Jonah 1:1-6, 12, 15-17; 2:10; 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-4, 11
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah…” Can we just stop right there? We’re not even a verse into the book, but hold up. How nice would that be? How many of us, at one point or another have asked for a word from God, have asked for direction, only to get…mixed result? Some of us are asking those kind of questions right now. Life seems uncertain and we want to know what we’re supposed to do next. As a church, this is the question we’re asking as we go through this sermon series: where are you leading us, God? We’re asking for a word from God, and here, in the first line of the book of Jonah the word of God just comes to Jonah. What a luckily guy! Or at least that’s what we would think.
We would think that if God just told us our purpose, told us what our vocation was, then most of our problems would be solved. We could start doing whatever it is God’s called us to and we’d be fulfilled and happy. This could have been what Jonah thought, before the word of the Lord comes to him. But once it comes, he wishes he never heard it. Because sometimes what God calls us to is the last thing we want to do.
In Jonah’s case it was: go to Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy, Assyria, and cry out against them. This doesn’t seem so bad at first. Go tell your enemies God’s mad at them. There’re people all over the world happily doing just that right now, whether or not God told them to. But Jonah isn’t fooled, this isn’t his first rodeo, apparently, and he knows that behind God’s proclamations of judgement there is always mercy. God is a God of second chances. God does confront, but God confronts so that we will repent, so that we’ll turn away from evil and turn toward God. God wants us to live the best, fullest life, which is a life that has accepted God’s call. We’re most alive when we’re living into God’s purpose for us. But when we turn away from that full life, because we don’t trust God, or we think we know better than God, God won’t give up on us. God will never force us to turn around, but God will always offer us a second chance to turn back to a life of purpose and meaning.
So Jonah knows what God’s up to, and he’s not having it. He has zero interest in seeing Nineveh repent and receive God’s mercy. He wants God to go all Sodom and Gomorrah on them. He wants flames and destruction.
Why? How hostile was the relationship between Israel and Assyria? Well, not only did Assyria repeatedly invade Israel, destroying, looting, and taking captives, eventually (after the time of Jonah but before the book of Jonah was written), Assyria would be responsible for completely wiping out Israel, the northern kingdom…where Jonah lives.
The book of Jonah would’ve been written after Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians, so the author’s audience knew how great the hostility between Israel and Assyria was. The author of this story – and it probably is a story meant to say something about God and what it means to be God’s people, not a historical account – probably chose Nineveh as the city Jonah had to go to because she was trying to come up with the most hated people group the main character, Jonah, could be sent to.
Assyria literally obliterated Israel. It’s kind of like God calling one of us to witness to ISIS, or the Taliban, or the white supremacists who live in the south, or maybe even the many white supremacists who live here in Portland. It could be anyone. Think of the group you hate the most, and imagine that’s who God’s called you to witness to. That’s what happened to Jonah. All of a sudden, receiving a word from God doesn’t sound so great. No thanks, I’ll go back to being directionless.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the story of Saul/Paul. In that story, Saul was on the wrong road, traveling from town to town wreaking havoc on the Church, and Jesus appeared to him in the midst of his misguided journey and converted him from the Church’s greatest enemy to its greatest apologist. Both Jonah and Saul receive a word from God telling them that God cares for their enemies. Saul received the word of God and changed for the better. Jonah…not so much.
Nineveh was roughly 500 miles to the Northeast of Jerusalem, near modern day Mosul, Iraq. Tarshish was probably a city on the southern coast of Spain, 2,000 miles to the west, on the other side of the Mediterranean. In other words, Jonah does more than simply ignore God, Jonah receives word that God wants him to go one way, and he goes as far as he can in the opposite direction. He literally sets sail for the opposite end of the known world.
The focus of this story isn’t the big fish that swallows Jonah. The book of Jonah is 4 chapters long and the fish only takes up 3 verses. The focus of the book is the heart of God…and the heart of God’s people. In this book, there’s a tension between what Jonah thinks it means to be chosen by God, and what God thinks it means. (Spoiler alert: God is right, and Jonah is wrong).
Jonah exemplifies an idea that was becoming increasingly popular in post-exilic Israel when this book was likely written: that to be the people of God was to be blessed by God, and to not be the people of God was to be cursed by God. In other words, to be chosen by God puts you up and against everyone else. But that doesn’t seem to be God’s plan, which was and is that the people of God would exist to be a blessing to the whole earth, a “light to the nations,” Isaiah says (42:6).
So, as we continue our sermon series “Journeying Together,” looking for direction in our own journey with God by looking at journeys in Scripture, I believe our story today tells us that we are called by God to be a blessing to the world outside the church. This sounds 1) kind of obvious, and 2) not so bad. I would like to be a blessing. I can get into that.
But look at how Jonah was a blessing. First, he had to go to his enemies, had to walk their streets, had to look in their faces, had to see them as people. Second, he had to preach judgement. In my experience, people don’t generally consider you a blessing when you give them bad news. You can read the story of another prophet, Jeremiah, who told his own people that they’d be overthrown. It doesn’t go nearly as well for him.
To be a blessing to the world means we have to do some confronting. It means we don’t let the world stay the way it is. Just as God pursues us, we pursue the world. As David said a couple of Sundays ago, “the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.” Nineveh was a bad, violent place. They had a lot of blood on their hands. God wasn’t content to let them stay that way. As far as we know, God really was ready to destroy them, but first God gives them a second chance. Out of love, God confronts them, like Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus. And I guess – to answer Mitch’s question from a couple of weeks ago about Jesus sometimes being very harsh and sometimes being very compassionate – different circumstances call for different tactics. To Saul, Jesus appears vulnerably and says, “Saul, why are you hurting me?” but to Nineveh God says, “40 days and you’ll be overthrown.”
Either way, in both cases, God’s confrontation is motivated not by anger but by mercy. In both cases, God wants them to stop from doing evil, from violence, and turn instead to the God of love and life and peace. The God who’s calling them to a different way of life.
Jonah knows this, and he isn’t happy about it. He wants God to be motivated by anger, not mercy. He lists the wonderful attributes of God as if they’re insults, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Then he says, “And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live.”
How sad for Jonah! He could have been in the streets celebrating with the Ninevites! As we’ve talked about in the past, most prophets are hated by their audiences. They preach bad news when no one wants to hear it. Here is a rare case where the prophet’s words are actually accepted, the people turn to God, and God saves them! But Jonah’s upset. He pouts. Because Jonah didn’t want to be called to the work God had for him. He wanted to do something else. (I don’t know what it would be, but judging from this story, he’d be a horrible person to work with.)
The story told in the book of Jonah is beautiful in spite of Jonah, how much more beautiful it could’ve been if Jonah had let God’s heart transform his own? How much more beautiful if Jonah’s description of God’s goodness was said in praise and not despair? How wonderful it would have been if Jonah started to become more gracious and merciful, slower to anger, abounding in love himself? When the book of Jonah ends, the Ninevites are happy, and God is happy, but Jonah is bitter. Jonah misses out on the blessings. In a sad twist of events, Jonah succeeds in being a blessing to the nations, but fails himself to experience the blessing himself.
It turns out our own blessing is tied up in blessing others. God’s all about blessing, and God’s invited us into that work. Will we accept God’s invitation? Will we join in God’s blessing, and in the process be blessed ourselves?
God often calls us to things we don’t want to do.
Is there something you’ve been feeling called to? Do you have some unexplainable urge to make some change in your life? Maybe it’s big or maybe it’s small, but for some reason you’re resisting it? Could that be something God’s calling you to?
I watched a wonderful interview this past week between Willie Jennings, one of my former professors who shaped me profoundly, and William Barber II, a Christian minister and activist who’s been called the closest thing we have to a modern Martin Luther King Jr. The interview begins with Willie Jennings saying, “I’ll ask Rev. Barber if he’ll begin by just telling us a little bit about how he became the Rev. William Barber.” Barber shares a good deal about his life that I won’t get into right now, but I want to tell you about the part of his story that has to do with his accepting his call to ministry.
He says he wanted nothing to do with the church. His dad was a pastor, who was a wonderful example of an activist pastor, who stood up for all kinds of social issues that affected his African-American church, but Barber wasn’t impressed by the church at large. Barber decided he wanted to be a lawyer, and was so against church work that he said he wouldn’t attend any schools that taught religion classes! He must’ve, somewhere deep down, already sensed God’s call, because most people would just choose not to take those classes, but choosing not to attend a college that has religion classes, that’s a Jonah-type move. He wanted to run the other way. God says go to Nineveh, Jonah sets sail for Tarshish. God wants William Barber II to become a minister, he goes to a school with no religion classes. In his own words, he was “running from ministry.” Like Jonah running from his call.
Well, he got really involved at his university and in his senior year he became the student government president, and as a perk, he got his own dorm room, all to himself. He was so excited to have his own room, but in that room the word of the Lord came to William Barber II, and like Jonah he didn’t want to hear it. He said, “I thought that room was a blessing, and it became my trap. God caught me in that room. Everything I planned to do I couldn’t do.” Does that sound a bit like Jonah, who wanted to run away but ended being thrown overboard and eaten by a fish?
So one day, after wrestling in the belly of the whale for so long, William Barber II called his dad, and before he could even tell his dad what was going on, his dad said, “Come home,” and then he said, “I would have never pushed you, but I’ve always known.” And then, when Barber got home, he and his dad got in the car and they drove around talking. And his dad said, “You gotta decide in this moment – it’s not even about if you’re going to be a preacher – it’s about whether or not you’re going to yield whatever life you have to God’s calling.”
“And I…said yes,” Barber says.
Unlike William Barber, I don’t think Jonah ever yielded his life to God’s calling. He did what he had to do. He didn’t want to get eaten by a fish for the second time. But he never yielded. He never gave up his dreams for God’s dreams, and so he ends up a bitter, angry man, whose heart looks nothing like the heart of God.
God calls us all in all different ways to all different things. Some of us may be called to do something, others of us might be called to stop doing something. Some of us might be called to get off our keisters and do some good in the world, others of us might be called to stop and rest. Some of us might be called to find a new job, others of us might be called to stay in a job we’d like to quit. Some of us might be called to invest in relationships, others of us might be called to break away from an unhealthy relationship. Some of us might be called to be less selfish, others of us might be called to, for the first time in our life, make self-care our #1 priority.
But I do know one thing, all of us, like William Barber II, are called to ministry. That’s what we mean by “the priesthood of all believers.” You might not minister in a church or a chapel, but we’re all called to spread the Good News of the Gospel. Our church website says, “We believe in the priesthood of all believers, meaning all Christians are ministers of the Gospel. Bearing witness to Christ, testifying to the forgiveness we have received, praying for one another, and serving our neighbors are the privileges and responsibilities of all believers, not just pastors and priests.”
As we continue to ask where God is leading us, we must remember – from the story of Jonah – that we’re called to be a blessing to the world. Our purpose isn’t inward focused self-preservation.
The message of the Gospel is that God is redeeming the world out there and we, as the Church, are invited to join in that work. Somehow, broken and imperfect as we are, we get the terrifying, exciting responsibility of being the hands and feet of Christ, of being the agents of the living God. We are channels through which God can bless the world, and we are made fully alive through the process – we are blessed when we follow our calling.
The question is: As a church and as people, will we go where God calls us?