3. A whale of a mission tale
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Let us pray. Eternal God, give us we pray both the spiritual sensitivity and the sense of humour to appreciate the eternal truth of this big story about your huge love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I need to explain myself. If it were possible to be understood I should preach this entire sermon with my tongue in my cheek; this little book, only 48 verses divided into 4 chapters is like a long joke. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying Jonah is fictional, nor am I saying that what the story tells us didn’t happen. I am saying that there is hyperbole and exaggeration in how this story is told that we are meant to hear with at least a smile on our lips and hopefully also a few chuckles here and there.
Let me give you an example. The story begins with what we could call a standard formula—Jonah is a prophet who is told by God to go to a particular place to deliver God’s message. Jonah is not interested at all in being obedient to this call; in fact he decides to do whatever he can to escape the presence of God. However, he’s not a complete ne’er do well; he pays his fare to get on the ship. Somehow Jonah missed a couple of classes in Prophesy 101; it doesn’t matter how much you pay, you can’t escape God. No other reason to include this detail except to make us smile and look for more of the absurd in the story.
Jonah, intent on not listening to God, heads to Joppa, which today we know as Jaffa, one of the oldest functioning harbours in the world. Today Jaffa is part of the larger city of Tel Aviv. Scholars guess as to the location of Tarshish and the best guess, I think, is in Spain. Once again here is a detail that is meant to be played with a bit. In ancient Israel, the quickest way to go a long distance was by ship and Spain must have been thought of as close to the end or edge of the world. To steal a line from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, Jonah is the worst prophet I have ever seen. He tells the sailors that he worships the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, but he attempts to elude this God by taking a Mediterranean cruise. The Lord, however, is intent on Jonah doing as he is told.
We pick up the story in chapter three which is our text today. Once again we have a sort of formula that is used to express the call of God to a prophet—go to Nineveh and proclaim to that the city the message that I give you. Hands down Jonah wins the title of Israel’s most reluctant prophet. He reminds one of a petulant child. He will do as he is told, but no one can make him like what he must do. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it; those eight words are the complete record that we have of Jonah’s prophetic proclamation.
But something bigger than Jonah was going on. That is part of the reason why we are told Nineveh is exceedingly large. Here again we pick up the joke or at least some artistic license. According to Jonah 3:3, it took three days to walk from one side of Nineveh to the other. To compare I checked on Google Maps to see how far it is and how long it would take to go from one side of Toronto to the other. From the Zoo in the north east corner to Bloor Street and the 427 is 42k and would take about 8½ hours, in other words a day’s journey. Friends, I’m here to tell you Nineveh was not three times bigger than Toronto. The bigness detail is there to impress upon us something even larger than this city was going on. It has to be. Jonah goes one third of the way into the city, preaches a sentence that takes less than ten seconds to say and the result is the greatest turning back toward God found in all of Scripture. This is the sort of response even Billy Graham at the pinnacle of his ministry as an evangelist could only dream about.
Something had to be going on in the city of Nineveh. Chris and I and the family lived for ten years in Windsor, Ontario. Depending on the traffic in the tunnel, downtown Detroit was about 30 minutes away. We rarely went as a family to Detroit. Once when I had a Sunday off I persuaded Chris to join me in worshipping at a downtown Presbyterian church that had a vibrant ministry that I wanted to see first-hand. Chris thought we would be lucky to find our car intact on the street where we parked. As you know the city is still trying to recover from its days as “murder city USA.”
Nineveh too was a city with a reputation. Another prophet, Nahum, writes about Nineveh as a city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful. As the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh is seen by most of God’s people as their great enemy, a place that gives birth to violence and despair, a place that is more than worthy of the sort of judgement that only God can bring about. But something was going on there.
Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and warn them that judgement was coming. He tries to escape and ends up in the belly of some sort of sea creature. I love how Frederick Buechner describes this part of the story. He says the beast suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it’s not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk. Jonah gets spit out in order for God to issue his orders one more time. Nowhere in the text, however, is there any suggestion that Jonah had a personality transplant. His success is not based on what he brings to the equation—something else was going on.
I am convinced that’s part of what God wants us to see in our text. Jonah walks one third of the way into the city and tells the people who gathered around him that in forty days God was going to overthrow the city. Now I realize I am speculating here, but I can’t think of any other way that this message spread except through the people of Nineveh. And I can’t think of any other explanation for what happened other than God had begun to work in the hearts and minds of these people. Friends I think Christians are called to have this hope—that unless someone is mentally unstable there comes a point in everyone’s spiritual search that violence and despair and darkness no longer satisfy. I realize I may not see it in my lifetime but that is the reason I believe that in the end the message of violence preached by Islamic radicals fails utterly and the Gospel of Jesus triumphs.
Not only is there something going on in the lives of the people of Nineveh, there is something going on with Jonah. The reason he tried to escape from taking God’s message to Nineveh is clear. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah has that part of his theology down right. And he is not at all happy about it. God is concerned about the people of Nineveh. God knows their wickedness and God will judge them but God’s greatest desire is not to wipe out his enemies but rather to have them turn from their wickedness. God says to every insider like Jonah, I welcomed you into the family, why should I not also welcome others?
Something is going on here. That’s where we need to start. Back in March I had a Sunday off and Chris and I got away for a couple of days to the Haliburton area. On the way home we made our way to Cobourg to visit with some good friends; part of that journey included Highway 28 south of Peterborough, a highway I often travelled some 40 years ago. One of the churches that used to be open is now simply abandoned, another is now named Sanctuary Antiques. I think one of the struggles for Christians in our day is wondering if God is still at work. There is no doubt the spiritual landscape is changing, but even a cursory look at history will tell us that has always been true. During the tumultuous days of the Protestant Reformation, don’t you think the Popes must have been tempted to think that God had suddenly given up on the world? I have come to believe that our task as Christians is likely best defined as looking to see where God is at work in our world and partnering with God in that work.
Something is going on here. Did you notice the revival in Nineveh goes from the bottom up, not the other way around. The people believe, the people proclaim a fast; the people repent and then the king gets involved. Let me offer a couple of suggestions for applying this idea. Canada is about five months away from a federal election. One of the things that bothers me about politics in our day is the negative tone to the campaign. Frankly I want to know more about Mr. Harper other than that he is not Mr. Trudeau. But what bothers me more about negative campaigning is that for the most part it must work or it would have been tried once and abandoned. So if all this negative politics curdles the milk in your cereal then let there be a rising up from the bottom of Canada’s populace that says we will only honour with our vote the candidate that honours us with a positive campaign.
I think that this is a lesson that can be applied to many parts of our lives. Do you want this city to be great? The mayor and council cannot do it all. Do you want this church to be great? You have placed great faith in David in your call to him to be the next Senior Pastor of this church, but God’s word must be heard by all of God’s people in this place, not just those who are called to lead.
Something is going on here. When Jonah wanted to escape from God he made his way to the port of Joppa where he could find out whether it was possible to pay enough to get away from God. Fast forward a few centuries to the early days of the church. In a time of persecution a number of the disciples, including Peter, flee from Jerusalem. Peter ends up in the city of Lydda and from there he goes to…Joppa. It is in Joppa that Peter is given an odd vision that teaches him that what God has made clean, you must not call profane (Acts 10:15). No sooner has this vision vanished and Peter meets some men who have come from a non-Jew named Cornelius with an invitation to Peter to travel to Caesarea and preach God’s message. Can God want outsiders to hear the message?
Something is going on here. In the city where Jonah gets it wrong, Peter gets it right. Notice what I have been saying, something is going on here. Now something was going on there, back there, way back there. But something is going on here. God is still at work and he is still reaching out, grabbing hold of his people and trying to get them involved.
Yes, something is going on with God. What’s going on with you?