People really do hurt us. How do we respond to the compassion God gives to our enemies? How do we let his love for them reign in us? Jonah’s is a story of repentance and anger, justice and compassion. In this message we engage with the God who overturns us and those we hate. Preached @ St. Peter’s Comox January 21, 2018.
I am really excited to talk about Jonah because its an amazing and powerful book that we seldom get to explore. Before talking about today’s passage its really important to note that Jonah is a satire, it uses humour and sharp contrast to cut deep criticism, deep criticism about the prophets, about the nation of Israel, and about certain ways of relating to God. Satires can be powerful, they can also be emotionally hard and because they’re emotionally hard they can become easy to walk away from, easy not to hear because we don’t want to hear them.
Jonah did not want to hear God’s word. He was afraid of God’s compassion, afraid of his mercy and so he tried to run away. God was not content with this and so we meet Jonah in this morning’s reading covered in fish vomit and standing on the shore near Assyria. This is why the reading says that God’s word came to him a second time, it was a word Jonah did not want to hear.
And this time he gets up. He arises. And just like he was stuck in the belly of the fish for three days, he spends three days walking through this city, being somewhere he does not want to be. Three days seized by God’s commission. Three days marching through the city that slaughtered and subjugated the people of Israel. Three days walking through the land of a people who hurt him to the core, hurt him to the point of wanting to run from the God who made him a prophet.
So Jonah gives his prophetic call: “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned”
Imagine one man from some subjugated people, covered in fish guts marches through the commercial, imperial, cultural wonder which was Nineveh and repeats over and over again that this great city will be destroyed in forty days. Why would anyone take this seriously?
And yet they do. Where Jonah arises and gives this half-hearted sermon the King arises. The King of the most feared and deadly empire on earth, the ones who invented siege towers and an army that served all year to conquer the world by their own strength, he arises. Jonah needed to be told twice, this heathen and evil king only once. He arises and commands a fast, the people of the city, before Jonah is even halfway through, are wearing grain sacks as clothing, are covered in ashes, are abstaining from food and calling out to the God of Israel. They repent and turn to God when sent so small a sign.
And this is key to the satire of Jonah. On the ship the rough sailors pray to God, the prophet of God sleeps. The sailors show compassion on Jonah, Jonah commands that he be thrown off the ship to die so that they can survive. The prophet of Israel runs away from the God of earth and sea, the tyrant turns at once to his word.
The people of Nineveh show us quite an intense repentance. When they become aware they turn at once, they do not wait. They throw themselves fully, mightily on the Father’s mercy. They cover themselves in ashes to show that what they have done needs to be burned away, refined as with fire. They abstain from food to show how empty they are without God’s sustaining life and their need for him to feed them with restoration. They wear clothes not of triumph but empty scratchy food sacks. All of this is a sacrifice. I remember the story of two boys who were playing baseball. One of them hit a ball through the window and when his father came to them upset about the window the boy came running. The boy embraced his fathers knees, held up the baseball and begged his father to take it away. A sacrifice of the heart.
There is something powerful here about the prophetic word. I truly believe that the Word of God sent does not return to heaven empty again. I believe that the Word of God spoken, coming from heaven through his prophets is not just speech like a philosophical debate or a news broadcast or a dinner table conversation. The Word of God proclaimed by those called to and engaged in the vocation of prophecy is performative: it does something, it transforms people. Here the prophet proclaims that the city of Nineveh will be overturned. It was not overturned in the way that he had hoped, but it was turned-over, it did repent, it was transformed. The Word of God spoke through Jonah and was performed in the reality of Nineveh.
Jonah had hoped that God’s overturning would be the destruction of a people who had hurt him, the destruction of his enemies. He wanted their total annihilation, he wanted them to suffer. But God’s justice in dealing with Jonah was to stop him from running, to turn him back to God’s call, to restore him to life. God’s overturning of Jonah was to perform in him the fulfillment of his word. The justice of God is to seize us, to take us to where we ought to be and this is terrifying to Jonah, he says as much because he can not live in a world where God shows compassion on his enemies. He forces sailors to throw him off a boat so that he can die, but God has other plans. He asks God to leave him in his anger and let him roast in it while he waits for a destruction that will not come. Jonah is not happy living in a world where God’s justice is fulfilled by God’s compassion. Are we?
The prophetic ministry that Jonah is fulfilling is a ministry of the people of the Israel to the world. This is a call to be a blessing to all nations, to be a royal priesthood, to be a sign of the God who made the heavens and the earth, a sign of his sovereignty.
So when Jesus comes to Galilee, he is the coming of the Word of God that proclaims repentance. When he calls these fishermen and speaks them into fishers of men he performs this prophetic work in power. When Jesus enters into the tomb he enters into the belly of the fish, into the midst of Israel’s begrudging proclamation in the streets of Nineveh, into Jonah’s anger on the hillside. Are we ready to hear God’s justice against us, are we ready to be overturned by his Word? Are we ready to see this done for our enemies?