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The Reluctant Prophet

January 26, 2015

“The Reluctant Prophet” Jonah 3:1-5,10; 4:1-11 © 1.25.15 Ordinary 3B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Mention the name "Jonah" to most anyone, and you’ll probably get a response like: "He’s the guy who was swallowed by a whale and lived to tell about it." Look in some Bible dictionaries, and you may even find a picture of the whale shark, purported to be the fish that swallowed Jonah. A Google image search yields mostly paintings and clip art of Jonah and a fish or a whale. In every instance, the fish becomes the focus.

That’s unfortunate. Indeed, it misses the point of this story. The fish is no more nor less important than the sea or the storm or the plant or the worm or the sun. It’s a part of nature that’s under Yahweh’s authority and acts at his command. The fish both protects Jonah from drowning and moves him back in the direction from which he has come. It’s a servant of God to bring Jonah to repentance and obedience.

So the tale of Jonah is more than fodder for both critics and defenders of the Bible who argue about how a man could live for three days inside a fish. Rather it’s the account of someone trying to come to terms with a God who demands of him something he doesn’t want to do, a God whose actions disappoint and anger him. Jonah cannot fight this deity, so he chooses the other classic option: flight.

Let me refresh your memory. Jonah is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it. But Jonah is not about to do what God commands. We’re told that he wants to get away from the presence of God. He finds a ship traveling in the opposite direction from Nineveh and more importantly, somewhere so far away that perhaps his God is not known, as if not being known would mean that Yahweh was not there.

After boarding the ship, Jonah shows himself to be a rather stand-offish snob. He doesn’t even say "hello" to the sailors or the captain. Instead, he goes down into the hold and falls asleep. And he keeps blithely snoozing even when a storm comes up that threatens to sink the ship.

The whole crew starts praying. Apparently, the sailors are from all over the place, since many deities are addressed. Everyone is praying. All except Jonah, the one man on board whose God is true, who is in fact responsible for the storm. The captain is incredulous and not a little put out that Jonah is so uninvolved with the plight of the ship. Everyone’s supplication to his god is important. There might still be hope for salvation. “So up, man. Pray to your god!”

Finally, the crew casts lots to find out “who dun it.” When the culprit turns out to be Jonah, the sailors quiz him about his origins and his religion. That he has so offended his very powerful god frightens the men, but they’re still not willing to consign him to sure death by hurling him into the sea, even though Jonah told them that was the only solution. They work, they pray, they do everything they can to save this man, whom

they hardly know and whose disobedience has threatened their own lives. Finally, as a last resort, the seafarers throw the Hebrew into the ocean, and the wind and waves die down. Then, without benefit of priest, preacher or elder, they have a worship service and promise their lives to Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Meanwhile, Jonah is in the belly of a great fish that God has made and provided at just the right moment. And there among the plankton and the brine shrimp, Jonah prays. He comes to his senses and decides that he will indeed go to Nineveh.

Once he gets there and starts preaching, his message is met with a rather quick response. He doesn’t even have to work hard, going only a day’s walk into a city described as three times that size. He gives the inhabitants forty days, but they repent right away. The turnaround happens at the highest levels of government and in the most squalid slums. Men and women, boys and girls, rich and poor. Even the animals are clothed with the garments of sorrow, the drab burlap used to make their feedbags. It’s a reversal and a revival that would wow even the experienced pastor of a mega-church. 120,000 get saved!

But Jonah isn’t happy. In fact, he is so mad he can’t see straight. Now we discover the real reason he didn’t want to come to Nineveh. He was running from the presence of a gracious God, who was likely to forgive the Ninevites if Jonah preached to them. Jonah turns into a complaint a psalm text that elsewhere celebrates the goodness of God. Now he finally engages God in argument, a fight. “I told you so. I knew this would happen. You’re always doing this, going around saving people! I don’t know why I bother if you’re not up to some good old smiting of the wicked once in a while! Just let me die. I can’t go on!”

After his tirade, Jonah sits down on a hillside overlooking the city, hoping against hope that an asteroid will hit it or somebody will drop a nuclear weapon in the town square. But nothing happens, and it’s getting on toward mid-day. The sun is hot, so Jonah builds a shelter out of this and that. God adds a nice vine, and Jonah is comfortable.

Then during the night a worm eats at the vine, and it dies. Jonah pouts; he loved that vine, and now it’s gone, and he’s hot again in the sultry, searing wind and merciless sun. Again he wants to die as he cradles his beloved vine, now shriveled, in his cracking hands.

It is then that Jonah is revealed as the egotistical man he is. When it comes to his own comfort and safety, he is energetic and demanding. But when asked to care for the lives of people who are vulnerable and lost, along with their animals, he is resistant, reluctant, recalcitrant. He won’t even allow God to care!

The story ends with a question, and so invites the reader to finish it. The reader becomes Jonah; Jonah is the reader. Like Jesus’ parables, this story breaks open the hearer’s, the reader’s world, and asks him or her to consider different possibilities and new approaches. It challenges long-held assumptions. Finally, it commends, even demands, action.

The first audience to hear of Jonah’s flight and anger were people who had returned from exile in Babylon. The time was the 400s BC. Life was hard; there was a nation to be rebuilt. And everyone was determined not to make again the mistakes that had led to defeat by a foreign power.

Some of the more vocal and influential among the people were ringing the changes on one theme over and over again. They said it had been the association of the nation with foreigners that had brought about its downfall, its judgment by God. So every alliance with anything and anyone foreign had to be ended. Every foreign idea, religious or political. Every foreign way of dress. And in the name of God, men must divorce wives of foreign origin and send them away, breaking up families, leaving these women and presumably their children vulnerable and deprived of food and shelter. In short, these leaders instituted a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Some stood against the isolationists and the bigots. They said that the mission of the nation was to witness to others about the love and mercy of Yahweh. Whatever their background or their original faith, they could be invited to become part of the covenant community. It was a new day, and the old structures and strictures were not so important any more. Yahweh had called Abraham and Sarah to be a blessing to the nations, and their descendants were to undertake that task in every new generation.

The authors of the third section of the book of Isaiah were among the dissenters. So was the storyteller who gave us the tale of Jonah, which he composed as a piece of historical fiction or a parable based on legends about an obscure eighth century BC Galilean prophet who advised one of the northern kings. What he had to say to his community is still startlingly relevant.

First, he would remind all his readers that those whom we suspect or scorn may have much to teach us about living faithfully. The sailors on Jonah’s ship were all pagans. None of them had ever even heard of Yahweh, the true God. But they are represented as good and pious people, praying and maintaining hope even in the midst of adversity. They do all they can to avoid killing Jonah, even when he volunteers to die and even though they are innocent victims in his war with Yahweh.

Jonah, on the other hand, is uninvolved with these men. He doesn’t speak to them until spoken to. They don’t know who he is or where he comes from. He is so disinterested in them that he goes down to his cabin and falls asleep, remaining so even when a storm comes up. He doesn’t even pray for them until asked!

The Ninevites, for their part, were among the cruelest people on earth in their day. They stayed awake at night thinking of new and horrible ways to torture and kill people. But presented with Jonah’s message, they repent, hoping against hope that maybe God will forgive. Is the author saying that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace?

The challenge to the contemporary church is to recognize that it is sometimes those of other faiths or who claim no faith at all that do the kinds of deeds of mercy and justice our Lord called his followers to do. And it is Christians too often who are cruel and heartless in the name of God. We are invited to admit that often it is Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans and pagans who show the fruit of the Spirit in their family and business relationships, who live with honesty and mutuality, compassion and neighborliness, while it is Christians who seek to dominate and oppress, hate and exclude.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, each year since 200 BC it has been the practice in the synagogue to read the book of Jonah in the afternoon service. On the sacred day of forgiveness, our Jewish sisters and brothers lift up as a model of repentance pagan sailors and Ninevites. They learn accountability and responsibility from the transforming deeds of outsiders. We do well to follow that example.

Jonah, then, challenges the church to give up its scorn and distrust of outsiders and listen to their voices, which have much to teach. But second, the tale calls us to consider the reasons for our own reluctance to witness. Jonah’s real motivation for running from God’s call is well-nigh unbelievable. It’s not that he’s intimidated about going to a big city. Or that he is afraid of looking like a fool. On the contrary, Jonah knows that God is so powerful and preaching is so effective that if he were to go to Nineveh and proclaim the word, he would succeed. The Ninevites would repent and be saved. And that is precisely what Jonah in his suspicion and prejudice, hatred and anger does not want.

Maybe you wonder sometimes, as I do, why we Presbyterians as a whole and as individual believers typically can’t seem to get our act together on anything but arguing, forming committees, and restructuring denominational offices. I’m at least a fourth generation Presbyterian, and I love our tradition and church. I’ve served in many different ways at every level of the denomination. I hope that experience and those experiences give me the right to offer some criticism, in which I include myself. Over and over in my 37 years of ministry, I’ve noticed that we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Due to poor planning, wrong leadership, and resistance to change, new church developments and re-developments flounder or fail even in fast growing areas where other Christian bodies, including mainline ones, are doing well. Creative and promising projects have been doomed to failure by underfunding, over-study, and general disinterest. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit, fresh ideas or simply a desire to serve are made to jump through hoops and grilled about views until they are exhausted and demoralized. And of course we suspect those who bring in crowds. I hope your experience has been different than mine, but that’s what I’ve seen.

Presbyterians are among the most highly educated, affluent, influential folk in the nation. We run successful businesses, shape the lives of young people and communities by our leadership, manage complex organizations. We have a distinctive message that can touch the hunger of people, an approach that blends tradition and timeliness, that is open to what God may yet do among us. But despite our considerable combined and individual talents, time after time we fail where other denominations succeed.

I wonder if we are not so much afraid of such failure as we are of success. Jonah didn’t want to do well in his ministry because God would save people Jonah hated. What would someone writing a parable about Presbyterians conclude about us?

But if the tale of Jonah challenges and shames us, so does his story hold out hope. God did not give up on Nineveh, despite its sin. He did not stop pursuing Jonah, day and night, wherever he might go. The story reminds us that the most unlikely candidates for grace are no match for the sovereign love of God. The most evil city on earth can be transformed into a place of justice and compassion. The hearts of pagans can be turned to the worship of the true God. And even the most reluctant of prophets can be called to fresh commitment. There is nowhere we can go from God’s presence. He will pursue us, move in and among us, enable us in spite of ourselves until his will is done.

Thank you, Jesus.

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