I don’t know how many of you read the article in Newsweek last month about the Bible. It was subtitled “So misunderstood it’s a sin.” It was an attack on literalist and fundamentalist readings of scriptures and of those who cite verses of scripture in political debates without paying close attention to the context of those verses. My guess is that if you at all heard about it, it was because of others’ talking about it—either conservative Christians up in arms about this attack on the Word of God, or secularists using it to debunk and deflate our reverence for it.
As I’ve said before, I regard one of my chief tasks in preaching to help you engage with scripture. The Bible is not a single thing; it is a diverse collection of texts written over hundreds of years. The texts themselves are very different, ranging from poetry to correspondence to folk tales. All of this makes interpreting scripture no simple or straightforward task. The questions we bring to the text are not always, not usually, the questions its authors or first readers had. And in a culture where scripture is often used as a weapon against one’s opponents, some of us might prefer avoiding any engagement with it whatsoever.
That important task is made more difficult by the reality that most of us don’t engage in a regular discipline of bible study and reading. For most of us, our primary encounter with scripture is on Sunday, in the liturgy of the word. And then, we are subject to the whims of the editors of the lectionary, who have made all sorts of decisions about what texts are important, how to break them up into sections that are short enough to read in Sunday services yet meaty enough to provide the necessary context for us to make sense of them.
Sometimes they get it wrong. That’s the case today when the appointed lectionary reading is six verses from the book of Jonah. By the way, this is the only time we read the book of Jonah in the three year lectionary cycle. That’s a shame, for two reasons. One, because Jonah is a rich tale that confronts the reader with significant theological questions to ponder and connects us with profound personal questions of call and vocation. The second reason it’s a shame is that part of the story of Jonah is one of the most familiar of all the stories in the bible.
I’ve diverged from the lectionary today to let us hear in the liturgy all of chapter 3 read. We’ve also provided all the rest of the brief book in the service bulletin, so if you’re so inclined, you can take it home and read it. What I would like to do today is talk with you about this story, remind you of it, and explore some of the issues raised by the text, issues the author was confronting.
What do you know about Jonah? Right, he was swallowed up by a whale. Why? Because God called him to go prophesy against the wickedness of the city of Nineveh. Instead of heeding that call, he took ship in the opposite direction. A storm came up and the sailors threw Jonah overboard to appease the wrath of God. This part of the story everyone knows well. He was swallowed up by a big fish and stayed in its stomach for three days. From the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God for deliverance, and after three days, he was spewed up on dry land.
God called Jonah a second time to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh, and this time he went. He prophesied its destruction, and miraculously, the people repented. When God saw their repentance, God changed God’s mind and relented. But this angered Jonah, who went out of the city and sulked.
This story presents the modern reader with many problems, the first being the impossibility of a whale, or a big fish swallowing a man whole, the man surviving for three days inside it, and then being spewed out. Then there’s Jonah’s prophetic activity itself. The text says that Nineveh was a large city; it was a three-day’s walk from one end to the other, and that when Jonah arrived, he walked a day into it, and there preached his message of doom and destruction. That’s all it took. One lone voice, six simple words in Hebrew. Just this, coming from a foreigner, and the whole city, man and beast, put on sackcloth and ashes, and repented of their wickedness. It could happen, I suppose.
And if you were Jonah, how would you respond to this development? One would think he would be pleased with himself, proud of the effects of his preaching. But no. He complains to God, saying that the reason he didn’t want to go in the first place was because he knew this would happen. He knew God was a gracious God, full of mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent. In other words, if Jonah was going to prophesy doom and destruction, he wanted to see it happen.
What comes next is equally surprising. Having prophesied doom and destruction, Jonah leaves the city, finds a hill overlooking it, and settles in to watch the carnage. God provides him with a bush that grows up to give Jonah shade from the hot sun, a turn of events that made Jonah quite happy, but the next day, God caused a worm to kill the bush so that it withered and Jonah got sunburnt. He also got angry.
So what should we make of all this? A prophet who doesn’t want to be a prophet, certainly doesn’t want to be a successful prophet and resists his call. On that level, we can understand the story all to well. We can imagine resisting the tug of duty and responsibility, turning away from what we know we ought to do. We can even imagine, most of us, sensing God calling us in a certain direction, calling us to deeper commitment, to a richer spiritual life, and turning away.
That’s all easy to imagine, and in that sense, Jonah represents us, everyman. But there’s more to the story than just Jonah. Besides Jonah and God, there’s another actor, or set of actors in the story, and that is Nineveh itself. Now, Nineveh was the heart of the Assyrian empire, one of the great empires of the ancient near east, and one of the most brutal. It was Assyria that had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century bce. Nineveh was the evil empire. Its power dwarfed all of its neighbors, including the kingdom of Judah. That makes Jonah’s resistance to God’s call all the more understandable, even if that’s not the excuse Jonah gave himself.
In the end, the book of Jonah is not primarily about Jonah. It is about God. It is a story of God’s love, mercy, steadfast love. It is about proclaiming not just God’s displeasure and threatening destruction, it is about knowing who God is, and proclaiming that message of love, mercy, and steadfast love.
When God rebukes Jonah at the end of the story, God points out that if Jonah was concerned about a bush, how much more should God be concerned about the city of Nineveh with its more than 120,000 inhabitants, and also animals. This is a story about the universalizing of God’s love and mercy. Jonah, and the original readers of this text, were being challenged to expand their notion of God and of God’s love. For all God’s love and concern for the Jewish people in the post-exilic period, the Hebrew Bible and the book of Jonah, bear witness to a growing understanding that God is God of all creation, the God of all humanity and God’s love and mercy extends to all humans, even to one’s enemies.
And that’s the message for us as well. Like Jonah, that is what God is calling us to, as individuals and as a congregation. The God who is calling us is not a God of wrath and destruction, no matter how much some Christians in our culture would have us and everyone else believe it. The God who calls us is unimaginable in the extent of the love, mercy, and patience God has. It is that God we have experienced ourselves in the forgiveness of our sins. It is that God we are called to share with a world that knows hate and fear and violence. It is that message, a message we know for ourselves, that we need to bring to those around us. And we need to proclaim it throughout the our community and the world. Wherever there is animosity and hate, whatever enemies we fear, God’s steadfast love and mercy reaches.
In a time when hatred between peoples and religions, in a time when racism seems as intractable as ever, we need to hear the message of Jonah. In a year when Nineveh has experienced new violence and its two-thousand year old Christian community has been destroyed, we need to remember God’s steadfast love and mercy. And as we remember, we need to proclaim it and share it.