Sunday 15 November 2020 Getting what we don’t deserve Martin Baker
Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10
1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. 4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish." 7 The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, "Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" 9 "I am a Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. 11 Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you." 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, "Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you." 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
3:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
I wonder how many of us who have brothers or sisters in our family, thought of ourselves as being the favoured child?
That’s a theme that flows through a lot of movies and stories - that one child in the family somehow got treated better than the others. Both our children accuse each other of being the favoured child. Usually this is a happy argument in our household.
Parents I know, my own parents, were quite desperate in their attempts to make sure we were all treated fairly. That at Christmas time or birthdays that somehow the value of presents was in some way seen as similar. That we each got a bicycle when we got to a certain age, for example.
And in my wider family, as probably in yours, there are those stories. Where people hold on to long hurts. Where someone seems to have received a bigger inheritance perhaps. Those days when the son would inherit the family farm. And for years to come other children in the family felt pretty upset by that. Among my cousins are children who stopped talking to one another over those kind of issues.
That understanding of fairness it is not often a written rule but it goes quite deep. Very close to our understanding of justice. That we are treated reasonably. Fairly. Those concerns come up every day in the media. We even have a programme called ‘Fait Go. ‘
I mention this at length today, because one of the pastoral concerns that I have come across again and again, is the damage and hurt created by a person’s sense that one way or another they have been treated unfairly.
Well, if you feel this way, you are not alone.
Because in our story of Jonah today, Jonah has a terrible time coming to terms with how his understanding of fairness contradict God’s actions, the nature of God’s compassion and forgiveness and love.
After everything that happens in our story today, the people of Nineveh repenting, and being saved, we read in Chapter 4 :
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ‘
Jonah was deeply unhappy about God’s compassion towards the Assyrians. They deserved to be punished. Everyone agreed. He was angry because from his perspective, God’s compassion and love seemed so unfair. Make them suffer!
Jonah is coming to terms with the simple fact that God acts in a way so contrary to what he, and we, might feel is fair and reasonable. Those feelings run deep.
This has always been a tough message at the centre of our faith. Remember what Paul said about Jesus.
‘ For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’
In our background thinking, we have Jesus’ parables like the Good Samaritan the Prodigal son, - and for some, the hated Samaritan, the outcast son, these were wonderful stories - but for others, the righteous, the older brother these stories of grace and love were also the source of hurt and anger.
After all he has done, he still receives grace and forgiveness, healing and welcome.
And we can ask that question as we go through the story – what is the nature of God’s love and compassion? And what is God asking us to do? And where do we stand? With Jonah? With the people of Nineveh?
I want to focus on this first verse of Jonah because it sets the scene for all what is to come.
We start our reading by being told
1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord
And right away we dive straight into this sense of the unreasonableness of God.
It’s hard to visualise, to imagine the almost impossible dynamics at the heart of the story.
It is hard to think of a New Zealand parallel.
Imagine though, you were a black urban activist working on behalf of the Democratic party who had lived her life in urban New York and you got the message from God to take the gospel into the centre of Republican, Trump loving gun carrying southern white rural America.
In fact for Jonah it was much worse than that even.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. And they were extraordinarily brutal it the way they attacked and overcame their enemy. In the British museum you can see spectacular wall reliefs depicting Assyrian sieges. The famous siege of Lachish which you can read about in 2 Kings in the Bible - it shows multiple images of the Jewish population being impaled, and stacks of heads (yes, disembodied heads) that were counted by Assyrian scribes, presumably for a pay per head policy with the soldiers.
So when our reading this morning starts off: 1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
You can understand that Nineveh, the centre of this brutal Assyrian empire would be the last place in the entire known world that Jonah would to be going to. He, along with every Jew, would know the story about the brutal siege of Lachish.
So as soon as you start reading the Book of Jonah you realise that its power is all about making some very strong points. Partly about Jonah’s nature, but especially about the nature of God.
So here is Jonah. It seems he’s living near modern day Tel Aviv by the lovely beach there at Joppa of Jaffa. He gets this call from God to go to Nineveh which is about a month’s walk eastward to what we call the modern day city of Mosul in Iraq, which was so damaged by Isis. And instead he sets off on a boat to Tarshish which is in exactly the opposite direction. Scholars are not sure where it is but most likely in Sardinia off the coast of Italy, or in Southern Spain.
Quite often a joke or humour can contain some deep truths. And actually it seems when we read Jonah we need to see that there is a kind of deep humour running through the story. That shop famous in London, New York, Paris and Papakura. It makes a point. A kind of ironic humour.
So when we start reading the story, God asks Jonah to go on a long dangerous walk across the dessert to Nineveh and instead he goes and buys a ticket on a boat across the Mediterranean , the ancient readers would understand the joke like this.
But it would also point to a greater truth. God is not going to be domesticated, and sometimes the things we are asked to do are not predictable or easy or consistent with our politics or even our views about ourselves or God. I could never do that. Go there. Speak to them. It may not be to Nineveh but it could be to our neighbour or those people over there who we see as different from ourselves.
Jonah preaches this sermon to the people of Nineveh.
And it is the shortest sermon in the whole of scripture. And there is no sense that it is preached with any great conviction or enthusiasm.
Jonah the prophet says to the Assyrians in Nineveh:
"Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
5 And the people of Nineveh believed God.
They all put on sackcloth as a symbol of their repentance and the king and those in power say.
’All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands’
The story has these intense moments:
Jonah hearing the word of God.
Refusing and heading off in the opposite direction.
Swallowed by a big fish.
Given a second chance.
Preaching an extremely short message.
And the whole nation of Assyrians repenting.
Prophets in the Bible focus our attention on doing the things we need to do now.
You’ve got 40 days to get this sorted out.
What is the Nineveh for us?
The words that need to be said. The forgiveness that needs to be given. The decisions that needs to be made. The burden of resentment that might press so heavily.
Our scripture today is full of this energy. And like all prophetic action it brings us into the present and the now.
What have we been ignoring? Putting off?
That smoke that’s coming out of the gearbox. The grinding. The yelling. The silence. Something is not right.
There is this urgency that runs through our scriptures. The story of Jesus calling people to follow him, and we find that there are so many excuses. I think I’ll catch the boat to Tashish.
Family obligations, other priorities. And Jesus says this hard thing - let the dead bury the dead and come follow me.
Jonah discovers that God is persistent, responsive and God’s concerns are universal. The Jews, but now the Assyrians. The followers of Jesus discover the same. A call to everyone including the Jews and the Gentiles and the Assyrians.
To imagine that we are the person hearing Jonah’s words. Or we are the person who is in prison or homeless. Or we are the one who Jesus is speaking directly to when we are asked to follow him.
I really resent Jonah telling me that my city is going to be destroyed in 40 days. So what am I going to do about that? Sackcloth, ashes.
I really resent being treated unfairly. But is that resentment going to define how I live from today?
I am overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, that seems like it is never going to change.
And those questions about what are we going to do about it, aren’t asked in a vacuum. Much to Jonah’s resentment they are asked in the knowledge of a God.
Of whom he says through gritted teeth - you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
So we know we have 40 days. We know we have to turn from that which is evil and destructive. We know the things that are damaging others, ourselves, our environment. We know the things that are eating away at our souls. And we have a faith in a God of forgiveness and loving kindness.
So let’s confess again our faith in Jesus, his grace, his call on our lives and his promise of forgiveness and new life. AMEN
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