city to the other he announces that in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.
The King gets word of this. Repents. Orders people and animals to repent. Perhaps God will see that we are willing to change and we might not perish.
And lo and behold, God saw what they were doing- that they had ceased their evil behavior. And God relented.
And now we come to perhaps the deeper reason for Jonah’s reluctance. In the next verse we read:
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.
Jonah gets the nature of God right. And that’s why he will not go warn the Ninevites. They might repent and God might spare them.
Jonah understands that God is all about the reconciliation of all of creation.
Maybe Jonah was fine with that in the abstract. But when it comes to those Ninevites. That’s another story. I’m not going to warn them.
Religion can feed a sense of tribalism. Jonah wanted God to be a tribal God. Make Israel great again and the heck with the rest of the world.
What’s remarkable about the book of Jonah is that it is an ancient piece of literature that takes a universal view. It sets a broader vision of the healing and reconciliation of the world against tribalism. That might not seem very radical to us as a goal, but at the time it was not a commonplace.
That is a message that might do well to be preached in the corridors of power in our own country. I don’t say this to be argumentative. I’m saying this to clarify, to remind us, to help us keep our bearings in what is a confusing time.
Jonah is angry. God is not. There is a back and forth between them without rancor or lecture on God’s part. God is clarifying, reminding. No exceptions on my part, Jonah.
Conclude with the very end. of the book. Finally, God says to Jonah:
Can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left (children) and also many animals?
I love that God is especially concerned about the young people and the animals, who are in Nineveh through no fault of their own. They are not part of the evil and God has pity on them.
Jonah, my heart is open. Why not open yours?
God is moved with pity. The Hebrew word translated as pity, has resonances of compassion, concern, interest. It is often found with the word for eye – to look on someone with pity or compassion, to feel sorry for.
Pity is not a popular word. Don’t pity me! I get that.
To be pitied is to be seen as weak. We prefer to be strong. We prefer to be in charge. And sometimes people diminish others they feel sorry for and that isn’t right, of course.
So there are times when I think I should welcome people feeling sorry for me, having compassion for me, even pitying me. I don’t want to be in that state, of course, but in some sense, we are all going through life with burdens, with troubles, with
As we engage with others, will we respond out of pity? Or will we try to exacerbate differences in order to be right or to win or to make the other feel small or bad or ashamed?
Will we stifle our pity to protect our own hearts? Compassion for those who hurt is painful itself.
Pity is a response to someone’s trouble. Someone’s pain. Someone’s difficulty.
Jonah is cut off from pity. And that – in and of itself – is grounds to pity him.
Pity. Our world is in many ways inviting us to pity: refugees, immigrants, people who are poor, hungry, homeless, prisoners. Those who face discrimination.
God invites us into God’s own compassion. God invites all of us, both because of our need and our own capacity for pity, for compassion.
The Divine Image, William Blake (from Songs of Innocence.)
To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every [one] of every clime,
That prays in [their] distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
All of us are standing in the need of prayer. This is the great unifying and reconciling reality. All of us meet God as we share in the circle of giving and receiving compassion. All of us. No exceptions.