01/28/18 “Call and Response: Jonah”

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

When Peyton was a little girl, she loved a children’s book series called “Choose Your Own Adventure.”  The series was created by a man Edward Packard. Every night, Packard would make up bedtime stories for his daughters, and at the end he would ask them for ideas for the main character’s next adventure. Out of those bedtime story sessions grew his series of books, in which readers could choose between two possible directions for the story to take at the end of each chapter.

The book of Jonah would make a perfect “Choose Your Own Adventure” story.  It is full of decision points, where the characters in the story need to make significant choices about how they will live and how they will respond to God’s call on their lives.  In this, their live are a lot like our lives, and they are a lot like us.

Jonah is a very unusual book in the Bible—unusual because of how little we know about it. We don’t who wrote it, or when, or where, or why!  Scholars look for clues like references to known events, people, or places to help them figure these things out, but Jonah gives us very few clues.  There was a real city called Nineveh, but the Nineveh in Jonah is very different from the one we know from rest of the Bible and from other historical information, so that doesn’t help us.  The earliest it could have been written was the 8th c. BCE, because the book of 2 Kings mentions a Jonah son of Amittai during the reign of Jereboam II, and it was probably written no later than the 2nd c. BCE, because it’s mentioned in another ancient writing from that time period.

A 700-year time span and a less-than-realistic setting don’t give us much in the way of details.  But, fortunately, we don’t really need those details to get at the truth the writer of Jonah’s story wanted to get across—the truth about God and human beings, the truth about our relationship with God, and the truth about God’s relationship with the world.

Our passage comes about three-quarters of the way through Jonah’s story.  Jonah has made an announcement to the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  At the very beginning of the book, we learn that Jonah has been sent to the great city of Nineveh because God is aware of its wickedness.  In our passage, God repeats Jonah’s commission.  There are some questions to be asked about exactly how well Jonah acts on that; more on that later.  In any event, Jonah does go and before he gets very far, the people of Nineveh hear God’s call and act on it.  They proclaim a fast of repentance.  This is grass roots organizing at its best.

The king hears about what has happened.  He is a king who is wise enough not to simply lead but also to be led by his subjects’ wisdom. He joins them in their fast, and he goes them one step further; he announces that both people and animals will be included in the fast.  There will be no eating of food or drinking of water. Both people and animals will be covered in sackcloth, cry out their repentance to God and, most importantly, turn from their evil and violent ways.  The king doesn’t know if this will help avert the coming calamity, but he hopes that God, seeing that the Ninevens have repented and changed their ways, will decide against destroying them. And, as it turns out, that is what happens.

In our short passage alone, there are several points where choices must be made.  The Ninevens must decide what to do with this announcement about their future at the hands of a God who is not theirs from a prophet who is a stranger.  How easy it would have been for them to ignore this alien in their midst, brushing him off as a nut case who came uninvited from another country and who isn’t one of them.  How easy it would have been for them to dismiss a threat from a God who is unknown to them.  Those would have been easy choices to make.  And yet, they make another choice.  They take Jonah at his word, and they repent.

The king has choices to make, too.  Hearing the news about this grassroots repentance movement, he could have brushed it off.  He could have remained safe and sound in his luxurious palace and ignored what the public was saying.  He could even have made a proclamation telling them to stop.  But he made another choice.  He recognized that his people might have insights that he didn’t have.  Not only did he support his people, he joined them, and used his position to strengthen theirs. Ruler and ruled joined together to act in the best interests of all.

But, the one whose choices speak most clearly to me, though, is Jonah himself.  Did you notice that our passage began by saying “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time”?  If we read our passage by itself, without reading the rest of the story, it sounds like Jonah’s response to God’s call is much like the response of Andrew, Peter, James, and John to Jesus’ call—immediate and unhesitating.  But Jonah has a history related to this call.  And it is not a story of wholehearted obedience.

The story starts out with God’s first call to Jonah: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it.’”  This is the first point at which Jonah needs to make a decision. Jonah had to decide: would he do what God had called him to do, or would he reject his call?  You might expect Jonah to enthusiastically say “Yes, Lord!” and get going.  He did get going, but in the wrong direction.  Instead of accepting God’s call, he got on a boat and set out for Tarshish, about as far away from Nineveh, and in the opposite direction, as he could get.  And, he wasn’t just trying to get out of the work God had called him to. He was trying to get away from God.

We all know that trying to hide from God is not a very good plan, Jonah was pretty confident of his choice.  He was sound asleep in the hold of the ship, when a violent storm arose at sea.  The terrified sailors all began calling on their gods to help them.  The captain rousted Jonah and told him to call on his God, too.  When no gods came to the rescue, the sailors cast lots to determine which culprit had brought on the storm. Of course, the lot fell on Jonah.  Then they were even more afraid, because Jonah had actually told them that he was fleeing from his God.

Clearly Jonah’s actions had caused terrible consequences for a ship-full of innocent sailors.  They ask Jonah what they should do with him to make the sea quiet down.  Now Jonah has another choice to make.  Will he repent and ask God to help him?  Will he sacrifice himself to save the lives of the sailors?  No.  He tells the sailors they should throw him overboard; then his blood will be on their hands.  The sailors work hard to avoid doing that, but eventually they run out of options. They throw Jonah overboard.

This is where the big fish makes its entrance.  God is faithful to Jonah, who chose to be unfaithful to God.  God saves the life of a man who chose to endanger the lives of others.  Is that not a stunning example of grace?

You’d think that three days of cooling your heels in a fish’s belly would help you come to your senses about what you’ve done and think about the changes you need to make.  And, eventually Jonah does realize that he has not escaped from God’s presence and begins to pray.  It’s a beautiful prayer, but it also shows that Jonah has made another bad choice: he decides not to take any responsibility for the choices he’s made.  He decided to pretty up the situation, whether in an attempt to fool himself or fool God we don’t know.

“I called to the Lord out of my distress,” Jonah prays (except he didn’t call out to God). “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,” except it was Jonah who chose to be thrown overboard, to the dismay of the sailors. He said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” (but it was Jonah who ran away, not God driving him away).  “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you,” but he never prayed to God through the whole storm.  “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty,” except it was the idol-worshipping sailors who feared God, and Jonah who forsook his God.  Finally, he makes a promise: “I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.”

With that the fish spewed Jonah out onto dry land.  And when the writer says “spewed,” he means it.  The fish literally vomited out Jonah, as if it couldn’t stomach Jonah’s self-righteous denial of responsibility any longer.

Then we arrive at our passage.  The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, and this time Jonah makes a different choice. When God says, “Get up, go, and proclaim,” Jonah chooses to get up, go, and proclaim.  But even here he makes less than great choices.  He does get up and go, but he may not have chosen to complete his mission fully. Nineveh is a three-day walk across; Jonah only does a day’s worth of walking.  We don’t know if his brief announcement is what God told him to say or not, but we do know that in Scripture, prophets usually followed a pretty standard formula for announcing God’s intentions, and Jonah follows none of them. That raises some questions about whether Jonah really repeated the message God gave him.

Maybe in spite of Jonah’s lukewarm acceptance of his mission rather than because of it, the Ninevens do respond as God hoped.  They changed their ways.  And although Nineveh wasn’t overthrown in the way we usually think of it, in a way, Jonah’s prophesy did come true.  The Hebrew word we translate as “overthrown” has a variety of meanings.  It can mean destruction, but it also can mean to overturn oneself. That’s what Nineveh did: it repented and overturned its evil and violent ways.

As Jonah witnesses Nineveh’s repentance, he has another choice to make: how to react to Nineveh’s salvation.  You’d think that Jonah would have been overjoyed that through his words, the lives of more than 100,000 people along with their animals had been saved.  But not Jonah.  He’s disgusted. He gets angry.  He even is so bold as to say to God, “I told you this would happen!  I told you when I took off for Tarshish that they’d repent and you’d change your mind and they’d get off scot-free!  Just go ahead and kill me now!”  He goes outside the city, makes a little shelter for himself, and sits there pouting.

Remember the character J. R. Ewing in the TV series “Dallas”?  He was often called the villain we loved to hate.  Jonah’s a little bit like that, I think.  Self-righteous, weaselly, cowardly, whining, hypocritical, dogmatic, uncaring—there’s not a lot good you can say about Jonah.  I think that’s why I like this story so much—because I think most of us have a little Jonah in us, at least from time to time.

When we have to make decisions about our lives, we may find that we react very much like Jonah did.  When we know what God wants us to do, we sometimes prefer to run away rather than deal with what might be difficult or inconvenient.  We find ways to try to escape from God—building barriers with drugs or alcohol or social media or video games or our jobs or our hobbies or even sometimes with our relationships. We put a better spin on our actions and make ourselves look better than we are. We feel resentful when God hands out mercy where we think punishment is in order—punishment we like to think of as justice.  Like Jonah, we prefer running in the opposite direction from what God is calling us to do and be.

As Jonah’s story comes to a close, he has one more chance to decide what kind of ending his adventure will have.  After a few more go-rounds with God, God asks Jonah a question.  That’s where the story ends, with God’s unanswered question.  We don’t know what ending Jonah chose.  Maybe he went on with his life in the same way—running away from God, denying responsibility for his own actions, rewriting history to suit himself, and being angry when God extended loving grace to others who, in Jonah’s view, didn’t deserve it.

But, maybe he came to understand God’s grace to the NInevens—the same grace God had extended to him over and over again.  Maybe he realized that God has a much more generous view of who is worth saving than Jonah did. Maybe as he sat there looking out over the bustling city, he came to grasp how much God cared for God’s creation—human and animal.  Maybe he was able to pray a prayer of true gratitude—for how God did not give up on him in spite of the many times he failed.  Maybe he was able to feel a sense of awe—that God could use someone as flawed as he was. Maybe Jonah finally came to a place where he could fully and joyfully respond to God’s call to him.

Every day, we have new opportunities to choose our own adventures.  Every day puts us in a position to make the choice Moses set before the Israelites when he said, “Today I set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose life.” Every day we can hear God calling us through the words of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you shall serve.”  Every day, we have opportunities to do what Jesus invited us to do: to take up our cross and follow him.

Jonah had a lot of choices to make, and he made a lot of bad ones.  We can hold him up in front of us like a mirror, to see clearly where we, too, have not responded to God as we should have.  But the good news is that God doesn’t give up on us, just as God didn’t give up on Jonah.  God continues to extend grace to us, even when we fall and fall again, as a free and unearned gift.  The good news is that God sees each of us as worth saving.  The good news is that the power of the Holy Spirit can help us hear God’s call and respond in faith, so we us can choose the right ending for our adventure.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young